Cornish Pilchard -once a very lucrative industry in Cornwall
Once a very lucrative industry in Cornwall, and though pilchards in commercial numbers have now returned to make a small and sustainable fishery the last place in Cornwall to process and pack these fish using traditional methods and so beloved as a delicacy of the Mediterranean countries, has now closed. Once (150 years ago or more) huge shoals appeared off the Cornish Coast in mid July to be caught in vast numbers, first off Lands End then slowly moving east.
As soon as the fully laden boats returned to harbour the catch would be put into whicker baskets and hoisted ashore. Fish would be gutted and then carefully placed in often huge piles (baulks) upon layer upon layer of salt. Once baulked for a month fish would then keep at least a year without further processing. The fish could then carefully placed by hand usually by women in layers into wooden hogshead barrels, each barrel holding up to 3000 fish. and pressed to yield 8 or 9 gallons of surplus but valuable oil. Did you know the oil was commonly used in lamps for lighting at the time? Originally pressing was by beam and stone press, using the lever principal, more latterly screw thread or hydraulic presses took their place. In a good year up to 40,000 barrels were exported. The holes in the cellar walls for the beam and stone presses are still often visible at many locations around Cornwall. Many pressing stones are kept for prosperity in the fascinating St Ives Museum, uncovered during building works over the last hundred years. The Museum is well worth a visit.
Typically a pilchard palace would comprise, 3 boats- the seine boat and two smaller follower boats, two nets, and of course a cellar. The larger seine net was often a quarter of a mile long, and up to 60 feet deep, with cork floats on the surface and small lead sinker weights underneath, the net hanging like a curtain once shot. The seine boat would have a crew of 6 to 8 rowers and a steersman. The follower boats would carry the smaller stop net. A man (the huer) would be positioned on shore keeping a watch for any approaching shoal, indeed the huers hut still remains in Newquay, signalling their arrival by waving semaphore flags.
The shoal would then be encircled by the seine net, the open end closed with the stop net, and the whole mass slowly pulled towards shallower water, by men working huge wooden capstans. Where it was easier to remove the often vast numbers of fish by whicker basket (dippers) into smaller boats, or straight into the waiting carts and women's baskets. Nets would be made by hand by women out of cotton or hemp, soaked in coal tar mixtures to both preserve them and stiffen them out. Old photographs show such nets hung to dry along the quay walls in St Ives. By the 1850's seining was in decline as the shoals diminished, no one is sure why, but drift netting using much larger steam powered drifters no doubt helped its demise. Some say overfishing was the cause. Though a postcard from 1905 shows the seine boats breached above high water on Porthminster beach next to wooden beach huts by the 1920 seine netting for pilchards was history. Even as late as the 1930's the Cornish Lugger with its distinctive dark brown sails remained a familiar scene.
Originally the cellars were in the fishermen's cottages. Later purpose built pilchard fishing stations with cellars, often called palaces, in Port Isaac, Newquay, Perranporth, Cadgwith , Sennen Cove St Ives, Coverack, Gorran Haven, Polkerris and Kingsand to name but ten such villages. Sadly most such cellars long since converted to other uses or just demolished. Penberth Cove is perhaps the most unspoilt of such communities. Typically a cellar would be a large rectangular building, sometimes with net lofts above, right on the foreshore, to ensure that fish could be processed as fast as possible.
Until 2005 the Newlyn Pilchard Works was last remaining place in Cornwall where pilchards were processed using old methods. Sadly this has now closed. Salting the fish in tanks of brine for a month, then packing them into boxes to be pressed using screw presses for export. On a happier note, the fishery has made a gradual recovery and small scale sustainable fishing for pilchards using ring and or drift nets has returned to these shores, with small boats operating out of Mevagissey during the summer, also out of Newlyn from August to February. No vessel is more than 10m long. As soon as the fish are out of the net the pilchard are stored on the boat in slush ice to maintain their freshness. Marketed as Cornish Sardines, and available both locally and from the fish counters of several national supermarkets.
Copyright Cornish Light 1998-2023