Skip to content

The History of a Pilchard Palace - 1803 to 1920: Liberty Fish Cellars

Gullrock was built in the early years of the 19th century as an industrial building known as a fish cellar, or more exotically in east Cornwall and Devon, a Pilchard Palace.

It is one of four such buildings in Port Gaverne constructed about the same time to process the huge shoals of pilchards arriving around Cornish shores. There were also four more Pilchard Palaces in Port Isaac and two more in Port Quin.

Our building was undoubtedly constructed in the early summer of 1803 to be ready for the main pilchard season in August. The land on which it stands was leased on 11th May 1803 by John Cock of Port Isaac to Philip Ball, a Mevagissey merchant, for £110, with an annual rental of 5 shillings (25p).

The lease describes the land as

“Plot of ground, part of Harris’ Hill, part of a tenement in Tregaverne in Endellion, in occ. of Jas. Strout, being 160′ n.w. to s.e., and 96′ from the rivulet towards the north, with all houses, cellars and buildings to be erected there. Lessee to have access to Port Gavern haven through the gateway at n. corner thereof, by a road extending from the gateway to the plot; also use of water in common with adj. tenants.” 1

This early link with Mevagissey merchants continued in Port Isaac, as the current working fish cellar was run by the Mevagissey firm Pawlyn Bros into recent times and is still known as the Pawlyn Cellars by older residents.

That 1803 lease was what is known as a ‘Three Lives Lease”, and the three lives mentioned in the lease are “Phil. Ball and Nich. Truscott Ball, sons of lessee, and Peter Truscott Smith, s. of Peter Smith of Mevagissey, sailmaker”. A three lives lease was common practice in the 18th and early 19th century. In a normal lease, if the lessee died then the land reverted back to the landlord with no compensation for the unexpired part of the lease. With a three lives lease, on the death of the original lessee the lease is transferred to any of the three named persons still surviving. The lease terminates either when all three named have died, or the specified end date of the lease, whichever is the earlier.

It was usual practice to name younger sons, in the hope that they would outlive the father. As Peter Smith’s son and Philip Ball’s son had the same middle name it is probable that Peter was Philip’s brother in law. Perhaps Truscott was the boys’ grandmother’s maiden name.

Three life leases were often for 31 years, and on 28/29th September 1834 we see the executors of John Farnham Cock entering into a new lease to James Stephens, shopkeeper of Port Isaac and his brother-in-law Jonathan George, yeoman of Endellion. The lease had a consideration of just £41, much lower than those heady days of 1803, and no doubt reflected the diminishing fish trade by this time.

The property was described as “Cellars, buildings and premises called Liberty Sean Cellars” 1, the first land document to give our cellar a name.

‘Shooting of the Sean in Port Isaac Bay’ by John Watts Trevan 1835
‘Shooting of the Sean in Port Isaac Bay’ by John Watts Trevan 1835