Inside a Working Pilchard Cellar

There are few reports of the hustle and bustle found inside a working pilchard cellar, not least because the stench was quite overpowering to sensitive Victorian noses. The smell of curing Pilchards meant food and wages for local folk, so it was no doubt a welcome inconvenience which rapidly faded into their background. Wilkie Collins was brave enough to venture inside a pilchard cellar whilst at St Ives and his description would have mirrored the scenes to have been seen in the Liberty cellar during those early years of the 19th century.

Having watched the progress of affairs on the shore, we next proceed to the salting-house, a quadrangular structure of granite [slate in North Cornwall], well-roofed in all round the sides, but open to the sky in the middle. Here, we must prepare ourselves to be bewildered by incessant confusion and noise; for here are assembled all the women and girls in the district, piling up the pilchards on layers of salt, at three-pence an hour; to which remuneration, a glass of brandy and a piece of bread and cheese are hospitably added at every sixth hour, by way of refreshment. It is a service of some little hazard to enter this place at all. There are men rushing out with empty barrows, and men rushing in with full barrows, in almost perpetual succession. However, while we are waiting for an opportunity to slip through the doorway, we may amuse ourselves by watching a very curious ceremony which is constantly in course of performance outside it.

As the filled barrows are going into the salting-house, we observe a little urchin running by the side of them, and hitting their edges with a long cane, in a constant succession of smart strokes, until they are fairly carried through the gate, when he quickly returns to perform the same office for the next series that arrive. The object of this apparently unaccountable proceeding is soon practically illustrated by a group of children, hovering about the entrance of the salting-house, who every now and then dash resolutely up to the barrows, and endeavour to seize on as many fish as they can take away at one snatch. It is understood to be their privilege to keep as many pilchards as they can get in this way by their dexterity, in spite of a liberal allowance of strokes aimed at their hands; and their adroitness richly deserves its reward. Vainly does the boy officially entrusted with the administration of the cane, strike the sides of the barrow with malignant smartness and perseverance – fish are snatched away with lightning rapidity and pickpocket neatness of hand. The hardest rap over the knuckles fails to daunt the sturdy little assailants. Howling with pain, they dash up to the next barrow that passes them, with unimpaired resolution; and often collect their ten or a dozen fish a piece, in an hour or two. No description can do justice to the “Jack-in-Office” importance of the boy with the cane, as he flourishes it about ferociously in the full enjoyment of his vested right to castigate his companions as often as he can. As an instance of the early development of the tyrannic tendencies of human nature, it is, in a philosophical point of view, quite unique.

But now, while we have a chance, while the doorway is accidentally clear for a few moments, let us enter the salting-house, and approach the noisiest and most amusing of all the scenes which the pilchard fishery presents. First of all we pass a great heap of fish lying in one recess inside the door, and an equally great heap of coarse, brownish salt lying in another. Then we advance farther, get out of the way of everybody, behind a pillar, and see a whole congregation of the fair sex screaming, talking, and – to their honour be it spoken – working at the same time, round a compact mass of pilchards which their nimble hands have already built up to a height of three feet, a breadth of more than four, and a length of twenty. Here we have every variety of the “fairer half of creation” displayed before us, ranged round an odoriferous heap of salted fish. Here we see crones of sixty and girls of sixteen; the ugly and the lean, the comely and the plump; the sour-tempered and the sweet – all squabbling, singing, jesting, lamenting, and shrieking at the very top of their very shrill voices for “more fish,” and “more salt;” both of which are brought from the stores, in small buckets, by a long train of children running backwards and forwards with unceasing activity and in bewildering confusion. But, universal as the uproar is, the work never flags; the hands move as fast as the tongues; there may be no silence and no discipline, but there is also no idleness and no delay. Never was three-pence an hour more joyously or more fairly earned than it is here!

Tucking the Pilchards at Sennen 4 (picture c1880)
Tucking the Pilchards at Sennen 4 (picture c1880)
Cellar workers in a Pilchard Palace at Sennen (picture c1880)
Cellar workers in a Pilchard Palace at Sennen (picture c1880)
Pilchard Bulking - St Ives
Pilchard Bulking - St Ives

The labour is thus performed. After the stone floor has been swept clean, a thin layer of salt is spread on it, and covered with pilchards laid partly edgewise, and close together. Then another layer of salt, smoothed fine with the palm of the hand, is laid over the pilchards; and then more pilchards are placed upon that; and so on until the heap rises to four feet or more. Nothing can exceed the ease, quickness, and regularity with which this is done. Each woman works on her own small area, without reference to her neighbour; a bucketful of salt and a bucketful of fish being shot out in two little piles under her hands, for her own especial use. All proceed in their labour, however, with such equal diligence and equal skill, that no irregularities appear in the various layers when they are finished – they run as straight and smooth from one end to the other, as if they were constructed by machinery. The heap, when completed, looks like a long, solid, neatly-made mass of dirty salt; nothing being now seen of the pilchards but the extreme tips of their noses or tails, just peeping out in rows, up the sides of the pile.

Unfortunately, Wilkie Collins was not able to stay to see the next part of the process, which would have taken place some weeks later, so he continued his story on the word of an infirm old man with a wealth of experience.

Having now inspected the progress of the pilchard fishery, from the catching to the curing, we have seen all that we can personally observe of its different processes, at one opportunity. What more remains to be done, will not be completed until after an interval of several weeks. We must be content to hear about this from information given to us by others. Yonder, sitting against the outside wall of the salting-house, is an intelligent old man, too infirm now to do more than take care of the baby that he holds in his arms, while the baby’s mother is earning her three-pence an hour inside. To this ancient we will address all our inquiries; and he is well qualified to answer us, for the poor old fellow has worked away all the pith and marrow of his life in the pilchard fishery.

The fish – as we learn from our old friend, who is mightily pleased to be asked for information – will remain in salt, or, as the technical expression is, “in bulk,” for five or six weeks. During this period, a quantity of oil, salt, and water drips from them into wells cut in the centre of the stone floor on which they are placed. After the oil has been collected and clarified, it will sell for enough to pay off the whole expense of the wages, food, and drink given to the “seiners” – perhaps defraying other incidental charges besides. The salt and water left behind, and offal of all sorts found with it, furnish a valuable manure. Nothing in the pilchard itself, or in connexion with the pilchard, runs to waste – the precious little fish is a treasure in every part of him. 

After the pilchards have been taken out of “bulk,” they are washed clean in salt water, and packed in hogsheads, which are then sent for exportation to some large sea-port – Penzance for instance – in coast traders. The fish reserved for use in Cornwall, are generally cured by those who purchase them. The export trade is confined to the shores of the Mediterranean – Italy and Spain providing the two great foreign markets for pilchards. The home consumption, as regards Great Britain, is nothing, or next to nothing. Some variation takes place in the prices realized by the foreign trade – their average, wholesale, is stated to be about fifty shillings per hogshead. 

As an investment for money, on a small scale, the pilchard fishery offers the first great advantage of security. The only outlay necessary, is that for providing boats and nets, and for building salting-houses – an outlay which, it is calculated, may be covered by a thousand pounds. The profits resulting from the speculation are immediate and large. Transactions are managed on the ready money principle, and the markets of Italy and Spain (where pilchards are considered a great delicacy) are always open to any supply. The fluctuation between a good season’s fishing and a bad season’s fishing is rarely, if ever, seriously great. Accidents happen but seldom; the casualty most dreaded, being the enclosure of a large fish along with a shoal of pilchards. A “ling,” for instance, if unfortunately imprisoned in the seine, often bursts through its thin meshes, after luxuriously gorging himself with prey, and is of course at once followed out of the breach by all the pilchards. Then, not only is the shoal lost, but the net is seriously damaged, and must be tediously and expensively repaired. Such an accident as this, however, very seldom happens; and when it does, the loss occasioned falls on those best able to bear it, the merchant speculators. The work and wages of the fishermen go on as usual. 

Some idea of the almost incalculable multitude of pilchards caught on the shores of Cornwall, may be formed from the following data . At the small fishing cove of Trereen, 600 hogsheads were taken in little more than one week, during August, 1850. Allowing 2,400 fish only to each hogshead – 3,000 would be the highest calculation – we have a result of 1,440,000 pilchards, caught by the inhabitants of one little village alone, on the Cornish coast, at the commencement of the season’s fishing. 

At considerable sea-port towns, where there is an unusually large supply of men, boats, and nets, such figures as those quoted above, are far below the mark. At St. Ives, for example, 1,000 hogsheads were taken in the first three seine nets cast into the water. The number of hogsheads exported annually, averages 22,000. In 1850, 27,000 were secured for the foreign markets. Incredible as these numbers may appear to some readers, they may nevertheless be relied on; for they are derived from trustworthy sources – partly from local returns furnished to me; partly from the very men who filled the baskets from the boat-side, and who afterwards verified their calculations by frequent visits to the salting-houses.

Such is the pilchard fishery of Cornwall – a small unit, indeed, in the vast aggregate of England’s internal sources of wealth: but yet neither unimportant nor uninteresting, if it be regarded as giving active employment to a hardy and honest race who would starve without it; as impartially extending the advantages of commerce to one of the remotest corners of our island; and, more than all, as displaying a wise and beautiful provision of Nature, by which the rich tribute of the great deep is most generously lavished on the land most in need of a compensation for its own sterility. 

That infirm old man skipped over the packing and pressing of the fish barrels or hogsheads, as it is this part of the process which involved that three rows of bricks with its uniform series of holes to be seen running round the walls of any fish cellar, including Gullrock. The holes are 26 inches (65cm) apart and in front of each hole was placed a packed barrel. From this, we can deduce the barrel was around 2 foot in diameter (60cm), and as the row of holes is on both sides of the wall, we can also deduce from the building’s dimensions that Gullrock had a maximum capacity of around 300 barrels, representing some 750,000 fish or 67 tonnes.

Socket holes in the wall at Gullrock today.
Socket holes in the wall at Gullrock today.
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston demonstrating the pressing of the pilchards to presenter Michael Aspel when the Antiques Roadshow visited the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth (Series 26 Episode 5 broadcast 5/10/2003).
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston demonstrating the pressing of the pilchards to presenter Michael Aspel when the Antiques Roadshow visited the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth (Series 26 Episode 5 broadcast 5/10/2003).

The staves in these straight-sided fish barrels were not as tight as in a whisky barrel, and they were known as ‘leaky barrels’. After the barrel was positioned, a 10 foot long pole was inserted in the hole, and a weight was hung on the end. Wooden blocks were placed above the barrel lid, so the pole and weight acted as a lever to press down and squeeze the oil out of the fish. The oil oozed out of the loose fitting staves and dripped into a gutter. Those three rows of brick were built with a slight slope to facilitate the oil flow into a storage tank. This valuable by-product actually paid all the running costs of the fishing enterprise.