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The History of a Pilchard Palace - Pilchard Industry

Sean, or Seine, refers to a fishing company using a seine net, and the Liberty Cellar was built for the Liberty Seine Company as the premises for storing equipment and processing the fish.

Writing in 1835, John Watts Trevan gave an account of the pilchard industry here

“This is the most important of all the fishing on this coast. About thirty years since pilchards came here in such abundance that several gentlemen of the neighbourhood resolved to have a sean on this with every appearance of success. Adventurers from all quarters began to adopt the same plan, then it was heave and go who and who should have parts. Committees were formed to adopt the most eligible plans. Large and extensive cellars were begun to be built. Seans and other materials connected thereto ordered to an outlay of about the tune of thirty thousand pounds and all was hustle and confusion for two or three years at Port Isaac, Port Quin, and Porth Karn Hun [Port Gaverne]. Some of those seans as the ‘Good Intent’ meet with singular success having caught nearly twelve hundred hogsheads of fish the first year, and some of the other seans had minor successes and soon fish were caught for eight or ten years after, some of those seans taking from six hundred hogsheads and others of less quantities upon an average, yearly. But from that time to this the fish have scarcely visited the coast, in consequence thereof several of the seans have been cut up and sold with all boats and other materials thereunto belonging, and the cellars either sold or falling into decay. About twenty hogsheads were caught this last year by the joint adventure of the following seans, ‘Union’ at Porth Karn Hun, ‘Industry’ at Port Isaac, and ‘Fenice’[Venice] at Port Quin. The fish make about £3.10.0 [£3.50] per hogshead now in the Italian market but the Neapolitan Government at present lay an import duty of eighteen shillings per hogshead, and the Tuscan about the same.” 2 A hogshead can vary, but customarily contains around 2,500 to 3,000 fish and weighs some 4½ hundredweight (230kg) 3.

Earl Fortescue’s Manor
Earl Fortescue’s Manor of Treore Estate Map c1800 showing the three newly built cellars above Port Isaac and none in Port Gaverne, although there is a long thin rectangle in the same location as the roadside arm of the existing Union Cellar.

Trevan’s ‘hustle and confusion’ and ‘heave and go’ is borne out by the documentation. There were three new cellars in Port Gaverne erected for that 1803 pilchard season. Apart from the Liberty Cellar, the land on which the Rashleigh cellar stands was leased out by Warwick Guy on 10th September 1802 and that for the Venus cellar leased out by John Cock on 9th December 1802 1.

The Union cellar was already established and catching quantities of fish. An undated estate map of Earl Fortescue’s Treore Manor (probably about 1800) shows a long rectangular building in the same location as the roadside arm of the Union cellar. The map notes it was owned by ‘Mr [Abraham] Hambley’, with the adjacent land owned by Warwick Guy. Possibly the existing building was extended shortly thereafter to form the triangular cellar we see today. This map also shows three of the Port Isaac cellars built on higher ground above the harbour – Good Intent cellar owned by Lord Granville (demolished to build the old school), and Earl Fortescue’s own Mary cellar (now Coastguard cottages) and Providence cellar (an arm of which remains adjacent to Coastguard cottages, with one of the cottages called Providence). The Industry cellar is right by the harbour and remains in use by our fishermen. There were also two cellars at Port Quin – Venus/Venice cellar, now parking for the National Trust cottages, and the Caroline/Carolina cellar across the stream in St Minver parish, now holiday accommodation.

In the season prior to the building of the three new Port Gaverne cellars, these were the quantities of pilchards landed in our area (up to 28th August 1802) 4

Seine Hogsheads Approx. No of Fish
(at 2,500 per Hogshead)
Fox* 300 750,000 67.5
Providence 300 750,000 67.5
Union 650 1,625,000 146.3
Industry 650 1,625,000 146.3
Good Intent 700 1,750,000 157.5
  * In summer 1802 the Fox seine might have been housed in what was later known as the Mary Cellar in Port Isaac. There are references to a Fox seine at Port Gaverne, which was probably an alternative name for the Rashleigh Seine. The parties named in the three lives lease dated 10th September 1802 for what was to become the Rashleigh Cellar, were “Edw. Fox of Egloshayle, merchant, on behalf of self and partners in Rashleigh Seine” and the three lives named were “Rob. Were Fox, jun., s. of Rob. Were Fox of Falmouth, merchant, Edw. s. of lessee, and his bro. Geo.”1 All were members of the influential Fox family of Quakers from Falmouth. Edward Fox (1749-1817) of Egloshayle supplied important mineral specimens to the great collector, Philip Rashleigh, after whom the cellar is named. Robert Were Fox Junior (1799-1877) became a renowned geologist, scientist and inventor, and was a prominent member of Victorian and Cornish society. In 1848, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

With these huge quantities of pilchards being taken in 1802, and all the convenient Port Isaac locations already occupied, that empty land adjacent to the beach in Port Gaverne valley was a logical place for expansion.

What was involved in this important Cornish industry, in which Port Gaverne played a significant part? In the summer of 1850, Wilkie Collins, a Victorian novelist, visited St Ives and gave an evocative description of the whole process from sighting the shoals to processing the pilchards 5. The scenes at Port Gaverne a few decades earlier must have been similar –

The first sight from the cliffs of a shoal of pilchards advancing towards the land, is not a little interesting. They produce on the sea the appearance of the shadow of a dark cloud. This shadow comes on and on, until you can see the fish leaping and playing on the surface by thousands at a time, all huddled close together, and all approaching so near to the shore, that they can be always caught in some fifty or sixty feet of water. Indeed, on certain occasions, when the shoals are of considerable magnitude, the fish behind have been known to force the fish before, literally up to the beach, so that they could be taken in buckets, or even in the hand with the greatest ease. It is said that they are thus impelled to approach the land by precisely the same necessity which impels the fishermen to catch them as they appear – the necessity of getting food.

With the discovery of the first shoal, the active duties of the “look-out” on the cliffs begin. Each fishing-village places one or more of these men on the watch all round the coast. They are called “huers,” a word said to be derived from the old French verb, huer, to call out, to give an alarm. On the vigilance and skill of the “huer” much depends. He is, therefore, not only paid his guinea a week while he is on the watch, but receives, besides, a perquisite in the shape of a percentage on the produce of all the fish taken under his auspices. He is placed at his post, where he can command an uninterrupted view of the sea, some days before the pilchards are expected to appear; and, at the same time, boats, nets, and men are all ready for action at a moment’s notice.

The principal boat used is at least fifteen tons in burden, and carries a large net called the “seine,” which measures a hundred and ninety fathoms in length [Fathom = 6 feet/1.8 metres], and costs a hundred and seventy pounds – sometimes more. It is simply one long strip, from eleven to thirteen fathoms in breadth, composed of very small meshes, and furnished, all along its length, with lead at one side and corks at the other. The men who cast this net are called the “shooters,” and receive eleven shillings and sixpence a week, and a perquisite of one basket of fish each out of every haul.

As soon as the “huer” discerns the first appearance of a shoal, he waves his bush. The signal is conveyed to the beach immediately by men and boys watching near him. The “seine” boat (accompanied by another small boat, to assist in casting the net) is rowed out where he can see it. Then there is a pause, a hush of great expectation on all sides. Meanwhile, the devoted pilchards press on – a compact mass of thousands on thousands of fish, swimming to meet their doom. All eyes are fixed on the “huer;” he stands watchful and still, until the shoal is thoroughly embayed, in water which he knows to be within the depth of the “seine” net. Then, as the fish begin to pause in their progress, and gradually crowd closer and closer together, he gives the signal; the boats come up, and the “seine” net is cast, or, in the technical phrase “shot,” overboard.

The grand object is now to enclose the entire shoal. The leads sink one end of the net perpendicularly to the ground; the corks buoy up the other to the surface of the water. When it has been taken all round the fish, the two extremities are made fast, and the shoal is then imprisoned within an oblong barrier of network surrounding it on all sides. The great art is to let as few of the pilchards escape as possible, while this process is being completed. Whenever the “huer” observes from above that they are startled, and are separating at any particular point, to that point he waves his bush, thither the boats are steered, and there the net is “shot” at once. In whatever direction the fish attempt to get out to sea again, they are thus immediately met and thwarted with extraordinary readiness and skill. This labour completed, the silence of intense expectation that has hitherto prevailed among the spectators on the cliff, is broken. There is a great shout of joy on all sides – the shoal is secured!

The “seine'” is now regarded as a great reservoir of fish. It may remain in the water a week or more. To secure it against being moved from its position in case a gale should come on, it is warped by two or three ropes to points of land in the cliff, and is, at the same time, contracted in circuit, by its opposite ends being brought together, and fastened tight over a length of several feet. While these operations are in course of performance, another boat, another set of men, and another net (different in form from the “seine”) are approaching the scene of action.

This new net is called the “tuck;” it is smaller than the “seine,” inside which it is now to be let down for the purpose of bringing the fish closely collected to the surface. The men who manage this net are termed “regular seiners.” They receive ten shillings a week, and the same perquisite as the “shooters.” Their boat is first of all rowed inside the seine-net, and laid close to the seine-boat, which remains stationary outside, and to the bows of which one rope at one end of the “tuck-net” is fastened. The “tuck” boat then slowly makes the inner circuit of the “seine,” the smaller net being dropped overboard as she goes, and attached at intervals to the larger. To prevent the fish from getting between the two nets during this operation, they are frightened into the middle of the enclosure by beating the water, at proper places, with oars, and heavy stones fastened to ropes. When the “tuck” net has at length travelled round the whole circle of the “seine,” and is securely fastened to the “seine” boat, at the end as it was at the beginning, everything is ready for the great event of the day, the hauling of the fish to the surface.

Now, the scene on shore and sea rises to a prodigious pitch of excitement. The merchants, to whom the boats and nets belong, and by whom the men are employed, join the “huer” on the cliff; all their friends follow them; boys shout, dogs bark madly; every little boat in the place puts off, crammed with idle spectators; old men and women hobble down to the beach to wait for the news. The noise, the bustle, and the agitation, increase every moment. Soon the shrill cheering of the boys is joined by the deep voices of the “seiners.” There they stand, six or eight stalwart sunburnt fellows, ranged in a row in the “seine” boat, hauling with all their might at the “tuck” net, and roaring the regular nautical “Yo-heave-ho!” in chorus! Higher and higher rises the net, louder and louder shout the boys and the idlers. The merchant forgets his dignity, and joins them; the “huer,” so calm and collected hitherto, loses his self-possession and waves his cap triumphantly; even you and I, reader, uninitiated spectators though we are, catch the infection, and cheer away with the rest, as if our bread depended on the event of the next few minutes. “Hooray! hooray! Yo-hoy, hoy, hoy! Pull away, boys! Up she comes! Here they are! Here they are!” The water boils and eddies; the “tuck” net rises to the surface, and one teeming, convulsed mass of shining, glancing, silvery scales; one compact crowd of tens of thousands of fish, each one of which is madly endeavouring to escape, appears in an instant!

The noise before was as nothing compared with the noise now. Boats as large as barges are pulled up in hot haste all round the net; baskets are produced by dozens: the fish are dipped up in them, and shot out, like coals out of a sack, into the boats. Ere long, the men are up to their ankles in pilchards; they jump upon the rowing benches and work on, until the boats are filled with fish as full as they can hold, and the gunwales are within two or three inches of the water. Even yet, the shoal is not exhausted; the “tuck” net must be let down again and left ready for a fresh haul, while the boats are slowly propelled to the shore, where we must join them without delay.

As soon as the fish are brought to land, one set of men, bearing capacious wooden shovels, jump in among them; and another set bring large hand-barrows close to the side of the boat, into which the pilchards are thrown with amazing rapidity. This operation proceeds without ceasing for a moment. As soon as one barrow is ready to be carried to the salting-house, another is waiting to be filled. When this labour is performed by night, which is often the case, the scene becomes doubly picturesque. The men with the shovels, standing up to their knees in pilchards, working energetically; the crowd stretching down from the salting-house, across the beach, and hemming in the boat all round; the uninterrupted succession of men hurrying backwards and forwards with their barrows, through a narrow way kept clear for them in the throng; the glare of the lanterns giving light to the workmen, and throwing red flashes on the fish as they fly incessantly from the shovels over the side of the boat – all combine together to produce such a series of striking contrasts, such a moving picture of bustle and animation, as not even the most careless of spectators could ever forget.