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The History of a Pilchard Palace - Smuggling Sea Salt

Huge quantities of salt were required, and acquiring this often caused problems. The best salt was sea salt from France, but from 1803 until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Britain was at war with France. The alternative was rock salt from Cheshire, but this stained the fish and reduced the value of the processed fish in the major markets of Italy 6. There was also a large duty on salt, although there was exemption for salt used in curing pilchards. Smuggling of sea salt was not uncommon at this time. The Philip Ball who leased the land to build the Liberty Cellar was a prominent Mevagissey fish merchant and Mevagissey was the prime Cornish pilchard port. It was not too surprising that when a parliamentary select committee was set up to look into the use of rock salt in the Pilchard industry, and in particular to consider the proposals to place an additional duty on imported salt, Philip was a principal witness for the Cornish pilchard industry. He travelled up to London in May 1817, and his evidence gives an insight into the workings of the trade. He refers to the enormous catch in Mevagissey Bay on a single night during the 1816 season of 12,000 hogsheads (2,760 tonnes) being enclosed by seine nets, with 8 or 9,000 being landed at Mevagissey, the rest in nearby locations. In the whole season there were 30,000 hogsheads (6,900 tonnes) caught, although this was not the largest catch, as some 45,000 hogsheads (10,000 tonnes) had been caught in earlier seasons. On that monumental night there were 30 Mevagissey seines, and 6 to 12 seines from other locations, within the bay. Each seine consisted of 3 boats, manned by a total of eighteen men, and the cost of the fishing equipment alone totalled £700. He estimated there would be 3 to 4,000 seaman employed when the fish were being caught. On land, he estimated that a successful catch would drain the countryside of people to carry the fish from the boats to the cellars, and each cellar would employ 15 to 20 women in salting the fish and carrying salt between the various curers. Possibly around 15 to 20,000 persons were employed in the total fishing trade 6.

Typical Mevagissey bulk salt warehouses stored 6-8,000 bushels of salt (150-200 tonnes), although there were also smaller fishermen’s salt stores on a small scale. At that time, French sea salt was around £2.13s.4d (£2.67) a ton including duty of 9s.6d (37.5p), compared to British rock salt of £2 a ton. Salt was used at 6 bushels (0.15 tonnes) per hogshead, equivalent to 8s (40p) per hogshead for French salt. Regarding expenses for each hogshead, the women fish packers were paid 2s (10p), the superintendent 1s (5p), and the barrel 5 to 6s (25- 30p). The fishermen were paid a quarter of what the fish sells for. Ball stated that other parts of Cornwall may make higher payments for fishermen. The cost of the boats, nets etc was the responsibility of the proprietors, as were any repairs and maintenance. The proprietors received an export bounty of 8s.6d (42.5p) for each hogshead, and Philip Ball confirms that without this bounty they could not carry on this trade at all. Prices for the hogsheads varied from year to year, and Philip Ball quotes 15-18s (75-90p) five years earlier (the glut year of 1812), but much higher in 1816 at 49s (£2.45) and in 1815 at £5.2s (£5.10). 1814 was a particularly good year, with 55s (£2.75) per hogshead realised 6.