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The Sennen Seine Fishery.


By George Pritchard

In the far West of Cornwall in the 1840's the high price of corn and butcher’s meat was out of all proportion to the labourer’s wages, he and his family were unable to obtain either. Therefore fish and the potato plot constituted their  main means of bringing food to the table. There was a fear that the potato would, as in Ireland, soon become the sole nourishment of the poorer class in English counties where fish was not to be had. 

The majority of the land in the Parish of Sennen at that time was made up of moorland with gorse being used as fuel. It was a land on which production could be little increased with the tools then in existence. The option of buying imported food was out of the question because the cost of carriage added to that of a high market price just made matters worse. In every little cove, where it was possible, families contrived to keep a boat for  fishing, and thus supply  themselves, and hopefully have a surplus which they could sell to their neighbours. 

salt.jpg (43701 bytes) They preserved the fish by salting or drying. The photo is of salt being delivered to a Cellar in Sennen. One half of the salt that was used could be used again the following season. The rest would be sold as a manure in 1840 the price was 10d per bushel.                                                                                                                          

Sometimes even the supply of salted or dried fish  was exhausted, because of  the continuance of stormy weather for weeks on end, and then the condition of these poor people was deplorable in the extreme. Cyrus Redding writing in his journal in 1842 says: " one of them, remarking on their hardships during stormy seasons, said to us, “We do the best we can, though sometimes half starved.” The thing that kept many Sennen people going in the depths of winter was the thought of the return of the pilchard. for with its return they knew they would have food and employment.

The men and women of Sennen would work for weeks to get everything ready. The pressing stones in the cellars had to be put to one side and the tanks cleaned. Whole families were employed in this task for when the fish arrived the women who did the salting would be paid 10d per hogshead (a Hogshead was a barrel which held between 2.500 and 3,000 fish depending on the size). 

 During the winter months the men and boys would have taken the hugh seine net which measured 220 fathoms or almost a quarter of a mile long by sixteen fathoms deep out on to the beach and carried out repairs.  They would also have fixed new stout double ropes on each side and at each of the four corners strong warps about fifty fathoms long would have been spliced in. The boys would be given the job of fitting the corks to the upper edge to make the top of the net  buoyant and lead weights would have been attached to the opposite side to make it sink. The old fishermen who would be overseeing their work and teaching them the right way to do it, would tell them that when the net was thrown into the sea, it would stand as upright as a wall, the lower side resting on the seabed, so that the fish could not escape. The size of the net meant that Seine net fishing could only be carried out in fifteen to sixteen fathoms of water. Once all the ropes, corks and lead was fitted the net had then to be treated using a mixture of tar and creosote. a fire was made and the mixture brought to the boil, the net would then be painted in order to make it last longer. 

Each Seine employed seventeen men who would be paid a weekly wage throughout the season of eight shillings.

Once the net was ready the children stood out of the way whilst the great net was folded. This had to be done in such a way that two strong experienced men would be able to throw it overboard without it getting entangled; one at the head rope, or corked side and the other at the foot-rope or leaded border. The seine boat would be around eight tons when fully loaded and the five oarsmen would follow the instructions of the bow man who in turn would be watching  the huer high on the cliffs and steering from the signals given. The huer, from the French word Huer: meaning "to call" or "cry out" is always a man of great experience; since the success of the fishing is dependant upon his judgment.

 Imagine that this morning the Huer left his cottage in Escalls before dawn and walked  the cliff path leading to the huer's hut which overlooks Whitsand Bay. He sits and watches the sea waiting for those tell tale sign that the shoal has arrived. His head is filled with knowledge gained from his family, who have fished these waters for generations and have passed their experiences on down to him.  As the sun climbs in the sky it is that time of year when a heat haze creeps over the surface of the sea ; a haze that people say brings the pilchards in.

Both in the Church town and in the Cove people are still slumbering.  Two boys have been left to take care of the boats and watch the huer. The grey of morning heralds the sun’s appearance,—now its disc is upon the horizon that is streaming with the new-born light,— and the huer may be seen with his gaze directed over the ocean. In each hand he carries a green bough, with which to telegraph his orders. From his vantage point high on the cliffs he knows that a shoal of fish will be easily seen with his experienced eye, as  the colour of the water changes where they are swimming, caused by the shading of the depths by their numbers. The shadow or tint moves along with them and it is this that he watches for and with each change in direction he will signal the boats.

As the morning advances the sun bathes the eastern horizon in gold, but the huer does not see this sight as his back is turned. His gaze lies in another direction where, below him the wave-less ocean sleeps like a new born babe. All is silent, but now and again this silence is broken by the soothing music of ripples of water upon the yellow sand, gently carried on the still air. Or perhaps the distant barking of a dog, disturbed by the fox returning from his nocturnal hunt.

Still John, the huer, makes no signal; the streets being yet voiceless, and the beach deserted. All of a sudden he looks more keenly to seaward,—looks again,— shifts his position, and looks still more intently,—now he sees the approaching shoal. He makes the signal to the boats; one of the boys left in charge, rushes up the beach into the streets, crying “Havar! havar !“  from the old Cornish word “havas,” “Found! found -The word is caught up, and rings from house to house around the cove and the people come running.  The boats are fully manned, three in number, and push off; while along the beach the men from Escalls and Tregiffian run down to their smaller craft to get them ready to follow, at the proper time, in order to land or tuck the fish. “One and all,” the Cornish watchword, unites the spectators and the actors in the busy scene; and “Havar, havar !“ echoes among the rocks.  

 The Huer is seen urging forward the boats, the crews of which are tugging at the oar, with all their might. In the first boat, manned by nine or ten men, the seine is carried, carefully covered with a tarpaulin; the next boat carries what is called the tuck-seine, with which the fish are taken up out of the larger seine, when they are hemmed within its meshes; the third, called the lurker or cock-boat, carries only three or four hands. These boats are well supplied with ropes, anchors, grappling hooks and whatever the emergency may arise. The rowers  tug hard until they arrive opposite where the huer stands; perhaps a mile or more from where they launched the boat. He makes the signal for them to anchor, three or four hundred yards from the shore, off a fine sandy cove; and, accordingly, the seine and tuck-seine boats drop their anchors; but the cock-boat proceeds to sea, in order to reconnoiter the shoal. The huer is still intent upon his duties; aloof from all, he weighs the best way of proceeding. To fulfill his duties well, he must possess a quick eye, a placid temper, an active mind, be prompt in resources, be gifted with strength of body and the capacity of enduring great fatigue; he must be good-humored and sober. A tall order for any one man but John Vingoe has earned the respect of the men of Sennen, his men. They know him to be perfectly impartial and to only inflict fines or punishments upon the crews when they neglect their duty, or exhibit signs of drunkenness  But now the shoal is approaching and people  are crowding down to the distant beach.  Many of them are anticipating the comforts a successful haul will bring  them and their families, with the prospect of good wages for curing the fish or the less optimistic the disappointment of a poor catch and a continuation of the hardship and hunger.

For a time all is uncertainty until at length the huer sees a moment which he thinks opportune. He makes the signal to weigh anchor and remove the tarpaulin from over the seine. All is now silent, and every eye is fixed upon him. He is calm and collected and  too absorbed in his business to think of any thing else, even alternative action. He is anxious that the shoal should not give him the slip, which too frequently happens. He makes the signal to throw over the seine. Two strong and stout seiners begin by flinging overboard the warps affixed to the corners of the net, and fastened to a buoy previously prepared. The rowers, directed by the bowman who watches the huer, pull with all their might; while the two men in the stern sheets; one at the upper or corked side of the net, and the other at the lower, the warp being run out, are flinging the net into the sea to encircle the shoal.

In the mean time, the cock-boat takes her station on the warp, between the buoy and the net, her crew incessantly beating the water to prevent the fish from taking that direction and getting clear by the head of the seine. The seine being flung out, the ends are brought round so as to meet; the fish being enclosed in the circumference, the leads and lower side resting upon the sand at the bottom of the sea. The warp ropes are first united close to the top, and then the ends of the net are lifted, and the net tied close to the meshes from top to bottom, each tie being about 220 yards apart. This is done as rapidly as possible, and the ends of the net again dropped. The fish are now safe, and might remain for days, or even weeks, in security, unless a gale of wind gets up.. From the junction at the ends of the net an anchor is carried out, and two or three grapnels from other parts of the circumference, to prevent it from being pressed upwards by the fish. The seiners’ crews, and those of the numerous boats that have joined them from the shore, give three cheers, by way of salute to the huer, who stands afar and alone as before. These are answered by the people on shore, till the cliffs ring.  Nothing can be more animated than the scene on the water and the beach but the huer will allow himself some quiet reflection on his silent, solitary  walk to join the others on the beach.....and the sun not yet passed midday...

seine 1.jpg (21460 bytes)If the tide is right the next thing is to drop the tuck seine within the larger net in order to bring the fish to the surface, and by dipping in or "tucking" with baskets transfer the fish to the boats which throng to the spot to carry them on shore. 

This generally takes place at low water, and is often postponed until the night, the soft moonlight night of summer. No sight can be more enchantingly beautiful The tranquil sea, only disturbed by the numerous oars, that cause the droplets of water to flash like brilliant diamonds, heightened by contrast with the black boats continually in motion over a surface that shines like one measure­less and glorious mirror, to where the sky melts into a burnished luster. There is so little difference in Cornwall between the warmth of the night and day at this season, that no chill damps the pleasure of the time spent in watching the busy work. The fish, lifted out of their native element, are literally poured into the boats as the tuck seine is emptied, and their white wet sides look like streams of liquid silver. Nature's beauty and her bounty combine to make a perfect  picture which many have tried to portray. Some have come close but cannot surpass the original............ 

Returning from your day dream and pictures of the past you might be interested to know that often strange fish were caught in these nets. Angel fish, or monk, a shark of a unique form, but rare. The white shark seldom appeared, or the harmless basking shark. Sun-fish were  more common and  some were very large between three and five feet but the fish of greatest value were the  "fairmaids".

pilchard boats.jpg (85970 bytes)And so the fish were caught and brought to the shore. Five hundred hogsheads at once was thought a fair capture. In one season in the 1830's, 60,000 hogsheads were taken throughout Cornwall; averaging each 3,000 fish , and making in all 180,000,000. The number of fish in a hogshead would depend on their relative size from fatness, which differed much in different years, running from 2,500 to 3,000. 

Once landed the fish was taken to the cellars where it was first of all put into the press. The pilchard was very fat, and as a result of the pressing process about a hogshead of oil, was gained for every twenty hogsheads of fish. Nearly half the salt used was fit to be used again at the next catch. The remainder was found to be one of the best manures that could be laid upon land, and was readily sold for that purpose. 

The fish, were known as “fumades,” or "fairmaids"  from the Spanish “fumados,” as the early form of curing was smoking or fuming. A hogshead was equal to three barrels of herrings, as they contained four hundred and twenty five dried fish. 

In the mid eighteen hundreds the cost of the boats and seine together was around £1,200; and 50,000 bushels of salt may be the average consumption." One half the salt used serves again; and that which is spoiled sells for manure, at l0d, the bushel. The broken fish bring ld.; garbage for the soap-boiler, 6d.; and dregs for the currier, 10d. per gallon. The cask costs 3s. Ten women salters, get 10d, per hogshead. The seine men have 8s. per week each, about seventeen to a seine". Then there was the tithe exacted, many felt against reason, justice, and the rights of humanity. At this time the tithe charge  on seines was £11. 13s. 4d. per seine. In 1769, no less than £485 1s. 8d. was paid for tithe; this was equal to a twelfth of the fisherman’s income that year and could have been greater if the season was poor as the amount demanded was the same. What also upset the fishermen was that the tithes did not now all belong to the church, as they had sold their right of "first fruit"  to the highest bidder. Most tithes now were due to the local land owner who was increasingly exhorting his rights in the courts and winning, making for very bad feeling that had not existed to that extent in the past.

It is not easy to discover the total number of persons employed in the Cornish seine fishery; but it must have been considerable. As to the capital expenditure some calculate that it was around £300,000. In the 1840's the price for the fish was as low as eighteen shillings, up to thirty-six, the hogshead    

The names of fish found  last  century are listed below. Many names are unfamiliar and some probably no longer in existance I will not attempt to translate into modern day language.

"The porbeagle which followed the shoals of small fish; was commonly called the sea attorney, among fishermen; the fox-shark, called the thresher, from its being frequently seen to belabour the grampus with its tail. Skates and rays of all kinds, with the three tailed, and a species without spines. Angel and mermaid fish, frog-fish, sea-devils, pearl or luga-leaf, turbot, whiff, halibut, sole, solaea lervis, called the lanthorn, from its transparency, congers, free-eels, sand-eels, sea-adders, needle-fish, saw-fish, rock and common cod, the power or poor fish, whiting-pollock, rawlin.pollock, blind haddock, whiting, hake, ling, tunny, (a species of mackerel, weighing I cwt.) common mackerel, scad or horse mackerel, whistle-fish, the dracunculus, the draco marinus, or sea-dragon; bass, mullet, red and grey; surmullet, John Dory, pipers, grey, streaked, and red, and gurnard or rocket, tub-fish, the comber, herring, pilchard, shad, sprat or sparling; the skipper, girrock, black-fish, sea-bream, wrasse, butter-fish, gold-sinny, cook, cookling, and father-lasher. To enumerate every species would be tedious. The turtle is sometimes, but rarely, met with; one was taken off the Land’s End that weighed 6 cwt., and another off Falmouth, 8 cwt. Seals are common on the northern coast, but were shy of man. The principal shell-fish was oysters, muscles, cockles, limpets, wrinkles, crabs of all kinds, lobsters, the long crab, shrimps of every variety, hermit shrimps, bernards, and scallops. Of zoophytes on the shores there is no end; among them are polypi of many species, sea-slugs, sea­worms, sea-nettles, sea-jellies, star-fish. blubbers, cuttle-fish, the luligo, or ink-fish, sea-anemonies, in all their varieties"

. All in all the sea around Cornwall in the mid eighteen hundreds was a place of rich harvests. But all this was one day to come to an end.

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Last modified: Thursday January 13, 2005 .