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Since Charles II’s Long Parliament of the Restoration, government had favoured the seining interests, instituting in 1662 the ‘Act for the Regulation of the Pilchard Fishery’. This legislated against the ‘growing evils of the Driving nets’ (cited by Rowe, 267) and prohibited the use of drift, trammel and steam nets within one and a half leagues of the Devon and Cornwall coasts from 1st June to 30th November every year. The drifters were accused of breaking up the shoals before they got close enough to the shore for seining. As Rowe explains, the Act then went on to make provisions against persons loitering near boats, nets and cellars, to provide penalties against the purloining of fish, and to ban the “making” of pilchards and Fumenthoes 22, except by owners, partners and adventurers in “the Craft of Fishery” or by the persons to whom they had openly sold their fish (ibid: 267).
Rowe finds it likely that the Act followed a succession of poor fishing seasons which had created hunger and poverty amongst the poor, driving them to steal fish from the merchants. The seiner’s monopoly continued up until about the mideighteenth century after which parliament began to be petitioned by a lobby on behalf of the drifters, merchants from the towns of Looe, Bodmin, Liskeard and Plymouth, calling themselves the ‘society of the free British fishery’ (ibid: 270).
Prominent amongst the seining interest was Rev. Walter Borlase, Vicar of Madron and Kenwyn, adventurer and bound proprietor of several tin mines in West Penwith 23, Vice Warden of the Stannaries and share-holder in a seining outfit. He argued that the seine fishery was more gainful for the employment of men and for the revenues of the realm (ibid).
The ordinary Cornish fishers held little if any allegiance to the established order of church and state. The imposition of salt duties, the regulations against drifting, the exactions of the church tithes and the activities of the press gang 24 all exacerbated Fumenthoes: (Spanish) referring to pilchards that have been smoked.
By this period, the focus of tin mining had shifted to the west of Cornwall as had the bulk of the pilchard shoals. Penzance had its own coinage charter and the combination of increased capital from mining, port trade and increased catches made fishing in the west of the county an increasing resource for investment and profit.
At times of war, the conscription of males into navy service was a constant threat. However some special dispensations were allowed for those engaged in seining and not more than one son was to be taken from each fishing family.
anti-establishment sentiments. Smuggling (which had for some time been the only way for the poor to obtain cheap salt) became, according to Rowe, an economic necessity during the long years of the American and Napoleonic wars, when continental blockades were in-place. It was not only salt that was smuggled but also brandy and wine. Many of the smugglers were fishers by trade or were connected in some way to the fishing communities of Mount’s Bay and the south coast of Cornwall. This illicit cross-channel trade even influenced the design of Cornish luggers, as innovations and boat building styles that the Bretons employed were adopted by the Cornish, making the luggers more refined and faster, both for outrunning the revenue cutters and for the all important race home to market from the fishing grounds (Fig.18).
Despite the antagonism between the state and the Cornish fishers, gradually political forces shifted in favour of the drifters over the ‘rich man’s fishery’. In the war years the government favoured the year-round drifting which was seen as a nursery for seamen, providing a vital source of skilled man-power for the nation’s navy. In the various government inquiries into the state of the fishing industry it must also have been evident that the foreign market for pilchards was unreliable (given the constant threat of war and the variability of the pilchard catches). The drift fishery was also increasingly sought out as a livelihood by the Cornish themselves 25.
It gave those interested in making a living from fishing the means to almost yearround employment. It may have been to some a preferable alternative to working in the mines. In fact as the mining went into decline (and with it mining merchant capital) it might have been a very necessary alternative.
Owning or crewing on a lugger gave fishermen a chance to participate in the Irish and North Sea herring fisheries. Many drift fishermen eventually came to own their own boats, the capital outlay for a new build being about £250 pounds rather than £1000 for a seine. In addition, leading up to the late nineteenth century boom in the local drift fishery, seine fishing was going into decline. It is difficult to interpret cause and effect from these twin developments. However, in addition to the possible appeal of the drift fishery and its stimulus (for a time) by the coming of the railway, Rowe found that between 1827 and 1870 ‘the relative importance of the seining and drift fisheries had been reversed; in 1827 the seines had employed 2,672 at sea and drifters 1,599, in 1870 the seiners only employed 1,510 men and the drifters 2,462’ (2006: 300).
the pilchards were ceasing to come in such regularity and mass. The loss of the Mediterranean markets to other competitors in the early twentieth century was the final blow to the seining interests. Meanwhile in the nineteenth century drift fishery, there was a gradual internal accumulation of capital within the emergent ‘fishing communities’, perhaps, as Deacon has speculated (2009), stimulated early on by the Napoleonic wars, with higher domestic demand for fish and opportunities for smuggling.
Comparisons and connections between mining and fishing communities In mining regions, according to Deacon (2007), ‘early industrialisation reproduced a small-scale landscape, with the cottages of the miners distributed away from the small fields, lanes and settlements’ and this ‘domestic scale was reinforced by a continuing role for the family’ (p.124), including father to son inherited skills for example. Deacon argues that mining in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a product of merchant capitalism but retained some older social forms associated
with domestic economy, and was therefore a stage before full industrialization:
‘Merchant capitalism provided a space in which “independent” community life flourished, in the process creating new “traditions” (pp.124-125). Cornish labouring communities at the end of eighteenth century, Deacon observes, were acting like English agricultural communities in the sixteenth. That is, they depended significantly on collateral aids. Three-quarters of all miners still lived outside the towns as late as 1851. Collateral aids such as small-holdings, or at least a potato allotment, protected families from sudden price changes. Deacon suggests there is some evidence to show that these aids may even have been provided links between occupational communities, finding that in St Just ‘potato allotments were supplemented by joint ownership of dairy cows and shares in fishing boats, all of which diversified sources of income for a labouring family’ (p.126) – part of a wider ‘economy of makeshifts’ (ibid). There were also distinct gender relations, with women working both allotments and mines and therefore also having relative independence especially between childhood and marriage.
Deacon notes that independence and customary rights were not confined to mining and were fiercely defended. In 1768 in Mousehole, one merchant tried to abolish the custom whereby cellar women curing pilchards were allowed to keep the dregs of the catch. The women were still refusing to work for him five months later.
So whilst these societies were still marked by ‘paternalism and dependence’, there was nevertheless a constant struggle for autonomy. The fish tithe in Paul parish for example had always been problematic, but the final dispute came in 1828 when the new lease owner of the tithe tried to double the one guinea rate that fishermen had agreed to instead of paying a tithe in fish. The women of Mousehole and Newlyn pelted the bailiff with fish offal and he escaped with barely his clothes on his back.
Placards were raised reading: ‘It is better to die than to starve – No tithe – One and All’ (Mattingly 2009). They finally won a battle that had been waged since the thirteenth century. It is one example of what Thompson would call ‘moral economy’ (1971) and the actions workers take when owners fail to meet their obligations.
In a number of ways there were some real connections and some observable similarities between mining and fishing work practices and social organisation in Cornwall, such as: a spirit of independence rooted in a economic share systems, a growing culture of Methodism, strong family involvement, distinct gender relations, a provisioning of collateral and mutual aids in times of crisis, as well as exchange between occupational communities, such as the salted fish that prevented mining communities from experiencing the full impact of potato blight that had so adversely affected the Irish 26. The various labouring communities also had in common a dependence on the merchant-gentry class. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw increasing division between labour and capital across industries in Cornwall (Whetter 1974). The new industrial society had produced a new social class, the merchant bourgeoisie, with three families emerging in particular – the Williamses, the Bolithos and the Foxes, with interests spanning shipping, iron mongery, mining, fishing and timber. They led a handful of other merchant families, all linked by kinship, trade and marriage. In the process, gentry-led institutions were also on the rise, such as the Royal Institution of Cornwall, with which a number of antiquarians and scientists were associated.
However such resources were not enough to curb hunger during the hard decades in the nineteenth century in which poor prices and falling agricultural production following the Napoleonic wars compounded slumps in the mining industry. Emigration amongst the miners occurred on a mass scale but was less significant in the fishing communities Deacon describes how by the 1820s a view of Cornwall had emerged which emphasised the glory of Cornwall as an industrial region (ibid). This had grown partly out of the character of rural industrialism in Cornwall and partly out of nineteenth century notions of progress. This image rested according to Deacon on three related concepts: ‘independence’ – cast as individualism and later a ‘scape-goat for the failure to surmount deindustrialization’ (132); ‘combination’ – the famous Cornish motto of ‘one and all’; and ‘enterprise’ – used to explain emigration (133).
In the process a local religious-mythical teleology was wedded with a scientific discourse of technical progress and a ‘romantic-antiquarian impulse to recover the fragments that were being irretrievably lost’ (135). I highlight these points of Deacon’s because they show how marginality and difference (rooted in a peculiar mixing of ideas about the old and the new, tradition and modernity), were at this time emerging as Cornish self-representations, which no doubt influenced also the self-consciousness of the labouring communities. This is important because it takes us beyond elite language and discourse to material process, a peculiar combination of which I will identify as at work in the west Cornwall fishing communities of the late nineteenth century. The latter should be understood within this wider culture and in terms of its contemporary legacy under different circumstances today.
The emergence of a Cornish fishing village
One of the vehicles of emerging ideas of ‘Cornishness’ and of ‘authentic’ rural labour and culture in the Victorian era was the establishment of several art colonies – most significantly at Newlyn and St Ives from around 1880. Artworks from this era explore idyllic notions of ‘primitive’ communities working together in their struggle to make a living amidst the dangers presented by the forces of nature. As portrayed in Percy Craft’s Tucking a School of Pilchards, 1897 (Fig.16) seine fishing in particular appeared to the artists and their audiences as highly communalistic. It was also much more visible, drift fishing being carried out at night and out of range of visibility. However, seine fishing – which as an organised industry had been going on much longer than drift fishing – was actually the more capitalistic of the two.
The newly expanding drift fisheries – carried out by small independent crews of share fishermen – were of the more egalitarian structure as well more individualistic.
However even the drift lugger industry was not to survive much longer. My aim in this final section of the chapter is to outline the transformations that were happening during the period of the early artists’ colonies in Newlyn and St Ives. The main point to be conveyed about Newlyn at this time is that on the one hand, like other Cornish ports it did lose its distinctive and longstanding traditions of building and fishing with sail boats. On the other hand, whilst this period marks the beginning of the substantial decline or disappearance of fishing from many Westcountry harbours, Newlyn was one of the few ports where the remainder of the Cornish fishing industry was concentrated.
The other significant point is that whilst Newlyn and the wider region went through substantial socio-economic changes (including new relations of production within fishing and elsewhere), the local and national consciousness of places like Newlyn and St Ives as natural, distinctive, and tightly bounded communities was just beginning to take root, partly because of the growth in the arts and coastal leisure, and partly because of industrial conflict and change. Therefore this period is as much about the growth of folk and romantic ideas of the Cornish fishing village and socioeconomic/political ideas of fishing as an occupation, as it is about the fishing village or community as a material reality, which is a more complex concept.