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Newlyn was sought out rather than any of the expanding ports up country because of the contrasts it posed with the much more capitalistic new trawler fleets. Although there are few thorough historical accounts of the relationship between fishing and artists communities in nineteenth century Cornwall, those accounts that do exist (Deacon 2001) agree that the artistic images produced tended towards representing the communities of fishers as timeless and naturalized (England’s primitive, preindustrial ‘other’). In fact as Deacon points out (ibid), Cornish fishing in the nineteenth century went through significant changes in two main ways. Firstly there was the changing division of labour with the transition from seining to drifting as the predominant method. ‘In an inversion of what might be expected, the more capitalistic variety of fishing was ceding to one characterised by small units and a more egalitarian ownership structure’. Intense highly seasonal communal involvement gave way to full-time employment (although this point of Deacon’s should be qualified to note that drifting was always the more significant trade at Newlyn. Nevertheless numbers of drifters swelled at Newlyn and gendered patterns of labour became more marked, especially as local fishermen were sailing further more regularly in search of fish stocks (the second big change in the division of labour).
Could there have been other distinctive kinship patterns that attracted the artists and that contrasted with the ‘norms’ of Victorian Britain? Deacon (ibid) examined the family structures of Paul parish and St Ives in 1881. He found that the proportion of extended families in Newlyn’s fishing community was only slightly higher than the average for England and Wales. St Ives was actually characterised by much more ‘modern’ 31 family structures. Nevertheless, Deacon concedes, ‘a family structure dominated by conjugal household units could still co-exist with a high degree of relatedness between households and a widespread and unusually keen awareness of kin relationships’. There is a strong case for this in fact, given the way the luggers were organised financially, with crews often recruited along kinship lines and fisherman’s widows and local craftspeople being amongst the investors and partowners of fishing boats (a subject explored more fully in Chapter Four) as well as there being other forms of mutual aid. Deacon finds some evidence that the internal accumulation and distribution of capital and profit in this period contributed to the sense of distinctive and bounded fishing communities and family structures that the artists encountered, with Paul parish and the fishing district of St Ives characterised by atypically high levels of endogamy and persistence of residence. This suggests to Deacon that ‘fishing communities were considerably more “closed” than other types of community, and may have helped to produce a sense of homogeneity within fishing communities making them appear qualitatively different’.
On the face of it then the expanding fishing communities of Newlyn and St Ives (the latter concentrated in the fishing quarter of the town) were becoming more distinctive and closed, and the port of Newlyn was beginning to take on the appearance of a single and unified nucleated settlement. I asked Glyn Richards, whose grandfather had been the last sail-maker in Newlyn (sail-lofts and ‘ropewalks’, cooperages and boatyards having all been part of the lugger industry 32), what kinds of social differences there might have been within the fishing community of nineteenth century Newlyn. ‘Well my grandfather used to say, ‘There were the poor, and the very poor’. The difference was often between owning a boat or having Although the comparison here is between C.19th family structures in Cornwall and averages for England and Wales, the idea of large families and extended kin-groups being typical of ‘pre-modern’ households has been found to be a myth (Laslett 1965).
There were about 16 boat-builders in Newlyn in 1879.
a trade, and having neither. In any case it was rare for a fisherman to own more than one or two boats. Living conditions were very basic, if a household was fortunate they had a Cornish range for cooking and heating the house, as is typically depicted in the artists’ domestic scenes, if not so lucky, they cooked with a primus stove as Glyn’s ancestors did. Housing was often cramped, with large families sharing small living spaces, sanitation was poor and disease epidemics like measles and cholera were not uncommon. One devastating outbreak of cholera carried off 100 people in the summer and autumn of 1832, one third of the 300 deaths in the whole of Cornwall (Mattingly 2009). Poverty and hardship were the basic features of life in this period, as they had always been, including the common distress of loss of life at sea. On the other hand, as Glyn put it, ‘what more could they have wanted?’ There was not any great expectancy of living better off, and with a way of life characterised by a significant degree of independence, it is arguable their lot was much better than that of the urban poor. However, there remains a paradox. Even as this culture was consolidating, internal differences were emerging which would become particularly pronounced over the course of the next century.
Cornish fishing and the nation Through the exhibitions at the Royal Academy and other galleries, the London art world had as Cross puts it (2008) ‘formed an easy familiarity with the village of Newlyn. It was regularly pictured as a confusion of cob-walled cottages strongly lit against the horizon, the brown sailed luggers in the bay and the shining sands had been portrayed often and by many hands’ (p.133). One commentator in the Magazine of Art 1903 said,...no other place has received such complete and minute illustration at the hands of a group of artists... the most trivial aspects of its daily life have been the subjects of imposing canvasses. We know its weddings and funerals, its feasts and its festivals...
and almost expect to share in the hazardous life of those Cornishmen who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters (cited by Cross, ibid).
One of the reasons the group were so prolific and so compelling was that unlike many other groups of seaside artists they settled in the village for a long time, some for years, permanently even, and some married locally. Stanhope Forbes described his work in terms not unlike those of a cultural or social anthropologist, as noted by Payne (2007) ‘here was a life in with which we were in thorough sympathy, and which it was more or less our duty to transcribe and to leave the record of for posterity’ (p.194). It is interesting to share with Payne the observation that many of the artists depicting fishers around Britain in this period held firm socialist beliefs, such as the Birmingham working-class born Walter Langley. Even if the artists and the Newlyn fishing community were massively divided by culture and class, the colony would not have been so successful without willing engagement from the local population, beyond the fees some of the regular models received. The setting up of an industrial class on Arts and Crafts for out-of-work fishermen by T.B Bolitho and artists like Thomas Gotch, Percy Craft, and Reginald Dick, was just one local development they inspired, and the later Newlyn Copper School and the textile printing factory known as Cryséde.
The artists’ works appealed to many of its elite London audience because the sea had already, although only relatively recently, become an object of romantic interest and the coast was now increasingly sought out both artistically and through Victorian tourism as a site of moral and physical renewal. In addition the artists of the sea made connections between fishing communities, Britain’s naval strength and the heroism of life-saving (with many fishers manning the lifeboats that were also popular art symbols). ‘Fisherfolk’ were seen to be exemplars of virtue, but in a way that was different from representations of the virtuous agricultural labourer, as Payne explains (ibid: 171), The agricultural labourer was at the bottom of a hierarchical village structure, dispossessed of his land, and consequently demoralised, as a result of the enclosure of the open fields and commons. Fishermen, by contrast, lived in egalitarian, selfgoverning communities, owned their own boats, and were free to go where they liked.
Their occupation involved not just skill, but heroism, adventure and danger.
Such images offered ‘a reassuring contrast to the urban mobs roaming the cities in an age of revolutions’ (ibid) and were thus a comfort to viewers of both socialist and conservative persuasion. Payne also inadvertently exposes the inherent contradictions of this view. The freedom of the open-sea was illusory. There were no more free fishermen, than there ever were free agriculturalists. In fact the fierce individualism and competiveness (the rule was always ‘first to the fishing grounds, first back to market’), the dangers of the sea, the lack of security and dependence on middlemen, drove technological intensification as well as commercial exploitation, especially once competing within an open market. Although fishers would experience rising incomes and standards of living in the next century, financial indebtedness, labour and resource decline, stratification and capital concentration would also be predominant features.
British government played no small part in this and already in the nineteenth century had begun to take a much more pro-active interest in its fishing industries, albeit in ambiguous fashion. The International Fisheries Exhibition of 1883 spread across South Kensington and attracted some two million visitors. It promoted the value of fish for working-class diets, compared fishing methods (the seine was argued to be one of the oldest known fishing methods) and showed a model fisherman’s cottage alongside Newlyn School paintings. The conflict between the traditional sail fleets and the new steam fleets was therefore not acknowledged.
The white fish industry would for some decades after be the target of significant government investment. ‘Cornish fishers’ meanwhile (now their own distinctive occupational group) were both more incorporated into the nation and more peripheral – more dependent in a way (as demonstrated in the campaign between 1911 and 1914 33 to obtain money in the form of ‘cheap’ loans from the government to help Cornish fishermen install engines on their boats). By the time the traditional fleet had been broken up or left to rot in the lugger graveyard that the beaches of Lelant became, it had become part of the national memory and mythology of the sea.
However Newlyn itself never became a tourist site to the extent of St Ives, because the commercialism of its fisheries survived. In fact as I show in the next chapter, it went to the other extreme, and became a ‘company town’.
Conclusions What does this history reveal about Cornwall as a periphery? There is of course more than one answer to this question and each will be a relative view. In terms of la long durée of the western seaboard, shared marginality drove a common seafaring I found evidence for this in newspaper articles The St. Ives Times (Nov 4 1911, Nov 29, Dec 6, 20 1912, Feb 6 1914), also in the Cornishman (July 6 1912), and the Western Daily Mercury (Nov 28 1912). The money was to be made available from the 1909 Development Act Fund. The matter of how to organise the loans and if a co-operative system would work, was still being debated in 1914. I have not found any evidence to conclude if, when or how the money actually became available.
culture on the fringes of Europe. However such cultures were also part of a cosmopolitan oceanic world, which from prehistory to the middle and early modern ages was at the centre of trade, migration and innovation. Cornwall may have been territorially remote from the English state and society and limited by land unsuitable for agrarian improvement. However by sea, which was the predominant mode of transport, distances could be covered very quickly, and ports, ships and trade routes afforded mobility as well as cosmopolitanism. Some of the greatest seafaring explorers of all time came from the Westcountry and several merchant families were very influential at the highest levels of government. Cornwall and its fishing communities truly began to become peripheral when the combined processes of industrialisation, railway expansion, and integration and development of the nationstate, brought about a new kind of market economy. Part of this transition, which I will expand on in the next chapter, involved fishing communities shifting from ‘traditional’ organisation (in the economic sense of wide diffusion of capital) to ‘occupational’ and becoming in the process more unequal. At the same time forms of the past persist in the present and remain influential, including some economic institutions and forms of work consciousness as well as images, narratives and material culture deriving from this transformative era.
Figure 9: Glyn Richards retired fisheries patrol officer, pictured at Morab Library, Penzance, where he is a volunteer archivist, 2012.
Figure 10: The Old Quay, Newlyn c.1900. Collection of the Cornish Studies Library.
Figure 11: Newlyn's Old Quay, 2012.
Figure 12: Map of Newlyn c.1879. Drawn by Reg Simpson (Lomax and Hogg 2009).
Figure 13: The old bridge connecting Street an Nowan and Tolcarne and the Coombe running to the sea, c.1880. Collection of the Cornish Studies Library.
Figure 14: Former huer's hut, Cadgwith Cove, 2012.
Figure 15: Seine-netting for pilchards, late C.19th. Collection of Studio St Ives Limited.
Figure 16: Tucking a School of Pilchards, 1897, Percy Robert Craft 1856-1935. Oil on Canvas, 142 x 212 cm. Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance.
Figure 17: Fishing luggers leaving Polperro harbour, late C.19th. Collection of Polperro Heritage Press.