In July 1802, Cabinet Minister William Windham was standing for election in the rotten borough of St. Mawes in Cornwall. His victory was guaranteed; there were a mere twenty voters and they had all been either bribed or intimidated to ensure the correct result. However, he did want to show that he had his finger on the pulse of the town, albeit one that he would never visit again unless there was another election. He asked around and was given this advice; talk about fish. All he had to do was pretend to like the Cornish pilchard and that would be enough; he did not, of course, have to eat one.
This was good advice; Tory cabinet ministers did not eat pilchards, but they would have smelt them in summer if they lived on the south coast of Cornwall. They were particularly oily and malodorous fish; they were captured in prodigious numbers and would all arrive at St Mawes or St Ives or Polperro at the same time, and, despite moving them quickly to a remote building to process them, they would stink the town out at the height of the harvest. It was not the smell of the fish themselves, for they were gutted and salted and preserved very quickly. It was the oil that came from them that stank.
The pilchard shoals arrived in July and could still be caught in November, weather permitting. The locals would be on the lookout from the end of July, which was the time of the 1802 election and perhaps why it was on the minds of Tory campaign headquarters. Boats with drift nets called seins would be waiting in the water, for when the fish did arrive, it was a chase.
Lookouts called huers would wait on prominent high positions such as St Michaels Mount. Huers were skilled people, paid up to a guinea a week to be able to recognise a pilchard shoal from the tell tale signs- a moving purple-brown-red oily looking patch darkening the sea near the surface, followed by interested sea birds. When spotted, they blew their four foot trumpet or passed the information via a set of semaphores and flags. They were also paid to avoid any distractions and to know what the fish would do next.
Pilchard harvesting was a skilled community endeavour; starting with the huers, then the fisherman who skilfully captured large amounts of fish in their drift nets, brought them on to shore, where the fish were loaded in wheelbarrows to ‘pilchard palaces’, then gutted ( ‘garbaged’, as contemporary accounts say), salted, barrelled into hogsheads of up to 6000 fish, and then pressed. This preserved the fish and pressing produced fish oil that could be used for oil lamps, which was often valuable enough to pay the costs of catching them.
It was vital work for the poor and welcome profits for the rich. Perhaps Windham was told to reference pilchards to his twenty voters because they had a business interest in the boats, nets, barrels and processing. In exchange for their skilled work, the producers of wealth got seasonal employment and cheap food and the rich got everything else, including the right to vote.
That the pilchard was cheap food should not be underestimated. People’s lives and livelihoods depended on it; no pilchard shoals by mid August would lead to anxious letters in the newspapers. The Cornish folklore expression said that pilchards brought ‘food money light, all in one night’, which was also a reminder that the shoals would appear in early evening and the fishermen would have to nurse their captured food in their deep nets until the next morning. When they did arrive, it was an event, as shown in Winston Graham’s Poldark series. People would watch from cliff tops as the battle commenced between the skill of the fisherman and the weather and sea currents. Success brought the same joy as bringing in the harvest, for it was essentially the same thing.
Pilchards were so abundant at times that they became free food. The poor would be waiting waist- deep in waters when the boats arrived in port, and gentlemen who had caught a lot of fish would be honour bound to give some away. When Mr H.C Blewett’s boat came in ( he wasn’t risking his own life of course, just like he did not personally dig his in his mines) he generously donated a hogshead of pilchards to the poor of Marazion – to a charity first, so they could eliminate the undeserving. He did not need thanks for all the fish, as they say, but he would have still expected it. Blewett could afford to be generous because he spent most of his time exploiting the poor in his shops, ships and mines. In 1819 an unlucky traveller advertised in the Royal Cornwall Gazette. He had lost a wallet containing to cheques for Blewett to the amount of £400.
The poor were grateful that pilchards were an export commodity, and there would be robust quality control before they were processed. Most were destined for Italy, except during the period of Napoleon’s blockade. So, the other way to get free food was to hang around the pilchard palaces and beg for pezacs – fish with broken backs, or other fish that were too small, a little diseased, broken or nibbled by predators like the dogfish. Pilchards saved lived in England, but they save souls in catholic Italy, when pilchards were popular during lent.
When pilchards were purchased, they were cheap; far, far cheaper than any other fish. In a glut, you could buy four for a penny and bake them into a substantial meal. They were four a penny in the streets of Cornwall said the Hampshire Chronicle (10.09.1810). The cheapness created a stigma, and they were not eaten much outside Cornwall because of it. They were always associated with charity or poverty; like the potato, only more so. Pilchards had the salt washed off prior to market, but their saltiness was extreme, increasingly so even for Georgian tastes, and they provoked raging thirsts and exacerbated the already poor oral hygiene. Pilchards went hand-in- hand with beer drinking and mouth ulcers.
The English poor lived on potatoes in the winter, except in Cornwall where they lived on potatoes and pilchards. They were expected to be prudent; preserving the fish in autumn when they were in a glut. The main expense for the poor was not the fish, but the expensive salt needed to preserve them, and English salt did not do a good job, despite the protestations of the North- West salt producers. So French salt was smuggled, like more interesting items like rum and tobacco, but literally more vital. Another group of even more exploited workers had pilchards on the menu- those slaves on the West Indian plantations.
Pilchards were more than a modest fish; the trade represented Regency society as well- cheap food, hard work and easy profits for those who owned the means of production!
I have written three books on this period. If you liked this blog, you can find more of the same in The Dark Days of Georgian Britain. The are more details here.
My other book is Passengers– a social history of transport and hospitality. More details here