A history of cornwall online - through its objects

Fishing

Cornwall's oldest occupation

  • Fisherwoman on a Beach

    Fisherwoman on a Beach

    The artist Stanhope Forbes was a founder of the Newlyn School of painting, which changed the course of British art. This important study is an early preparatory work leading to his iconic painting, 'Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach' of 1885.

    Visit Penlee House Gallery and Museum

  • Sourvenir China

    Sourvenir China

    In March 1891 the West Country was hit by 'The Great Blizzard'. Trains and livestock were buried by freak snow storms, and many ships were sunk. The 'Carl Hirschberg', shown on this commemorative china set, was wrecked at Portscatho.

    Visit Gerrans Parish Heritage and Information Centre

  • Along Shore Fishermen

    Along Shore Fishermen

    Charles Napier Hemy painted this picture in 1890 from sketches made on his floating studio off St Anthony Lighthouse. Hemy lived the last half of his working life in Falmouth and became a celebrated marine artist. He enlivened his pictures with a splash of colour - in this case the red hat.

    Visit Falmouth Art Gallery

  • Smuggler's Sword

    Smuggler's Sword

    Due to heavy taxes, Cornish smuggling reached its peak in the late 1700s and Polperro's isolated position made it ideal for bringing ashore contraband goods such as brandy, tea and tobacco. This sword belonged to Robert Mark, who was killed by a cannonball from a custom's ship whilst unloading contraband off Polperro in 1802.

    Visit Polperro Heritage Museum of Smuggling and Fishing

  • Pilchard Curing Cellar

    Pilchard Curing Cellar

    A Beam Press functioning with a Cask, being compressed by the weight of the Pressing Stone suspended at the extreme end of the Pressing Pole. The 'Train' Boards on which it is positioned conveys the oil that is extracted by pressure from the pole's weight. On the left is a 'Whip' used by two men to lift heavy pressing stones into position. Within this Former Pilchard Curing Cellar can be seen the four principal means of pressing pilchards down through the centuries; this being the only Museum in the world known to have this.

    Visit St Ives Museum

  • Mercury Bottle

    Mercury Bottle

    Mercury, or quicksilver, was regarded as a living mystical metal, beloved of witches and sages. This small bottle of mercury and its ring of shells, was used by a wise woman living in Penzance in about 1905. She earned money by using it to forecast the weather for Cornish fishermen, who were very superstitious.

    Visit Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

  • Polperro Knitfrock

    Polperro Knitfrock

    The fishing village of Polperro had their very own style of knitted jumpers known as 'knitfrocks'. In the mid 19th century, 28 women and girls were employed in the village as knitters. Each family had their own dedicated pattern so that any man lost at sea could be identified if his body was found.

    Visit Polperro Heritage Museum of Smuggling and Fishing

  • Huer's Horn and Bushes

    Huer's Horn and Bushes

    Until the early 1900s pilchard fishing was a major Cornish industry and pilchards were exported worldwide. From a good vantage point on the cliff a 'huer' would cry 'Heva' and use horns and semaphore bushes to indicate to waiting fishermen where the shoal was.

    Visit St Ives Museum

By the Middle Ages, Cornwall had the most developed coastal economy in the whole of Britain.

The harvest of the sea has sustained Cornish communities ever since people started to settle along the coast after the last Ice Age from about 8000 BCE.

The best known fish from our waters was undoubtedly the pilchard, now known as the Cornish sardine. Salted and pressed pilchards became a global commodity by the early 20th century, more desirable in Italy and other Catholic countries, than their own anchovies. Fishermen and women developed ingenious methods of following and alerting waiting boats to shoaling fish such as pilchards, mackerel and herring.

Fishing communities were tight-knit and those who did not go out to sea worked in other aspects of the trade. Women dominated the work in fish processing such as scaling and skinning, taking fish to market, making and mending nets, and making warm clothing for the fishermen to wear on board their boats.

When fishing yields were poor many turned to smuggling to make a living, particularly during the 18th to early 19th century when popular goods such as tea and tobacco and necessities such as salt were heavily taxed. But the greatest obstacle to making a living from the sea is the weather. The Great Blizzard of 1891 struck the Cornish and West Country coasts damaging harbours and causing huge loss of life, mostly at sea.

Many fishermen and sailors were superstitious folk, particularly before scientific knowledge enabled them to predict perilous weather and other problems at sea. Before a voyage some consulted wise women to foresee their future or to request a charm that would keep them safe.

Cornish fishing has also been the subject of dramatic paintings by artists of international renown such as Charles Napier Hemy. The Newlyn and West Cornwall artists of the early 20th century shaped the romantic images many visitors have of Cornish fishing villages and their people. The fishwife became an icon of Cornishness thanks to artists such as Stanhope Forbes and his school.