Maritime History

Cornwall is on a long peninsula of some 400 miles of coastline with no one more than 20 miles from the sea. With this unique situation and being so far from ‘civilization’, it is little wonder that Cornwall had a reputation for wrecking and smuggling.  Daphne du Maurier drew upon this reputation in her book, ‘Jamaica Inn’ and fact and fiction became as one.  Smuggling, or ‘free trading’ as many preferred to call it, was attributed to the introduction of custom taxes in the thirteenth century and local people thought the resultant high prices were unjust.  Taxes were levied on things like tobacco, tea, brandy and silks but they were always up against official corruption. The Cornish smugglers were not violent but they had to be clever and whenever they came through a village they made the villagers face the wall so they could not testify against them. One famous smuggling gang was the Killigrew family who did so well from smuggling that they managed to pay for the development of Falmouth and its harbour. There were few men to enforce the law and if someone was caught, they were probably dealt with leniently by the local magistrates who often had a connection to the trade.

In 1689 Falmouth was permitted to run the Royal Mail Packet Service when Britain entered war with France and found the overland mail routes blocked. The ships, mainly privately owned, landed at Greenbank, Flushing or Custom House Quay, were lightly-armed and relied on speed and agility to keep them out of trouble. The captains were allowed to carry bullion, private goods and passengers in addition to the Mail and served routes to Iberia, Halifax, West Indies, Eastern seaboard of South America, Gibraltar, Corfu and Malta. This service ran for over 150 years till 1850 when new, faster, and more reliable ships took over.

In the 19th century, villages all around the coast had relied on a 300 year old industry that was established to capture the migrating shoals of pilchards. Pilchards are the slightly larger Sardines but same species of fish. Special boats were used to catch the fish and carried either seine or drift nets. The lookouts were called huers and when a shoal was spotted the huers would cry ‘hevva’ through trumpets to alert the fishermen to the catch.  The pilchards were processed in factories worked by women and children where the fish were washed, cleaned, salted, cured and then pressed to extract the oil. The fish were packed into barrels and then exported, mainly to Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean Countries.  The Catholic countries could not eat meat on Fridays so the Pilchards were a welcome commodity. Today, pilchards are being caught again in Cornwall by its fishing fleet and in good numbers from the port of Newlyn. Since the fish have been re-branded as ‘Cornish Sardines’ they have been much in demand and have benefited from the over fishing of larger predator fish.

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