Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Pilchards


The fish which form the subject of this short paper are not so well-known in most of our large inland towns and cities as in the sea-port towns where the fishery is carried on, and a few words, therefore, concerning them may be not out of place in these columns.

The pilchard, though a smaller fish than the herring, bears a considerable resemblance to the latter in shape, general appearance, and habits, and may be fairly considered one of the most important of the family of “Clupeidæ.” It is more plentiful on the coasts of Devon and Cornwall than in any other of our counties, and forms a large item in the revenues of Cornish men especially. To the pilchard fishermen “a good season” is synonymous with a full cupboard and prosperity, and a bad one equivalent to ruin and discomfort. The apparatus for taking pilchards is certainly an expensive one, and requires the outlay of a good deal of capital, as these fish are mostly caught in the “seine net,” which, as it is generally used, necessitates the services of three boats. The “seine” net is floated by corks, as are the herring-nets, and is leaded at the bottom in the same fashion as the casting-net used in fresh water for taking small fish to serve as baits for anglers. Of the three boats used, the first one carries the larger net, about ten fathoms deep, and any length that is required, whilst the second one carries a smaller “seine” as regards length, but nearly double the depth. The third boat is much smaller than either of the others, and acts as a kind of attendant to ascertain the position of a shoal of fish, and when it is desirable to “shoot,” i.e., lower the nets. The ends of the larger net are warped together in a circle by the two biggest boats, thus inclosing the pilchards in a gradually diminishing space, whilst the third boat endeavours to prevent the escape of the fish during the time the ends of the seine net are being brought together. After this is accomplished, and the fish are in a limited inclosed circle, the smaller and deeper net carried by the second boat is “shot” within the boundaries of the circle, and the pilchards thus finally entrapped. I have endeavoured to make the process as clear as possible to the uninitiated reader, avoiding strictly the use of all professional and technical expressions, but the proceeding is a somewhat complicated one, and to be thoroughly appreciated should be witnessed. Herrings are usually caught with the hanging net, each fish being held fast by the gills in a mesh, but the “seine” is sometimes employed for them, and is largely used for mackerel. Sometimes flat fish get inclosed in the seine, and during the mackerel fishing a salmon is occasionally taken.

Pilchards may be, and are, used fresh for the table, but the great trade in them is principally in a cured state, salted in casks for home and foreign consumption. Of late the trade has, we believe, greatly fallen off, but it is still considerable, and furnishes employment to many hundreds of hands in Cornwall, which is the chief pilchard mart, indeed, quite the head-quarters of the fishermen. The fishermen of the Land’s End take also enormous quantities of congers, skate, &c., &c., but although they themselves eat the conger occasionally, they do not esteem the skate at all. Skate on the Cornish coast run to a very great size, often exceeding a hundred-weight. These are the great black species. Very fine ling are also taken there. Cornish men have an idea that they are the most skilled fishermen in the world, and in this they are not far wrong, as there is really scarcely any fish with which the inhabitants of the sea-side towns of Cornwall are not familiar, the ground from the Land’s End to the Scilly Islands being very prolific in all sorts of fish, especially ling, cod, congers, skate, gurnards, and hake. In this deep water enormous congers abound, and the blue shark is frequently taken from six to ten feet in length.

The pilchard-fishermen often experience great drawbacks from the destructiveness of the conger and hake, which tear their nets desperately in the effort to get at the pilchards glittering within like a heap of newly-coined silver. The value of the nets being several hundred pounds it is no slight loss to the owners when they are seriously injured, to say nothing of the waste of time occasioned by the delay in mending and repairing. The crew of the pilchard boats are usually employed by a master who takes the risk, paying his men regular wages, whether successful or not. Of course, this is a speculation. Sometimes the men receive no wages, but take a share of the profits. The pilchard fishing is usually so profitable that, during the regular season, many other classes of men besides the skilled hands,—such, for example, as labourers and mechanics,—engage in it, and find it answer their purpose.

Pilchards, like sprats, are extremely oily fish, and are richer and better tasted, in my opinion, than the herring. They are mostly sold by the cran of about 42 gallons, and, when cured, by the cask. The Norwegians are good patrons of the pilchard, and the Dutch also. The Dutch pilchards are much esteemed, and, indeed, the inhabitants of the Low Countries are very successful in catching and curing all sorts of fish, the supply of which from the North Sea is inexhaustible. The Dutch cure red-herrings better than any other nation under the sun, and cure them so well that they are usually eaten without cooking, the smoking being deemed a sufficient preparation. In Scotland herring-curing is also carried to great perfection. Herrings there are sold fresh by the cran to the curers. In England they are sold by the last, which is 10,000 fish-merchant-measure. The fishermen, however, sell to the curers 132 fish to the hundred, so that a fisherman’s last is over 13,000 fish, and consequently a buyer gets 3,000 fish in, on which to make an extra profit.

An old notion prevailed that pilchards were in best season when barberries were also in, and the fish, from this idea, were often served fresh with a sauce of that fruit. Mention is made by some old chronicler, whose name we cannot call to mind, that Queen Elizabeth, in one of her periodical “progresses” or visitations throughout her kingdom, was “mightily pleased with a dish of pickled pilchards, whereof her majesty ate heartily.” For many centuries Cornwall, in addition to its tin and copper mines, has been celebrated for its pilchards, and in the “arms” of the county a figure of this fish is conspicuous. But good as they are, the Cornish cured pilchards do not come up to the standard of those barrelled in Holland. Almost all the pilchards supplied to the London market are cured, and it is comparatively rare to see fresh pilchards either at a fishmonger’s or in Billingsgate itself.

The head-quarters of the pilchard in the United Kingdom are, as we have said, the Cornish sea-ports. The usual buyers of pilchards are the curers, who purchase sometimes by the cran, but more frequently by the hogshead. The fish, after the curing process, are packed in brine in casks, or dried and barrelled in the same way as red-herrings, according to the state of the market. In some instances they are smoked to keep only a short time, and sold like bloaters, but this is not a very usual or remunerative proceeding. The fish, as we have stated, have become scarcer of late years, but the same may be said of all sea-fish, and the scarcity is, no doubt, caused by the want of sufficient regulations for their protection during their spawning season, a protection which is afforded to all fresh-water fish. Sea-fish have innumerable enemies, and whilst the destruction, by millions, of herrings and mackerel in full roe is permitted and even encouraged by law, it is unreasonable to expect the stock of sea-fish to increase. For every female herring or mackerel destroyed whilst in roe, 500,000 ova perish, and whilst the salmon, trout, perch, and all fresh-water fish are protected by act of parliament, there is no protection whatever for our sea-fisheries. The remedy is very simple. Let it be made illegal to destroy sea-fish whilst breeding, that is, give them a couple of months’ immunity, and the supply of a good wholesome article of food for the poor man will be increased a hundred-fold, and fish will be procurable in the London market at a tenth part of the present price. The subject is well worth the attention of the legislature, and he will deserve well of the nation who shall first call the attention of Parliament to so important a matter, and one in which there is room for such a vast improvement. Astley H. Baldwin.