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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Cornwall

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Hue and Cry

To be appointed a huer, a man had to have excellent eyesight. The pilchard shoal was clearly visible to his experienced eye as a purple hue on the water, although there are stories of fishermen accidentally shooting their nets on dirty water and the reflections of dark clouds!

The job of huer was often passed down from father to son. Unlike most of the other people in the industry, the huer received a wage as well as a share of the catch.

Food, money and light

A crowd watches a huer signalling from the cliff
© St Ives Museum, Cornwall
The huer would have been a well-known and respected member of the community as much depended on his work. Pilchards may not be the most fashionable of foods today, but at one time they were the lifeblood of many communities on the Cornish coast.

Locals used the phrase "food, money, light, and all in one night" after a catch, for pilchards provided all this. Some of the pilchard oil was actually sent to the cities to light street lamps.

The event of a catch caused great excitement in the community. There would be crowds of people on the beach and the women would bake 'hevva' cake ('heavy cake'), which is still made in the region.

Processing pilchards in the traditional way
© The Pilchard Works
The pilchard fishery, once the third largest industry in Cornwall at the time of Elizabeth I, has now all but died out. Declining demand and the advent of steamships that scared timid pilchards away helped see to that.

One of the few places you can still see the old methods in practice now is at a local museum, and with today's technology the huer is no longer needed. However, the huer's hut at Newquay still remains, and, clearly visible on the cliff, it stands as a reminder of a more traditional way of life in Cornwall.

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Detail of the huer's hut, Newquay
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