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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Cornwall

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Hue and Cry

Pilchards in poetry and prose

Crowd watching a huer at work
© St Ives Museum, Cornwall
There are many rhymes from the area that refer to the pilchard, although their authors' identities are often unknown. This example gives us a flavour of the huer's work, and of the excitement there must have been when a shoal arrived.

The Pilchards are come, and hevva is heard,
And the town from the top to the bottom is stirred.
Anxious faces are hurrying in every direction.
To take a fine shoal they have no objection.
The women now gathered before the White Hart,
Their hopes and their fears to each other impart,
"What Stem have you got?" "A first to the lea,"
"And look! Our men are now going to sea."
We see the huer with bushes in hand
Upon the white rock he now takes his stand.
While "Right off," "Win tow boat," "Hurray" and "Cowl rooze"
Are signals no seiner will ever refuse.
The main market for Cornish pilchard exports was Italy. Pilchards were especially welcome there during Lent, when the Catholic Church forbade the eating of meat. Those connected with the industry in St Ives would drink a toast to the Pope at the end of each season:

Here's a health to the Pope,
And may he repent,
And lengthen by six months
The term of his Lent.
It's always declared
Betwixt the two poles,
There's nothing like pilchards
For saving of souls.
The novelist Wilkie Collins included a chapter on the pilchard fishery in his collection of travel essays, 'Rambles Beyond Railways'. He begins by describing how a stranger to Cornwall might at first be alarmed and confused by the work of the huer:

"He would see a man standing on the extreme edge of a precipice, just over the sea, gesticulating in a very remarkable manner, with a bush in his hand…in short, apparently acting the part of a maniac of the most dangerous character."

The stranger's astonishment would continue, Collins writes, if he knew that this man was being paid a guinea a week. But he would soon discover that:

"the man with the bush was an important agent in the Pilchard Fishery of Cornwall… and that the men in the boat were guided by his gesticulations alone, in securing the fish on which they and all their countrymen on the coast depend for a livelihood."

(Collins, W., 'Rambles Beyond Railways', 1851.)

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Detail of the huer's hut, Newquay
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