Pilchards, (Sardina Pilchardus) were once the mainstay of the Cornish fishing fleets. Preserved with salt and packed in wooden barrels they have been exported to the Continent since Elizabethan times. The first recorded exports were from Looe in East Cornwall in 1555 and the main buyers were in the predominately Catholic country of Italy. The industry reached its peak in 1871 when nearly 16,000 tonnes were caught, but changing tastes and the invention of fast freezing techniques to preserve fish led to the industry’s decline at the beginning of the 1930s.
St Ives fisherman Tommy Toms recalls the seine net fishing companies in St Ives Bay.
Eventually, every Cornish port had its own fleet of drift and seine boats. The fish would be brought ashore where they were first salted down in pilchard palaces and then weeks later packed in wooden hogsheads. Though there are a handful of these old boats restored, they no longer work - though by looking around you can still find evidence of the salting palaces in the dwellings of many Cornish ports. Now often converted to tea shops or craft workshops, then they were courtyards, open in the middle but covered around the edges.
Listen to Eddy Lakeman describe his earliest memories of fishing with his father.
The fish would be layered with salt in bulks, up to forty feet long and five feet high and wide, in the open yards. After curing for six weeks the fish would be pressed using wooden beams and stones. Though many of the pilchard palaces have not been used to press fish in salt for over 100 years, rows of the 7” square holes that held the beam ends can still be seen in the walls. The round press or bal stones, often with the remains of the iron hook, can sometimes be seen in the walls of cottages if you look closely.
Jude Joliffe describes the process of salting pilchards.
Eddie Herbert visits one of the old pilchard palace in Port Wrinkle and reminices over the catching, processing and shipping of pilchards abroad and recalls the changes in catching methods as the boats moved from seine net to drift net fishing.