Huer's Hut And Pilchard Fishing

Oct 20, 2020 0 comments

Cornwall, in southwest England, once had a thriving fishing industry and at the heart of this industry was the pilchard, also known as sardines. Cornwall fishermen caught sardines in enormous quantities and shipped them to France, Spain and Italy, where salted pilchard was in great demand especially in the remote rural regions. During the mid-18th century, Cornwall exported 30,000 hogsheads (around 6,300 tons) of pilchards every year on average. This rose to more than 40,000 hogsheads (around 8,400 tons) by mid-19th century. In 1868, pilchard fishermen at St Ives caught a record 5,600 hogsheads (around 1100 tons) on a single seine net.

Fishermen tucking seine nets loaded with pilchards at Gunwalloe, Cornwall, in 1899. Photo: Helston Museum

The pilchard fishery was once the third largest industry in Cornwall, despite the fact that pilchards are migratory and the fishing season lasted only a few weeks. Shoals of fish moved into Cornish water in late summer or early autumn in order to spawn. The shoals were so large that they could be seen from cliff tops. A lookout known as the “huer” (from the phrase “hue and cry”) kept watch looking for telltale signs that would announce the arrival of a shoal. He would notice a change in the color of the water to a dark reddish brown. He would also see seagulls diving in and catching fish.

Once a shoal was spotted, the huer would use a giant megaphone-like trumpet and wave gorse bushes above his head, shouting “Heva, Heva” to alert the fishermen. This was the signal to drop everything and run towards the boats. The excitement surrounding the start of the pilchard season is well captured in this local folksong:

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.

A huer with bushes is signaling the location of the shoals of pilchards to the seine boats out at sea, in Gunwalloe, 1890. Photo: Helston Museum

The job of the huer was an important one. The man had to have an excellent eyesight, because there are stories of fishermen accidentally shooting their nets on dirty water and the reflections of dark clouds. The huer was usually well-known and a respected member of the community, because much depended on his work. The huer also directed the movement of the boats at sea using his two bushes to make semaphore-like signals. The bushes were sometimes used to convey news to local men on passing ships, like the birth of a child.

The huer usually had a hut on the coast, where he lived and kept watch. At one time, the Cornish coast was dotted with huer's huts, but most of these were temporary wooden structures that needed constant repairs, with the exception of the one at Newquay, which was built of stone. Newquay’s huer’s hut dates back to the 14th century, and was originally used as a hermitage and lighthouse, before it became the lookout point for the seasonal arrival of pilchards in the 16th century.

The huer’s hut in Newquay, Cornwall. Photo: Damien Walmsley/Flickr

Perched high on a cliff, the whitewashed building provided a commanding view of the sea. An external staircase leads to a stone roof for an even better view. There is a large opening on the sea-facing north wall flanked by splayed projecting walls. This allowed the huer to keep watch during inclement weather when it was not safe to go outside. Inside, the hut is extremely bare, its function simply to provide a place for the huer to cook, eat and take shelter when at work. The huer would be in his post from sunrise until sunset for three or four months of the year.

The arrival of the pilchard to the Cornish coast would cause great excitement in the community. While the men fished, the women would prepare “hevva cakes”, which is still made in the region.

For three hundred years, pilchards were the lifeblood of many communities on the Cornish coast. The fish was processed in pilchard cellars where they were pressed to remove valuable fish oil, salted and packed into barrels for export. Salted pilchards were exported as far away as Rome where they are still considered a delicacy. Pilchards were particularly popular in Mediterranean countries at Lent, when Catholics were abstained from eating meat. At the end of each pilchard season, the fishermen of St Ives would drink a toast to the Pope:

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.

Pilchard fishing as an industry died out by the mid-20th century, although many independent fishermen still catch them to satisfy local demand.

Photo: Robert Pittman/Flickr

The huer’s hut in Newquay, Cornwall. Photo: Clive A Brown/Flickr

# Hue and Cry, BBC
# History of the Cornish Fishing Industry, Cornwall Good Seafood Guide
# Wikipedia


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