For many years the industries of Shipbuilding and Fishing were of major importance
to the towns of Looe, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. There was a profitable
sea-going commercial fleet transporting wine, fruit, cloth, iron - trading in fish
During the 100 Years War Looe played a major role in aiding the patriotic effort,
providing ships and men against the French. In Edward III’s fleet in the siege of
Calais the Port of Looe is said to have sent 20 ships and 315 sailors.
With the discovery of Newfoundland in 1497, word quickly spread to the fishermen
of Looe who began summer voyages across the Atlantic to reap the rich cod grounds.
However the voyages to the Canadian coast also brought their dangers, and many Looe
fishermen left port never to return. In the early days a sudden storm cost many a
life on overcrowded vessels weighing little more than 60 tons. After setting out
in early Spring, many of the boats would return via the Mediterranean, trading the
salted cod for a host of goods from Portugal, Spain and Italy - the Looe fishermen
bringing home vessels laden with fruit, wood and wine.
There was also trade with Ireland, and linen was imported.
Looe was a chief market for fish in those days. All in all, the sea around Cornwall
in the mid eighteen hundreds was a place of rich harvests.
The pilchard season lasted between 8 to 10 weeks. By October the hake season fell
due. In November came the herrings. Then after the storms of winter, the crabbing
season came around again.
There is an old Methodist Cornish Toast :
“Long life to the Pope! May he live to repent
and add just 6 months to the term of his Lent,
And tell all his vassals from Rome to the Poles
There’s nothing like pilchards for saving their souls!”
“Long life to the Pope!
And may our streets run with blood!”
An observant traveller who was visiting Looe in 1851 left a vivid description of
what he saw:
“The inhabitants number some 1400; and are as good-humoured and unsophisticated a
set of people as you will meet anywhere. The fisheries and the coast trade take
a very fair share of the hard work out of the men’s hands. You constantly see them
carrying coals from the vessels to the quay in curious hand barrows; they laugh and
scream and run in each others way incessantly … As to men, one absorbing interest
seems to govern them all. The whole day long they are mending boats, cleaning boats,
rowing boats, or standing with their hands in their pockets looking at boats.”
The main catch was Pilchards, Herrings and Mackerel were secondary.
The pilchard season would last from August through to October. Vast shoals of migrating
pilchards would gather off the Cornish coast in late summer. The young fish (sardines)
would travel along the coasts of Spain and France, and by the time they reached Cornwall
they were fully grown .
It was the “Huer’s” job to gaze out over the sea watching for the signs that the
shoal of pilchards had arrived. The name “Huer” is derived from the French word
Huer meaning “to call” or “cry out”. Over the years, the Huer would have gained
valuable experience from his father, and father before him, who had no doubt fished
these waters for generations, and passed down their knowledge to him. The success
of the fishing would have been dependant upon his judgement.
He would leave his cottage before dawn, while the rest of the townsfolk were still
slumbering, and would set off and position himself on a headland with a good view
of the open sea. (Looe Island would have been an excellent vantage point.) Often,
at this time of year, as the sun climbed into the sky a heat haze would creep over
the surface of the sea. Fishermen would say that “a haze brought in the pilchards”.
He would scour the surface of the sea looking for the tell tale signs - the colour
of the water would change where pilchards were swimming, caused by the shading of
the depths by their numbers. The shadow or tint would move along with them. He would
study the movement of the shoal for some time, until he deemed that the time was
just right, as the shoal approached.
When this was spotted, he would blow on a horn giving the “hue and cry”, and crying
“Hevva, Hevva!” (from the old Cornish word “Hesva” - meaning shoal) alerting the
Seine boats to put out to sea. He would have employed a boy who patiently awaiting
his signal. Once alerted the lad would rush into the streets rapidly spreading the
good news around the town, and people would come running from their homes.
A Cornish Rhyme gives us some idea 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 Seine boats, weighing around 8 tons when fully loaded, would set off, the 5 Oarsmen
tugging at the oars with all their might. The boats would follow the directions
of the Bow Man, who in turn would watch the Huer signalling from the cliff top (waving
bunches of sticks called “bushes”), and steering from the signals given.