Canon Diggens Archive


From Victoria, History of Cornwall. Vol. I.

Climate, mineral wealth, and geographical position, are the three elements which have determined in the past, and still determines the occupation of the inhabitants of Cornwall. A coast-line of enormous extent, with estuaries which afford safe shelter for ships, and fishing craft, mineral reservoirs, such as no other county in England possesses. To these Cornwall's chief industries, fishing, mining and horticulture are to be attributed.

The numerous references in the Patent and Close rolls to the King's Mines in the Counties of Cornwall and Devon render it certain that in the 14th and 15th centuries gold and silver were found in these counties in sufficient quantities to be worth the working.

In 1578 the Prior of Bodmin, and the Abbot of Buckfast, have Letters Patent enabling them to control the profits arising from the gold and silver mines leased to Henry of Briton, and requiring them to pay one seventh of the profits to the King.


Beside that of the Land there is yet another harvest in St. Keverne with quite different reapers - this is - the harvest of the sea. For centuries the livelihood of many of the inhabitants has depended on the yield of fish etc. A speciality of the county being found no where else - save on the opposite shores of Brittany, and the South Coast of Ireland, is the Pilchard or Gipsy herring, looked for from July to Novenber. These fish are believed to winter in the deep waters of the Scillies. In the spring they rise to the surface, and form shoals, which finally unite in one large host which is kindly driven to our shores by dog-fish and other enemies.

For centuries the Pilchard Industry was considerable, the cellars where the fish were salted still remain, though they are no longer used for that purpose, but the older inhabitants recall with pleasure the happy days when, after a good haul of the little shining creatures every woman and girl available was summoned to the salting. If an intruder entered to watch the proceedings he was supposed to "stand treat" otherwise, amid much laughter, a few of the fish would be skilfully aimed at his head.

For several years the Pilchard Industry in the parish seemed to be on the wane, but of late it has made a fresh start and the fishermen have been well rewarded for their trouble,

There are few sights better worth seeing than the shooting of the pilchard seine at Coverack or Porthallow. The "huer" as the man is called who watches for the coming of the fish from his stand on the cliff or hillside - sees the colour of the sea changing (at times becoming almost carmine) and knows that a shoal, or school, is approaching. He then blows the trumpet and the cry of "Heva" rings through the air,

The seine boat laden with nets starts to the spot which he indicates by the waving of a branch of a tree. Quickly the net is dropped round the pilchard school enclosing it 60 ft deep. It is usually weighted by lead and buoyed by corks top and bottom so as to float perpendicularly.

When the school is encompassed by this barrier of net it is secured by three ropes to points on the land. A shout of triumph follows At the letting down of the net for a draught" which is heard by men on shore who rush to the water in boats and beat with their oars the surrounding wavelets so as to enclose the fish in a narrower space. The Tuck net is then let down. This has a bag at the bottom which encloses the fish.

One advantage of Pilchard fishing is that it can be done in broad daylight.

About two centuries ago a large school of Pilchards came into the Cove at Porthoustock while the seine boats were a little distance out. Quickly from one of the boats a net was extended across the entrance and this shut in the whole of the fish. However salt in sufficient quantities could not be procured for preserving, so some of the fishermen resolved on the hazardous expedient of sailing to France for a supply. The weather fortunately was fine, and 1,000 hogsheads of fish were preserved, thanks to the intrepid adventurers.

From "The Cornish Coast" Page 118. 1847.

Coverack, Pilchards are still caught here with the old fashioned seine nets, but their numbers are much decreased. We can realize what the pilchard has been to Cornwall when we read that in 1847 over 40,000 hogsheads were exported to Genoa, Leghorn, Naples, Venice, etc. estimated at more than a hundred million fish.

In 1846 Pilchards were sold at two pounds a hogshead, but in 1876 they fetched five pounds a hogshead.

In the years 1786 and 1787 not a single pilchard appeared on the Cornish Coast.


After the Napoleonic Wars the fishermen of Coverack seem to have suffered from the general poverty in St. Keverne.

The following is an extract from the Old Church Account Book of St. Keverne. November 8. 1816.

Resolved that the Fishermen at Coverack who apply to the overseers for relief shall be employed as the overseer may point out, and when thus employed shall receive an equivalent with the farm labourer. (1/- per day).

May 19. 1819.

Resolved that the disabled men of the parish and men employed on the Fishery be employed by the way-wardens to work on the highway (and it was recommended) that a composition of one half of the Statute duty be paid by the farmers for the purpose of paying the said man so employed.

Pilchards.   Lakes Parochial History. Camden, born 1551.

Camden, writing on Cornwall, says "Besides a most rich revenue and commodities, they have by these little fishes they call Pilchards which swarming, as one could say, in mighty great skuls about the shores from July unto November are then taken garbaged, salted, hanged in smoake, laid up, pressed and by infinite numbers carried over into France, Spain and Italie, into which countries they be very good chaffer and right welcome merchandize and are called Fermadoes". (Fair maids). History of St. Keverne.

Acts of Privy Council. 1552 page 125.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the fishing of St. Keverne passed into the hands of royal favourites.

The following is a copy of an entry made in Edward the Sixth's reign.

"A letter to the Chancellor of Thaugmentacion for a lease in revision of XXI yeres, of the tythe and fyshing of St. Keverne in the Countie of Cornwall to Thomas Edmondes one of the Footemen (Grant of tithes and fishing rights).

A mound of stones called the boak in Coverack, has, for centuries, been the watch spot from which 'huers” have cried Hubba or Heva. The name 'huer’ is said to be French, from hue, to cry or shout after.

A shoal of mackeral can be detected by the smoothness of the water. In the season they are fairly plentiful.

The basse is a good fish for sport, and very large ones are sometimes caught. Also Red Mullet, "the wood-cock of the Sea".

Grey Mullet is frequently caught, but the characteristic fish of St. Keverne is the Pollack which is particularly good. An expert hand will haul in a great number in a few hours.

Flat fish such as turbot, brill, plaice and soles are obtained by trawling or by spillers.

The rare and tiny Lancelot is plentiful here.

Dear Miss Diggens,

Size of largest pilchard net - 200 fathom long, 11 fathom deep at middle, 8 ditto at ends.
Size of largest school of pilchards - 1300 Hogsheads
    "   "     "     Crab ever caught 12 lbs
    "   "     "     Pollack 19 lbs.

S. Champion.


Crabbing is an important industry in the parish, the edible crab, cancer pagurus - is very plentiful in Coverack, Porthoustock and Porthallow.

It is caught in pots made of withies, but often gets entangled in the trammel to the disgust of the fisherman. The largest recorded crab weighed 13 lbs but crabs of 5, 8 and even 11 Ibs are to be seen frequently.

1535. 24th Jan, From The Letters Foreign & Domestic,
Henry 8th. Vol. 8. Page 51.

Sir William Drugo, Vicar of St. Keverne to Lady Lisle.

"Is glad to hear of her health and desires to be commended to Lord Lisle upon the token that your ladyship laughed heartily at dinner for the great wise answer that I gave unto my Lord.

Thanks for the good cheer when he was last with them. Sends a kilderkin containing four Cornish congers".
St. Keverne 24. Jan. 1555.

During the past few years a great decrease has been noticable in the quantity of fish caught, this is doubtless owing to the Trawlers, which are now allowed to come in the Bay, and consequently carry off many immature fish. The fishermen are making an agitation against it which it is hoped will be successful otherwise the Industry must decline.

The Quarries.

The St. Keverne Quarries give employment to a number of men, and a considerable quantity of stone is constantly being shipped to various parts.

Cornish granite, generally speaking, is much coarser in texture than that found in other parts of the British Isles, and granite having this peculiar formation has the advantage of being found in larger and more regular masses or beds than the fine grained granite of these islands.

Cornwall has not only supplied the granite for dock, harbour, and other engineering works in Britain, but has supplied it for similar purposes to other parts of the world, its hardness and durability rendering it particularly suitable for much used thoroughfares.


The Asbestoes was very rare among the Ancients, insomuch that it was procurable only by the rich, for clothing the dead bodies of their friends when burnt on the funeral pile. But it was found on various parts of Cornwall particularly in St. Clere, near Liskeard, in St. Keverne and Landawdneck Nothing therefore is more probable than that the Romans (who were acquainted with the subject) instructed the Cornish into making it into clothes, or that incombustable linen so highly prized by those who burned their dead,

The vestiges of Roman pottery are still discernible in this island.