Seine Fishing from The Lizard

Seine Fishing from the Lizard, an extract from "Down to the Sea in Ships"
the memoirs of James Henry Treloar Cliff,
as told to P.W. Birkbeck and edited by Rita Tregellas Pope.

Published in 1983 by Dyllansow Truran, Redruth.

James Cliff was born in 1858 and until his death in 1938 he was intimately connected with all aspects of the sea including coasting, deep sea trading as well as fishing and salvaging (both legal and illegal).

The book is a very vivid portrayal of the life of the seafarer, and as coxswain of the Porthoustock lifeboat he experienced many of the tragedies that took place off the coast of the Parish.

The description of fishing for pilchards with seine nets printed below appears to have taken place about 1883 and gives a very clear idea of the co-operative nature of seine fishing under the control of the "Huer". The boat shown was working out of Coverack in 1909.

Huer on Look Out

After several voyages I left and came home. I thought I would try my luck again at the pilchards. So I went over to the Lizard. This time I heard they wanted some hands, so my old friend, W. Peters, went with me and we engaged for six weeks, and went to lodge with the Huer, Mr. Edwin Matthews. He was also the Coxswain of the Lifeboat.

We had to walk about a mile to the cove, which was a quaint old place, and very narrow, - just wide enough to launch one boat at a time with her oars out. Our usual routine was - Launch the boats; put them out in the stern, and moor; then (that is, if the weather was suitable, and if there was likelihood of fish passing) we would remain in the boats all day, and the women would bring down our dinner to us.

Seine boat at Coverack 1909

If the weather was not suitable we would be in the cellars, playing games or - wandering about, but within call of the Huer, who was always on the cliffs looking out. If it was nice weather I very often went for a swim, out as far as the boats. I remember I went down to an old boat that was on the slip and undressed and went out as usual, it being near dinner time. When I was swimming I saw the women coming down, and when I got to the old boat - what a surprise!

My clothes were all gone! I was in a dilemma what to do. I looked round and saw a small piece of old tarpaulin and some seaweed. So I attired my self as well as I could, with a piece of string round me. I was like Neptune leaving his native element to face his subjects who dwell on the sea-shore! However, I thought it an ungentlemanly (or unladylike) action. I never discovered the culprit. I had my suspicion that my clothes were in the cellar, and when I got there I saw a goodly company, being dinner time. They were the Seiners, their wives and daughters, and after a long search I discovered them hidden away, and I can tell you there was some twittering going on, especially among one section of the company.

About a week after the last event the boats were sterned out and all the crews were on board as there was a likelihood of fish passing. I was in the inside boat. As usual the small boats went to the shore to bring the dinners off. When passing one man's dinner from the small boat to the large one it accidentally fell overboard. It belonged to a man called Joe Roberts, a pal of mine. Joe said, "I would not mind losing the dinner, but mother, the silly old soul, will always send down a silver spoon to eat it with, and now it is lost". Some of the men in his boat said, "Joe, there is Cliff there in the inside boat."

They had often seen me diving off the boat. So they sent a boat for me. I said, "What is all the commotion in the outer boat?" They said, "Why, Joe Roberts has lost his dinner overboard and wants to know if you could fetch it up for him". So I went off and said "What is the trouble, Joe?" He was in great distress about the spoon. I said, "Where did it go down?" Joe pointed, "Down here somewhere." I said, "It is very deep water." (It was somewhere about three to four fathoms of water. I had never dived so deep but once before and that was in Mauritius Harbour, after a piece of coral). So I stripped off and said, "I will try, but I have grave doubts about getting it." So I took a good breath. Now in a great depth of water you have to swim straight down, and no time to waste. So off I goes and put all my strength into it.

I got to the bottom, saw the dish and the spoon about two feet from it, took both in my left hand and came up with a gasp. And what between the water in my eyes and ears and the men in the boats and the Huers on cliff 'hooraying', it was quite bewildering. But Joe was delighted. Of course the dinner was washed out. That evening, after tea, I went down to Hill's Hotel to get a drink, as was usual. My first salute was, "Here comes the man that ate Joe Roberts dinner." And in after years, whenever I went over to the Lizard, I was greeted with the same salute. I think that now they are all passed away that were in that swim.

I think it was the following week after the dinner incident that we were all in the boat and word came to the Huers that large shoals of fish were passing from the Westward, and we were all on the alert.

About two o'clock in the afternoon we saw the signal, "Up Anchor." That was a furze bush going up and down. Then we got on the warp and up she came, then all hands on the oars, the bowman watching the Huer. Then the signal, "Go to sea", and paying out the warp which was attached to the inside boat, - she would remain at anchor.

A working Seine boat

When we got abreast of the shoal, the signal, "Go to net" was made. The tarpaulin was stripped off and the Coxswain in the stern abaft the net and the after oarsman (he would lay in his bar) they, one at the head-rope with corks attached, the other at the foot-rope with leads attached, would commence to throw the net over-board as fast as they could, and all hands rowing as fast as they could, the bow man watching the Huer and pulling or tacking as the case required.

We got pretty well round the shoal when the net was all out. It was then a very anxious time, for fear that the fish would escape. Then the Stop Seine boat came to the rescue and shot her net across the gap. Then the seine boat (the large one that shot her net) rowed in shore as fast as she could, paying out her warp, which was attached to the seine, and dropped Graper (anchor), rigged out her capstan, put the warp to it, then all hands manned it and warped the whole seine, fish and all, into shallower water and out of the tide, and then laid out grapers on all sides to keep her safe. The leads would then be on the bottom and the corks on the surface and surrounding the fish like a wall. Then the next thing to do was to go on shore and put the tuck seine in the boat, ready for tucking. Then the Huer said, "I think we had not better wait for tomorrow low water, we have no salt here. We will send word to Mevagissey and Newlyn for boats to come at once, and at low water tonight it will be bright moonlight." So we decided on that.

I may say that those boats got one sixth part for carrying, so those boats that were idle were very anxious to come. The boatmen were not very particular about their cabins and forecastle being fishy, and it often happened that there were some loose boards in each place, - and it sometimes happened that a good tithe of fish slipped through which were not noticed by our representatives (which we sent in each boat to count the out-put). Now, when everything was ready for tucking the Huer said, "Men, you had better go home and get your suppers, and be down by eleven o'clock. I expect some of the boats will be down by that time." Some went to the Pubs in anticipation of a good sharing, and some of them were pretty well primed when they arrived at the Cove.

There was one man, named Ned E...y, whose favourite drink was one and one, which was half a pint of beer and a pennyworth of rum in it. I got my supper and was down early, as I lodged with the Huer. You should have seen them coming down one after the other. Our friend Ned was shearing about very wildly and carrying a very rich colour. You could see he had taken in a good many 'one and ones' but we all managed to get in the boats and rowed off to the seine. There was one boat arrived and we could see more coming. When we got off we drove the fish to one point of the seine by means of rubble stones and they shot the tuck net, gave the draw strings to the seine boat and commenced to haul up. Then the first boat that came hauled in position. We could feel it was a pretty good tuck and when it came in sight it would have made a very pretty picture. It was like a huge mass of molten silver.

One boat load was taken on shore for local consumption. Then men who tucked the fish would sit across the gunwhale of the boat with one leg inboard, the other leg outboard, with the casket between them, one at each handle. Our friend Ned volunteered to tuck. He had not tucked many baskets when the boat lurched a bit, and Ned took a dive right into the shoal of fish and disappeared. We saw one of his sea-boots visible and we made a grab at it and hauled him on board stern first. It was a sight to see him covered all over with pilchard scales from to (to use a seaman's expression) and the moonlight made us wish we had a camera with us.

Poor old Ned went into the stern of the boat, wet outside as well as in, a sadder, if not a wiser man. It would have made a good picture. When the first boat was loaded the others came in turn, and we loaded several out of that tuck. Then the Huer said, "We will tuck the remainder tomorrow at low water", which we did. Both tucks were about three hundred hogsheads of very fine fish, which gave us a very decent sharing, but it was the only shoal for the season. Then, after several days and no likelihood of fish we took the wet net in a waggon to a field to dry it, and then put it back on board again.