The Cellars in Church Cove have had an interesting history. The building was built in 1787 as a pilchard cellars, by the owners of the pilchard cellars at Cadgwith as they were doing so well. Pilchards caught off the Cornish coast were processed before sale. Typically a cellar would be a large rectangular building, sometimes with net lofts above, right on the foreshore, to ensure that fish could be processed as fast as possible. There was usually an open courtyard surrounded on three sides by low buildings with overhanging roofs.
Fishing was always a vital part of the Cornish way of life and in the 18th and 19th Century, pilchard fishing was a major industry. Throughout the summer months large shoals of pilchards were caught off the Cornish coast. The life cycle of the pilchard require them to come close to the shore in late summer. This they did in massive shoals numbering in their millions. However the appearance of the shoals were not consistent, their time and location varied.
To make sure the shoals were not missed, lookout huts were located at good viewing points. These huts were manned by huers, who on sighting the pilchard shoals would signal by crying ‘hevva’ through a trumpet. On the top of the cliff facing the Cellars there used to be a huer’s hut. The boats would be guided by semaphore to the shoal. The catch would be taken to pilchard cellars for processing.
Salt (from France and Portugal) was spread on the floor of the cellar, then fish and more salt were added in layers until a ‘bulk’ about 4ft in height was formed. Over 30 to 40 days the blood and oil seeped away to be collected and sold.
After this was done the bulks were ‘broken’, washed in troughs of seawater and placed in circular layers in ‘hogsheads’ (straight sided barrels packed with 3,000 pilchards and designed to leak).
The hogsheads stood over a gutter in the floor leading to the oil pit; holes in the wall would provide the support for the poles and the floor was cobbled so the oil and water would flow in channels.
A ‘buckler’ or lid was then placed on the barrel and a 13ft pole, embedded in a wall at one end and with a heavy weight attached to the other was then pressed down onto the lid. The pilchards were squeezed flat and oil drained out; producing 18 to 45 litres from each barrel.
The oil was mostly sold as lamp oil, which covered all costs of production. The fish was purchased almost exclusively by Italian Catholics for religious fasting.
By the end of the 19th Century ‘bulk curing’ had been replaced by the use of brine tanks and the pole presses by more efficient screw presses. In the 1920s most cellars had disappeared. The few that survive today have been converted into houses, restaurants and shops.
Pilchard fishing declined from the mid-20th Century, although small quantities of pilchards are still caught in Cornish waters today.
The Cellars architectural and historical interest has been recognised with a Grade II listing. Now converted to a luxury holiday cottage a great deal of effort has been made to retain and highlight the fabric & history of the building.
An Eye-Witness Account
Wilkie Collins was brave enough to venture inside a pilchard cellar whilst at St Ives:
“But now let us enter the salting-house, and approach the noisiest and most amusing of all the scenes which the pilchard fishery presents.
First of all we pass a great heap of fish lying in one recess inside the door, and an equally great heap of coarse, brownish salt lying in another. Then we advance farther, get out of the way of everybody, behind a pillar, and see a whole congregation of the fair sex screaming, talking, and – to their honour be it spoken – working at the same time, round a compact mass of pilchards which their nimble hands have already built up to a height of three feet, a breadth of more than four, and a length of twenty.
Here we have every variety of the “fairer half of creation” displayed before us, ranged round an odoriferous heap of salted fish. Here we see crones of sixty and girls of sixteen; the ugly and the lean, the comely and the plump; the sour-tempered and the sweet – all squabbling, singing, jesting, lamenting, and shrieking at the very top of their very shrill voices for “more fish,” and “more salt;” both of which are brought from the stores, in small buckets, by a long train of children running backwards and forwards with unceasing activity and in bewildering confusion.
But, universal as the uproar is, the work never flags; the hands move as fast as the tongues; there may be no silence and no discipline, but there is also no idleness and no delay. Never was three-pence an hour more joyously or more fairly earned than it is here!”
Sardines & Pilchards
Sardines, or pilchards, are common names used to refer to various small, oily fish within the herring family of Clupeidae.
The term sardine was first used in English during the early 15th century and may come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, around which sardines were once abundant.
The terms sardine and pilchard are not precise, and what is meant depends on the region. The United Kingdom’s Sea Fish Industry Authority, for example, classifies sardines as young pilchards.
One criterion suggests fish shorter in length than 6 inches (15 cm) are sardines, and larger ones pilchards.