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Reminiscences of Newlyn

By J Kelynack*

In October many boats went to Kinsale, Ireland, to fish for winter mackerel. These, like the herring, were of very fine quality, and, as is said of the apples, ‘The farther west the better’ so it might be said of the fish. This is true of all our West Country produce. Herrings from the North Sea are never cured to be brought home by Mount’s Bay fishermen, but those caught off the coast of Ireland were cured and barrels-full were disposed of when they came home. To-day you will find a St. Ives kipper far superior to East Coast fish; therefore support home industry, and not only ‘buy British” but “buy Cornish” if you want the best. The winter herring fishery was pursued at Plymouth.

During the summer season St. Just men often came to Newlyn to go to sea, and would bring strings of miner’s candles, which they exchanged for old boots to wear under­ground On the other hand, when fishing was bad in the winter, many Newlyn fishermen walked to St. Just to work on grass at the mines.

The living was very precarious dangers had to be faced, and sometimes heavy losses sustained. The fishermen were not afraid to venture into far-off waters, as is seen by the fishing lugger "Mystery" which, about 80 years ago, sailed on the long hazardous voyage to Australia. They took about 6 months to reach their destination and some of the crew settled there. The boat herself was on exhibition in Australia. Her “log is still in Newlyn.

Smuggling goods from France got the men into many a tight corner, but they were very daring, and as shrewd at hiding the contraband goods as they were in landing them. In these dealings we hear of the “headless horses,” and “heavy coaches” traversing the roads and lanes. The timid dared not venture out on a dark night, and they were not wanted to witness, and perhaps notify the customs of, this illicit traffic. In an old vault under my grand-parents’ house several rare shaped bottles and jars which once held brandy, etc., were found. From that vault a stairway led to the upper rooms of the house. The wall in which the stairway was constructed was six feet thick. The exit was in a cupboard in one of the bedrooms. The door of the cupboard was very pretty (glass framed in a pleasing pattern) no one would suspect a hidden stairway there. Inside the old pier was formerly the only shelter in bad weather for the fishing boats; but two of the old-time men-o-war have been accommodated there, one named the 'Boris' and the other the 'Hecate'. The officers from these ships frequently visited a house on the cliff, and three of the seven daughters of its owner were married to three of the ships’ officers.

All sales of fish took place 'under porth.' Now that is done at the Fish Market, constructed since the completion of the harbour. Everyone in Newlyn worked hard to help raise money to build the South Pier which stands on the Garrick­Semmens (a reef of rocks). When digging for the foundation for the North Pier huge trunks and roots of oak trees were found, showing that a forest once existed in Mounts Bay.

On one occasion big chains were slung across the mouth of the harbour to prevent the ingress and exit of East Coast craft which fished Sunday and Monday alike. Mounts bay fishermen venerated the Sabbath, and, after coming ashore on Saturdays did not put to sea again till Mondays. Lowestoft boats brought their catches for sale on Mondays and Tuesdays, glutted their markets, and left no chance for local craft.

Trouble arose: Scotch and Manx fishing-boats came to uphold the Cornish fishermen, but when tempers rose and asserted themselves, the ‘‘military” were sent to keep the peace. Some local men were arrested and taken into custody, but through the intervention of sympathetic and influential friends, amongst whom was  Canon Carah, they were liberated. Canon Carah was, and is still very highly esteemed by the inhabitants of Newlyn, where he spent a number of years as curate of St. Peters Church.

The grand old rocks which protected the foot of the cliff have disappeared, and the fun shore, which was once owned by private individuals to the extent of low water at spring tides, has now been taken over by the Duchy. The rocks were used for fishing from with hook and line, at high water, and for drying salted hake and lug. Each evening the fish were gathered into piles and covered with tarpaulin till next day. They were also turned every day until they were dry, when they were removed to the cellars. The pools in the rocks were the happy hunting grounds of the children. In them they found tiny fish and crabs, “God’s crabs” to Newlyn children: “cankers” to Mousehole children. One or two rocks provided slides for the little boys and girls.

When the tide was so high that the sea covered the shallow stone bridge which gave access to Newlyn Town, pedestrians had to make a detour by way of “Jack Lane,” the lower part of the hill leading to Paul.  In years gone by this was a very winding, dark, eerie lane, overhung by tall trees. Up this the “heavy coach” has been drawn bearing the smugglers’ spoil. Newlyn Town, like all other Cornish towns and villages, had its “uplong” and “downlong,” “inlong” and “outlong.” “Inlong” was at the North end, called the “Nor’ard,” and it is in a pretty courtlet at the “Norard Corner” that Mr. and Mrs. Dodd Procter have made a home. “Outlong” was known as “The Green,” the South extremity of Newlyn Town. One place of interest was the 'Vaccination Station' where public vaccination took place. Another was the old “Navy Inn’ at the head of a big open square.’ It had one room supported by granite pillars and was known as the “Balcony.” Behind this was a factory for spinning twine for making nets. (Mr. Frank Hichens). Rising above this was the “Bowgy,” the “common land’ such as was once possessed by all parishes. The Bowgy was a pretty, grassy hill where nets were spread to dry, children played and rolled from top to bottom, and women sat and knitted. A stream of water flowed along the top. Stepping across this one found oneself in a pathway field which led to Gwavas Farm and on to Gwavas Lane, the road to the Parish Church. Continuing along the cliff road from the foot of the Bowgy the stone quarry is passed. .Just in front, on the seaside, may be observed remains of stone masonry. Here cannon once stood for the defence of the bay, and a furnace for heating cannon-balls. The artillery volunteers from Penzance visited this battery regularly for target practice. The beauty of the cliff walk has been spoiled by the stone quarry which has taken away the whole of the hill. At the foot of the hill was a rope-walk, a pathway by the “Craft” led to some fields through which one reached the “Weath” and then Trungle, Paul. When smallpox visited Mousehole no one was allowed to go there from other villages, neither was anyone allowed to leave Mousehole. To prevent this a long spar was placed across the cliff road to bar the way.

Before St. Peter’s parish was formed out of Paul, the old Church at Paul was the only one. This was destroyed by the Spaniards, who in 1595 landed at Point Spaniard, Mousehole, and burnt the village except one house “The Old Standard,” just below the Keigwin Arms, and the Church at Paul, only a blackened arch being left to tell the tale. The Church was soon rebuilt, as the old registers certify. The first entries were made in 1599. There was the minstrels’ gallery and a fine choir. The lane to the Church rose steeply from Newlyn Cliff to “The Cross,” from where one obtained a delightful view of the bay and encircling hills. “The Cross’ was a grassy bank surmounted by two big rocks overhung by a hawthorn tree. At the foot of these rocks, long ago, the fishermen placed a portion of their fish to propitiate the Bucca, the sea-god. Becoming skeptical of the efficacy of their offerings, the more venturesome watched one night and found that ‘twas no spiritual being that carried off their fish, but human hands. From that time no more fish were offered to the Bucca. Farther up the lane in the eastern hedge was a granite stoup where all the girls “christened” their dolls. Each girl carried a bottle of water, which she poured into the stoup, and after naming the doll dropped a pin into the ‘pin-mill” and wished.

On Easter Mondays people assembled on the “Green” at Church Town to witness and participate in Games and Wrestling (Still called “Going to Games”). The National School occupied part of one side of the Green. Here boys and girls from Newlyn, Mousehole and the country round, received their schooling. The Parish Clerk was also School-master. One named Pentreath was father of Richard. Pentreath, the artist whose tablet stands in Paul Church. James Richards was the next grand old master. In addition to the usual subjects, he taught navigation to young men, many of whom became sea captains, or entered the Civil Service (100 years ago). This man was fearless One day he went up the Church tower and climbing one of its pinnacles stood on top of it. There were “Dame” schools in Newlyn and some good schools at Penzance where a few girls from Newlyn went for their education One for boys in Newlyn was ruled over by a severe disciplinarian With his penknife he once pinned an offender by the lobe of his ear to a desk.

Religious services were held in a room on St. Peter’s Hill. The gallery was panelled, and in each panel was a picture painted by Mr.William Curnow, a self-taught local artist, uncle of Mrs. Harold Harvey. Penny Readings also took place in this room and they were well attended. The Church services were held, later, in a Mission Room at the foot of the Bowgy, but a pretty stone building, St. Andrew’s, has supplanted that. There are two other places of worship, one a Primitive [Ebenezer] and the other a Wesleyan Chapel. A new Centenary Chapel substitutes the Primitive Chapel.

A very old hostelry stood on the top of Newlyn slip. At the corner was a ‘‘hipping stock,’’ and at the back, in a square courtlet, stood a big stone trough out of which the horses drank. Stables occupied one side of the square and in one corner was an inner courtlet occupied by a cooperage and dwelling house of the cooper. It was to this house that many women brought their knitting of an afternoon and listened to the lads’ of the house reading aloud the latest books, e.g., ‘‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” ‘‘Hiawatha,” etc. Sometimes the Fishermen's wives would come from their houses to the foot of the street, with their knitting, to hear the news, or watch the boats go to sea. When not at sea, and if there was time to spare, the fishermen might be seen arrayed along the cliff leaning on the rail, or walking up and down within a certain length, as if on shipboard, discussing the fishing or politics. They loved an argument.

On Midsummer Eve the whole place was alive and illumined by torches and bonfires. Little girls wore head-dresses and garlands of flowers. At night lusty youths and hefty girls swung torches, prepared quite a month previous, as they ran along the cliff. Candles were stuck on the rails and lit, and as the night deepened tar-barrels and bonfires blazed. This was also done on the opposite shores at Marazion, St Michael’s Mount, Porthleven and Mullion. On May Day and Easter Monday junketing was indulged in at adjacent farms in Paul, Treveneth, and Tredavoe. Where Mr. Stanhope Forbes lives, at Fawgan, is a huge bank known as “Gillies Bank.” This is a part of a carriage drive, commenced by Sir Rose Price, his intention being to construct it right through his property to Trengwainton where he resided. The high mound may be seen from Penzance.  A huge rock, known as the “Devil’s Rock,” at Tolcarne, overlooks St. Peter’s Church. It derives its name from the peculiar net-like surface called the “Devil’s Net.” There are also a “Devil’s Foot” and “Devil’s Frying-pan.” It was not very far from here that John Wesley met with hostility when he first came to Newlyn. His cause was championed and he was protected by a strong wrestler.

The man who carried water was called Henry Dour— “Henry of the water.”

The Newlyn folk are clannish. Community life is strong. Neighbours help each other. No one is allowed to want sympathy or assistance. Funerals are, or were, well attended: hymns were sung to old tunes at the deceased’s door, on their way to Paul Church, and at the Church. One sympathetic soul once remarked, “Iss, I must go to their berr’in. Ef  I don’t go to their’s, they waan’t come to mine!

           [This article first appeared in the 1935 Autumn edition of "Old Cornwall Magazine". It follows on from the previous article, which I have reproduced under the heading of Newlyn Fishing].


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