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Cornish Fishing Luggers

We are grateful to Paul Greenwood and the Polperro Heritage Press for contributing this page. Paul's new book Once Aboard A Cornish Lugger was published in May 2007 (see foot of this page for details of how and where to buy this book).

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From the seventeenth to the mid twentieth century the lugger, in its various forms, was the principal vessel of the Cornish fishing industry. The early boats were clinker built double-ended craft, between 20 and 40 feet in length, with a wide beam and deep draught.

Contemporary drawings show open boats, stepping two and three masts. They were used for hand lining to catch hake, whiting, pollack etc, long lining for turbot, ray and conger as well as working short fleets of hand bred drift nets to catch pilchards, herring and mackerel. Marketing was limited to what the local fish jowters could hawk around the villages and farms. The only fish handled in bulk were pilchards. These were salt cured and pressed into barrels, to be exported to Spain and Italy as a Lent food and to the West Indies where the plantation owners fed them to their slaves.

Fishing luggers leaving Looe harbour - cpyright Polperro Heritage PressThe early luggers looked to be slow sailers and must have been heavy to row in a calm, but they didn’t work very far from home, and as time was not their master, I suppose it mattered little. Speed only became important when the revenue cutters had to be out paced in the smuggling days of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It was then that we caught a glimpse of what the Cornish shipwrights could really do.

The final form of the smuggling lugger was a splendid fully-decked vessel, the largest of them being up to 75 feet in length; both clinker and carvel construction methods were employed. They stepped three masts, allowing a massive press of sail to be set. It has been recorded that with a ‘whole sail’ breeze the fastest of them could make the one hundred miles from Cornwall to Roscoff in Brittany in eight hours. That’s an average speed of twelve knots, very smart sailing by today’s standards let alone two hundred plus years ago.

For their size, these craft were very heavily armed and the greatest of them carried twelve to sixteen cannon on the weather deck, and up to a dozen swivel guns, (these, loaded with grape shot, were the anti personnel weapons of the day) as well as a cutlass and a musket for each member of the crew.

When running contraband, 30 men were considered sufficient to work the lugger and her cargo, and if necessary, take on a customs cutter. But when Britain was engaged in one of her many wars against France, Spain, Holland, America etc, letters of marque could be obtained. These documents licensed vessels to go privateering against the enemy. So, as well as running their illicit cargoes, they were also likely to be escorting a valuable prize into harbour. At such times, a crew of up to 60 hands was carried, enough men to fight the ship effectively and put a prize crew aboard the enemy ship, should they carry the day. Looking at the earnings of these vessels, (where records have survived) the money and employment they generated puts them on par with today’s tourist industry. Mind you, I suppose there is very little chance of getting killed, imprisoned or hung, for working in a knick-knack shop or a restaurant.

The Cornish smuggling luggers earned for themselves a ferocious reputation, but the crews were well rewarded for the risks they took. For a run to Guernsey or Roscoff and back, a crewman was paid ten pounds, probably more than he would earn in three months working as a fisherman. Any prize money was generously shared, keeping all hands keenly interested in the lugger’s success, and at the same time lifting families from poverty to plenty.

Meanwhile the venture capitalists reaped huge dividends on their investments, and at the same time kept their hands clean. In 1859 the great engineer I.K. Brunel completed his railway bridge over the river Tamar, and that changed everything. Cornwall was now no longer a remote, virtually inaccessible county. Fresh fish (amongst many other commodities) could now be transported to the markets of London, Manchester and Birmingham, and to make the best of these new opportunities, larger, faster and better-designed boats were required. These new craft had to be able to work fishing grounds a long way from their home port, and then return swiftly to land their catches, fresh and in time for the market trains. Prime fish, boxed and well iced for the journey, made top prices on the city markets.

Once again the shipwrights had to come up with the answers. Their forefathers had excelled in the quest for speed in the smuggling days, and now these men had to rise to the challenge of the opportunities being offered by the railways. But the new class of lugger didn’t appear overnight from the drawing board of some genius naval architect. No, the final form of the Cornish lugger evolved steadily over a couple of generations, the fruit of observation, new ideas and experience.

Author Paul Greenwood and his wife - copyrightA skipper wanting a boat built would discuss with the boat builder of his choice, the sort of craft he had in mind, her length, beam, draught, shape of transom etc. Bearing these instructions in mind, the builder would take a piece of clear pine and carve to scale a half model, then present it to the skipper for final adjustments. Paring a bit off here and there, they would eventually arrive at the final shape of the new boat. This model would then be sawn down at the datum lines, the resulting sections provided the shapes for the frames of the full sized craft.

A more primitive method used was to build the boat entirely by eye. The shipwright would lay down the keel, put up the stem post, sternpost, deadwoods and transom. Next, three frames would be made and mounted on the keel, battens would then be nailed around fore and aft to give the general shape of the hull. The skipper and the builder would then spend time eyeing things up, fairing the frames in here and there until they got her looking right; ‘suant’ was the word used to describe it. When both parties were satisfied with their efforts, the build could proceed. This method of construction worked, but a boat could well end up being faster on one tack than the other, for the simple reason that her hull could be very different in shape from port to starboard. Another peculiarity of some of the Cornish boats was that, when afloat, their stem and frames appeared to be slanting backwards. This was because in the building, everything had been set up perpendicular from the keel, and of course when the boat was afloat she drew around six feet aft and three feet forward, throwing the keel at least eighteen inches out of level, it was a curious effect. Most shipwrights would set everything up from the waterline so as all looked fair when she was afloat, but some of the old men never altered their ways and boats were built with backward raking stems right up to the 1930s.

There were no minimum standards laid down for boat construction. The amount and quality of timber in a hull would vary, governed by the money available to the man having it built. A large budget could mean heavy oak frames set at 16 inch centres, sheathed with pitch pine planking maybe two inches thick. A tight budget could mean that the oak frames were much lighter and set out at twenty inch centres, sheathed with one and a quarter inch red pine planking. But, as Looe shipwright Arthur Collins used to say, “It’s not the weight of wood in a boat, it’s the way it’s fitted,” and the Cornish shipwrights could certainly ‘fit wood’. Hull planks were cut to such a degree of accuracy that caulking was unnecessary, plank edges were bevelled to fit together perfectly, resulting in even the most meanly built of luggers being well up to the work required of them. And much was required of them, in the days of large families and no social services, where people lived and died by the results of their own efforts. One lugger with a crew of six men could well be responsible for feeding and clothing as many as 40 people. From babes in arms, to dependants too old or too ill to work any more, a heavy burden indeed for the men at sea.

The Cornish lugger was unique and could not be mistaken for any other class of vessel around the British Isles, except for maybe the Manx ‘Nicky’, but they were based on the Cornish lugger to begin with. Every boat yard had its own ‘signature’, and every skipper had his own ideas of how his boat should look. Fleets of them were built, (well over a hundred worked from Looe over the years) you could see their pedigree, they were alike, but no two were ever the same. The majority, for all their individuality, were just good working craft providing a frugal living for her people. But there were exceptions at either end of the scale; the odd one would turn out to be a complete ‘dog’, a slow sailer and an indifferent sea boat, giving everyone aboard a hard time for as long as she was worked. The Looe boats Dove and the Harvest Home (FY 159), were two such examples. Equally rare were the luggers whose speed and sweetness of line made them the talk of the coast; in a county famed for such craft they had to be something very special to stand out. The Talisman (FY 242) of Looe and the Sunshine (FY 222) of Mevagissey were probably two of the finest examples. This new breed of lugger was between 36 and 45 feet in length, with a beam of twelve to fourteen feet, drawing six to seven feet of water. With a straight stem and a long sleek bow for going to weather, they had neat sterns for running, and a graceful shear line to show off their good looks. They were two-masted, setting a huge dipping lug main sail on the fore mast, and a standing lug sail on the mizzen; a mizzen staysail and jib could be set in light airs or when on a long passage.

These boats could carry their nets and lines plus a big catch of fish in all weathers, while remaining safe and stable. By the 1890s they had reached their extreme form. In the quest for speed they had gone as far as possible without jeopardising their seaworthiness, and by now even the finest gentlemen’s yachts of the day had a job to match the best of them. For their grace and beauty, the Breton fishermen called them the ‘swallows of the sea’, and by now fully-decked, the final form of the Cornish lugger had evolved. The fish were plentiful and trade was brisk, railway transport and fine new boats had opened up the Cornish fishermen’s horizons. As well as working the home pilchard and herring season, they fished for mackerel with their drift nets off the south west coast of Ireland, while some worked long lines for ray, conger and turbot out as far as the coast of Brittany. By the late 1880s the fishing industry had reached its zenith. 570 first class luggers were registered in the ports and harbours of Cornwall employing 3,500 men and boys at sea, and probably double that number in ancillary trades ashore. Although their numbers declined continually from here onwards, it would be another 108 years before the last working lugger landed her final catch. Just before the 1914-18 war small petrol-paraffin engines became available, enabling the boats to leave and enter harbour more easily, and make headway in a calm. An old fisherman told me that when the engines were first introduced they thought they were in heaven as their lives were made so much easier; another bonus was the boats began to last longer. I reckoned the obvious reason for that was oil and paraffin leaking from the engines and soaking into the timber had a preserving effect, but he reckoned it killed off most of the ‘sow-pigs’(woodlice) that lived in droves on a wooden vessel, weakening them over the years by eating them from the inside out. I really don’t know what to make of that yarn, but he was there so there must be something in it.

The Undaunted (FY 393) of Looe, owned by brothers Ness and Johnny Richards was one of the first luggers to have an engine installed. They used to charge 6d a boat to tow the others in or out of the harbour to save the crew having to row or pay a shore gang to pull them to the pier head. Evidently at slack water she could tow as many as six boats at a time, all that with a seven HP engine. I think the horses in those engines must have been a lot bigger than they are today.

Upon the outbreak of the First World War, the backbone of the fishing fleet (all the young fit men and the best of the boats) was called up for service in the Royal and Merchant navies, leaving only the old men and boys to carry on as best they could, working their nets and lines close in, up and down the coast, for fear of U Boats etc. Then with the coming of peace in 1919, the men who had survived those hellish years returned home, and later the boats that had been requisitioned were released by the Admiralty. When the fishing fleet refitted and got back to sea, what a surprise the men had. The deep fishing grounds had lain virtually undisturbed for five years, and were now teeming with fish. When they shot the long lines, every hook came up with a prime fish on it. When working the drift nets, the resulting pilchard catches loaded the smaller boats down to danger point. Nobody had experienced anything like it. What’s more, a hungry post war Europe needed feeding, so the huge catches that were being landed had a ready market and made good money. Here then was another massive boom in the fishing industry. The best of the existing fleet was modernised with new and more powerful engines, while the smaller older craft were sold off and replaced by a new design of motor lugger then entering service. These boats carried their beam well forward and were bigger in the bilge than the old sailing luggers. At that time they could also boast two and sometimes three petrol/paraffin engines pushing out as much as 30 HP. Sails were reduced to a small standing lug mizzen and a leg of mutton foresail, known as a ‘marmaduke’. This was enough canvas to stop her rolling when making a passage out and back to the lining grounds, or to help her along should an engine refuse duty. Wheelhouses were now being fitted, doing away with tiller steering. They were bolted to the deck just forward of the mizzen mast, a wheel and gypsy operated chains back to a quadrant on the rudder. Just big enough for one man to stand up in, they were a godsend in reducing hypothermia and exposure in wintertime. All this modernisation made life at sea a lot more bearable and, because of this, the men started to last a lot longer.

In the sailing days most were ashore, worn out by their mid-forties through gruelling hard work, exposure and poor nutrition, having started their sea going career at eleven or twelve years of age. But now, although many were still starting at a very tender age, they found they were able to carry on working into their fifties and sixties. Much longer fleets of drift nets could be worked, as the boats no longer had to be hauled to their gear with a hand operated foot line capstan. With the introduction of the motor powered line hauler or ‘genny’ in the 1920s, it became possible to work 6,000 hooks of long line on a tide, as against 4,000 with a man powered hauler or 2,000 when hauled by hand.

The 1930s were also very depressing times for the fishermen, but always the hope was that things just had to improve, though unfortunately they didn’t. The year 1937 must surely go down as one of the bleakest in the history of the Cornish fishing industry. In that year, the government of the day put an embargo on exports to Italy in retaliation for Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia. This caused the pilchard trade to all but collapse, because the vast bulk of the Cornish salters’ produce was exported to that country to be eaten as a lent food. In 1937 the expected fish failed to show up. In the previous year’s herring season, a number of trawlers had been active in the spawning bays, trying to catch herring in their trawls. They enjoyed a certain amount of success, but every haul they made not only filled their decks with herring, but with spawn as well. The fish they caught were boxed up and stowed down below while the spawn, now dead, was shovelled back over the side, and around the bay they went again to repeat the process. The Cornish fishing industry had been on a knife-edge for years, but the twin disasters of 1937 really put the skids under it. From then on, the fleet shrank rapidly as boats were sold off for whatever money could be raised on them. The only ones to survive were the most-hard working and frugal of skippers who hung on to their boats, grimly hoping for better times.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, every fit and able-bodied man was called up for service in the navy. The best of the boats were also requisitioned for war work, leaving yet again a few old men and boys to carry on as they might. Those who did fish through the war years made a very good living, although the grounds they were able to work were very limited.

When peace was declared, and the men were demobbed from the forces, they returned home to exactly the same situation their fathers and elder brothers had experienced when they returned home from WW1. The fishing grounds had had five years’ rest, the fish were plentiful, and a starving Europe needed all the food it could get. The luggers (now numbering about 25 in Cornwall) were made ready for sea, along with their drift nets and long lines. The first boats away returned home with catches the like of which most fishermen only dream of. Fish were teaming, to the extent that some boats had their long lines rendered useless because they were coming up with a mature fish on every hook, and as they circled around the line between the seabed and the surface, the rope backing would become completely unlaid. Fleets of driftnets were lost through the sheer weight of pilchards taking them to the bottom. Such happenings were now more an inconvenience than a disaster. The fishermen were once more riding the crest of a wave. The county’s pilchard works or ‘salters’ were exporting to Italy again, and six canneries had opened up, tinning pilchards in tomato sauce or olive oil for the home and export markets.

During the long line or ‘boulter’ season, the railways transported many thousands of stone of prime turbot, ray and conger etc, to the fish markets of the major cities. The boatyards were also very busy as orders came in for new boats, taking out the old petrol/paraffin engines and installing new diesel engines in the existing fleet. These were the first true marine engine, unaffected by damp, virtually maintenance free and running on a very cheap fuel. A few new motor luggers were built to bolster the ageing fleet, but more favoured for new build especially at Looe, were the smaller, cheaper general-purpose boats now coming off the designers drawing board. Their origins could not be mistaken, a straight stem with a neat transom and sweet sheer line. They were the luggers’ younger sisters. But the lugger was still the mainstay of the Cornish fishing fleet.

The skippers themselves were exceptional men. They would have probably served a minimum of ten years working under their father or uncle, the then skipper, learning every aspect of seamanship, knowledge of the fishing grounds and developing the steady nerve and great strength of character needed to wrest a living for five men and their families from the sea. In the days before radio you couldn’t shout for help if things went wrong, caught in a gale, long lining 60 miles off shore. The skipper’s responsibilities must have weighed very heavily at times. Their methods of fishing were ecologically sound. Drift nets would catch plenty of fish, but never decimate the shoals. Long lines did no damage to the grounds they were shot on, and only caught mature fish.

Every generation left plenty of good fishing for the next, and very little (if any) harm was done to the balance of nature. But by the middle of the twentieth century, technology and progress became the watchwords. Why catch part of a shoal of fish when the whole shoal can be caught with a purse seine or ring net? Why try to tempt a few mature fish to take the baited hooks of a long line when, with a modern trawler, you can go on the offensive and catch them hungry or not? The luggers of Cornwall were considered to be retrogressive, their methods of fishing had hardly changed in centuries and, in truth, it was only the boom after the two world wars that had seen them continue thus far. Yet another blow was dealt to the industry when, in 1955, a trade agreement was drawn up with South Africa. A small part of the deal saw Britain importing South African tinned pilchards, retailing on the home market at 2d a tin cheaper than the Cornish product. It wasn’t long before the canneries started to feel the pinch and, in a bid to compete, they dropped the price paid to the boats for pilchards from 4/6d (22p) to 3/6d (17p) per stone. However, it did not help. They began to lose orders from the retailers and, one by one, they closed down. The salters were also losing orders. Tastes were changing on the continent, and a new generation of consumers was not as fond of salt fish as their parents and grandparents had been. To crown it all, the pilchard shoals changed their habits for some reason, and were no longer to be found off the Cornish coast during the winter months. Now there was nothing to be earned with either nets or lines, from the end of November to March. Deathblows were raining down on an industry that had sustained itself for centuries, making it only a matter of a few short years before it would be consigned to history.

By 1960 many of the once-thriving, bustling harbours of Cornwall echoed more to the ghosts of the past Our Daddy with a big catch - 1964  - photo Paul Greenwood  copyrightthan to the activities of the living. Looe was a typical example. Quayside warehouses stood empty and locked up, the fish market had closed down, fishermen’s stores and net-lofts were being turned into cafes or workshops. The few remaining boats seemed to huddle up together for comfort, leaving whole areas of the quayside empty and deserted. For a few brief weeks each summer the port would come back to life, but the voices to be heard echoed of accents well north of the Tamar. These were holidaymakers going out for a day’s angling, or on trips around the bay. For several years it was really only their custom that kept the whole harbour from penury.

In its hey-day, Looe had boasted a fleet of 60 luggers: by the early 1960s only five remained. They were the Our Boys (FY 221) built in 1904, skipper Bill Pengelly; the Our Daddy (FY 7), launched 1920, skipper A.J. Pengelly; the Iris (FY 357) launched 1921, skipper Frank Pengelly; the Guide Me (FY 233), built 1911, skipper Ned Pengelly; and the Eileen (FY 310), built 1920, skipper Ernie Toms. Two others had survived until 1960 but had been sold off due to the crews retiring and no young men coming into the fishing business to take their place. They were the John Wesley (FY 35) taken to Falmouth to be used as a house boat, later to be refitted and put back to sea for another twenty years when the mackerel fishery began, and the Our Girls (FY 54), sister ship to the Our Boys (FY 221). She went to Portsmouth to be converted to a motor yacht.

Copyright - Paul Greenwood and The Polperro Heritage Press, 2007
Once Aboard A Cornish Lugger by Paul Greenwood (ISBN 978-0955364815) contains 28 illustrations and is published by the Polperro Heritage Press price £6.95 from bookshops. The book is on sale in all the bookshops in Looe, including Mayflower Studios and Bosco Books and the Tourist Information Office and the Museum. Also at the Polperro museum and Polperro Post Office. It is also available by post from the Polperro Heritage Press, Clifton-upon-Teme, Worcestershire WR6 6EN at £8 including postage and packing. E-mail: polperro.press@virgin.net or via website: www.polperropress.co.uk
Or order online direct from the Polperro Heritage Press by going to the following page link: http://www.polperropress.co.uk/page/book/once_aboard_a_cornish_lugger/

Last update - 29 June 2009

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