Exactly when the pilchard fishery began in St. Ives is unknown. The earliest documentation dates back to 1602 but it is widely believed the industry was an important element of St. Ives dates much further back then this.
During the 19th Century more and more pilchard boats were built as the industry expanded rapidly.
Pilchard boats, or luggers as they became known because of their sails, carried around 10 nets with larger ones carrying as many as 30.
Many local families owned two boats one small pilchard boat about 10 metres long and a larger one used for mackerel and herring catches.
As time progressed boats were equipped with engines, several of these were still in operation in the 1960s.
The fate of the mackerel fishery would take a different turn. As technology developed larger ports such as Lowestoft and Yarmouth saw the introduction of steam drifters which could go to sea even at times when there was no wind. Most St. Ives fishermen could not afford to invest in steam or motor boats and many were sold. Those formerly employed in the industry had to find alternative means of employment. Some left for America while others were recruited by the St. Ives based Hain Shipping Company
Mackerel boats had to venture further from land – anything up to 100 miles away in much deeper waters.
They measures around 14 metres and were split into three sections – the cabin, the hold and the store and sail locker.
Because they were away from home for relatively long periods of time they were fitted out with bunks for the crew along with basic cooking facilities They were designed so they could fish anywhere around the British Isles and became much admired by other fishing communities around the country.
When the mackerel season came to an end the boats were used for catches of herring. At the peak of the herring period, in the 1880s , around 100 boats carrying around 800 men and boys left St. Ives.
The herring season lasted until the 1940s.
Pilchard and herring boats were joined by crabbers based in St. Ives which went in search for shellfish around the Cornish coast. In alter years the vessels were fitted with paraffin motors.
A familiar sight in St. Ives up until the 1960s were the French crabbers who visited the town annually. While Cornish fishermen went for lobsters, the French crabbers were more interested in crawfish.
The archive has a searchable database of more than 1,600 St. Ives registered boats. It includes the size of the boats, where and when they were built and even the owners’ names and addresses in most case.