Women

Although women did not go to sea in the boats, their role in the fishing industry was vital and deserves to be recognised

The pilchard seine nets were up to 260 fathoms long and 16 fathoms deep in the middle (about 520 metres long and 32 metres deep). The seine nets were mended and sometimes made by women.

The pilchards were preserved in salt. This was done by groups of women who built a wall of layers of salt and pilchards, often as long as the cellar courtyard and up to waist height. This highly labour intensive business was called bulking. But labour, especially female labour, was cheap. In the 1950s the women and girls were paid three pence an hour for bulking, sustained by nips of brandy, as the water was unfit to drink. The salt took all the moisture out of the fish and this preserved them.

When the pilchards were taken out of bulk they were washed and packed in barrels, called hogsheads, by women. The fish was carefully packed in a neat rose pattern with all the tails facing the centre.

Women’s work was essential to the drift net fisheries. Different fleets of drift nets were worked for mackerel in the spring, pilchards in late summer and early autumn and herring in the winter. Drift nets were shot at night and the fish swam into them and were caught by their gills. The nets were often damaged by sharks or dogfish and mending, much of it done by women, went on for most of the year.

In the early twentieth century, St Ives most important fishery was for herring. When the herring were landed they were carried ashore in hand barrows called gurries. The catch was measured by counting. Two women stood at either end of the gurry. They each counted a score (twenty) casts of three herrings to make 120 fish known as a ‘long hundred’. when they got to a score each they called out ‘Score ma!’ and the skipper’s wife made a tally mark in her notebook.

Every July the big luggers sailed away to fish the North sea herring from Berwick, Seahouses, Scarborough and Whitby. They did not return home until September. The largely unrecognised heroes of this north sea voyage were the women who kept their families afloat, often with very slender means, while the fishermen were absent.