On this Day 12th November 1823

Herring Glut at St Ives

On November 12th 1823 John Tregerthen Short recorded a great quantity of herrings selling at 8 shillings per gurry. This followed diary entries on the preceding days in which he recorded 20,000 herrings caught by one boat on the 11th and on the 12th the greater part of the boats have from 10,000 to 50,000 per boat. Further large catches were reported on the 18th and the 20th but of the 12th he says, the like was scarce known before.

JTS couldn't know but it would be 14 years before herring would be seen again and once again he would records huge catches (see On This Day 11 October 1837). The herring harvest of November 1823 must have been particularly welcome as it came hard on the heels of the Great October Gale which blew from October 29th to November 1st and caused the loss of at least 17 vessels in the vicinity of St Ives and Land's End. The storm of October 1823 remained the yardstick by which storms were measured until another October storm in 1859 which saw the loss of at least 11 vessels from Hayle and St Ives.

Tragedy and plenty seem often to keep company in Short's diary where the dangers of the sea are ever-present, though presented in a matter-of-fact manner.

To return to the herring glut of November 12th. Is 8 shilling per gurry a good price? What is a gurry? A gurry is a large box carried on poles borne by two men, a bit like a sedan chair. You don't remember sedan chairs? Me neither. Imagine two stretcher bearers with a box suspended from their stretcher instead of a person lying on it, a bit like a big hand barrow. The gurry held 11 hundreds of fish, a hundred actually being a long hundred of 120 (sometimes reported as 123) so the gurry held about 1350 fish. This definition comes from the 6th Report of the Cornwall Polytechnical Society, 1838 p131 which also gives a price of 12 shillings per gurry for 1814. For 1837 the same report gives a price of 1/6d per hundred which would be worth 16/6d per gurry. If these figures are to be relied on then a price of 8 shillings per gurry is a relatively low price, probably reflecting oversupply as a result of the big catch. The boat reported to have caught 20,000 fish would have had a catch worth about £6.

The St Ives herring season lasted from October to January but as we've seen it was unpredictable, sometimes the fish turned up and for years there might be virtually none. Opportunities had to be seized when there and opportunities had to be created by following the fish to Ireland and the North Sea. Earnings had to be divided between the crew of 6 or 7 and the boat and gear. £6 for a hard night's work was not going to keep anyone in luxury.

Diary of John Tregerthen Short

The 6th Report of the Cornwall Polytechnical Society is available as a Google Book.

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Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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