The entry in the diary of John Tregerthen Short (JTS) for 29 July 1833 is very short and simple, “Arrived the Thomas, Unity, and Mary, from Croisic with salt”.
Le Croisic is a port in southern Brittany between the Loire and the Vilaine rivers at the western end of the Guérande Peninsula. Just to the north of Croisic are the salt marshes of Guérande where sea salt has been extracted for hundreds of years using a complex system of basins in which the sea water is evaporated by the heat of the sun and the salt dried by the wind. A sustainable enterprise and one which attracted the pilchard seiners of St Ives who needed salt to cure their catch.
July seems to be the beginning of the season for salt shipments - a quick review of John Tregerthen Short's diary suggests that most voyages to Le Croisic took place in August and September, the height of the pilchard season. Vessels on the salt trade then turn up doing pilchard runs to the Mediterranean in October and November. For example, the St Ives schooner Mary, skipper Thomas Harry arrived in St Ives on August 22nd 1832 with salt from Le Croisic and then on October 25th she sailed, presumably for the Mediterranean, with 398 hogsheads. In 1833 she sailed for Le Croisic on July 18th, along with Agnes and Jane and arrived back on the 29th in company with Thomas and Unity, a round trip for Mary of 12 days.
These vessels were the coasters of the Welsh fleet which spent much of the year carrying coal from the ports of south Wales to Cornwall and returning with cargoes of copper ore. The Thomas, for instance, returned from Le Croisic on 29th July 1833 and is next seen taking 566 hogsheads of pilchards to Venice on October 27th. On December 10th 1846 she was a total loss after missing stays and hitting Pednolver rocks while laden with copper ore for Swansea. The loss rate among these vessels was high, on April 27th 1845 the St Ives schooner Agnes (see above) was lost after she struck the Modrops off St Agnes.
The salt trade was not confined to St Ives vessels. On July 3rd 1834 JTS records the French sloop Active arriving with salt while on October 2nd 1833 he records two unnamed French vessels arriving in St Ives with salt. But the bulk of the trade seems to be carried by a small number of the St Ives fleet which made regular trips across to Brittany, vessels such as Jane, Captain Quick; Commerce, Captain Tremearne; and Superior, Captain Wearne.
What of the ships and their owners? The Mary was an 86 ton schooner owned by her skipper Thomas Harry. Thomas had just taken ownership of the 20 year old vessel having previously sailed her as skipper for D. Bamfield since 1828. Thomas Bennatts Harry, was 35 years old in 1833 and had lost his wife, Sibella, in October 1832. He would marry again in 1834, to Michal Biron, a widow, with whom he would have two sons, Thomas and James, in 1835 and 1836. Michal had previously been married to Charles Biron, from Caen in Normandy. Thomas must have lived a pretty harsh life at sea but he survived until 1876 when he died in St Ives aged 78 years. Michal lived to be 71, dying a few years before her husband in 1873. In 1851 Michal and her son James lived in Shoot St in Lelant, Thomas does not appear in the 1851 census, presumably being at sea. By 1861 Thomas and Michal are living in Fore St in St Ives and by 1871 Thomas has retired and he and Michal are living in Belle Air together with their son James, who is a Navigating Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and his wife Emma. Living next door are Belinda Harry and her children. Belinda is daughter-in-law to Thomas and Michal, being married to their son Thomas who is a captain in the merchant navy.
Bamfield & Co., original owners of the Mary, are listed in the 1844 Pigot's Directory as fish curers and seine owners as well as shipping agents while Daniel Bamfield is shown as a merchant and vice consul. In fact many of the seine owners are also listed as merchants and among their number we find John Tremearne and the Wearnes, both of which names appear as skippers of salt boats in the 1840s. It looks as if there was a bit of vertical integration of business going on with the same people controlling catching, processing, salt supply and shipping of pilchards. A more detailed examination of this topic may appear one day as a Penwith Paper.
Kelly's Directory and Pigots Directory, available via West Penwith Resources
Census data has been accessed via Freecen
Baptisms, marriages and Burials data via Cornwall OPC
There is a nice readable account of the salt trade of Croicic at The salt marshes of Guérande.