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The Sea


One hundred and fify years ago, it would have been possible to see over 100 vessels in Cawsand Bay. From rowing boats, through a range of different-sized fishing vessels, to trading vessels and their pilot boats - right up to the largest of naval warships - whose commanders complained that the bay was too shallow as they hit the bottom whilst at anchor in an easterly blow!

A glance at an early 19th century census will reveal the number of fisherman and others earning their living from the sea.

At the page bottom are a list of fishing related documents. We begin with a document referring to earlier times.

Early 16th century references to fishing in the Rame area follow. Much mention is made of the times before Henry XVIII and also to the struggle by Plymouth to not allow Kingsand and Cawsand to do business with foriegn merchants at the expense of the city.

Devon, Its Moorlands, Streams and Coasts
Author: Rosalind Northcote

Plymouth does not seem to have been much affected by the Wars of the Roses, but Henry VII, (28 January 1457 21 April 1509), as Earl of Richmond, 'while he houered upon the coast,' came ashore at Cawsand, and here 'by stealth refreshed himselfe; but being advertised of streight watch, kept for his surprising at Plymouth, he richly rewarded his hoste, hyed speedily a ship boord, and escaped happily to a better fortune.'

The fisheries of the port are old and important. The earliest grant now to be traced, made by Reginald deValletort to Plympton Priory, was that of all his fishing rights in Tamar and Lynher& Aish; a privilege which Mr Worth thinks was probably bestowed 'not long after the manor passed into the hands of the Valletort family.' In 1384 Parliament decreed that all fish caught in the waters of Sutton, Plymouth, and Tamar should be displayed for sale in Plymouth and 'Aish' [Saltash] only, which sounds as if Plymouth were already jealous of other fish-markets, as was certainly the case later on.

During parts of the sixteenth century the industry flagged, and in Henry VIII's reign a royal proclamation ordered abstinence from flesh on Saturdays as well as Fridays, with the frank explanation that this was 'not only for health and discipline, but for the benefit of the Commonwealth, and profit of the fishing trade.' In Queen Elizabeth's reign matters were still worse, for the eating of fish had now come to be a badge of religious opinions, and '"to detest fish" in all shapes and forms had become a note of Protestantism.'

And not only had the demand for fish lessened, but the fisheries had fallen into the hands of foreigners. The Yarmouth waters were 'occupied by Flemings and Frenchmen,' 'the narrow seas by the French,' 'the western fishing for hake and pilchard by a great navy of French within kenning of the English shores,' and Scots and Spaniards fished other parts of the coasts. Cecil, who was anxious for greater reasons, to find 'means to encourage mariners,' set to work to revive the English fishing-trade, and with great difficulty succeeded in carrying a Bill through the House of Commons, making 'the eating of flesh on Fridays and Saturdays a misdemeanour, punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months' imprisonment, and as if this was not enough, adding Wednesday as a subsidiary half-fish day.'

About this time Plymouth tried to rid itself of at least one branch of foreign competition by appealing to the Privy Council to forbid 'the exportation of pilchards, save in ships of Devon and Cornwall, because "divers ships and mariners lye idle without employment within our harbour," while foreign ships were continually employed.' Pilchards were a very important item, and many regulations were made in reference to them.

One order, dated 1565-66, gives a good example of Plymouth's views of free trade. It ran: 'That no alien should lade or buy fresh pilchards above the number of 1,000 in a day; no man ... being free to buy or sell above 5,000, unless the fish "were in danger of perishing."' The business of curing fish was a large one and very jealously guarded. Page 106

'The Project Gutenberg eBook, 'Devon, Its Moorlands, Streams and Coasts', by Rosalind Northcote, Illustrated by Frederick J. Widgery

To read the document in full or download, go to:


Other reference sources:

There were many documents published in the 19th Century which described the condition of the fishing industry in the United Kingdom. From these a small selection is presented below, in abridged form, which will enhance an understanding of the very different, very hard and unforgiving world which local fisherman had to endure.

Click on a title to view a PDF file:

In early 2011 a sale of medals bought to local Television, a tale of bravery involving a prominent Cawsand family of the early 19th century. Read the story of
Richard Eddey - a local hero

Memories of local fishing

Port of Plymouth Review 1816 - Reference Cawsand, etc

Housekeepers Guide to the Fish Market JC Bellamy 1843

Fishing in the Plymouth Area 1868

MBA Journal of Drift Net Fishing 1887

Monthly Reports on Fishing in the Neighbourhood of Plymouth 1889 - 1890

Notes on the Herring, Longline and Pilchard Fisheries of Plymouth 1889 - 1890

More Notes on the Herring, Longline and Pilchard Fisheries of Plymouth 1889 - 1890

Fishing - a glossary

Port of Plymouth Fishing Review with refs to Cawsand 1816

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