A Century of Friendship - Breton Fishermen in Cornwall and Scilly
By John McWilliams. ISBN 978-0-9554398-1-0. 192 pp, St. Ives Trust, £20 St. Ives Trust, Upper Parish Rooms, St. Andrew’s Street, St. Ives, Cornwall, England TR26 1AH.
In writing this fascinating account of the activities of the Breton fishermen in Cornish waters and their relationships with the Cornish fishermen, John McWilliams, as well as trawling through the records reports and accounts, has drawn on many years first hand experience of these hardy men and their stout fishing craft. As a boy and youth, growing up at St. Ives, John developed close contacts with these visitors and their colourful bateaux, which frequently ran into St. Ives Bay to shelter from the sweeping South Westerly storms.
Here, like many boys in West Cornish harbours [including your reviewer] John sculled their buoyant punts [that’s ‘over the stern’ sculling with a single oar – not your fancy river stuff in lightweight shells], but more importantly he got to know the fishermen and learnt their regional language. In time John made working passages to France in these ‘crabbers,’ and met their families at home. All of which engendered a deep appreciation for this hardy race of independent fishermen, with so many parallels to the Cornish fishermen of his home.
Universally known as ‘crabbers’ these colourful craft, with their full bows and sweeping sheer running down to a low stern, were in fact fishing for crawfish, though crabs and lobsters were also taken in their distinctive pots. From 1902 onwards these craft hailing from Camaret, Audierne, Concarneau, Douarnenez, and a host of other small Breton ports, battled their way in increasing numbers to fish in our Cornish waters, principally off the Seven Stones reef. While the fishing was at times very good, few made their fortunes, and a distinctive feature of these men and their craft, were the very obvious mis-coloured but carefully stitched patches to their clothes and sails alike. Economy was their watchword.
There were inevitable clashes with the English fishery authorities, which saw many an appearance of these Breton skippers in our Magistrates Courts, and which in their turn attracted a vociferous local press. But in reality general relationships between the Cornish and the Breton fishermen were respectful and cordial, and in this book John goes a long way to put this cultural interrelationship into a true perspective.
Well illustrated with John’s sketches, and numerous monochrome and colour photographs, these are effectively combined with Michael Pellowe’s attractive and accurate paintings of representative examples of these craft. Throughout the text a great many of the craft concerned in this fishery are identified by name and fishing number, while the rewards and risks of this hazardous fishery are clearly set out in the accompanying accounts.
If I have any criticisms of the book it is that in the binding the text has been carried tight into the central gutter, and unfortunately there is no index. But these points do not detract from the unique insight John has given us into this niche fishery, in a very readable book that is the product of a lifetime’s personal experience and study. Highly recommended and not to be missed.
Reviewed by Tony Pawlyn
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