According to local legend in 1895 Mevagissey became the first place in Cornwall, maybe even one of the first places in the UK, to have electric street lighting. Amazingly the harbour’s new power station was run entirely on pilchard oil. But this innovation is actually less surprising once you learn that this small fishing community had actually already been lighting lamps on the streets of London for more than one hundred years.
“Meat, money & light all in one night!”Cornish epithet describing the pilchard.
Squeezing Cornish ‘Train’ Oil
The importance of fishing to Cornwall and its people, in particular the shoals of pilchard, is legendary. We all know that whole communities were sustained by these ‘fair maids’, that livelihoods were entirely dependent on this seasonal bounty, not only as a means of income but also as a source of food through the long, harsh winters. But many may not realise that the pilchard was a source of light too.
A large amount of oil was produced as a by-product of pilchard processing. As the little, silver fish were pressed into barrels their natural oils oozed out and were collected. Just one barrel could produce between eighteen and forty-five litres of oil! And considering that thousands of barrels, or hogheads as they were known, were produced each year it is little wonder that these industrious folk found a way to make money from it too.
Borlase estimated that between 1747-56 more than 29,000 hogheads of pilchards were exported to France and Spain . . . that is a whole lot of oil!
According to Keith Harris in his book ‘Hevva!‘ many local families supplemented their income by selling the extracted fish oil. Pilchard oil, also known as ‘Train Oil’ (from the German word traen meaning teardrop), was the most commonly used but some fish wives also sold hake liver oil too which I have read was sold to blacksmiths and shipwrights.
These fish oils had a wide variety of applications, as lubricants, for waterproofing, even as dietary supplements and much, much more. The newspapers in the early 19th century were full of ideas on how ‘train oil’ could be utilised about the home and workplace. It was suggested that it could be used as a remedy for turnip fly, for keeping blight from apple trees and flies off sheep or for warding crows off your crops and driving away rats. Most of these applications seemed to rely on one of the oil’s most noticeable attributes – its rather pungent smell!
(All I keep thinking is that if rats didn’t it that smell really must have been pretty bad.)
But the most common use of pilchard oil in ordinary homes during this time was as a source of lighting.
Powered by Pilchard Oil
Until the advent of paraffin, pilchard oil was a cheap, if rather smelly alternative to candlelight. Cornish fish wives would bring large jars of the oil to local businesses in towns like Mevagissey and exchange it for goods or sell it for cash.
In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries pilchard oil was an everyday purchase for ordinary country folks and was burnt in people’s homes in small earthenware, or sometimes tin, lamps known as ‘chills’. So as the old saying goes the pilchard really did provide meat, money and light.
Some of the earliest lamps in Cornwall, according to Robert Morton Nance the founder of the Old Cornwall Society, were made from seashells. Croggan shells, the Cornish for limpet, were the most frequently used and were hung up with wire and filled with train oil.
“Pilchards in those days were bulked in almost every house and the pressing stones could still be seen lying about in odd corners in fishing ports . . . a familiar cry in Penzance Market was ‘Buy my train oil’ raised by the jowsters who brought the oil in cowls on their backs. When better light was required it had for long centuries before been possible to burn train in a superior lamp known as a ‘Chill’ . . . The name ‘Chill’ seemed to have been derived from shell.”The Cornishman, 2nd March 1927
In some ports however pilchard oil was being produced on a much more industrial scale and huge quantities were being sold across the country, most especially to the capital city.
“Until the last century ‘train’ or pilchard oil could be bought in every town, much as paraffin is bought today.”Keith Harris, Hevva!, 1983
In the 18th century the streets of London were lit with lamps filled with pilchard oil and Mevagissey it seems provided much of that resource.
“In 1791 forty-seven tons on pilchard oil was shipped to London [from Mevagissey] in one consignment . . . In 1793 no less than 220 tons were dispatched!”Cornish Guardian, 18th January 1940.
In 1805 a total of 6368 tons of train oil was recorded as being imported into London and a report published by the House of Commons showed that the cost of paving and lighting the streets in the City of London that year was £27,543 10s 4d.
Spreading Salutary Light
The advent of street lighting completely changed the atmosphere and landscape of London’s streets, literally throwing light into some of the city’s darkest corners.
The following poem was written in 1783 by Peter Pindar (the secret penname of the Truro doctor John Walcott) and it is a fascinating window into the past which links our Cornish pilchard oil to the sinister underbelly of London society. Walcott was a well travelled man who had settling in Cornwall and in his poem he vividly describes how pilchard oil fuelled the street lamps illuminated the faces of London’s sex-workers.
“Pilchards! whose bodies yield the fragrant oil,
And makes the London lamps at midnight smile;
Which lamps, wide spreading salutary light,
Beam on the Wandering Beauties of the night,
And show each gentle youth their cheeks’ deep roses,
And tell him, whether they have eyes and noses.“
Rather tellingly Walcott implies that the light also revealed to the passing gents whether or not these ladies of the night had syphilis. Some of the severest symptoms of the disease were the collapse of cartilage in the nose and permanent blindness, hence the line referring to whether they had eyes and noses.
Beyond pilchard oil, the famous inventor William Murdoch of Redruth was the first person in the UK to use gas to light his home. He began conducting experiments in the early 1790s, finally settling on coal-gas as the most effective form of power. Murdoch first lit his own house in Redruth in 1792 and then in 1798 he used gas to light the Soho Foundry in Birmingham. This factory built engines and pumps and in 1802 Murdoch lit up the outside of the main building in a public display, much to the delight of the gathered crowds.
The first demonstration of the electric light in Cornwall happened in Truro in September 1850 (I think) when Mr. J. N. Hearder showed off a blub to the Truro Literary Institution. But we were still a long way away from this invention becoming common place.
And although Mevagissey has gone down in history as the first place in Cornwall to have electric powered street lighting I have found reports that may, in part, disprove this.
According to contemporary newspaper reports a company called Veale & Co Ltd demonstrated street lights in St Austell in 1886, whilst the Mevagissey Electric Supply Company did not appear until nine years later in 1895.
“Electric Light – the busy little town of St Austell was all astir last week. For sometime preparations have been in progress for lighting the town with electric light, Mr J. E. Veale of North Hill, St Austell being the enterprising promoter and Mr J. M. Coon the engineer. A capital lot of machinery necessary to the purposes has been erected in one of Mr Veale’s large warehouses and the streets of St Austell have been torn up for the purpose of laying the cables etc. On Wednesday it was found necessary to continue this work through the night to prevent blocking the thoroughfare, and in order that the workmen might have sufficient light it was decided to erect temporary fittings and illuminate the front street of the town with the wonderful “fairy” light. This was soon rumoured about the neighbourhood, and by ten o’clock in the evening hundreds of people had assembled. Whilst the crowd was awaiting the illumination various speculations were afloat among the people but all were good humoured and quietly waited until the mysterious current was turned on which wonderfully pleased the onlookers. It was very gratifying to those who were responsible for the undertaking that though the erections were only temporary, and the first time of experimenting, that the light continued to burn unintermittently, and was indeed a great success. It is expected that the connections will shortly be completed and the shareholders of the gas company are subsequently beginning to feel anxious.”Famouth Packet, 22nd May 1886
The newspapers continued to report on Mr Veale’s escapades for the rest of the year including lighting up St Austell’s market house and the town’s horticultural show that August, as well as putting “thirty lamps round the fountain being coloured red, green and blue”. It is unclear whether these lights were powered by pilchards too but it seems fairly likely. It does appear that the St Austell street lights were only temporary however . . . so perhaps, if that was the case, Mevagissey still wins!
The humble pilchard is as much a symbol of Cornwall’s past as copper and tin, but the era in which it was an integral part of the economy and everyday Cornish lives seems a world away from our own now. Yet the many uses, however outlandish or surprising, that were found for pilchard oil harks back to a time that in many ways we should be looking to recapture. A time when truly nothing was wasted, when we innovated and adapted what nature provided, something that we should be striving more towards today.