Beyond the bustle and bright lights of Newquay’s busy streets is the Huer’s Hut. It perches on the cliff top at Towan Head with the crashing sea below. This iconic white building is in part a historic, cultural monument to an industry that once meant so much to the Cornish people and Cornwall’s past prosperity.
It was from this place the huer kept watch for the shoals of pilchards that were once a mainstay of our economy and a vital source of food. The job of the huer, the lookout, was a serious one. On his sharp eyes and concentration depended the livelihood and welfare of the entire community. When his signal was given, sometimes a shout of ‘Hevva, Hevva‘, sometimes a blast on a trumpet, the whole village would drop whatever it was that they were doing a head for the harbour to launch the fleet.
“The huer cautiously and vigilantly surveys the ocean below him in anxious expectation of the coming shoal. He is provided with two little white flags; these are his telegraph, by the various well-known motions of which he is perfectly understood by those below.”royal cornwall gazette, 24th july 1802
Once the boats were launched it was the huer’s job, from his high vantage point, to guide them to the shoal of fish and let them know when to shoot their nets. The newspaper description above from 1802 reports that the huer has two white flags to signal the fleet but other sources describe them as waving bunches of yellow gorse. They would use a series of agreed upon hand signals, a kind of semaphore, to instruct the boats and get them into position. Some also had horns or trumpets to blow or even huge tin megaphones to shout into! Put all these elements together, the flashing shoal of purply-silver fish, the crowds of excited villagers, the flurry of boats in the water, the huer shouting and waving his arms and the whole frenetic scene comes into vivid focus in your mind’s eye!
The term ‘huer’ is only used in Cornwall as far as I understand. It seems that the word comes from the French ‘to shout’ or ‘to hoot’.
Huers were also sometimes called ‘balkers’ in Cornwall, possibly from the English word ‘bawl’, again meaning to shout. Therefore their huts to were referred to as balking houses and so have lent their name to a number of headlands where they once stood – Bawken Head in Porthgwarra, The Balk in St Ives and Tor Balk at Kynance.
An Old Beacon
The huer’s hut in Newquay is a substantial building with thick walls and a large chimney. The structure is almost certainly medieval, built in the 15th century, making it around 600 years old. Inside is a fireplace below a high arched roof and it seems much bigger than necessary for a watchman’s needs.
It has been suggested that the hut was not originally built as a lookout but that it was in fact once the home of a hermit. This hermit supposedly lit a beacon there to help guide ships into Newquay’s harbour. However, R. Morton Nance offers another explanation for the size of the huer’s hut in his book A Glossary of Cornish Sea-Words. Nance writes that these huts were often two storeys to give the watchmen extra height and therefore a better view further out to sea, and that the space was needed for storing the paraphernalia required to signal the boats, such as the trumpets, flags and ‘bushes’.
Men of Superstition
“A Cornishman’s national pride is in his pilchards”wilkie collins, 1851
The position of huer was an important one within a fishing community during the pilchard season and was usually filled by an older man with a good deal of experience with pilchard fishing. They could be relatively well paid and, depending on the arrangement with the harbour, some even received a percentage of the catch as well as their wages. Their skills were on demand, in June 1885 the Cornishman reported that one Cornish huer had been ‘headhunted’ to go a work in Australia.
However, the burden of responsibility also carried the extra weight of superstition. In October 1897 the West Briton reported a curious case in Cadgwith, a veteran huer’s job was on the line because the fisherman had begun to think he was the cause of their bad luck that season. After repeated failures with their catch the seiners held a meeting and it was decided to give the old timer one last chance. If there was no success that time, he would have to be replaced.
The elderly huer was understandably upset and spent a restless night tossing and turning in bed. Then very early the next morning his wife awoke to find him leaving the house. He told her that he could smell that ‘the fish were about’. Within minutes of him leaving she heard the huer’s cry go up and the fishermen took to their boats. The newspaper reported that ‘that day the boats caught a great school of pilchards making a large sum of money for each man.’ The huer had redeemed himself!
It was also considered unlucky to eat a pilchard head first. “Doing so will keep the head of the pilchard away from the coast.”
The last of the Cornish huers, a Mr. Thomas James Hocking of Porthleven died in May 1948. Hocking had belonged to five generations of men who had preformed that duty on the south coast.
The Silver Darlings & Fairmaids
Newquay didn’t actually get its name until the 1830s, although the quay from which the name derives is mentioned as early as 1439. For hundreds of years the little harbour was just a no-name fishing village with an active fleet of ships and curing houses where pilchards could be pressed and salted. Before the 19th century places such as Towan, Crantock and St Columb were considered the principle villages in the area. And an amusing occurrence reported to have taken place in Crantock goes some way as to illustrate the importance of the pilchards to the Cornish.
“Once in 1835 the huer’s cry was raised when a funeral was in progress at Crantock. Everyone rushed away, leaving the parson and the sexton to finish things off as decently as possible.”S. H. Burton, 1935
The pilchard was a Cornish national obsession! When they would arrive, where the shoals would be sighted first, how many there would be and what they would make were the hot topics of conversation up and down the coasts for much of the year. Books were written about their habits and newspapers readily reported the weights of catches, both good and bad, made in all the harbours day after day. The fish were known as ‘pilchurs’ or ‘pilshies’ in the Cornish dialect, when they were broiled they might be called ‘scowlers’ and smoked they were known as ‘fairmaids’ or ‘fermades’ which probably comes from the French word meaning to smoke – ‘fumez’.
On one particular day in October 1863 a shoal arrived at Newquay so huge that it was said that the whole bay, from Towan Head to Trevelgue, was filled with pilchards. The trumpet sounded from the huer’s hut and the boats went out. A few days later the Cornish Telegraph published the details of the catch. Pilchards were packed into large barrels called hogsheads, each barrel about 1.2m tall and when full weighing roughly 450kg (1000lb). The Newquay’s seines caught a massive amount of fish that day – between six boats they brought in was estimated to be 9500 hogsheads of pilchards!
The greatest recorded number of pilchards ever taken in one seine was 5600 hogsheads or 16,500,000 fish in St Ives in 1868.
Visiting the Huer’s Hut
The Huer’s Hut at Newquay is free to visit and just a short walk from the town on King Edward Crescent. From here with such a stunning view of the coast in all directions it is easy to see why this spot was chosen for the lookout or the beacon all those years ago.