Part of the Acorn Archive
Hearts of Oak
The Newlyn Riots 1896
The Navy is sent to Mount’s Bay
Over the centuries, Mounts Bay had hosted many fishing fleets from outside the county,
none more numerous than the fleets from Lowestoft, Yorkies, as they were known.
This came to a peak from 1859, when the railways were brought to Penzance, and the opportunity came to transport mackerel and pilchards to Europe and London, quickly.
The only friction came when the already locally tested Newlyn rule of no work of a Sunday was “abused” by the Yorkies, and the Newlyn Riots broke out in 1896.
The rule stemmed from the passing of a Puritan byelaw, in St Ives, dating 1622.
“It is agreed by generall consent,
that henceforth no owners of Boats or nettes shall dryve
or set their Nettes, or owner of seanes rowe
to Steame ( stem ), the Sondaye nighte, or any tyme
before daye of that nighte; who shall transgresse,
each owner shall paye for his defaulte xs ( 10 shillings )
and each fisherman iijs iiijd ( 3 shillings and four pence )
to be levyed of their goodes to the use of the parishe.”
Despite this, over the centuries, there were recorded local cases of abuse. Lowestoft fishermen had no such tradition and so continued to catch fish on the Sabbath, unaware
( originally ) of the rule or the consequences. Incidents occurred in 1860, 1876, 1877, 1887 culminating in the Riots of 1896, where the fish caught by the Lowestoft boats was destroyed by the fishermen of Newlyn and Porthleven.
The violence which broke out was dealt with in parliament. A Lowestoft man, when he complained about the morning's events, was attacked by a dozen local fishermen. Penzance Borough Police were kept in readiness and a large number of special constables sworn in. The town was invaded by police and, realising the seriousness of the situation, the authorities telegraphed for gunboats and troops. A special train brought 350 men of the Royal Berkshire Regiment to Penzance in the evening, and they marched to Newlyn, headed by six magistrates. They were received with jeers and howls of derision; the crowd would not disperse. The troops took possession of the south pier, clearing it of everyone save the Yorkies, who were ordered to leave at once with their boats, which they did amid more jeers and howls; just then HMS FERRET steamed into Mount's Bay and came by the harbour wall.
Leaving a small number of soldiers to guard the pier approach, a strong body of troops and police, again headed by the magistrates, marched through the main streets of the town to the Eastern Pier. Though the crowd made way for them, they howled and yelled like madmen, and hurled all kinds of missiles at the representatives of law and order, repeatedly shouting that they could take care of their own harbour, and would allow no interference.
In consequence of the continued serious rioting, HMS CURLEW and HMS TRAVELLER, each with an armed party of seamen on board, were despatched to Mount's Bay to join HMS FERRET. Meanwhile, news of the disturbance reached a large contingent of the St. Ives fishing fleet, then at Scilly. According to local tradition, they at once set sail for Newlyn, with pennants flying, like an Armada, to show their support for the Mount's Bay men, and put into Newlyn on Tuesday evening.
By Wednesday morning, Newlyn was a lot quieter, and the fishermen would not go out to sea, determined to put a stop to Sunday fishing. The soldiers and the police stayed on duty. During the evening, a large party of youths from Penzance, together with some "Yorkies", marched to Newlyn. Stones were thrown, and windows smashed. The military were called in, who cleared the main road back to the old Penzance Borough boundary. A picket was placed along the road, and at the western end of Penzance promenade a cordon of military and police was drawn. The Lowestoft and Yarmouth fishermen were now accommodated in Penzance dock, and the Town Council, at a special meeting, decided to offer them every assistance in selling their fish for rest of the season.
Another warship, the LEDA, had now joined those already anchored in the bay. Meanwhile, the Home Office refused to receive a deputation of Newlyn fishermen, but agreed to receive a statement from them.
On Thursday, a meeting of fishermen held at the pier entrance appointed a deputation to meet representatives of the Lowcstoft Boatowners' Association at Penzance, but were refused to be able to speak until £800 damages had been paid.
The Fishermen's Committee then drew up their statement to the Home Secretary,
and includes the following ….
"From our great-grandfithers' days down to the present it has been the custom of our port to refrain from fishing on the Saturday night and Sunday night, so that we might have a clear market on Tuesday morning, and have a chance of keeping the Sabbath as well. Lowcstoft and Yarmouth men take advantage of this, contrary to the rules or customs of the port, fish on the Saturday nights and Sunday nights, and after being out several nights, make it a point of coming to market on Monday morning with their fish in a decomposed condition, swamp the market with these rotten fish, and so destroy the week's market.
St. Ives men have succeeded in stopping them from coming to their market with Sunday fish for years; Irishmen, Manxmen, and Scotchmen have succeeded in doing the same, ( we are speaking of drift-fishing now ), and we Cornish Sabbath-loving people only ask them to do the same. We have tried by petitions, and by appeal to local gentlemen to get our grievance redressed, but we could not succeed in bringing the matter before the public until now. True, some of the young lads have gone further than the law would allow; and we have repeatedly asked them to desist from doing anything against the law in the hearing of the military and the police, as they can testify, and we have done no damage to life or property, except in throwing away the Sunday fish as a protest. There are Lowestoft men while we write throwing their fish overboard to show their sympathy with us, and we have a great many Lowestoft men with us. It comes to this, that if Lowestoft men are allowed to persist in doing this, the £100,000 worth of fishing property, owned mostly by the men by whom the boats are manned, is not worth today as many pence, and our wives and children must starve."
On January 2nd 1897, a meeting of St. Ives fishermen, boat-owners and salesmen, passed resolutions affirming their stand on the Sunday fishing principle. On January 8th, the Lowestoft and Yarmouth boatowners, salesmen and skippers met at the Suffolk Arms in Lowestoft. It was agreed that their boats should work from Plymouth as long as possible, and then go to Penzance, only going into Newlyn when forced by poor weather.
A meeting of the Newlyn men took place later in the month to consider a suggestion from the Board of Trade, that a compromise settlement of the Sunday fishing dispute should be adopted, by which East Countrymen should refrain from fishing on Saturday nights. At this meeting there were considerable disturbances, many men shouting that they would have two nights or none, and fight to the bitter end; but after speeches by delegates to the London conference and from Mr. Bolitho, M.P., it was resolved by a large majority to accept the suggestion. Fishermen became divided into “Sunday keepers” and “Sunday breakers” and carried a flag to identify which they were.