Newlyn Women

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Newlyn is a town and a historic fishing port located in the county of Cornwall in England with a population of around 3,600 inhabitants. It has the largest and busiest fishing port in England and, together with Looe, the largest fish market in Cornwall.

The natural protection afforded in Newlyn has enabled many local fishermen to use this area as a preferred landing site. Newlyn’s Harbour was first recorded in 1435 by the Bishop of Exeter. It has been an industrial harbour where fishermen built a fishing fleet known as “Luggers” to capture sardines. The strategic location of the port allows exports to European countries and supply to London restaurants and markets with fresh fish.

Today, fishing is still the primary economic activity and the fleet is the major supplier of Cornish sardines. Cornwall has 483km of coastline and around 40 species of fish are landed on Cornish shores daily. Fishing in Cornwall is said to be not just job but a way of life handed down for generations. “It’s tough, it’s dangerous, but it’s also an obsession, an innate part of Cornish existence.” [1]

Fishermen of the region have traditionally fished Cornish pilchards or sardines. Most Cornish fish takes place in the Celtic sea and in the English Channel. At the fish market in Newlyn, the landed fish is graded and sorted. This is the place where negotiations take place between the auctioneers and buyers.

There is evidence suggesting that in 1841 hundreds of women were processing the fish, Women worked on a long table and at the head of the table was “the fishwife queen installed on a flowery throne” (ibid p.6). Women were also known as fish hawkers asthey used to sell the fish on foot, covering long distances andcarrying heavy loads of fish and salt in their baskets. In the 20ss and 30s women were participating in the packing of pilchards, skilfully laying them out into barrels called “casks” which were then exported to Italy, the main international market.

Superstition has also negatively influenced women’s role in fisheries. It is reported that in 1920 in the Cornish parish of Sennen, fishermen locked their women indoors for fear that “they catch sight of the fish before it had been safely landed” (ibid, p.6). Women on board were associated with unlucky events. However, women’s supportive and caring role for the industry in Newlyn is expressed by remarkable women such as Miss Nora Bolitho who financed the National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen in 1911. She was concerned with poverty and despair of the fishermen and used to read novels and newspaper to entertain them. There is also evidence that in the 70s women were part of fishing related activities: women used to make “cod ends” with rope suspended from a rail in their living rooms.[2]

Nowadays, Newlyn’s largest vessels are beam trawlers owned by W. Stevenson and Sons Ltd, one of Cornwall's largest fish producers, the director of the company is Mrs. Elizabeth Stevenson a woman of power in the sector. However, this is the only example of a woman involved directly in an authoritative position in the industry.

In 1973 Britain joined the EEC which represented a change in the British fishing industry. Being subject to European regulation means fishermen are bound to the European Fishery Policy which imposes quotas for individual species varying between designated areas. The Cornish fishermen therefore believe that their very existence is under threat.


  1. Scolding, Jenny; Scolding, Bill (2012); A guide to Cornish Fish. Serpentine Design, Cornwall.
  2. Smart, Dave (2009); The Cornish Fishing Industry A Brief History. Cornwall.
Trewin, Carol; Woolfitt, Adam (2006); Cornish Fishing and Seafood; Book Designated and Production; Penzance, Corwall.