Polperro Postscripts

A blog for anyone with an interest in Polperro, publishing and people... with occasional musings on history and humanity.



The Brilliant was a big three-masted lugger whose owners included, among others, Zephaniah Job and John Quiller of Polperro during the 1780s. Though she may well have been engaged in the smuggling trade that flourished between Guernsey and Polperro at the end of the 18th century, she was also credited with having seized a number of valuable prizes. References to her privateering exploits crop up frequently among Job’s surviving papers, including a detailed description of her rigging and equipment in 1786:

                       Three-masted lugger of 120 tons,                                       

Hull, Masts, Yards, Standing and Running Rigging good as she came in from the sea.

1 Large Mainsail

1 Great Foresail

1 Trysail

1 Main Topsail

1 Working Foresail to ye fore Mast

1 Maccarony foresail

2 Storme foresails

1 fore topsail

4 Jibbs

3 Mizzens

2 Cables almost new & 2 Ankers good

1 Copper Kettle

1 do. Teakettle

2 Brass Compasses with sundry other stores belong to the said Luggar Brilliant’

The Brilliant was really a Guernsey ship but in 1793 Letters of Marque were granted to her commander, John Quiller, against French vessels. At the time, she carried a crew of 60 and was armed with 12 carriage guns and 6 swivel guns. Shortly after setting out from St. Peter Port she quickly recaptured an English ship that the French had seized previously. A few months later however, under a Guernsey commander, she disappeared, presumed captured or sunk by the French. There are a few tantalising references to her among Job’s letters to the Guernsey merchants but nothing to indicate her fate.

Nothing, that is, until I was contacted by a French maritime historian, Jean Rouffet, asking if I knew anything about a vessel named the Brilliant that had apparently been captured by the French in 1793. He had come across a picture of a three-masted vessel on a dish (right) produced in Bayonne in 1800 which he had subsequently identified as the Brilliant, seized by a larger French naval vessel named Lionne after a brief but intense exchange of fire in December 1793.

The British prize was taken to Rochefort where she was much admired and soon taken into service by the French Navy. Renamed Brillant, she became one of the fastest ships in the French fleet and was credited with the capture of a number of foreign ships. Later service in the West Indies ended with her being declared unfit in 1799. After undergoing repairs, the Brillant returned to Bayonne where she was put on guard duty until eventually being broken up. Her timbers however were used in the building of a new lugger also named Brillant which went on to capture three British ships in 1803!








Cornwall's Pioneer Photographer

Posted on February 28, 2019

Some of the earliest photographs taken in Cornwall in the 18th century are the product of a patient of Dr Jonathan Couch of Polperro. The man in question was Lewis Harding (1807-1893); encouraged to take up photography as a therapeutic treatment following a nervous breakdown, he was the grandson of the erstwhile local squire, Rev Sir Harry Trelawny.

One of Harding’s earliest photographs was of Jonathan Couch himself, pictured seated at Trelawne holding the tusk of an Indonesian wild pig in October 1856 (right). Photography then was in its infancy and the equipment required was cumbersome, so that almost all of Harding’s later subjects were drawn from the residents of Polperro where he lived.

Many of them were local fishermen. Indeed, one of Harding’s most notable legacies is a series of 80 head and shoulder portraits of Polperro fishermen and other village men. Among them, John Oliver the customs officer, Richard Curtis the local preacher, William Minards the boot and shoemaker, Joseph Geddye the landlord of the Three Pilchards Inn, all part of the fabric of village life in a Cornish fishing village 150 years ago.

Lewis Harding was using a collodion process. Discovered in 1846, it was made by dissolving gun-cotton with a mixture of alcohol and ether and was originally used to treat wounds, but in 1851 Frederick Scott Archer used it for the first time to coat photographic glass plates. The surviving sepia prints are still of a high quality, but more recently there have been moves to colourise them. The results are remarkable, as this portrait of William Adams (1814-1893) shows.

Packing Pilchards in Polperro

Posted on October 15, 2018

Polperro once relied upon the sea for nearly everything: food, transport, trade, defence and contact with the outside world. Fishing was always a vital part of the Cornish way of life and in the 18th and 19th centuries and pilchard fishing was a major industry in Polperro. Throughout the summer months huge shoals of pilchards were caught off the south Cornish coast and then taken to pilchard cellars, called pallaces, for processing.

Pallace Court, above the Museum in the Warren, was once such a building. In 1800, Reginald Barrett leased a pallace on the Outer Quay. Another pallace stood at Kit Hill on Talland Hill, leased to James Pearce (1753-1815) and his wife Ann (neé Peake) but by 1813 this had been converted into an inn with a brewhouse attached.

In these buildings, women salted and packed the pilchards up against the walls until a solid bulk three feet deep and six feet high was raised. After a month had elapsed, the fish were packed into hogsheads (straight-sided barrels that held 3,000 fish and designed to leak) and the contents pressed by heavy weights so that the oil and salt seeped out into specially made drains, producing up to 45 litres from each barrel. This ‘train oil’ was collected for use in lamps or sold for use in the tanning industry.

Even before 1800, Polperro pilchards were sold far and wide, including Italian ports such as Livorno. The fish was purchased almost exclusively by Italian Catholics for religious fasting. Hence the traditional toast of Cornish fishermen:

                      Here’s a health to the Pope; may he never know sorrow,

With pilchards today and pilchards tomorrow.

Good luck to his Holiness; may he repent,

And add just six months to the length of his Lent;

And tell all his vassals from Rome to the poles,

There’s nothing like pilchards for saving their souls.

Later, in the 20th century, two Italians – the Teglio bothers – settled in Polperro and leased the fish store below Pallace Court (now the Polperro Museum) from where they exported pilchards to their home country.

Pilchard fishing declined from the mid-20th century, although small quantities of pilchards are still caught in Cornish waters today.