Of Puritans and Pilchards

In recent years, following the impact of Brexit, fishing regulation has become a recurring topic in the UK’s political discussions. Similarly, in the 17th century control over piscatorial exports was controversial. In our latest blog Dr Patrick Little, from our Commons 1640-1660 section, looks to the Cornish coast and the politicisation of their local delicacy, pilchards...

In the Parliaments of the 1650s it is rare to find direct evidence of MPs working for their constituents on particular issues, and rarer still to be able to trace the entire process from request to action to expression of thanks. An exchange from the summer of 1659, between two godly Cornish MPs, is therefore worth exploring.

Colonel Robert Bennett was a powerful figure in interregnum Cornwall. He was elected as a recruiter MP for West Looe to the Rump Parliament in October 1651 and was selected to represent the county in the Nominated Assembly of 1653. Although he sat for his home borough of Launceston in all the protectorate Parliaments, he was no friend of the Cromwellian state, welcoming the return of the Rump in May 1659 and resuming his seat shortly afterwards. Among his clients in Cornwall was Richard Lobb (MP for Mitchell in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament), who greeted the collapse of the Cromwellian regime with enthusiasm, telling Bennett that he praised God for ‘casting aside that usurped government of a single person’ and restoring ‘you and the rest of the worthy members of the ever-honoured old Parliament in peace and quietness once again … for carrying on of the good old cause’ (FSL, X.d.483 (124)). In the months that followed, Lobb acted as conduit between Bennett at Westminster and a number of Cornish interest groups, including those involved in tin mining and the pilchard trade.

Pilchards (Sardina pilchardus) had been a major Cornish export since the sixteenth century. The trade with Catholic Europe, with its high demand for fish on fast days and Lent, was of primary importance. The Navigation Act of 1651 and the war with Spain that followed had disrupted seaborne trade, and some attempt was made in the June 1657 Act for giving Licence for Transporting of Fish in Foreign Bottoms [i.e. ships’ holds] to impose new regulations, including a duty of £1 5s for every tun of pilchards exported by English merchants, with twice that imposed on foreigners. This duty was unpopular, not least because it forced merchants to enter into bonds to guarantee payment, and in April 1659 the Commons resolved to cancel all bonds ‘for any Fish laden by any such English Merchants lading any Fish in the Bottoms of this Commonwealth, and manned with the People of the same’ (CJ vii. 642a). The forced closure of the third protectorate Parliament meant that no legislation to that effect was passed. Under the Rump, an attempt to have the duty removed and the bonds rescinded as part of a new customs and excise bill was rejected on 22 June. This led to further lobbying. In a letter to Bennett of 29 June, Lobb asked Bennett to ‘move that the vote of the House of the late Parliament might be confirmed by this, for the delivery up of the bonds given for pretended custom put upon fish after Englishmen on English vessels’ (FSL, X.d.483 (124)). Bennett did not let the matter lie for long, and on 20 August the Commons ordered

That English merchants, who trade in fish and transport the same in English bottoms beyond the Sea, shall pay the same duties, and none other than were paid by them on or before the twentieth of April 1653. Resolved, &c. That all bonds entered into for or by reason of any other charge, imposition, or custom, laid upon the fishery since the twentieth of April 1653, are null and void; and shall be delivered up, and cancelled

Journal of the House of Commons vii 763b

That this was principally Bennett’s doing is shown by Lobb’s grateful letter of 29 August: ‘I heartily thank you for your great pains about taking off the custom from our fish’ (FSL, X.d.483 (127)).

A barrel of Cornish pilchards

Every good MP deserved pilchards. In September, Lobb sent Bennett two barrels, one of pickled pilchards and the other of salted and pressed pilchards (‘both very good’), as an acknowledgement of his ‘favour in being instrumental to take off the tax from fish’ and a sign that ‘our fish owners will not forget you’. Lobb even included detailed instructions on how to prepare these piscatorial delicacies:

For the pickled pilchards they may be dressed several ways, viz. roasted on a gridiron or boiled or fried or baked in pies … as for the pressed pilchards, the best way to eat them is to have their head and tail cut off, and a little of the back and belly cut off and then may take each side from the bones, when each side being divided in two parts in the breadth through the length will make two excellent anchovies, being put into a sallet dish spread abroad as anchovies use to be put with oil; raw, as they are in the barrel, they may also be eaten dressed any way as pickled pilchards.

Folger Shakespeare Library, X d.483 (128)


Further reading:

Journal of the House of Commons vol. vii

Maurice Ashley, Financial and Commercial Policy under the Cromwellian Protectorate (London, 1962)

Ruth Mayers, 1659: the Crisis of the Commonwealth (Woodbridge, 2004)

Biographies of Robert Bennett, Richard Cromwell and Richard Lobb, and constituency articles on the county of Cornwall and borough of Mitchell are being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660. Follow the research of our Civil War project through the James I to Restoration blog series.

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