Newlyn Riots

The Newly Riots were a three-day series of mass civil disturbances which too place in Newlyn, Cornwall in 1896. The riots were sparked when certain groups of fishermen began landing fish on a Sunday. Other fishermen were firm in their views that the Sabbath should be observed and were angry that this was being ignored. Eventually the situation spilled over into violence and civil unrest.

Background

Mackerel

The rights to land fish – mostly mackerel – on a Sunday were a cause of the Newlyn Riots.

In the late 1800s Newlyn the predominant industry of Newly was fishing with many of the fishermen being members of Methodist and Protestant religious groups. These groups were steadfast in their belief that Saturday night and all day on Sunday should be a time of religious observance and abstinence from work. However, the fishing industry in Newlyn (and indeed across Britain) had been expanding since the introduction of railways in the mid-1800s which allowed fish to be caught and quickly sent around the country. For the first time fish could be caught in one location and sent elsewhere with such speed that they would still be fresh and marketable (Dover sole, for example, is so called because they were caught in Dover and sent to London, where demand for this species was booming). This opening up of Britain’s fishing industry led to fishermen moving all around the UK to find the most productive fishing grounds. This meant that by that by the 1890s fishermen from all over the Britain worked alongside the Newlyn fishermen to fish the waters around the Cornish coast. The majority of these fishermen came from places in Norfolk such as Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, and were known in Newlyn as ‘Yorkies’.

 The issue arose when the newcomers to Newlyn did not share the belief that Saturday night and Sunday was a holy time and began fishing on during this time, angering the Newlyn fishermen. The situation was further inflamed when the fish the Yorkies had caught on a Sunday raised a higher price at the Monday markets, as the lower number of fish available pushed prices up. A newspaper report from the time reports a local fisherman as saying:

“We are no white feather men. We are Cornishmen fighting for truth, honesty, and Christianity. We will have our Sundays honoured, and if the Lowestoft men are not allowed to bring in fish on Mondays we shall have better prices on Tuesday.”

Sunderland Echo, 20 May, 1896

This report comes from the Sunderland Echo as it is believed that they Newlyn Riots were reported nationally at the time and this paper picked up the news from another paper. Few other newspaper reports of the riots seem to survive to the present day, hence the use of this source.

The Conflict Begins

In May 1896 the Newlyn fishermen decided to take action. Around forty fishermen, backed by a crowd of as many as one thousand Nelwyn residents who were sympathetic to the fishermen, marched on the harbour. The Newlyn fishermen and residents boarded the boats of the Yorkie fishermen and threw catches overboard. When a Yorkie fisherman protested he was beaten up, sparking running battles between the two groups of fishermen along the harbour area. The Newlyn fishermen also began to send messages to fishermen in neighbouring towns to seek the support from other parts of Cornwall. Realising that the situation was escalating Penzance Borough Police began to arrive in the harbour and a boat was sent out to warn the Yorkie fishermen who were still out at sea about what was happening. However, this caused a further incident as a Cornish trawler set out to intercept the boat and prevent it from reaching the fishing vessels. Later in the day fishermen from all over Cornwall began arriving in Newlyn to support the Cornish fishermen.

Escalation and Full Scale Rioting

The following day rioting and skirmished took place between Cornish fishermen and the police all around the Newlyn harbour area. When news arrived that Yorkie fishermen were coming in from sea to land their catch at Penzance several hundred Cornish fishermen made their way to the town with the intention of attacking the Yorkies and destroying their catch. However, a large number of police had assembled to protect Penzance harbour and the Cornish fishermen were repelled. Realising that the situation was becoming increasingly serious the police asked the local magistrates to request military assistance. This was granted several hundred soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the Berkshire Regiment (who were in Plymouth) were sent to the area by rail, and Royal Navy vessels began heading to the area.

RS HMS Ferret (1893)

The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Ferret was sent to the area as part of the military response the the riots.

However, the riots continued with some of the most serious violence taking place. Cornish fishermen clashed with the Yorkies and police attempting to separate the groups found themselves attacked, with rocks being thrown at the police as they tried to retreat. By this time the soldiers had arrived at Penzance railway station and made their way to Newlyn. Despite being jeered and pelted with stones and rocks the soldiers were able to cut through the crowds and rioters and take control of the piers and harbour area. The Yorkies were ordered to leave the area on their boats, which they did, sailing away to jeers and shouts from the assembled crowd of Cornish fishermen and their supporters.

An Abrupt End to the Violence

Once the soldiers had secured the harbour the rioting and civil disturbances continued, with the Cornish fishermen strengthened by fishermen from St Ives arriving to lend their support. However, the resolution of the situation was near. The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Ferret arrived at the scene and entered the harbour and it was made apparent that the Royal Navy vessel would begin to destroy Cornish fishing boats if the rioting continued. The threat of losing their livelihoods, combined with the high level of police and military presence led, to the rioters to begin to disperse and the situation was quickly over. The military stayed in the area for some weeks after the final riot, but the violence and protesting never reoccurred.

Resolution

While the Newlyn fishermen and their supporters no longer rioted they were far from defeated and began a non-violent campaign to ban fishing from Saturday night to Sunday night. The Yorkies vigorously resisted this, but eventually a compromise was put forward. Fishing would be allowed on a Sunday but banned on a Saturday night. This was put to a vote by local magistrates and the Board of Trade where it was narrowly passed. While both the Yorkies and the Cornish fishermen were unhappy with the resolution it was observed by both parties and effectively resolved the situation.

Newlyn harbour today

Newlyn harbour today – a lot more peaceful.

The Newlyn riots were seen being caused by religion, with the resident Newlyn fishermen protesting over the failure of newcomers to observe the Sabbath as a holy day. However, there were other issues which contributed to the severity and scale of the Newlyn fishermen’s response. The fact that fish caught on a Sunday could be sold fresh on a Monday morning seriously reduced the incomes of the Newlyn fishermen which added to their anger, while amount of incomers to the region also caused tension with Newlyn fishermen. Eventually all of these issues erupted into the riots. The Newlyn riots show us that over one hundred years ago, when fish were much more plentiful and fishing methods low-tech, violence and protest could still come about over the issues of commercial fishing.

A play about the Newlyn Riots by Cornish playwright Nick Darke opened in 1999.

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