Looe’s migrating fishing families

Arriving at East Looe, we meet the first substantial community of fishing families on our long trek through the Cornish parishes of Victorian times. In fact, according to the 1851 census fewer than one in ten of the adult men in East Looe got their living from fishing. Full-time fishermen (there may have been many more part-timers) were outnumbered two to one by mariners, boatmen, coastguards and others who worked on the sea. Moreover, there were almost three times as many craftsmen as fishermen in the town, while the number of those working in retail jobs and even farm labouring exceeded that of fishermen.

Looe’s fishing quarter in 1905

Nonetheless, concentrated in the narrow streets between the quay and Higher Market Street, fishermen and their families made up a recognisable community in the town. Although not quite as closed as later nineteenth century fishing communities, two thirds of East Looe’s fishermen had been born there. Half of the rest hailed from West Looe, just across the river. Only two had come from distant places, one born in Gloucestershire and a second in London.

Not that Looe’s fishing families never moved. Richard Dan was a fisherman living with his wife Matilda and two children, one of whom was also named Matilda and included in the Victorian Lives database. The family was found in Chapel Street in 1851 but during the 1850s and 60s they moved from street to street in Looe from one small cottage to another, presumably each somewhat larger than the last in order to accommodate the growing number of children, seven by 1871.

Then in the early 1870s the Dans upped sticks when the whole family moved several hundred miles north to Todmorden on the edge of the Pennines in Yorkshire, about as far as you could get from the sea. The children found jobs in the local cotton industry as binders, stitchers, piecers and testers while Richard, now in his 50s, worked as a carter and horse keeper. For a whole family to move, especially when the parents were in their 50s, was unusual, although not unknown in the economically depressed years of the mid-1870s.

The younger Matilda got married in 1874 in Todmorden, presumably not long after moving there, to a local man – James Taylor. James was a builder’s labourer and in 1881 the couple were living about a mile away from Matilda’s parents and the rest of the family who could be found just outside the town of Todmorden.

The site of Knotts Street, Todmorden, home of Matilda and James in 1881 – the cottages now long gone

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