“Pilchards! Whose bodies yield the fragrant oil and make the London lamps at midnight smile!” Peter Pindar 1783.

Cornwall 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 Century, pilchard fishing was a major industry. Throughout the summer months large shoals of pilchards were caught off the Cornish coast; then they were taken to pilchard cellars for processing. The pilchards were squeezed flat + oil drained out; producing 18 to 45 litres from each barrel. The oil was mostly sold as lamp oil. Pilchard fishing declined from the mid-20th Century, although small quantities of pilchards are still caught in Cornish waters today.

This home-made lamp, dating to around 1850, used oil from the fish processing to provide light.

Our Cornwall Galleries explore Cornwall’s unique maritime heritage over three floors, bringing to life stories of Cornwall’s maritime history.

Photo of a pilchard oil lamp.