What Next: A Cloud Of Herring?

Once it was said the hauls of  herring landed at Fishguard were so great that the fields of West Wales were spread with the excess catch. And if this sounds balmy, decomposing fish would make a good (if environmentally expensive and pretty maloderous) fertiliser. When I read this I then remembered that the farmers of the great Inca Empire of Peru were said to do a similar thing. Before planting their maize seed, they dibbed a hole and dropped a fish in first to feed the growing plant. I’m assuming it wasn’t a fresh one that could otherwise have been eaten.

The sculpture (maker not credited) sits beside the harbour in Lower Fishguard and commemorates the town’s rich herring days. The trade was already established by the 900s CE when the Vikings, who spent a lot of time raiding Wales and Ireland, left off pillaging for a bit of fish buying.  These rapacious sea-raiders called the little inlet Fiskigarðr  and this, according to the town web page, means ‘fish catching enclosure’ in Old Norse. The name Fiscard in fact hung on for centuries after the Vikings were long gone, and only Anglicised at the end of the 19th century. The Welsh name is of course quite different, and probably these days more geographically useful. Abergwaun means the mouth of the Gwaun River.

The herring industry scaled reached industrial heights in the late 18th century. Fifty Fishguard coastal vessels were bringing in catches that were sold in Ireland and the English ports of Bristol and Liverpool. Oats were the other main export, the crop doubtless well fish-nourished on the fields of the West Wales hinterland. It now becomes clear why the town’s shipping was targeted by the American privateer Black Prince in 1779 (see previous post). It looked like the town would be good for £1000 ransom fee. But then looks can be deceptive.


Line Squares #5

Six Word Saturday

A Line Of Defence ~ Fishguard Fort


As defensive promontories go, it could not be better, eight 9-pounder guns set in a fan formation to protect the bays off Fishguard. The guns were in place too in February 1797 when the forces of republican France invaded nearby. (See previous post for ‘the last invasion of mainland Britain.’) Warning blanks were fired from the fort as soon as one of the invader ships was spotted approaching Fishguard, but thereafter it played no part in defending town from the invasion. There are various accounts as to why this was, one being the place was short of cannon balls.

The young commander of the local Fishguard Fencibles and Newport volunteer infantry, Thomas Knox, was at a party when news of invasion reached him by messenger.  He had bought his commission and never seen action and so, thinking the invading force too large to handle, he decided the best course of action was retreat south with his men towards Haverfordwest and there meet up with reinforcements.

He thus left Fishguard to its fate, ordering the fort guns to be spiked, an order that was in fact refused by the three invalid Woolwich gunners appointed to man the fort’s heavy ordnance. On the road, Knox met up with Lord Cawdor and his forces coming the other way, and after a dispute as to who was in charge, Lord Cawdor marched on with their combined manpower to Fishguard  and victory.


In fact Fishguard Fort never does seem to have had much of a military function. It was finally built in 1781 to defend the town after an unfortunate incident that took place in 1779. It was the time of the American War of Independence when attacks on British shipping was considered fair game. An American privateer, Black Prince, captured a local ship and held it for ransom, demanding £1,000. When the townspeople refused to pay, the Black Prince bombarded Fishguard, damaging St. Mary’s church and some of the houses.

One account then has it that a local smuggler, sailing a much smaller vessel, moved in on the privateer and opened fire until the Black Prince departed. After that it was down to Sir Hugh Owen, Lord Lieutenant of Pembrokeshire, who decided to buy the piece of land on the promontory and finance the building of a small fort. But by 1815, and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the fort was already falling into ruin. And so it remains.

Today it is a very excellent look-out point for some coastal viewing along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. For one thing you can watch the coming and going of the Stena Line ferry from Goodwick Harbour, the four-times-a-day departures and arrivals between Fishguard and Rosslare in the Republic of Ireland, filling the heart with thoughts of voyaging.


Line Squares #4

A Stitch-in-Time-line? AKA ‘The Last Invasion Tapestry’


We’d only popped into Fishguard library for a map of the town so we could begin our explorations, and this is what we found: a magnificent creation of crewel-work that can surely hold its own alongside the Bayeux Tapestry which inspired it.

Both works tell of invasions of Great Britain by French forces, but whereas one is an 11th century account of ‘conquest successful’ (and probably everyone who knows a bit of British history will know about 1066 and William the Conqueror), the other marks a bicentennial commemoration of the last invasion of mainland Britain – a two-day shambles in February 1797, when 1400 soldiers of the French Revolutionary Government were put ashore near Fishguard with orders to conquer.

It seems the soldiers were not of the highest calibre militarily speaking. Only 600 were regulars, the rest were apparently  ex-convicts recently released from gaol, and all were under the somewhat elderly command of an Irish-American colonel, one William Tate. Things went wrong from the start. Bad weather prevented French ships from landing the troops at their intended objective near Bristol, and instead they retreated into Cardigan Bay. And when the force was finally landed, and their ships sailed off, abandoning them, many of the soldiers ran amok, looking for food, raiding farmhouses and were quickly beyond control.




On the Welsh side there was also much pandemonium as the local gentry were charged to raise an army. Lots of summoning and gathering hither and thither, an inexperienced young gent initially put in charge of defending militia and making a hash of it. Meanwhile Jemima Nicholas (Jemima Fawr or ‘the great’ as she was later a known), wife of the local cobbler, set forth with a pitchfork, rounded up 12 Frenchmen and marched them into Fishguard where she locked them in the church before resuming her hunt.



In the end Lord Cawdor, commanding British militias gathered from across Pembrokeshire, won the day, though a tale has it that the French only accepted unconditional surrender because they mistook the Welsh women come to watch as the gathering of  a large British army. The women were wearing their traditional tall black hats and red shawls.



As you can see, the tapestry is a delight. Every inch of it brimming with humour and finely executed detail, and all of it using much the same stitch work found in medieval embroidery. The designer, Elizabeth Cramp, also followed a similar lay-out to the Bayeux Tapestry. At 53 cm wide it is a similar depth, although its 30 metre length makes it less than half that of the Bayeux version. It anyway took 77 local people four years to complete and now belongs to a local charitable trust: Fishguard Invasion Centre Trust Ltd. A veritable tour de force.

It was also very difficult to photograph, what with the spotlights and reflections. And I’m sorry I missed catching Jemima Fawr with her pitchfork. But if you go to the link HERE you can spot her in the middle of the header photo and learn more about the making of the tapestry and the names of all those diligent workers who so skilfully applied their needles and threads.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Line Squares #3  Join Becky with her October Squares challenge; the only rule: your header photo (showing lines however you see them) in square format.