"In Praise of the Pilchard, that Modest Fish"


by F. A. Burkle-Young


                Of the pilchard, the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is: "a small sea fish, Clupea pilchardus, closely allied to the herring, but smaller, and rounder in form; it is taken in large numbers on the coasts of Cornwall and Devon, and forms a considerable article of trade." Other close relatives of the pilchard are the sardine and, in the New World, the menhaden. Although still eaten, it is not on many lists of the most delicious fish. Sometimes it is used as bait when fishing for such deep-sea delicacies as yellowtail. This humble creature has a literary presence, too — from the simple aphorism "to take sturgeons with pilchards," to get large returns from a small outlay, to Shakespeare's "Fooles are as like husbands, as Pilchers are to Herrings (TN, III.1.39). Throughout earlier times, pilchards brought wealth and security to the people of England's south coast, because they were so plentiful, so easy to catch; and they could be salted, packed, and shipped easily, as a ready source of protein that was accessible to the poor. Daniel Defoe gives the best account of them in an earlier age, in A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain:


From hence we went still south about seven miles (all in view of this

river) to Dartmouth, a town of note, seated at the mouth of the River

Dart, and where it enters into the sea at a very narrow but safe

entrance. . .  I had the curiosity here, with the assistance of a merchant

of the town, to go out to the mouth of the haven in a boat to see the

entrance, and castle or fort that commands it; and coming back with the

tide of flood, I observed some small fish to skip and play upon the

surface of the water, upon which I asked my friend what fish they were.

Immediately one of the rowers or seamen starts up in the boat, and,

throwing his arms abroad as if he had been bewitched, cries out as loud

as he could bawl, "A school! a school!" The word was taken to the shore

as hastily as it would have been on land if he had cried "Fire!" And by

that time we reached the quays the town was all in a kind of an uproar.


The matter was that a great shoal — or, as they call it, a "school" —

of pilchards came swimming with the tide of flood, directly out of the

sea into the harbour. My friend whose boat we were in told me this was a

surprise which he would have been very glad of if he could but have had

a day or two's warning, for he might have taken 200 tons of them. And

the like was the case of other merchants in town; for, in short, nobody

was ready for them, except a small fishing-boat or two -- one of which

went out into the middle of the harbour, and at two or three hauls took

about forty thousand of them. We sent our servant to the quay to buy

some, who for a halfpenny brought us seventeen, and, if he would have

taken them, might have had as many more for the same money. With these

we went to dinner; the cook at the inn broiled them for us, which is

their way of dressing them, with pepper and salt, which cost us about a

farthing; so that two of us and a servant dined — and at a tavern, too

— for three farthings, dressing and all. And this is the reason of

telling the tale. What drink — wine or beer — we had I do not

remember; but, whatever it was, that we paid for by itself. But for our

food we really dined for three farthings, and very well, too.


The vast size of the schools of pilchards around Britain was proverbial for centuries. Almost two hundred years after Defoe, Rudyard Kipling used it as an image in his poem, "Big Steamers":


Then I'll build a new lighthouse for all you Big Steamers,

         With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through.

 Oh, the Channel's as bright as a ball-room already,

         And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe.


                But the humble pilchard has done more than merely feed large numbers of ordinary people cheaply. It has advanced civilization more than any other fish. The story of how it came to do so starts with Anne, daughter of Richard Cary, a wealthy merchant in Bristol — in Tudor times, the second city in England, after London. She was born in 1565, when her father was fifty. Her mother, Joan Holton, was her father's second wife.  When Richard Cary died five years later, he left Anne ten pounds in his will. Now she was fatherless and with ten pounds to her name — not an heiress, by any means. She seems to have received good care and, in due course, one of her brothers, perhaps Richard the younger or Christopher, arranged a marriage for her with Nicholas Ball, a distinctly middle-aged man who was the mayor of Totnes — a prosperous town on the river Dart. Totnes, the second oldest borough in England, and one of only three places in Devon mentioned in William the Conqueror's Domesday Book, enjoyed centuries of prosperity from the rich fishing along England's south coast.  Ball, the scion of a family long established in Chudleigh, about fifteen miles away, had come to Totnes to participate in the town's good fortune. Within a few years, he had become the "pilchard king" of the town, in the business of salting and packing thousands of pilchards for distant consumption. His business success and wealth had, in turn, led to his mayoralty. The marriage of Anne and Nicholas, that May-December arrangement,  took place about 1583. There is no record of Nicholas having had an earlier marriage, so Anne may well have been intended to be the chief trophy of his career, a pretty young bride to favor him and cosset him into, and through, old age.

                Anne may have had other ideas, though. Perhaps she knew the story of how Mary of England, bartered in marriage by her brother Henry VIII to Louis XII of France, had sailed angrily across the Channel at eighteen to wed her fifty-two-year-old husband; how she ran him ragged with festivities and celebrations both in and out of the bedchamber; how she saw him die eighty-four days after the wedding; and how she married her sweetheart, Charles Brandon, later duke of Suffolk, in Paris, only sixty-one days after her widowhood began. Or perhaps Anne Ball conceived of a similar idea on her own; or perhaps the teen-aged bride was just lucky. After a short marriage, which produced at least two daughters, she was a widow in possession of her husband's very considerable fortune. Indeed, she was now the wealthiest, most eligible, and pretty non-aristocratic catch in the south of England.

                Now enters the second player in our fishy drama.  Thomas Bodley was born at Exeter on March 2, 1545. His father, John, was a man of advanced Protestant principles, so, soon after the accession of Queen Mary in 1553, the family fled, first to Wesel in Westphalia, and then onward to Frankfurt and to Geneva, where they remained for five years, and where John took a leading role in preparing the Geneva Bible — the first English Bible printed in Roman type and the first to divide the chapters into verses. Young Thomas attended the University of Geneva briefly, where he heard lectures from John Calvin himself. In 1559, soon after Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, the Bodley family thankfully returned home, where John obtained a royal patent to distribute the new Bible. Soon afterwards, Thomas matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, from which he received his degree in 1563, after which he was made a fellow of Merton College. In 1566, after an additional course of reading in Greek, he received his M. A.; and, in 1569, he became a proctor and the deputy public orator of the university. For seven more years he remained at Oxford, apparently quite happily. In 1576, however, he abruptly left the university to travel extensively in Europe, following a path which, in later centuries, would come to be called the "grand tour." His travels in Italy, France, and Germany gave him the chance to learn Italian, Spanish, and French very well. After his return, he was appointed one of the gentleman-ushers to Queen Elizabeth, perhaps because of his academic connections, or perhaps as a reward for his father's loyalty. Soon afterwards, he decided to try his hand at politics, and stood for the Parliamentary seat for Hythe, which he lost. A few weeks later, however, he was chosen as the member for Plymouth in Hampshire and took his seat in the House on November 23, 1584. He left the House in April, 1585, when he was sent to the court of Frederick II of Denmark to further negotiations for an alliance between the Danish king and several Protestant German princes. He was outstandingly successful, and opened a career that proved to be his true calling: diplomacy.

                In 1586, he again stood for a seat in Parliament and was elected the member for St. German's in Cornwall, much closer to his roots in Exeter than Plymouth had been. It was perhaps at this time, in traveling down to his constituency, that he passed through Totnes and met the wealthy Widow Ball.  What is certain is that his suit was successful, and that they were married in 1587. Bodley had been comfortable, but not wealthy. Now, thanks to his wife's pilchard fortune, he was more than secure for the rest of his life.

                He soon parted from his bride, in the summer of 1588,  to go to France on a delicate and secret diplomatic mission to Henri III. When he returned, he was sent quickly on his most important mission. In early 1589, he was made the English envoy to the court of Maurits van Oranje-Nassau, the Stadtholder of the Netherlands, at The Hague.  once he and Anne arrived in the Netherlands — she traveled with him this time — he was made a member of the Council of State of the United Provinces, with the right to vote on all questions. For seven years, he was successful in his delicate and difficult diplomatic post, but he found trouble at home when his career became enmeshed in the quarrels between William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's great minister of state, and Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, the Queen's new favorite. Bodley disliked his work and pressed frequently to be recalled. Finally, in 1596, he came home for the last time. Two years later, he was importuned to go to Abbeville to take part in the negotiations between Spain and the Netherlands, but he refused absolutely — one final attempt to bring him back to public life occurred in 1604, when he was offered the plum of English foreign affairs, the office of secretary of state, but he refused that, as well.

                Thanks to his wife's money, he no longer needed to earn a living, in either private or public life. He seems to have meditated long on how best to use his time and money in some serviceable way. Finally, on February 23, 1598, he wrote to the vice-chancellor at Oxford, offering to restore the library, which had been founded and first endowed by Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester, youngest son of Henry IV (1391-1447). That collection had been destroyed in the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) during one of the rampages of the Reformers. Oxford was delighted to receive Bodley's offer, and soon he and Anne moved there. Bodley began his campaign by restoring the dilapidated building that Duke Humphrey had given and by soliciting his friends and acquaintances to donate books for the first public library in history. As he said:


I concluded at the last, to set up my Staff at the Librarie dore in Oxon; being throwghly perswaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affayers, I coulde not busie myselfe to better purpose, than by redusing the place (which then in every part laye ruined and wast) to the publique use of Studients.


At much greater cost than Bodley had expected, the restoration of Duke Humphrey’s Library was completed in 1604, and the building opened formally on November 8 of that year. The library's first catalogue appeared in 1605 — a 655-page quarto which listed all the books Bodley had gathered and purchased since he began his work. The collection grew so quickly that Bodley began to build a new wing in 1610. It opened two years later.

                On April 18, 1604, James I knighted him, and, by letters patent, decreed that the library at Oxford would henceforth bear Bodley's name. In a way she surely could never have imagined, the lowly pilchard had transformed little, orphaned Anne Cary into Lady Anne Bodley.

                In 1610, Bodley came to an agreement with the Stationers' Company in London under which one copy of every book printed in England was to be sent to the Bodleian Library. At one stroke, Bodley augmented the first public library into the first deposit library — in 1537, Francis I (1515-1545) had issued an edict that one copy of all books printed in France should be sent to his library, but his regulation largely was ignored; Bodley's agreement, by contrast, was successful.

                The Bodleys frequently visited London in the pursuit of Thomas' work. On one of those visits, in June, 1611, Anne died in their London house, which was located inside the precincts of Bart's, the great hospital. Her husband buried her in the nearby church of St. Bartholomew the Less, Smithfield, where her grave still can be seen.

                By this time, Thomas' health also was failing. On January 2, 1613, he made his will, in which he left everything to his great foundation, the Bodleian Library, and not a penny to his own relatives or to Anne's daughters, to their considerable anger and distress. He died twenty-six days later, and was buried in the chapel of Merton College. Two years later, a monument, executed by Nicholas Stone, was erected over his tomb by William Hakewill, who paid £200 for it.

                And so it came to pass that the earliest public and deposit library, and still one of the finest collections in the world, rests its foundation squarely on the modest pilchard. Perhaps one might have assumed that the only "fish" associated with libraries was the silverfish, but that view is quite wrong. In fact, it is the pilchard that makes it possible for us to use the scholarship that identifies its contribution to scholarship itself. So, let us praise the pilchard, that noble fish.