Cumbria’s Great Pearl Rush

‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.‘ (MFGB, 1926)

Miners during the 1926 General Strike

Miners during the 1926 General Strike

In May, 1926, there was a general strike across Britain. This was in response to  a move from coal mines to reduce miners’ wages by 10%-25%, whilst requiring them to work longer hours. In case readers are tempted to make comparisons with modern times, it’s important to realise that miners in 1920s Britain were poor to an extent we can barely comprehend. In 2006, Britons spent an average of 15% of their income on food; in the 1920s, this was closer to 40%. The strike officially lasted for a month, but many Cumbrian miners were unable to return to work until the following winter, and some never found employment again.

Some enterprising west Cumbrians found a way to cut a meagre path through disastrous times. The ‘pearl rush’ started when a London visitor to Ennerdale was noticed standing in the River Ehen, wearing waders and throwing pearl mussels onto the river bank. Enquiries revealed that he had paid for his Lake District holiday with the proceeds of pearl fishing.

Within a short period, the river was heaving with locals digging in the mud for shell fish, some even using glass-bottomed boxes to spot the best examples on the river bed. Just like the American gold rush, there were winners and losers; plenty of tales of weeks’-worth of work unrewarded, and the odd tale of whoppers being sold to Whitehaven jewellers for the massive sum of £4 or £5.

Pearl mussel copyright Tom Meijer

Pearl mussel copyright Tom Meijer

Cumbrian pearls hadn’t always been used for jewellery. Samuel Simpson remarked in 1746 that they were, ‘of all colours; those that are not bright and shining, commonly call’d Sand-Pearl, are as useful in Physick, as the finest, tho’ not so beautiful’. This is a very late mention of pearls as medicine. As early as the 13th century, the scholar, Albertus Magnus, recommended the ingestion of ground pearl for mental distress, love sickness, haemorrhages and dysentery. In a way, he wasn’t far off the mark with this remedy for stomach problems, as the pearl’s high calcium content would have made it the medieval equivalent of a packet of Rennies.

In fact, pearls contain fifteen amino acids, and ten micro elements; they are still licensed by the State Drug Administration in China for treatment of nervous conditions, poor eyesight and the prevention of convulsions.

‘Pearls of all the best colours – that is both red and purple, jacynth and green, but principally white.’ (Bede, 8th century)

The 1920s pearl rush wasn’t Cumbria’s first. Britain had been exporting pearls to the Roman world since before the invasion of 43CE and doubtless continued in a small way in the following centuries. The first, almost industrial-scale attempt to ‘mine’ the pearls came in the late 1500s, when Elizabeth I, who had  developed an avaricious appreciation of the natural wealth of Cumbria1, made a gift of the valuable pearl-fishing rights in the River Irt to her admiral, Sir John Hawkins.

‘In this brook, the shell fish eagerly sucking in the dew conceive and bring forth pearls… the inhabitants gather up at low water, and the merchants buy them of the poor people for a trifle, but sell them to the jewellers at a good price.‘ (William Camden, late 16th century)

The mussel that produces the pearl, the Margaritifera margaritifera, can only take so much pummelling. They take twelve years to mature, and live for up to 120 years, but are soon depleted to virtual unsustainability by dredging. Hawkins’ pearl business may not have outlived him.

By 1692, the mussel population had built up enough for Thomas Patrickson of Ennerdale to establish the Company of Pearl Fishers to search the Rivers Ehen and Irt. It seems that the mussels had been stripped out again with a dozen or so years; by the early 18th century, the trade had virtually disappeared.

‘I enquired much for the pearl fishery… which was made a kind of bubble recently. But the country people, not even the fishermen, could give us no account of any such thing, nor is there any quantity of shell-fish to be found here in which pearls are found…’ (Daniel Defoe, 1726)

After another brief effort headed by a German,  Moritz Ungar, in the 1860s, the mussels were seemingly abandoned as hard work for slim pickings, until a reporter for the West Cumberland Times happened upon a large bottle of pearls in the window of a jeweller’s shop in 18982. It appeared that local people still hunted the rivers in a small-scale way – and, of necessity, in secrecy, as the pearls should probably have been handed over to the landowner – even before the pearl-fishing craze spread to people from the coastal towns during the 1920s Great Strike. For all the poor town-dwelling mining families who benefitted from a lucky find or two, I wonder how many equally-poor rural people lost out on a side income that had been critical for centuries.

The River Ehen is now a Designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC), thanks to the pearl mussel. It has the largest population of juvenile mussels in England, and once again looks like a healthy environment for this rare creature. But be warned, fishing for them is illegal.

© Diane McIlmoyle 29.07.11

  1. She also commandeered the copper mines at Newlands, which occasionally also found gold and silver, and the profitable graphite mines in Borrowdale.
  2. For further reading, see Lore of the Lake Counties by FJ Carruthers (1975)

2 thoughts on “Cumbria’s Great Pearl Rush

  1. I’ve really found this interesting, thanks.
    Imagine having to rely on this as a source of income. I wonder if there were any instances of tension between the locals and the pearl hunters?

  2. Hello Kate! I haven’t seen any examples of clashes, but there must have been – if only muttering behind hands. I guess during the Great Strike and Depression people did what they had to. A lot of west Cumbrians left the area during this period, to work in mines, ship yards and steel works in other parts of the west – Glasgow, Manchester and Wales, including several of my own ancestors.

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