In a French coastal town in Brittany, where I was recently, researching something completely unrelated to fishing or fishing girls, I often found myself thinking of Elemental’s Meggie Tulloch and the herring girls of north-east Scotland.
I hadn’t known much about the rich fishing heritage of Concarneau, but when I went on a walking tour around the harbour and listened to the guide speak about the prominent role played by women and young girls in the fishing industry I began to experience a sense of déjà vu. In Concarneau, the focus was sardines rather than herring, and the girls worked in confiseries (canning factories) dotted around the port.
They wore aprons and Breton bonnets that were different to those worn by other women of the town, and when they were not preparing and packing sardines in oil, they were knitting, or cleaning fishing nets, while waiting for the return of the fleet. And praying that their men would not be lost at sea, pulled to the ocean floor by the weight of their wooden-soled leather seaboots.
And then I discovered that the name of the oldest canning factory in Concarneau, established in 1893, is Maison Courtin. A French version of Curtin? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.