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The cockle women of Penclawdd

The village of Penclawdd is famous for its historic cockle industry. Cockles are gathered (or ‘picked’) from the extensive cockle beds of the Burry Estuary and sold at local markets and eateries. There have been cockle pickers in Penclawdd since Roman times and it continues to be a thriving industry today.

Cockles are small, edible molluscs (like clams) that live in sandy, sheltered beaches. Until the 1970s they were picked locally by women whose husbands were unfit for work, providing an important source of income for their families. The women used hand-rakes and a type of coarse sieve known as a riddle to gather the cockles at low tide. It was dangerous and back-breaking work – the women were busy for 10 hours a day and had to endure very harsh conditions. They were renowned for their resilience and ability to work in all weathers.

The cockle industry reached its peak during the 19th century, when hundreds of local families relied on picking cockles to earn a living. The Inspector of Fisheries reported in 1887 that:

“At Penclawdd, opposite Llanelly, is a great cockle fishery which is wholly carried on by women…The cockles are carried to market at Swansea and Llanelly.”

More recently, in 1984, an account of local cockle-pickers was written by Delyth Lloyd in ‘Gower’ the journal of the Gower Society:

“Those who don’t know the sands can get lost on them and caught by a tide which comes in faster than walking pace. The cockles inhabit the soft and muddy sand of the estuary…These seed beds are often densely populated and the cockles number sometimes as many as 3,000 per square yard…Two grades of cockle are gathered. ‘Boiling’ cockles are smaller ones cooked locally before being taken to market, while ‘shell’ cockles…are particularly sought after for this trade. They are either sold alive locally, or sent to more distant markets…The cockles are simply raked out of the sand when the beds are exposed at low water.”

Today, the cockles continue to be gathered using hand tools, but it is men, not women, that carry out most of the work. Another significant change is the mode of transport for bringing the cockles ashore, with tractors and four-wheel drives replacing the role of donkeys.

The cockles of Gower are processed in local factories before being prepared for export around the world. Try them for yourself by visiting Swansea market or one of the many local eateries, such as the King’s Head Hotel at Llangennith, which serves a traditional Welsh breakfast of cockles, bacon and laverbread (laver seaweed washed, dipped in oatmeal and fried in bacon fat).