Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - The Fish and the Ring

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Amongst the Hastings fishermen - Their primitive proceedings - Shoring the fish, and how it is disposed of - The luck of the mackerel - I make friends with Joe Hornbeam and go for a night on his trawler - The mysteries of the cabin - Mr. Hornbeam enlightens me as to his domestic economy - A "cast" and the fish that came up with the trawl - For the first time in my life I eat fried sole - The night's work and its earnings.

I DON'T know how they manage such matters on other parts of the British coast, but at Hastings the fishery business - at least, as far as applies to the transfer of the finny spoil from the catchers to the dealers at first hand - is conducted on delightfully primitive principles, and which seemingly are as satisfactory to all parties concerned as they are sound and simple.
    To a Londoner, a stranger to the place and to the system, this is the more striking considered in contrast with the shrewd manoeuvring and adroit double dealing to which even the humblest denizen of the deep is subject on its arrival at Billingsgate. Hastings is a by no means unimportant contributor to our fish supply. This was demonstrated no longer since than last June, when the Prince and Princess of Wales honoured the thriving Cinque Port with a visit. The sturdy fishermen attached to the place number at least a couple of hundred, and their fleet makes quite an imposing show. With their wives and families they must reckon more than a thousand individuals dependent on the luck, good or bad, that attends the patient industry of these patient toilers of the sea, who bestir themselves for work when the sun is setting, and return to shore when other men, brisk from their beds, are preparing for the labour of the day. The work of many busy hands and so many miles of net result, as a rule, in there being tons of fish to be disposed of immediately on its being landed, a small portion being allotted for local consumption, but the bulk to be presently consigned to the railway vans in waiting, and thence conveyed by train to London.
    But any one visiting the "first hand" market expecting to find bustle, and excitement, and clamour, and competition, will [-222-] be disappointed. No matter what sort of weather may prevail, the bargaining all takes place on the open beach. The wind being favourable, the boats return from their night's venture about five in the morning, lying a convenient distance off shore, and shortly afterwards the buyers gather on the strand. Rowboats fetch the catch from each smack as far as the water's edge, when the fish is transferred to great baskets, which the fishermen themselves bring higher up the beach, and shoot down in a heap. Sometimes there will be half a cartload, at other times not more than might be easily wheeled off in a hand-barrow. The buyers gather round in a ring, men and women, tip-toeing over each other's shoulders, and then comes along the auctioneer, who, when the heaps are many, has a busy time of it. He is not in the least like a London auctioneer, and has neither hammer nor rostrum; neither does he wear a tall hat or a black coat. He is as much like a fisherman himself as can be, and he carries in his hand a small account book and a black lead pencil. He does not waste time in expatiating on the size and excellence of the soles or mackerel he has to dispose of. He puts his foot in the heap and gives it a stir up, so that the buyers may not be misled by big fish being artfully placed atop, and then he exclaims,
    "Now, how much for 'em?" starting at a price that is a trifle above current quotations, and diminishing it until a buyer snaps at the lot. "How much for 'em? Seventeen shillin, sixteen six, sixteen shillin, fifteen six?"
    "Aye," says somebody in the crowd, at the same time paying down the money, and the transaction is at an end, the buyers making for another heap which had been accumulating while the last was being disposed of. And as every lot is "cleared" within a few minutes of its being knocked down, in a couple of hours or so the whole fleet of boats are disburdened, and the tired fishermen, jaded and sea-soared and scaley from their night's work, are at liberty to go home and get their breakfast.
    But they have not all equal reason to be satisfied. One might suppose, on such an exceedingly broad field as the ocean presents, that it would be fair to all, and no one would be favoured more than another. While I was there, however, I overheard a remark that convinced me that such was far from being the case. " Hows'ever you been doing?" a woman asked [-223-] a mackerel-fisher. "Fust-class," was the unenvious response. "They brought ashore eight hundred, which'll pay 'em a pound a man; and we kep so close alongside 'em all night that our nets were now and agen like to foul, and we brought in less than four score - about two shillings apiece for us." I got into conversation with him, and he informed me that, bad as it was, it was possible to do much worse than he and his mates had done on the preceding night, and that not unfrequently he was out every night the whole week, though earning no more than twelve or fourteen shillings. Sometimes, but rarely, a good haul was made, and, with a run of luck, a man might earn as much, perhaps, as thirty or five and thirty shillings in a week; but set against this was his dead losses, chiefly on account of accidents to the net, the screw steamers often crossing the extended length of buoyed-up gear, tangling and tearing away part of it. This has to be made good by instalments deducted from the earnings of the crew, and it will happen at times that a man will have a debt of several pounds, hampering him and keeping him poor for many weeks. It was all a lottery, and like all other lotteries, he added, good-humouredly, there were very few fortunes made at it. As regards himself he had been at it, boy and man, well nigh fifty years, and was content if he was able to earn, summer and winter, a clear seventeen or eighteen shillings. Was trawling more profitable than herring or mackerel-fishing? Much about the same. It was all luck. His son Jack was in a trawler, and his average earnings were pretty much the same as his, the father. Would there be any difficulty in my going out for a night in a trawler? Not a bit of it. All I had to do was to look in any afternoon at the Three Porpoises, and ask for Joe Hornbeam, and the matter might be settled offhand.
    I gladly adopted his suggestion, and in the afternoon visited Joe Hornbeam and arranged for a trip that very night. At the time appointed I made my way to the beach, and may here mention that before we started one puzzling characteristic of the fisherman fraternity was cleared up to my satisfaction. I had seen the men on the Sunday morning congregated at the little church used exclusively by them and their families, and there was nothing particularly striking in their appearance. The majority of them were hale and hearty-looking fellows, with much [-224-] of rough-and-ready manliness in their demeanour, and an expression of cool resolution in their eyes that bespoke them as being equal to any peril of their craft they might be called on without a moment's warning to strive against. There were a few present whose "rig" was of the ordinary "blue-jacket" kind, with a black silk neckerchief, and low shoes; but, for the most part, the male portion of the congregation adopted a more homely costume, the material of which was bark-tanned canvas, and which, together with their brown hands and weatherbeaten faces, gave them, as they sat quite still, intently listening, and with their eyes fixed on the preacher, very much the appearance of life-size images in terra-cotta; but, however attired, it was evident that their stature was not beyond the common - certainly they were not even of ponderous build.
    This on the Sunday; but when I moved among them next evening on the beach, where they were mustering to make ready for a start for sea, I was amazed to find how they all had increased in size. There was one individual of the terra-cotta kind I had particularly noticed at church on account of his patient endurance. He was accompanied by his wife, who was a stout woman, and occupied so much of the seat that there was not half enough left for him at the extreme end of it. It seemed as though she could have weighed against him for a wager and won it, even though she made him an allowance of three or four stone. But now, as I beheld the man, I should have hesitated to say which would have turned the beam against the other. Nor was his an exceptional case. Within six and thirty hours the same marvellous amplitude had been attained by all of them. They moved with a lumbering action, and their bulk and weight caused the shingle to crunch audibly beneath the heels of their enormous sea-boots. It was impossible that the wonderful alteration was attributable to natural causes. With an arduous night's work before him, the fisherman would probably fortify his inner man as far as was consistent with comfortable stowage, but that he could eat and drink sufficient in the time to increase his bulk to such an extent was out of the question.
    The mystery, however, was one that admitted of a very simple solution - the seeming accession of bulk was entirely due to the prodigious amount of clothing in which the men attire them-[-225-]selves before they set out for the night's business. I will not say that the discovery caused any diminution of my esteem for the patient and industrious toilers of the sea, but it certainly altered my opinion as regards their hardy indifference to personal comfort. My idea, and I believe it to be that commonly entertained, was that the fisherman aboard his craft and in pursuit of his avocation was as lightly attired as any other sailor. On the contrary, he could not wrap up more carefully if he was constantly threatened with rheumatism, and it was necessary to envelop himself in the most formidable kind of fortifications to withstand the attacks of the enemy. His faith in flannel knows no bounds. How I came to know of it was owing to my not being able to find Mr. Hornbeam on the beach and to my calling at his house. He was expected home every moment, his wife told me, and when he did come he wouldn't be five minutes putting on his things, for there they were all ready laid out for him, and as she spoke she pointed to a bunk against the wall, where there was a pile of woollen and cotton clothing enough to fill an ordinary clothes-basket. I took the liberty of making an inventory of the various articles, and they were as follows: One shirt of grey flannel, one ditto of striped calico, one woollen guernsey, one thick cloth jacket, one long tanned canvas smock frock, and an enormous oilskin "overall," capacious enough to cover a man, when the neck lappets were raised, from his ears to his ankles.
    This was sea-going covering for Mr. Hornbeam's body. He was even more solicitous as regards his legs. For these he was provided, first, with a stout woollen pair of ordinary socks; then, with a pair of "pants" of a like material, and which descended to just below the knee; then, with a pair of trousers stout as Witney blanket; and over these again, to make all right and tight and comfortable for his sea-boots, a pair of heavy worsted stockings that reached as high as his thighs. I should not have been so much surprised had it been depth of winter, but for a night in July it was difficult to understand how Mr. Hornbeam could perform his aboard-ship duties so encumbered. It was sufficient for the present, however, that my eyes were opened as regards the men's extraordinary increase of bulk; but I was yet to be made acquainted with other mysteries of fishercraft, not the least of which, to my thinking, were the arrangements made [-226-] for the domestic comfort of the crew on board the Lively Matilda.
    From stem to stern the trawler so named measured probably five and twenty feet, her middle space being a receptacle for ballast, and next to it forward there was a well and tank into which the fish is thrown as it is caught. In front of this again was what, from its size, I took to be a cupboard or locker for spare ropes and odds and ends, until I observed what looked like an iron chimney sticking out of the top of it, and inquiring of Mr. Hornbeam, was informed that it was the "cabin." And as he spoke he pushed aside a sliding lid about as large as the seat of a chair, and, lowering himself into the hole, disappeared.
    "Come down and hev a look at it," came up from the chasm. "Put your hands on the ledge and gi' me hold of your feet, and I'll guide 'em. There you are, and a cosy little place it is in rough weather, I do assure you."
    I needed not his assurance as to the smallness of the below-deck snuggery, for endeavouring to stand upright when my feet touched the floor, my head came in violent collision with the ceiling, and when Mr. Hornbeam had lit a candle I discovered that the same accident would have happened, though perhaps in a mitigated degree, had I been a foot less in height. In length the cabin may have measured eight or nine feet, its breadth at the widest part may have been seven, but at the bows it contracted to less than four feet, and from floor to ceiling was a depth of certainly not more than a yard and a half. But it is amazing what can be accomplished with the exercise of a little ingenuity, combined with a disposition to make the best of things. In this dingy little hole there was accommodation of a kind for the cooking of meals and the partaking of them; besides which, there was a couple of sleeping-bunks and stowage for cooking utensils and various articles of crockeryware, with a coal-box and a water-barrel, a bread-pan, a large can containing turpentine, and a cooking-stove. I particularly noticed the can, because, with a stick projecting from the bung which stoppered it, it stood within a foot of the stove, in which Mr. Hornbeam set about making a fire, and the unpleasant reflection occurred to me that, in the event of the smack giving a heavy lurch, and a few blazing coals spilling out on to the cabin floor (and there was nothing to prevent), the turpentine would no doubt play an [-227-] active part in promoting a conflagration. I remarked to Mr. Hornheam that I should not have thought that a fire was necessary on a craft such as his; to which, with the bellows on his knee, he turned to me with a pitying smile for my ignorance, and replied that he rather fancied I should alter my tune if I was a fisherman.
    "You might be able to do without it nights such as these," said he ; "but wait till the winter's set in, and then see if you wouldn't be glad of the comforts a bit of fire brings you. Come down here off deck when it's slippery with ice, and there's half a foot of snow laying on it, and your hair is froze as stiff as wood sticks, and then you d know what a thing to be grateful for a jug of coffee is, all piping hot out of the coffee pot."
    He further gave me to understand that the crew were provided with food - with bread and butter and coffee and sugar, but not with meat. That they had to catch.
    "Do you like fried fish?" asked Mr. Hornbeam. And on my replying that I was fond of a fried sole when it was properly cooked - adding this saving clause in case I should be compelled to decline to partake of the rough-and-ready produce of the frying-pan I saw stowed in company with the fire shovel and poker in a corner - I think he must have noticed my dubious glance in the direction mentioned, for he remarked, with some tartness, that if it came to "properly," he didn't suppose I had ever in my life eaten a sole that was properly fried, and never would, but for an opportunity like the present.
    "Wait till you've been on deck for an hour or two, and got an appetite for your supper, and if I don't make my words good I'll undertake to swaller the frying-pan," he continued, returning quickly to good humour.
    We were now several miles from the shore, and it was a dark night ; but with no other light than that which was given by the single candle in the lantern that hung against the mast, the men went about their work as though it were broad daylight. Their trawling-net had been put out long before, and, with the aid of a windlass, they now began to haul it up. It was a tedious operation, occupying several minutes; and when at last the net appeared at the surface and was hauled aboard hand over hand, until quite a large heap of it was accumulated, and at last there was the "catch," consisting of much "muck" and [-228-] weedy tangle swept from the sea floor, and about a couple of buckets full of fish of various kinds leaping alive, and many of them gleaming with rainbow colours in the lantern-light.
    It was not much of a take as regards quantity, but it included at least a dozen pair of fine soles, and Mr. Hornbeam seemed satisfied. Mainly on account of his vanity, I believe; for as soon as the nets were cleared and cast out again he selected half a dozen of the fish in question, and remarked, "Just you stay up here and smoke your pipe till I call you down," retreating with them to the cabin. In about a quarter of an hour he put his head out at the trap-door in the floor, and announced that supper was ready, and I joined him below. There was triumph in his eyes, and his broach brown face beamed with pride as he handed me a specimen of his cooking. In appearence it was unlike any fried sole I ever had set before me. It was curled up head to tail, and it had evidently been cooked in its skin, and it was dry, and of a rich crispy brown. So much as regards its appearance its flavour I will not attempt to describe. It was simply delicious. It was a fish of fair size, and with a slice of bread I ate the whole of it, without the exchange of a word between us. It was not until the bone was stripped, and only that and the head remained on my plate, that Mr. Hornbeam remarked,
    "Well, now, was I right or was I wrong?"
    "You never was farther from wrong in your life," said I.
    "Then hev another," said Mr. Hornbeam; and I did, and ate it with a keen relish to the last morsel.
    We went on deck again soon after, and hauled up the trawl again, and with a little more luck than at first, though not much, and again we cast out and again we hauled in until an hour after daylight, when we made for home in sight of a dozen other boats coming in from all quarters. We had not had what might be called a successful night. Indeed, Mr. Hornbeam's share and two of his mates' of the proceeds amounted only to three shillings a man ; but they went away to breakfast cheerily. Well they might, when every night of their lives they can sup off soles fried as they were.