the story of 'Old Tom'...


The Early Years:
Thomas Boniface was born April 23, 1852 into a large family of six sons and four daughters. This large family lived in the cottages near the chalk pit, which was quarried by the Boniface family on the slopes of the Downs at Holywell, Meads, Eastbourne. It is known that Tom's ancestors had lived in this same dwelling since at least 1778. Generations prior to his father's and grandfather's, the family had been 'associated' with the smuggling business of bringing tea, brandy and rum into England, a felony punishable by hanging. When this business evidently became impossible "to be associated with", they formed a family business of lime burning and chalk digging at Holywell. Taking the output to the port of London in sailing ships on long and dangerous journeys and developing their fishing skills on the return voyage, they eventually becoming the renowned fishing family of Eastbourne.
The Boniface family lived on a large tract of downland, which they believed, was their own. One day (so the story goes - handed down from father to son) when the men were away at work, a document was brought to the women at the cottages by a bailiff who asked them to put a cross or thumbprint on this paper; (very few of the "common" people could read or write in those days) and in their ignorance they complied. Later it was discovered they signed away all their precious rights and claim to their land.

Many years later, in 1896, water pumps were installed at Holywell in order to provide more fresh water for the town. From the moment that the Eastbourne Waterworks pumping station was moved into Holywell the destiny of the place was settled. No longer was there public access, no more quarrying or lime burning was possible and in the interests of the purity of the water, no human habitation could be allowed. This at last spelt the doom of the little community of Holywell, and the Bonifaces were forced off the land they formerly owned and into the town of Eastbourne. The cottages were demolished, but their foundations still stand today, near the edge of the white cliff.
As a strong healthy lad, Tom's days would be spent helping his father Edward at the chalk pits and sailing on the ships to London to sell the chalk and lime. Journeying in his grandfather's sailing vessels, Tom and the sea became inseparable for life. Teaching him-self to read and write (having only two weeks proper schooling) he would read all the books he could manage to obtain. Education for the lower class of Britain had been sadly neglected in that era.

The Parish Church in Old Town, Eastbourne, built in 1150, is known as the Church of St. Mary. Thomas Boniface was married there on Christmas Day 1873 to Elizabeth Chandler. Tom was 21 and Betsy was 20. They walked from Holywell, Meads across the fields to get to the little church in Eastbourne to be married. After the wedding Tom and Elizabeth set up home at 13 Tower Street and later moved to 42 Sidley Road. Eventually fifteen children were born to them. Their names were Lucy, Elizabeth, Thomas, Grace, Jessie, Emily, Henry, William, Minnie, James, George, Cecil (Joe), David, Sarah, and another unnamed baby, one of three that died in infancy. This family of Bonifaces became what was probably the largest ever connected with the Eastbourne lifeboat and with the fishing and pleasure-boat industry in the town. Tom eventually followed the usual pattern of his fishermen colleagues and became a heavy drinker. During the first year of his married life Tom gave only three pounds sterling to his wife for housekeeping, (worth more then of course). Fortunately he married a petite woman with a large capacity for work. Elizabeth built up a prosperous hand laundry business, and later with the help of her boys and girls, was able to cater to the needs of her growing family.
Once, when Tom came home the worse for drink, his wife dealt with him in no uncertain terms, accusing him of being drunk. Tom went straightaway to the house of the Chief Constable, which was nearby, to have this accusation verified: the result? He was promptly locked up!
Tom's brother Harry, a tall, well built man, shadowed Tom throughout his life and was much influenced by his brother. They worked together in their fishing business all through their active years and lived next door to each other on Sidley Road, with their wives Elizabeth and Sally, who were sisters.

The Story of Old Tom Part 2 ... Part 3 ... Part 4 ... Part 5


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