the story of 'Old Tom'... part 2


Fisherman Tom:
The fishing pattern in those days was different to what it is today. Often the fishermen would sail to southern Ireland to fish for mackerel, and that's quite a long journey for small, open sailing vessels to make. Returning to Eastbourne, the fishermen would make their way to The Beach Hotel, (a Public House near the fishing station) where a Mrs. Tanner would let them "chalk up" their debts as they drank beer at tuppence a pint. Most of the fishermen were heavy drinkers in those hard days, and the Public House was a pleasant place for them to meet and talk after long, hazardous hours at sea; this was also a refuge and escape from their small often-overcrowded house.

Eastbourne fishing boats of the 1880's

Fishermen were naturally religious people. Out on the sea by day, but more often at night, Tom knew of the wonder of the deep and the glories of the heavens. As he fixed his eyes on the stars in order to steer his sailing boat in safe waters, his heart would be attuned to nature, and when the waves were high and tempestuous and the wind was raging he revelled in the struggle for survival. Tom loved the solitude of being at sea, in a cockleshell of a boat, with brown canvas sails and oars when needed. There would be perhaps two other men or boys with him. No comfortable cabins for these hardy fishermen in those days when Tom sailed the English Channel. No shelter from the angry storms and the rough seas that often washed overboard, sometimes taking the fishermen into the depths; they just stood in their enveloping oilskins and endured the brunt of whatever came. Paying out the trawler nets, hauling them in when full of fish, was a terribly demanding task of strength and endurance; hands became callused and hard, workworn and efficient at the job.

Old Tom is seated third from left, front row.
Harry Boniface, Tom's brother is standing farthest right!

Mackerel catching, herring fishing, spratting, or catching dogfish with line and hook, all called for a particular skill, which Tom developed from boyhood. Then there was lobster and crab-catching time, when 'pots' would be put down on the rocky seabed off Beachy Head at night, and hauled up later at dawn.
The only alternative to fishing, for the Boniface family and others like them at the time, was starvation. Fishing was the only work they knew, and it was that or the workhouse. Some years later, realising that fishing was a dying industry in the district, Tom bought some pleasure boats, still with sail, and with the help of the steady income from his wife's laundry, managed to make a reasonably good living, and fishing meanwhile. His large family was brought up in health and happiness.

The Story of Old Tom Part1 ... Part 3 ... Part 4 ... Part 5

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