the story of 'Old Tom'... part 3


 

The Eastbourne Riots and Conversion:
The Salvation Army was but 25 years old in 1890 and the years 1890-92 were among the days of great persecution for the Salvation Army. It was during that time that righteous indignation was aroused in the hearts of many people because of the treatment of Salvationists in various towns by mob violence. In Eastbourne, these riots commenced on Whitsunday, May 17, 1891. The Salvation Army Band marched in the streets playing their music, thereby breaking a local by-law, which prohibited music in the streets of Eastbourne on Sunday. The victory was gained for the Army in the early part of 1892. The Eastbourne Corporation lost the by-law and had to pay all expenses. The appeal took effect from September 1st 1892. The freedom gained for the Army in Eastbourne also applied through Britain.
During the periods of the riots there were many wild scenes and many people were injured; fortunately no one was killed. Many Salvationists served terms of imprisonment in Lewes Prison, including several women. Thomas Boniface, his brother Harry and fellow fisherman Jessie Huggett joined the Salvation Army during this time. They became know as 'the three musketeers'. When mackerel fishing with Harry and Jess, Tom often put his boat into Folkstone Harbour to sell his catch of fish. Going ashore one day, they saw a group of Christian Missioners being pelted with fish-heads and all kinds of refuse. Without a thought of the consequences the three fishermen just "sailed in" (to use Tom's phrase) as protectors of the prosecuted, and knocked out a few of the assailants.
As opposition to The Army's open air evangelism in Eastbourne became notorious, these three warm hearted fishermen again 'went into battle' with their fiery enthusiasm and it was at this juncture that they became converted. Forming themselves into a bodyguard, they became caught up in the riots in a very practical sense, marching either side of the officers in the front of the band, and processions of Salvation Armyists. The three musketeers, holding the door of the Citadel against the rioting mobs, listened to the message of the Salvation Army.
Elizabeth, Tom's long suffering wife, was not in accord with his new activities at first, nor with his conversion, failing to understand quite what had happened, although he was no longer spending money on tobacco or alcohol. On one occasion, Elizabeth was horrified when Tom returned home from the riots one night minus half his beard. The other half had been left in the fist of a Salvation Army persecutor. Tom's fiery little wife offered to pull out the other half of the beard.
Tom always wore full uniform when on duty in the Corps continuing to wear his red 'Salvation Army' jersey under his oilskins when fishing, pleasure-boating or helping to man the lifeboat. For twenty-two years Tom was the Second Coxswain of the Eastbourne Lifeboat. His friend and relative, Jess Huggett was the First Coxswain. Tom and Jess were great friends and these two men, with their valiant crews participated in many exciting trips and rescue operations, braving the elements and the vagaries of the English Channel.

The Shipwreck and Heroic Rescue:
On November 25, 1883 the crew of the Eastbourne Lifeboat made the most spectacular launch in the history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. They actually hauled it on wheels for five miles over Beachy Head to Birling Gap in appalling conditions and rescued the crew of eleven from a wreck off Belle Tout Lighthouse. It was a test of physical endurance, lasting nine hours that can never be repeated in these days of motorized lifeboats. The launch made headlines in the national press and the sixteen lifeboatmen were feted and praised as heroes for weeks in East Sussex and were presented with four pounds sterling each, plus a silver medal. This is the story:
For days the cargo ship 'New Brunswick' had battled a gale en route from Canada to Sunderland, England. On Sunday morning, November 25, 1883, with her sails torn to shreds and her mast-spars gone, the Captain put up the distress signal and dropped anchor for fear of being driven onto the rocks off Belle Tout Lighthouse. The closest lifeboat was in Newhaven, but it could not get out of harbour in that gale without its usual tug, but the tug was out of steam. So it had to be the Eastbourne lifeboat, but how? By sea it was five miles and over Beachy Head it was five miles. It was decided to bring the boat there on land. The crew and some volunteers began pulling the boat on its carriage through the rain-swept streets. It was the first time the lifeboat had been seen in the streets of Eastbourne since it arrived brand new in 1880. Down at the Anchor Hotel, landlord Mr. Newman sent seven sturdy horses to help and they were hitched to the carriage. With the horses and men, many of them gentlemen, pushing and pulling, the lifeboat arrived at Meads, where Mr. Mockett supplied three more horses for the stiff haul up Beachy Head Road. In pouring rain it took two hours to reach the Gap, and there it looked helpless. Not only was the Gap too narrow for the carriage, it was too narrow for the lifeboat, and worse still, owing to erosion, there was a 10 foot drop to the beach. By now several gentlemen and farm hands had joined the party. Nearby was a big stack of timber and these were brought to form a ramp down to the beach. It was now 12:30 and the crew of the wreck were desperately clinging to the rigging about a mile out with tremendous waves breaking over them as the anchors held.

Old Tom is standing at the far left in this photo of the lifeboat crew!

With great difficulty the lifeboat was taken down to the beach, but now it had no carriage and no horses to launch it in the normal way, so timber skids had to be used, and men with life lines waded up to their waists in water to get it into the sea. At 1:15 it was away... the midship oars were double banked, two men to an oar for extra power, and they headed out to sea and were soon lost to sight in the rain and spray. A tremendous sea was rolling in. The suspense was interminable.
It took an hour to reach the New Brunswick a mile away and they decided to anchor astern of her as near they could, and to throw a lifeline. The second time it was caught and made fast. Just then there was a cloudburst which half filled the lifeboat, but being fitted with special valves much of it ran out. One by one the exhausted seamen hauled themselves to the lifeboat and were hauled aboard, one with crushed ribs, and the last to leave was the Captain with his ship's flag in his teeth.
At about 2:15 p.m. they began the return journey home with the heavily laden boat. Such was the seamanship of the coxswain that he steered the course to land at almost the launching point. The rescued men were taken to the coast-guard station, where Dr. Colgate tended the injured man. Then came the task of getting the lifeboat up onto the beach without horses. The boat was 34ft long by 9ft wide and all joined in pulling her up. The men were fed before any more work was to be done. Their last meal had been breakfast.
Getting the lifeboat up the ramp and the Gap was a daunting task, made possible only by the coastguards using their block and pulley tackle and the horses. At 5:30 p.m. they began their five-mile journey back to Eastbourne in the November gloom. It was without incident. It was still raining, but the wind had dropped. They made their way through the gas lit streets of Eastbourne, and at 7:30 the lifeboat was back in its house. The Lifeboat committeeman, Mr. G.P.Hughes said to the coxswain "Get your men into dry clothes and the lot of you go to the Anchor Hotel for supper. I will pay the bill".

The Story of Old Tom Part 1 ... Part 2 ... Part 4 ... Part 5

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