The Making of a Fishing Museum
While promenading along the Brighton seafront with my daughter, in July of 1992 I fell into conversation with Alan Hayes, a local fishing skipper. Alan started to tell me how the Council was attempting to get what they called a `market rent' for two arches that housed the `Brighton Commercial Fishermen's Association.
This was important to me, for while Alan was not aware of it at the time, I am a Labour Councillor; part of the administration that controls the town. To Alan and the fishermen working on the seafront this was far more than a simple rent review. Rather the Council was attempting to erode their `rites'. The erosion of their rights since the arrival of new Brighton is part of the fishermen’s folklore and history. To me, whose job is teaching history at the University of Brighton, the story had a ring about it. It tells of a golden age before the coming of the Prince Regent and the erection of' the Royal Pavilion. Of a time when the land in front of the palace, the Steine, was worked by `a sober, industrious body of people, employed throughout the greatest part of the year in a succession of labour.'
Fishermen maintaining their boats; women `busy in preparing the nets, to be made use by their husbands in the fishery'; shipwrights making `small barks for the merchants of London and other ports.' In the spring nets `thirty-six to fifty yards long and deep' were spread upon the Steine. Boats were drawn off the shore at the latter end of the winter, and placed in ranges on the lower part of it. A `privilege, time immemorial, granted to the fishermen' according to one contemporary.
With the arrival of the Prince of Wales and the building of his Pavilion came the `vermin' as Cobbett called them; the court hangers-on, known by their `lank jaws, stiffeners round their necks, their hidden or #o shirts, their stays, their false shoulders, hips and haunches, half-whiskers, and by their skins, colour of veal kidney-suet, warmed a little, and then powdered with dirty dust.' It was these people who complained that we `are frequently tripped up by entangling [our] feet' in the fishing-nets `and if any of the barbarians to whom the nets belong should be standing by, you are sure to be reprobated and insulted.'
Traders and lodging-house keepers were erecting buildings on the Steine to be in view of the Pavilion. They pressurised the High Constable into going to the Quarter Session in 1821 and have the fishing boats removed, as they were deemed a `nuisance'. The same year saw the formal enclosure of the rest of the Steine by the Town Commissioners, many of whom were the same traders and lodging-house keepers. The fishermen protested but to no avail, and the only physical presence the fishermen had left in the town was a capstan above the beach.
From that date we find the local press complaining that `nothing can induce the fishermen to alter their customs here'. Some were depicted as `cadgers,' stopping visitors to tell them `fictitious tales of losses, bad voyages, and their starving families, rarely failing to exact a coin of the realm.' The Poor Law officers complained that in. any in the Fishery `are idle and drunken. They get enough money in the summer nearly to maintain themselves and families thro' the winter. But idleness and drunkery consumes that which ought to laid up for a rainy day.' In 1827 the Town Commissioners were intent on widening the seafront road above the beach to enable the fashionable to visit each other in the comfort of their coaches, as new Brighton spread along the cliff. For this to happen the last capstan had to be removed. The issue came to a head and the fishermen rioted.
Buck Marchant, the fishermen's leader, `armed himself with an iron crowbar' to defend the capstan. The riot was quelled but not without one of the fishermen being removed to the house of correction at Lewes. At the same time the fish market was removed to below the cliffs and the hawking of fish was banned from the streets. In under a decade Brighton had systematically stripped away the `ancient rights' enjoyed by the fishing community `since time out of mind' and removed them from the town to work below the cliff and on the beach.2
In a real physical way they were a `race apart' from the rest of new Brighton. To Charles Fleet writing in the late 1840s the `only portion of our population which possesses any marked character is our Fishermen'. They have `remained the same - presenting, in dress, language, and manners, a marked contrast to those around them.' When ashore, the fisherman `is a most quiet, inoffensive , good-humoured being, disposed to interfere with nobody . . . quietly smoking his pipe and looking at the beach or taring his boat or mending his nets.'
As well as this, however, they had diversified into leisure trade. Bathing machines, as Constable noted, were operated by women `whose language, both in oaths and voice resembles men, all mixed together in endless and in- decent confusion' with the `dogs, boys, fishermen, rotten fish' on the beach. William Tayler, a footman in the 1830s, `saw some fishermen bring a very curious fish ashore. They called it a sea monster. It was as big as a donkey and about eight feet long and a mouthful of teeth like a lion. They erected a tent and show edit for a trifle.' At the same time, according to Kidd's Picturesque Pocket Companion: `Few places are so well provided with sailing vessels as Brighton'. Boats, with `white sails, skimming through the sparkling water, crossing and re-crossing each other's path like water fowl', were operated by fishermen who were licensed as boatmen.
With the coming of the train and the day tripper the nature of the lower promenade would change, most of polite society excluded themselves to the upper promenade , the West Pier was built for them to sit and drink tea amongst the potted palms and string quartets. Below the heaving masses of London's working class looking for excitement and fun. The fishing com- munity responded with `about 200 pleasure boats' working the beach.
Boatmen became showmen and the sea a funfair. This did not detract the fishing community from their main source of income just supplemented it, as Brighton boasted the largest fishing fleet in the region until the end of the nine- teenth century.
This situation was not challenged until the 1860s when the Council, an elected body of liberal persuasion (unlike the Town Commissioners before them) wanted to further widen the seafront road and build arches out onto the beach to support it. To achieve this, `various boathouses and huts' which the fishermen had built would have to go. This time the Council ensured that the displaced fishermen and boatmen had somewhere to make and maintain their nets by giving them use of some arches at a nominal rent.
Today the same arches are still used by individual fishing boat owners and skippers; whose boats are worked out of the harbour at the Marina. Other arches were used to house a fish market, with a yard in front of them. The real bonus was that three arches were set aside for the collective use of the fishermen , who had first come together as the Fishermen's Society back in 1813. The western arch was at first a school-room and reading-room, but later became a `refreshment and smoking room.' It was also the headquarters of several voluntary associations such as the Brighton Fishermen's Penny Bank Loan Fund.
The central arch was for lectures, meetings and festive social occasions. The eastern Arch was divided into pens and used by the smaller boat owners for net-making and storage. No rent was asked for the two arches used for social and educational purposes. Only a nominal rent was set for the communal arch, with each fisherman subscribing to a central fund. This form of working was nothing strange to Brighton Fishermen as they rarely worked for wages but took a share of the catch. At the end of the Second World War the central arch, originally used for lectures, was turned into a communal arch.
In the 1970s the western one was converted into a Social Club with a bar and billiard table. It then became subject to a market rent, and when the Club failed in the late 1980s the arch was returned to the Council. This left only two out of the original three arches that had been set aside for the collective use of the fishermen, paying a nominal rent into a central fund organised by the Commercial Fishermen's Association.
This almost brings the story full circle, for it was these arches that Alan Hayes was talking about at the beginning. His fears were that the Council was attempting to get the Commercial Fishermen's Association to give up the arches by imposing a `market rent' be- cause the Council was embarking on improving the seafront and as the arches are in a prime position they would be of greater commercial value if let for some- thing other than net-mending.
His fears were not based just on the early history related above, but upon experience within his own memory of the last time that the council had attempted to improve the seafront. Then, the Tory council had given in to the hoteliers, who thought the smell of fish undesirable, and closed down the hundred-year-old fish market. They then let it out as an amusement arcade, increasing the rental value by many thousands of pounds. Alan argued that the arches occupied by the fishermen were in fact a tourist attraction: `visitors like to look in and see us making up our nets and have a chat. ' He, in fact, had gone even further, for on the walls of the arch in which he worked was the most wonderful display of pictures and bits and pieces of Brighton fishing history: in fact, a museum.
As it also transpired, both of us were dismayed at the small amount of local history to found in Brighton's Museum: what displays existed told the story of new Brighton, the Prince Regent and so, little about fishing and its importance to the town's economic and cultural past. Since the late 1970s I had been moaning that the local history display failed to show the role of working people in the building of the town, the railway factory that at its height employed over 3,000 people for example, nothing about the role of working class institutions, such as the Cooperative that first started in Brighton in the 1820s, the basis of the national movement that would follow, and formed one of the first fishing co- operatives, owning three hog boats in 1827.
What had happened from my point of view was that local politicians of both parties just rolled over when faced with a new breed of museum professionals who displayed a cultural arrogance more associated with the Victoria and Albert Museum of the time. It has to be said in consequence today Brighton Museum is one of the best provincial museums in the country, holding a range of nationally acclaimed collections and boasts the most wonderful council house in the world - the Royal Pavilion!
The cost, however, was that the space devoted to local history got smaller and items disappeared into store. There were plans for a separate Museum of Brighton and in the early eighties the Director of the Royal Pavilion recom- mended that Holy Trinity Church , at the corner of Duke Street and Ship Street, might be converted to this purpose. The building was ideal, because it was situated in an area popular with tourists (who could be charged, defraying much of the revenue cost of the project) and large enough to take all of the items in the local history collections.
The major problem was that the Director was not prepared to recommend diversion of any of his department's financial resources to the project. Instead he recommended that the capital required for `fitting up and display' should be raised through voluntary subscription. It was argued at the time by other senior officers in the authority that the likelihood of success off such an appeal “was open to conjecture”! As it turned out, they were right and in consequence the project was ditched a decade later.
In retrospect, it was an obscene proposal because the people of Brighton had already paid over and over again for the building in Church Street, and for the staff and display equipment to house their own history. By way of a consolation prize, while not more space was allocated, the local history gallery in Brighton Museum has now been beautifully re-thought and renewed; not least by the hard work of Jackie Frisby. John Roles, senior keeper of local history, instigated the `My Brighton' Project to complement the new exhibition.
What came together on that Saturday morning in July of 1992 was Alan's the country, holding a range of nation- folklore and love of the traditional wooden clinker-built beach boats, my history and a mutual desire to maintain and enhance the working fishing community position on the sea-front, many of whom can be traced back long before the emergence of new Brighton. We were embarking on a project that would end up in modern parlance as being a venture in `community museology'.
On the face of it we must have been mad, for what was in place was a set of damp arches. The fronts of the arches were falling apart and had not been touched for years; a thin road and a parking bay in front of them and a shell fish stall that opened at weekends were hardly more imposing. On the plus side Alan was and is the Chairman of the Commercial Fishermen's Association and I was and am the Vice Chair of the Arts and Leisure Committee and Secretary of the Labour Group; we both had political clout in the little gold fish bowls we inhabit, and we used it.
As important, was the fact that Alan and the other fishermen all had a range of chills in wood and metal since, like most inshore fishermen, they were all bi-occupational from time to time. I had a similar range of skills because I had worked as a manual worker for the first ten years of my adult life, and had organised exhibitions since being at the University.
These skills that we shared would prove of great practical importance, but I think socially they broke down any barriers that might have emerged - after all, I have all the hall marks of a `trendy lefty' - a Labour Councillor with a well paid secure job in a University. Fortunately, I fell into my former life with little difficulty and in conversation Alan and the others would talk about `people like us.'
While at first the fishermen had seen the Council's intention to improve the sea-front as sinister, it became a useful vehicle. The Council, the South East Tourist Board with the English Tourist Board and East Sussex County Council had commissioned Conran Roche Consultants to look at the sea-front and make recommendations for its improvement. In the Summer of 1992, draft ideas about how the seafront should be regenerated were out for public consultation, but at this moment, fishing was not on the agenda. The short period was used to argue the importance of the fishing industry to the town, both in its own right, and as a tourist attraction.
In consequence, the report presented to the Council in November of 1992 included the notion of a fishing quarter and museum. The improvements the report suggested ranged across a diverse set of projects. It was up to the Labour Group to prioritise the projects. They were persuaded, not a hard task, I might add, that the fishing quarter should be the first. In March, some thirteen arches were formed into a fishing quarter.
The benefit to the fishermen was that their rents were no longer based on the optimum market rent that could be obtained on the seafront, but related to the fishermen’s means. At the same time £130,000 was allocated to restore the fronts of the arches to their original condition and to relocate; the road to create an area for fishermen to mend nets and sell wet fish. That space or `hard' was to be fitted with sinks and waste disposal to conform with impend- ing European Union health regulations.
Work started in November and was completed by May 1994. It had been agreed by all concerned, including the fishermen, that the sea-front would be pedestrianised. The problem was that fishermen claimed a `right' to park freely on the beach going back to the days of the horses and carts. This nearly brought the whole project to a standstill. In the end they were given permission to park in front of Marlborough House on the Steine, a lovely irony, for, as you will remember, this was the land they had been thrown off 170 years before!
The fishing museum was more problematic. Professionals from the museum service had produced a project brief for what was described as a `Fishing Centre'. We had problems with the concept as it did not contain any original objects associated with a museum. It was in fact a visitor centre, the type normally associated with the classic heritage project; and that aside, it was costed at over £60,000, money that did not exist. In simple terms, what happened was that the central arch was given up by the Commercial Fishermen's Association to a trust of three fishermen, a council officer and myself.
The displaced fishermen moved into the arch formerly occupied by the old Social Club linked to the central arch, at terms that were agreeable to them. This left the trust with the central arch to make a museum. Towards the end of February, the arch was cleared by the fishermen, the trust and students from the university. At the same time, we started to collect a gang of enthusiasts, not least Posh John a retired Royal Naval Reserve man. The council removed a brick internal structure and rewired it and we had a big empty arch.
A 27-ft. wooden clinker-built fishing beach boat had been acquired through the good offices of Steve Peak, Secretary of the Hastings Fishermen: she had been built in Newhaven by Lowers, a firm of boat builders that made many Brighton boats. She was placed inside the arch in presence of John Smith, a matter of some moment for the local Labour party. On March 5 we hit the national press with an award - winning picture taken by Roger Bamber of The Gaurdian. Then disaster! Alan tells the story of me `sitting in the corner of the arch with my hands around my head'.
There was dry rot in the arch! What followed surhs up this whole project. It was a February afternoon. The weather was bad and no one was at sea, the fishermen looked at the problem - the trust had no money. Sam, one of the skippers said `Don't worry we got nothing to do, we will put a new floor in'. We emptied our pockets and raised about £150. By the end of the day, the old floor was out, the space treated and new flooring laid.
We had applied for various grants and money started to arrive at the end of March - £3,000 from a community halls fund and £5,000 from the English Tourist Board and East Sussex County Council. These grants bought materials: we replaced the rest of the flooring, built a dry room, and community service workers painted the arch and a local builder put a stair case around the boat. We employed a photographer to copy, enlarge and encapsulate prints borrowed from Brighton Museum and Brighton Reference Library and built and painted display boards. We were on our way.
We are a voluntary trust, with education - in its broadest sense - central to our thinking, and charging anybody to enter the museum was never on our agenda. Such being the case, the Council waived the rent, because we provide a public amenity. Voluntary we might be, but we have professional partners: the University of Brighton and the Museum Service of the Council, both of equal importance.
The University of Brighton has always had a real commitment to working within the community and so they regarded my time spent on this project (when I was not teaching etc. ) as professional practice or research - call it what you will. The School of Historical and Critical Studies, within which I do most of my teaching, is part of a Faculty of Art, Design and Humanities which sees artifacts as being as valid as a documentary source; and material culture is high on the agenda.
The School funded a reprint of Charles Fleet's The Brighton Fishery first published in the 1840's, with a new introduction. Also, the making of a seven-minute video programme by Frank Gray - who works in the School and runs South East Film and Video Archive (another community project supported by the University) using four films of Brighton sea-front which were found in the collection of the National Film and Television Archive; the earliest produced in 1896.
The Fac ulty is comprised of highly professional, visual people, in workshops and studios, many of whom contributed to the project. Bruce Brown, the Dean, was seen sawing wood and erecting stands with the rest of us, on many a weekend, rain or shine. And the Faculty has placed equipment in the museum: a slide projector and the Apple Mac I am using now.
Brighton Museum, like the rest of Council is committed to community involvement and over the last few years has helped a number of independent making galleries of its own , and not least the `My Brighton' project. At present John Powell is engaged in making a replica of the figure-head that used to be on the Skylark before she was lost at Dunkirk.
Finally John Roles, the Keeper of Local History is on hand to advise us as we move towards formal museum registration. Some of the foregoing might have the ring of a headmaster's report, but the point has to made that this community projects such as the Brighton Toy Museum. Debra Grubb, the Director of Arts and Leisure, was always coming down onto the beach to see how the project was developing sometimes at weekends, as was Jessica Rutherford, Head of Museums. Both made things happen. The Museum gave us two large glass cases, Birthe Christensen, Head of Conservation, ensured that they came up to the required standards – difficult, as the Fishing Museum faces directly out to the sea.
Model fishing boats were lent to us from the local history collection. Framed photographs of the seafront were given. Stella Beddoe, Keeper of Decorative Arts, sorted out and lent examples of 19 century pots for a display case in which we attempt to link boat’s names, such as the “Three Graces”, “Mortality”, “Britannia”, “British Queen”, “Happy Return”, “Odd Fellow”, “Band of Hope”, Florence Nightingale”, “Grace Darling” and “Robin Hood”, with items of popular culture.
We had found many backboards of the pleasure boats: wonderful `examples of sign written folk art' that were cleaned and restored by Norman Stevens, who also made three sign boards for outside the museum, and painted a beautiful replica of the “Skylark” backboard. We had found and replaced some original boarding that had been in the arch, which John Lathom scraped back and grained to the pattern he found. This was all done at a time when Brighton Museum was remaking galleries of its own, and not least the “My Brighton Project”.
At present, John Powell is engaged in making a replica of the figure-head that used to be on the Skylark before she was lost at Dunkirk. Finally John Roles, the Keeper of Local History is on hand to advise us as we move towards formal museum registration.
Some of the foregoing might have the ring of a headmaster's report, but the point has to made that this community project, as folksy as we hope it now feels, would not have happened without the support of the establishment – both political and institutional – in the form of money, services and professional input.
We were opened in May 1994 by the Lord Lieutenant of the County, in the presence of the mayors of Brighton and Dieppe. There was a fair in East Street, the “ancient custom” of blessing the nets was carried out in front of the museum and the first mackerel of the season were landed and barbecued on the beach to be washed down with vast amounts of drink. Fishing boats lay between the piers, a wonderful sight on a flat and calm sea. There were bands, Punch and Judy and the Council’s Play Bus for the younger kids. We followed a similar pattern this May and we had over 3,000 folks enjoying themselves. And we intend to do it again in 1996.
A few weeks ago my daughter Chris asked me “is the museum finished?”. To the amusement of all, my wife Carol was heard to say “it will never be finished!” True of course, but not quite in the way that she meant it. Since the museum opened, we have taken advantage of the Tory Government’s latest wheeze to get people off the unemployment register.
This Community Action scheme enabled the museum to harness the skills of a range of people and thereby supplement the income of people living on the margins. Mike Strong has a Masters Degree in Regional and Local History, was formerly occupied as a project man- ager, and came to us as Research Officer and Administrator. This enabled us to consolidate and to broaden our approach. More boats have been acquired and we have had the benefit of two boat-builders. We are about to establish a joint project with the `Cit6 De La Mer' in Dieppe.
This will be centred around vernacular boat-building and is dependent upon European Union funding. School parties now regularly visit us, attracted in part by the Museum, but equally I suspect, by the working fishermen and women making their living in the arches and on the hard, mending nets and gutting fish. In stark contrast , volunteer researchers have been going through newspapers and other records looking for references to fishing.
They arrive daily at the museum's dry-room, to add their findings to the museum's ever-growing data bank, which is avail- able for the use of all. With the help of family historians we are going through census returns and have started to generate family trees of the local fishing community. Postcard collectors have let us make slides of cards relating to fishing and the sea front, and these are now on public display. We also have two part- time research students from my University working out of the Museum, and so the story will go on.
Since the opening of this story in the summer of 1992, we have achieved what we set out to do. The area has improved economically, and our museum has thousands of visitors - and so it should on one of the busiest sea-fronts in the Country.
As published in the History Workshop Journal Issue 40 (1995)