24 June 2017

Joe Hawkins on Hove Beach 1966-1969

Judy Middleton 2017

 copyright © L. Flowers
Joe Hawkins surveys the scene.

Joe Hawkins was a familiar sight on Hove beach for many years. In fact, he has the distinction of being the last man to hire out rowing boats from the beach in both Brighton and Hove. It had been a long, sad decline from the heyday of 1923 when no less than 49 rowing boats, seven motorboats and three sailing boats were available for hire from Hove beach, registered as seaworthy with Hove Council. All registered boatmen had to wear a special badge supplied by the Council annually at a cost of one shilling. The boatmen also had to pay rent for use of capstans and lockers / huts.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Hove seafront opposite Brunswick Terrace, note the two fishermen on the right operating the capstan

Joe was following in his father’s footsteps because Mr Hawkins, senior, had also hired out rowing boats from Hove beach. This career came to an abrupt end at the outbreak of the Second World War when the Admiralty requisitioned his boats and removed them to Shoreham Harbour. It seems more than likely that cadet ratings from HMS King Alfred at Hove used them for training purposes and inevitably they became somewhat the worse for wear. Indeed when the Admiralty returned the boats to Mr Hawkins, he was horrified to find they were virtual wrecks. He lost no time in pursuing a claim for compensation and this was duly paid out.

  copyright © I. Hennell
It is probable that cadet ratings trained in boats requisitioned from Mr Hawkins senior.

Joe Hawkins was born in London but moved to the coast in 1917 and stayed there for good. In his youth he worked as a bricklayer for the Gasworks at Portslade and he and his wife and their daughter lived at 5 Church Street, Portslade. He loved the sea, fishing and his boats and he spent all of his spare time at Hove beach. When he retired he came to the beach most days. His daughter remembered that following the Second World War, Joe built up a ‘fleet’ of around ten boats but the number was smaller by the 1960s.
  copyright © L. Flowers
Joe Hawkins in the 1960s.

He was a stocky figure but not tall, being only around 5 feet 6 inches. By the 1960s he had a magnificent head of white hair, which contrasted strongly with his suntanned face. He never smoked tobacco but he was partial to a pungent pinch of pepper-like snuff that he kept in a mahogany and silver snuffbox. He would offer the box around asking if anybody would like a pinch but perhaps he knew there would be few takers. The snuff habit did not enhance his features because it left a mustard coloured residue around the nostrils. His ‘old salt’ image was completed by a nautical-style cap. But he had a refined side too and he never drank tea from a mug and always used an old china cup with the little finger daintily raised as he drank.

In the 1960s his mode of transport from his home in Portslade to Hove beach was a 1950s maroon BSA B31 bike weighed down with canvas haversacks from the Army Surplus stores on either side. He wore an Everoak crash helmet. In winter he was clad in a heavy, black motorbike jacket plus Wellingtons. But in summer he favoured shorts, plimsolls and a short-sleeved top.

 copyright © J.Middleton
The British Legion Hall in Trafalgar Road, Portslade.

Twice a week Joe would transform himself by donning a dark suit and taming his wild white hair with oil. Then he would set off for the British Legion Hall in Trafalgar Road, Portslade, where he enjoyed dancing the waltz and foxtrot.       

Joe’s Locker

  copyright © J.Middleton
Joe’s beach was situated opposite this stretch of Hove promenade.

Joe’s locker was the first one at the top of the beach from the west side, just after the rotunda shelter. The cream-painted locker measured 14 feet by 3 feet 6 inches and had a flat roof sloping down to drain rainwater. Joe’s locker was raised some 18 inches above ground level and non-essential odds and ends were stored underneath. Inside the locker was everything Joe might need in connection with his boats.

On the beach side of the locker two flaps folded down to give access to the top half. On the left there was a full-sized locked cupboard containing a couple of ancient Seagull outboard motors, a fuel can and various tools and spares. On the outside there was a shelf to hold such essentials as tea, sugar and china cups and an old kettle. A paraffin stove stood on the floor to heat the water for a pot of tea, the water being collected from a nearby standpipe on the promenade.

On the back wall hung the rowlocks that were not identical, being individual to each boat. There were all sorts of tools that might come in useful such as saws, spanners, hammers, screwdrivers and chisels. There were boxes containing paint pots, brushes, cord, rags, screws, nuts and bolts plus a sledgehammer. There was a biscuit tin full of old corks, which became an essential item when wrapped in a piece of rag to plug drain holes near the boat’s transom. There was also a large pot of gasworks grease.

On the right side there were around twelve oars measuring 6 feet to 8 feet stored horizontally, plus anchors, ropes, tarpaulins, boat rods, long-line tubs and buoys

Outside the locker Joe placed comfortable benches to form a square floored with reclaimed timber. In summer if the locker were in use all day at weekends, Joe would raise tarpaulins on either side supported on galvanised L-shaped frames to provide windbreaks. His domain thus became a cosy nook – a home from home as everyone agreed.

Joe’s Sayings

Joe had a number of sayings that were always associated with him. For example, it exasperated him when his helpers came to and from the beach without carrying anything because there were always pieces of equipment to be ferried back and forth. He would say emphatically ‘Don’t go empty-handed.’

When he noticed a task was being performed the wrong way, he never swore but used to utter ‘I say, I say!’ In fact the strongest word he ever employed was an occasional ‘blasted’.

Joe’s adult helpers knew that it was best to haul a boat by the bows but greenhorn teenaged helpers thought they should push the stern. When he saw this happening Joe would shout ‘You’re wasting your time there!’

Should somebody make a dubious proposal to him, he would respond ‘We can’t entertain that.’

When his clients were about to embark in one of his boats, he warned them ‘It’s always colder on the water.’

If there had been a tricky incident involving the launch or recovery of a boat, he would announce dramatically ‘We were flirting with death.’

One of Joe’s sayings that intrigued his teenaged helper was ‘I’m just going to see my accountant.’ It was not until the youngster made enquiries that he learned it meant a turf accountant and Joe was merely off to place a bet on the horses. You knew when he had made a winning punt because he would return in a very genial mood.

Joe used to recite an old rhyme about the wind and fishing:

Wind from the West, fish bite the best
Wind from the East, fish bite the least
Wind from the North, do not go forth
Wind from the South, blows bait in their mouths

Joe’s Boats

  copyright © L. Flowers
Joe liked nothing better than being around his boats.
On the side of Joe’s locker there was a painted sign advertising ‘Boats for Hire’ and showing the hourly rates charged for one to two, two to three, or three to five persons. A cash deposit was necessary, to be refunded upon safe return of the boat. This was a necessary precaution because it had been known for a client to leave a boat at some distant beach to save himself the bother of rowing back to Joe’s beach. Of course hiring out boats was strictly a summer-only activity. However, the boats were not necessarily idle during the winter months because Joe and his friends used them for fishing. 

Joe’s boats were displayed bow first on the beach in a line parallel to the promenade. All boats were clinker-built and had been varnished when new but with age the varnish had darkened. When a boat was past its prime with defects carefully repaired, a good coat of paint provided extra protection and a smarter appearance. The painted backboards displayed the boat’s name in decorative letters.

Joe’s collection of boats was as follows:

Jolly Jumbuck – This unusually named boat was Joe’s best, being a 12-foot mahogany-built rowing boat.

Tina – An 11-foor rowing boat probably constructed of oak.

Melita – A 10-foot rowing boat probably constructed of mahogany,

Heidi – This was an additional 13-foot rowing boat acquired in around 1967 with a high bow reflecting Norse influence because the boat was built in Stromness, Orkney. Joe purchased this boat at Worthing after she had taken a bit of a bashing. She had been kept on a raised shingle beach but a combination of high winds and heavy seas had swept her off and dumped her on the promenade below. A few strakes were damaged and Joe bought her in this condition. But after Joe had worked on the boat she was as good as new.

Sea Queen – A rather posh name for a somewhat stocky boat, around 16 feet in length, with a counter stern designed for beaching. Joe purchased this boat from Mr Hillman who kept a few fishing boats at the foot of East Street, Brighton. She was not a prime specimen being a sun-bleached hull. But Joe was prepared to take her on. One summer’s day, John (one of Joe’s regular helpers) and teenaged Lawrence, motored along the coast to collect the boat and tow it back to Joe’s beach. Once in the water, the old boat proved to be very leaky indeed and John was obliged to keep the outboard roaring at full throttle in order to keep momentum. But the water seeped in relentlessly and the boat was set so low in the water that the gunwales were virtually awash. There was no other option than to beach her off Second Avenue and set to baling her out. After a great deal of work, they made a quick dash for Joe’s beach. When Joe had finished refurbishing her, she was given a good coat of white paint with contrasting maroon touches to gunwales and looked very smart.

Sea Princess – This boat was purchased later on and probably had a similar history to the Sea Princess. She too was painted throughout.

Other Boats

Although Joe’s boats were the only ones for hire, there were other boats on the beach too. In fact there was a little community there because John and Ron kept their boats nearby and stored their gear in the next locker. They were friends and associates of Joe’s and helped him with his boats and often joined him for tea and conversation. John’s boat was no more than 12 feet but carried such a weight of paint that it was far heavier than you might expect and difficult to move. John used to arrive at the beach on his 1950s Triumph 650cc motorbike equipped with a sidecar in which to transport gear.

Mr Saunders who taught at neighbouring private school Hove College owned some boats at the other end of the beach that he used for fishing expeditions with his sons. Hove College’s connection with boats went back a long way and boys were allowed to use school boats or perhaps owned their own. Gordon Sherry, who started there at a tender age in the 1890s, used to accompany Mrs Jones, the headmaster’s wife, on her shopping expeditions to Brighton, preferring to use a boat rather than a horse and cart and beaching the boat at the foot of West Street. At one stage during the 1960s Mr Saunders was the proud owner of a large boat with a lute-shaped stern, varnished and in prime condition. The boat was in a similar style to those on display outside the Fishermen’s Museum at Brighton.

  copyright © J.Middleton
Mr Saunders once owned a boat with proportions similar to the ones on display outside the Fishing Museum, Brighton, photographed on 4 April 2009.

There was a varnished clinker-built rowing boat called Embyfore that was a larger version of Joe’s Heidi and was also built in Stromness. Four employees of the Metal Box Company co-owned the boat and took her out for rod and line fishing with the aid of an outboard motor.

There were around eleven other sailing dinghies, all wooden, on the beach, all owned by fishing enthusiasts. There was also a home-built catamaran that Lawrence once had a trip aboard and travelled at remarkable speed. It is interesting to note that in 1925 a new type of vessel was registered with Hove Council called an Aquaplane bathing yacht and there were twelve of them. But they could not have been a success because they were not mentioned again.

In the 1960s on the beach below Hove Street South there rested a chunky rowing boat with ‘Hove Lifeguard’ picked out in white paint on the sides. She was just left there to rot peacefully away and never used. In the 1890s men belonging to the Royal Humane Society carried out life guarding duties at Hove. By 1914 the Society had become disillusioned by the lack of subscriptions and told Hove Council they were no longer prepared to provide manpower although they were happy to place their two boats at Hove Council’s disposal. Hove Council also decided to purchase an additional boat at a cost not exceeding £15 and employed three boatmen, one at a weekly wage of 26/- and the other two at 25/-. The men were issued with a jersey and cap emblazoned with ‘Hove Corporation’ plus a straw hat. By 1925 the boatmen earned £3 a week, which was a decent wage but they had to work a ten-hour day. By 1969 Hove lifeguards used a rigid-floored inflatable with a powerful outboard motor. By 1970 there were seven Hove lifeguards. 
 copyright © J.Middleton
It is rare to find an old postcard depicting one of Hove’s boatmen. The Sackville Hotel can be seen on the right.

Joe’s Helpers

Joe’s helpers assisted with the launching and recovery of the boats. They were not tasks that could be done by one man and the winch used for hauling up the boats had to be operated by two men.

John’s day job was at Portslade Gasworks and it provided another thing in common with Joe who also used to work there. Like Joe, John made use of a tub of Gasworks grease. In the 1960s John was still in his twenties.

Frank was an older man in his fifties and another regular on the beach. He was a useful handyman but was of a different built to Joe and weighed some fifteen stone. He enjoyed smoking tobacco in a briar pipe with the usual round bowl. He used to drive around in a blue Austin A35 van.

By contrast Ron was a non-smoker and in his early thirties. All these men would join Joe in a regular dip in the sea.

There was another man who worked for Kearny & Trecker and frequented the beach in his spare time. He was nicknamed ‘Talkative’ for obvious reasons and had a ribald turn of phrase. He was in his late forties and had a distinguished air with grey hair and a moustache and was never known to join the others in the briny.

Then there were four teenage helpers who loved fishing and messing about in boats. They were Lawrence Flowers, Glynn, Neil and Bruce and often they were taken on fishing trips as a reward. On one memorable occasion the boys went shrimp-netting and were so anxious to cook themselves a delicious meal straight from the sea that they accidentally boiled a lead fishing weight along with the shrimps. Joe muttered dark warnings about lead poisoning but they boys went ahead with their meal with no apparent ill effects.  
Launching a boat

When a boat was hired she had to be properly equipped with her own rowlocks, three oars, anchor and ropes. Then she was hauled down to the water’s edge by means of greased planks known as trows (to rhyme with throws). It depended on the tide as to whether a launch was a quick affair or one involving more labour. High tide meant the boat was nearer to water via a steeply shelving pebble bank but low tide and shallow water required greater persistence. In summer time the clients were usually seated in the boat before launching and the helpers, clad in shorts or bathing trunks, did not mind getting wet. In winter, it was a different story and it was best to wear waders because it was no fun having your Wellingtons full of freezing seawater.

The more hands to help, the easier it was to launch a boat because it required a good shove and a short sprint to push her into the water sufficiently enough for the oars to be able to bite. If the boat were for a fishing trip, the procedure was different. The oarsman was seated in place with the fisherman adding weight to the ‘shove’. The fisherman had to leap to get his knee up on the transom and then scramble aboard. Joe used this method himself when he went fishing. In times past Joe had used a small sail on a rear-mounted mast to give added momentum but this was not used in the 1960s.


When Joe returned from one of his fishing trips, either he or John would be looking after the outboard. The helmsman would hang back should the waves be boisterous in order to pick his moment and ride up to the beach on the crest of a wave. Then the bowman, usually the youngest man in the boat, stood poised in the bows with a painter, ready to jump out just before the boat grounded. Sometimes it was more a case of being catapulted out of the boat rather then an elegant jump. When the bowman landed, he hauled back hard on the rope while the other occupants scrambled over the side. Ideally, the winch would be available and the painter was hooked on ready to haul the boat up the beach. Fishing gear and motor were removed from the boat and lastly the cork taken out of the hole so that bilge water could drain away.

The retrieval of a boat sounds simple set down in print but waves are unpredictable and bringing the boat in can be an unnerving experience for those not used to such an exertion. On one occasion two young men hired a boat from Joe. When they set off, conditions were ideal but by the time they were ready to return, there was a high tide, the wind had increased and there was heavy surf. Joe shouted out instructions and the young men tried to judge their approach. Unfortunately, they missed their chance and instead of riding in on the crest of a wave, found themselves in a deep trough. The next wave flung the boat towards the beach, overturning her and throwing everything out including the men. One of them managed to scramble ashore but the other was trapped underneath the hull. There was instant pandemonium on the beach with everybody rushing to help, having to make their way through a tangle of gear, and heaving one side of the vessel up. Amazingly enough, the man was pulled out, soaked but unhurt and not a little shaken up.  


  copyright © L. Flowers 
Joe and his fishing nets; one of Mr Flowers most vivid memories is of Joe patiently baiting a long line.

One method was called long-line fishing; it was laborious to set up and often no fish were caught at all. Two shallow tubs were employed, measuring around 24 inches in height and 6 inches high. The task involved carefully unwinding the line from one tub and baiting around 100 hooks with lugworm, freshly dug up. The hooks were generally spaced around 24 inches apart and attached to the main line with a 9-inch trace. The baited line was gradually wound into the second tub with the hooks and trace facing the centre. A sheet of newspaper was laid between every few coils to separate them and prevent tangles. The long line was laid along the seabed around half a mile from shore, weighted down and with another line attached to a buoy with a small flag on top. One flatfish per line was thought to be a reasonable catch.

Fishing from a boat with short boat rods from 5 feet to 6 feet in length was considered a superior method to beach fishing. Using an outboard motor the fishermen went out to recognised fishing marks, usually Sweetings and sometimes The Gates.

Lawrence has fond memories of one idyllic fishing expedition with Joe aboard the Jolly Jumbuck. It was a fine summer evening with a blue sea as still as a millpond. They headed for The Gates and hauled in many pout whitings, fat and fully-grown. Seagulls were quick to recognise there were fine fish aboard and followed the boat back to the beach, hopefully. Lawrence threw them one or two but Joe told him off and said the catch was to sell off the beach.

Another fishing trip was memorable for an unfortunate reason. The Seagull outboard motor somehow managed to vanish overboard on the way out. The men quickly marked the spot with an oar tied to an anchor and set off for shore to fetch another motor. Back at the spot a grapnel was used to drag along the seabed until they found the motor and hauled it back on board. Once the motor had thoroughly dried out, it worked perfectly.  

Joe died in August 1991 aged 84.


This article is based on the reminiscences of Lawrence Flowers with a few additions from the Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade by J.Middleton

Copyright © J.Middleton 2017
page layout by D.Sharp