Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The Fishermen's Home


The amount of sympathetic care and help bestowed on those of our fellow-men who are incapable of caring for and of tending themselves, is, as it were, a sort of measure of the degree of civilisation to which a nation has attained. This will appear more distinctly if we trace the birth and growth of the sentiments of affection for our kind, and of that pity for the defenceless which is akin to love. These sentiments are almost, if not entirely, unknown to the brute creation. It is well established that animals torment and worry to death those of their species that are unable to hold their own in the struggle for life. It is true that we read of and even witness acts on the part of animals which indicate that they may entertain a species of affection towards each other; but these, when closely examined, will be found to partake rather of the nature of instinctive than of sympathetic emotions. Thus, birds that have been kept together in cages, have been known to grieve to death through the loss of a companion. But here the birds have been restricted to an artificial life; and the loss of a companion may to them be equivalent to the loss of the only condition which rendered captivity tolerable. Wild birds have never been known to die through the loss of a mate. Horses, again, if severed from their companions, frequently become restless and evidently unhappy. This, however, arises out of an instinctive feeling necessary to the preservation of the horse in his natural state; and it is the trace of this feeling that we perceive in the domesticated race. The horse, like other herbivora, is gregarious. Herbivorous animals flock to their kind for mutual protection against the carnivora. Society is with them the means of mutual preservation. A pretty story is told of the affection exhibited by a spaniel, but this, when analysed, resolves into a singularly powerful development of the maternal instinct. The late Earl of Albemarle, when Master of the Horse to the Queen, had a fine breed of black-and-tan spaniels. One of these had a litter, and shortly afterwards died. The plaintive cries of the puppies induced a young female of the same breed to foster and warm them. She was enabled to bring them all up, and nothing could exceed the affection with which she performed her self-imposed task.

If we turn from animals to savage tribes, we shall still find them wanting in the gentler emotions of more civilised communities. The tribe is banded together like a flock of herbivorous creatures, for mutual protection. To each other, therefore, they must exercise a certain forbearance and amity, without which the tribe could not exist. But towards other tribes they have, as a rule, but one feeling, that of animosity; they treat their prisoners with shocking barbarity; the idea of kindness to a captive is unheard of altogether. They have scarcely any respect for the weaker sex, but treat them as a sort of superior slaves, impose on them all the hard and dirty work, and do not permit them to sit or eat unasked in the presence of their lords.

The more that civilisation advances, the more marked is the improvement in the manners and customs which relate to the fairer portion of creation. Hence, in the Middle Ages, arose that chivalrous feeling which even at this distance of time we are never weary of admiring. Chivalry, however, though noble and admirable, dealt only with a particular class; it was confined to the gentle among men, and to the high-born among damsels. It is to later years that we must look for such instances of national triumph of reason over instinct as are to be found in the extirpation of villenage, the passing of poor-laws, and the abolition of slavery. And these instances of self-sacrifice, be it observed, are connected more especially with the humbler classes—those who, through the simple accident of birth, are least fitted to alleviate their own sufferings.

At the present day the moral and social condition of the lower classes is deservedly exciting much attention; and many and strenuous efforts have been made to improve it. We see parliament engaged in attempts, hitherto not very happy ones, at reforming our criminals. Lately, also, the well-being of our private soldiers has occupied the legislature; and by this time important barracks, at Aldershot and elsewhere, are provided with a sort of club-room, where current literature, innocent amusements, and light refreshments can be obtained. We see also private benevolence extending itself along similar paths. Money is freely subscribed, rooms are hired and comfortably furnished, books and newspapers are purchased. The means of obtaining meals at cost price are supplied, and the working-man’s club, reading-room, or institute, springs into being. The late Prince Consort, whose enlightened mind recognised the need of raising the standard of the labouring classes, and who saw that the only method of permanently benefiting them is to enlarge their minds, was a liberal patron of these and similar institutions. He strove, by designing model cottages and model lodging-houses, to afford our working population better and more loveable dwellings, to give them homes in which they could feel more pride and pleasure than in a smoky, beery, public-house parlour. From numerous instances of the Prince’s practical philanthropy, we single out, as one of the most touching, his exertions in favour of the ballast-heavers of the port of London. These men were a demoralised set, and were prevented, by the customs of their trade, from bettering themselves. Formerly they could get work only through a body of low river-side publicans and extortionate middlemen. These harpies compelled the unfortunate ballast-heavers to drink before they would give them a job; they forced them to drink while at it, and again after it was done. The consequence was that the men became a dissolute body; only a very small portion of their wages was paid in money, and that which did escape the clutches of the publicans and middlemen reached home through the hands of a drunkard. The Prince Consort took up their case, and got a clause inserted in the Merchant Shipping Act, which put the ballast-heavers under the control of the Corporation of the Trinity House. The corporation passed rules for their employment, got their wages paid in money, gave them a house in which to wait for work, and supplied it with papers and books. The corporation also encouraged them to form a sick and benefit society. A marked improvement in the condition of the men soon resulted. The sequel to this happy change in their social and moral position is very affecting, and is a simple and unpretending tribute from these poor fellows to the memory of their Prince. After the death of the Prince Consort, the ballast-heavers memorialised her Majesty, and requested that they might have a portrait of their benefactor to hang in their waiting and reading-room. The Queen graciously replied by causing portraits of the Prince and of herself to be presented to them, with an intimation that she shared the interest which had been taken in them by the late Prince.

The foregoing remarks have been occasioned by the perusal of some highly interesting Lectures[1] which have been delivered by the eminent naturalist, Mr. E. Jesse, at the Fishermen’s Home at Brighton, and which are “dedicated to the Brighton fishermen, by their sincere friend and well-wisher,” the author. It is not as an author, however, but as a philanthropist that we here speak of Mr. Jesse. Let us hear what he has done, in conjunction with some other benevolent persons, for the Brighton fishermen.

Some seventy or eighty years ago Brighton, then scarcely more than a fishing town, was virtually under the government of the fishing population. To give an instance of the local powers enjoyed by the fishermen, or, as they called themselves, the “cliff men,” we may relate that of the three churchwardens of which Brighton could boast in those days, the vicar nominated one, the upper cliff men a second, and the under cliff men the third. Since that time, however, the fishing interest has steadily declined. The establishment of easy means of access, the consequent influx of visitors, and the increase in the number of resident gentry and traders naturally lessened the importance of the fishermen; and in proportion as the dimensions of Brighton enlarged—till it earned the not inappropriate sobriquet of London-super-Mare—so did the influence of the fishing population diminish, and the authority and general management of the town gradually fell into other hands. To these causes may be added the peculiar occupation of the fishermen, which, besides being rough and uninviting, frequently kept them at sea for days together; perhaps, also, some lingering of pride isolated them from the new residents, so that this fine class of men became by degrees more and more neglected, both temporally and morally. Whilst on shore, too much of their time and most of their money was spent at the ale-house. The men degenerated, till, at last, those parts of the beach where the fishermen congregated exhibited a painful scene of quarrelling, swearing, and drunkenness. To abate this evil Mr. Montague Gore, and Captain Hall, R.N., conceived the idea of establishing a Home, to which the men might resort, and where they might be warm, dry, and comfortable. They also hoped, through the instrumentality of the Home, to wean the men from the demoralising beer-shop. In the year 1859, these gentlemen, whose philanthropic efforts are deserving of the warmest praise, represented their views to Dr. Cordy Burrows, the Mayor, and urged him to call a public meeting, with the object of establishing a Home for the frequenters of the Brighton sea beach. Dr. Burrows welcomed the proposition, and the meeting was accordingly held. In consequence of this meeting, one of the arches built into the cliff, under the parade at the bottom of Ship Street, Brighton, was hired. It was floored, white-washed, lighted by a glazed entrance, and warmed; and the walls were covered with amusing and instructive drawings, and coloured prints and charts, causing it to assume a very cheerful aspect. Seats and tables were also provided, together with some newspapers and periodicals, and a small library of useful and entertaining books. The arch, when thus furnished, was found to be capable of containing about eighty persons. Subsequently cups and saucers were purchased; hot coffee was kept ready, and supplied without charge to the members of the Home; and amusements of various kinds were introduced. Smoking was of course allowed, as it always must be among sailors, but cards and drinking were forbidden. All this was done without asking the public to subscribe one penny. Voluntary contributions, however, flowed in, and hitherto they have proved sufficient to meet the outgoing expenses.

Among other means devised to interest and amuse the men, perhaps the most successful has been that of delivering occasional lectures. Mr. Jesse was requested to deliver the inaugural discourse; and to this request he most willingly assented. Long before the hour fixed for the delivery of the lecture the arch was filled to overflowing; as many seamen as could crowd into it were gathered there. The evening passed off with success. The paper was listened to with profound attention, and so great was the enthusiasm caused by it that the number of members began rapidly to increase; and within a fortnight Mr. Jesse delivered a second lecture, which was received in the same way. On the whole twenty-three lectures have been thus delivered; and these, collected, form the publication before us. The lectures are composed partly from original notes and observations of the author, and partly of anecdotes extracted from various works on natural history; and some of them first appeared as original articles in our own columns. All the subjects are treated in the same light and simple style; and from the number of anecdotes with which they abound, and from the unaffected language in which they are couched, they are peculiarly fitted to arrest the attention of young people.

The opening papers treat of singular facts relating to fish; and certainly some of the facts recorded are wonderful enough. Thus we are informed that there are certain fish which can propel themselves on dry land like serpents, by a muscular movement of their ribs; and that there are certain other fish which ascend trees. The most remarkable of these is the climbing-perch, which is found in the mangrove swamps. It ascends trees by using a pair of prickles from its gill-flaps, as a man might hoist himself up by his elbows, and thus it gains the tops of stems many feet above high-water mark, picking off the flies that alight on the tree up which it climbs. The class of fish which have the power of moving on land have some of their bones so disposed in plates and cells as to retain a supply of moisture, that exudes and keeps the gills damp, this being necessary to enable the animal to respire.

It is well known that Mr. Jesse has devoted a great deal of attention to bees, so much so that a collection of heterogeneous papers on Natural History, by Mr. Jesse, would hardly be complete without some mention of those insects. Accordingly we find, in these lectures, several anecdotes about them. In a hive belonging to Mr. Jesse, the entrance was made rather too broad, and a large slimy slug crawled in through this hole. The bees killed it; but their united strength could not drag it out of the hive. Of course the dead slug would soon begin to decompose, and some plan must be invented to prevent his carcase from polluting the hive and rendering it uninhabitable. What, think you, did these little insects do? We have proposed this difficulty to numerous friends, and hitherto not one of them has been able to suggest to us any reasonable solution. The bees, however, soon found a way out the scrape. They coated the dead slug completely over with a covering of coarse wax, called propolis. The sequel of this story is most remarkable. It so happened that one of the common, brown-shelled snails got into the same hive. It was soon stung to death; but instead of covering it over with wax, the bees merely glued the edge of the shell to the board of the hive, and thus left the snail hermetically sealed within. They must have reasoned that no unpleasant odour could issue through the shell.

In the course of another lecture “On Instinct in Animals,” it is stated that bees have a great variety of peculiar instincts, many of which are well known. Probably other animals, if watched as closely as bees have been, would furnish equally numerous instances of peculiar instincts. These instincts, Mr. Jesse well remarks, all tend, in different ways, to the well-being of the bees. One of these instincts is this. When a young queen-bee is ready to leave a hive, followed by a swarm, scouts are sent out to search for a proper place for her to settle on, or for a suitable abode. Another is, for a certain number of bees to rush out of the hive after the queen that leads forth the swarm, and to follow her wherever she goes. It is an unexplained fact how these are selected, for they are not all young bees. It seems as though a colony formed entirely of youngsters can hardly be trusted among bees, any more than with us. In order to prosper they must have some old heads among them. But the most curious part of the phenomenon is yet to be told. If one of the selected emigrants should, even the next day, be returned to the parent hive, it is immediately killed as an intruder. When the swarm is hived a third instinct teaches the bees to cleanse their abode from all impurities; a fourth, to collect propolis, and with it to stop up every crevice except the entrance. A fifth teaches them to ventilate the hive, which is done by a number of bees at the bottom of the hive, fanning their wings very rapidly, which produces a current of air; a sixth instinct teaches them to keep a constant guard at the door or entrance of the hive; another instinct teaches them to collect honey. They are also taught by instinct to avoid rain, and they return in great haste to the hive if a cloud passes over the sun; they fly there with great rapidity, and invariably in a straight line.

A most singular discovery, the whole credit of which appertains, we believe, to Mr. Jesse, is that of the antennal language of insects. Bees and other insects are provided, as everybody knows, with feelers or antennæ. These are, in fact, most delicate organs of touch, warning of dangers, and serving the animals to hold a sort of conversation with each other, and to communicate their desires and wants. A strong hive of bees will contain thirty-six thousand workers. Each of these, in order to be assured of the presence of their queen, touches her every day with its antennæ. Should the queen die, or be removed, the whole colony disperse themselves, and are seen in the hive no more, perishing every one, and quitting all the store of now useless honey which they had laboured so industriously to collect for the use of themselves and of the larvæ. On the contrary, should the queen be put into a small wire cage placed at the bottom of the hive, so that her subjects can touch and feed her, they are contented, and the business of the hive proceeds as usual. Mr. Jesse has also shown that this antennal power of communication is not confined to bees. Wasps and ants, and probably other insects, exercise it. If a caterpillar is placed near an ants’ nest, a curious scene will often arise. A solitary ant will perhaps discover it, and eagerly attempt to draw it away. Not being able to accomplish this, it will go up to another ant, and, by means of the antennal language, bring it to the caterpillar. Still, these two are perhaps unable to perform the task of moving it. They will separate and bring up reinforcements of the community by the same means, till a sufficient number are collected to enable them to drag the caterpillar to their nest.

Perhaps as striking a lecture as any in the book is the one on “Dogs.” The lecturer expresses his surprise that these noble creatures should be made the subject of so many unfeeling allusions in colloquial speech. Thus we hear of a “lazy dog,” a “drunken dog,” a “dirty dog,” a “shabby dog,” of leading a “dog’s life,” and of a “dogged temper.” We call a dandy a “puppy,” and a coward, a “cur.” Mr. Jesse proceeds to explain that all these epithets are absurdly misapplied. The dog is a friend so faithful, a protector so disinterested and courageous, that instead of being coupled with these despicable adjectives, he deserves all the kindness and affection we can bestow on him. A French writer has boldly affirmed that with the exception of women, there is nothing on earth so agreeable or so necessary to the comfort of man as a dog. It is certain that if man were deprived of the companionship and services of the dog, he would be rendered in many respects a helpless being. The dog has died in defence of his master, saved him from drowning, warned him of approaching danger, and has faithfully and gently led him about when deprived of sight. If his master wants amusement in the fields or the woods the dog is delighted to have an opportunity of procuring it for him. If man finds himself in solitude, his dog will be a faithful companion; and may be, when death comes, the faithful creature will be, the last to forsake the grave of his beloved master.

It was, of course, predicted by that numerous class who delight to throw cold water on every project, that the time and trouble of the author of these lectures would be thrown away. Facts, however, prove that the reverse has been the case. There is not now a more sober or better conducted class than the Brighton fishermen. Hundreds of them have altogether abandoned the ale-house; many have placed sums in savings’ banks; their families that were previously but badly cared for, are now for the most part well fed, and cleanly and neatly clothed; and the winter finds the men in the possession of funds sufficient to tide them over the fisherman’s idle time, without their having recourse, as they formerly did, to the parish. Such are the blessings which a handful of philanthropists have unostentatiously showered upon the Brighton fishermen. We learn with much satisfaction that the influential inhabitants of Brighton are alive to the benefits which have accrued through the institution of this home, and which accrue not only to the fishermen, but indirectly, through the stoppage of misconduct on the beach, to visitors and to the residents themselves. The inhabitants are about to mark their sense of the good work thus quietly carried out, by placing a marble bust of Mr. Jesse in their Pavillion. This compliment to the naturalist by whose intellectual efforts the Fishermen’s Home has been mainly supported, is as well deserved by him as it is creditable to the good taste and good feeling of the authorities of the town.

It is not too much to hope that some practical good may result from drawing public attention to the financial and moral success of the Fishermen’s Home. It may stimulate the formation of similar institutions in other parts of the country. Enough has been said to show that large funds are not necessary for this purpose. All that is required is a dry room, a little plain furniture, and a few books. Together with this some means should be planned for interesting and amusing the members. Above all, the philanthropists who devote their time and energies to the arrangement of the requisite details should have the tact to let the working man see that their sole object is the amelioration of his condition. In this way, and at a trifling outlay, vast benefits may be conferred on the labouring man. It is the opinion of those who have had opportunities of judging, that “Homes” are even more needed by the agricultural labourer than by the fisherman.

  1. “Lectures on Natural History.” By Edward Jesse, Esq. Delivered at the Fishermen’s Home, Brighton. Second edition, with eleven additional lectures. London: L. Booth, 307, Regent Street, W. 1863.