The Making of a Fishing Museum
By Andy Durr (Abridged)
While promenading along the Brighton seafront with my daughter, in July of 1992 I fell into conversation with Alan Hayes, a local fisherman. Alan mentioned how the Council was attempting to get `market rent' for two arches that housed the Brighton Commercial Fishermen's Association. To the fishermen working on the seafront this was far more than a simple rent review – it was an erosion of their rights. The erosion of these ancient fishing rights - since the arrival of new Brighton - is part of the fishermen’s folklore and history. 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.'
As the Council was embarking on improving the seafront, Alan’s fears were not based just on the history, but upon experience within his own memory of the last time that the council had attempted to improve the seafront. Then, the Council had given in to the hoteliers, who thought the smell of fish undesirable, and closed down the hundred-year-old fish market.
This was important to me, for while Alan was not aware of it at the time, I (was) a Labour Councillor; part of the administration that controls the town.
Both of us were dismayed at the small amount of local history found in Brighton's Museum (at the time), which told the story of new Brighton, the Prince Regent and so little about town's economic and cultural past. Local history display failed to show the role of working people in the building of the town - the railway factory, the role of working class institutions and the basis of the national movement that would follow, forming one of the first fishing co-operatives in 1827.
Alan mentioned the arches occupied by the fishermen were somewhat of 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 – much like a museum.
We were soon 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 with the fronts falling apart and a thin road in front a shell fish stall that opened at weekends.
While at first the fishermen had seen the Council's intention to improve the seafront as sinister, it became a useful vehicle. In the Summer of 1992, draft ideas about how the seafront should be regenerated were out for public consultation. The short period was used to argue the importance of the historical culture and industry of 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, including the development of the Brighton Fishing Quarter. £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. Work started in November and was completed by May 1994.
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.
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. 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. A 27-ft. wooden clinker-built fishing beach boat had been acquired and she was placed inside the arch.
Then disaster! There was dry rot in the arch!
What followed sums 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. 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 enlarge and encapsulate prints borrowed from Brighton Museum and Brighton Reference Library which we hung on built and painted display boards. We were on our way.
Brighton Museum, like the rest of Council is committed to community involvement and over the last few years has helped a number of independent
The Museum gave us two large glass cases, ensuring that they came up to the required standards – difficult, as the Museum faces directly out to the sea. Model fishing boats were lent to us from the local history collection and framed photographs of the seafront and other various artefacts were donated. We had also found many backboards of the pleasure boats that were cleaned and restored.
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.
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. 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.
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.