Pebble picking part of youthful fun

Peter Bailey 2012
Peter Bailey 2012

IN Picture 1 the rickety mini rail track staggers along the west side shingle beach, with one or two little tip-up trucks. It looks as if all has recently been abandoned.

I had left Newhaven by 1937. Boulder picking was still quite an occupation and in our youth it had been well instilled into us that these hand picked pebbles went by boat or train to Runcorn in the potteries, where they were burnt in kilns and crushed. This powder, mixed with clay was said to improve the whiteness of the eventful earthenware.

Fishing, sail and motor boats would go around Old Nore and collect there when the tide permitted.

Peacehaven was still rather young then. The scene in this photo does give the impression that all has been abandoned. One point of interest was Newhaven’s great explosion of 1944 in the early morning, when most of the population was still in bed and shop windows were broken in Lewes. It all happened on this west shingle beach. The photo I have of the crater shows it about 50 yards away at the water’s edge and well to the left of the breakwater lighthouse. The hole was extremely large. Many stories circulated about this serious mishap. I was put in touch with a sailor who was on the Naval tug towing the two barges loaded with explosives from Portsmouth to Le Havre, with the intention of clearing the damage created by the departing enemy. And Le Harve needed urgent clearing.

On leaving Portsmouth the sea was becoming rough and they decided to shelter to the east of Beachy Head. As they passed Newhaven, one barge broke loose and headed for our shingle beach. With one barge still in tow in a sea so rough it was hopeless to pursue the drifter, and they were off Seaford Head when the explosion occurred. With press security so tight the sailor had never known what had happened until he made contact.

So back to the blue boulder pickers. Picture 2 shows Tom Winder and his sister Elizabeth. He did the carrying, though both would hand pick. For the camera they are beside the breakwater and from there they would take them to railway trucks on the promenade near to the breakwater entrance. It was said that the pickers, Tom and brothers George, Steve and Jack, received four shillings per ton. Some shared operating the rowing ferry boat, weather permitting, across the river from the Green Light (the hut on four wheels, just short of the Hope Inn), to the steps which came ashore at the corner of the East Pier with the quayside and for about a penny per person you could enjoy the sands of the East Beach. I have a bare chested picture of Tom standing up in the boat with little Tom Hills sitting forward. The latter emigrated to Canada but has now died.

On the curved steps right opposite today’s police station, Tom would play his piano accordion while George would sit on a protruding sliver of wood rapping it to cause a strange doll with a handle protruding from its back, to dance to the melodies. A close-by cap collected the passing public’s appreciation, which was no doubt shared by the landlord. The doll was kindly on loan to the museum. Tom was also famed for sharing the floor with Gracie Fields, the great singer who had her connections with Peacehaven.

In the beach scene with the blue boulder pickers, I have left till last, the name of the sister. She was Elizabeth and married a Harvey. Her fine son Billy could play the accordion and dance the doll but he was also a chef on our favoured car ferry, the renowned Senlac. What days, what people.