Fishing for Creativity with Bev Lee Harling
Photography by Caitlin Lock
When I first began looking into my family ancestry I had no idea of the impact it would have on my life. In January 2022 I was feeling creatively stuck. The post-covid landscape for musicians such as myself was looking pretty bleak and my Dad had just been diagnosed with mixed Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
I sought the help of a creative coach, and Dr. Mo Cohen burst into my life. After a few sessions of focusing on what was holding me back, we got right down to the fundamentals of ‘Who am I?‘ And ‘Where am I from?‘ These might seem like fairly basic questions, but to me, they had been a huge question mark over my life ever since I was a kid. My Mum was a very secretive person and never spoke about her parents or family and as a result, I didn’t even know what my Grandparents’ names were.
Through working with Mo Cohen and his transformational approach to creativity, I was encouraged to look into some of my family stories. The idea behind this is that we’re all influenced by these inherited tales and that by working through them, we can free ourselves from the grip of those narratives, choosing how we would like to move forward.
I began doing this by recording some of my dad’s early memories of life with my mum. Ask my dad what he had for breakfast and he couldn’t tell you, but drift back to the 1960’s and the day he drove from London and met my mum at a coffee house she worked at in George Street and his descriptions can make you smell the coffee and hear the jukebox.
Then, using the usual genealogy sites, newspaper periodicals and local museums I began to do some family tree research and quickly became obsessed.
Through my research, I found out that my mum had lost her mum to cancer when she was just 8-years-old. Her father died a year later leaving her orphaned at the age of nine and she was then fostered until she got married to my dad.
In my research, I found two areas particularly difficult to find evidence of. The first was if you were a quietly law-abiding citizen, the second was if you were a woman. Thankfully my grandpa, George Victor Hutchinson, was neither of these and once I’d found a couple of newspaper articles about him and his various scurrilous petty crimes in the Halton area of Hastings, I was on a roll.
It turned out he’d been in and out of the local courts and prisons during his lifetime for assaulting policemen in Albion Street, driving dangerously, car crashes in Ore village, drunkenness in and around various different pubs in the Old Town, Halton and Mount Pleasant areas, violence towards pretty much anyone he came into contact with once he’d had a few drinks and my personal favourite, Larceny by Trick – where he tried to flog a motorbike that he didn’t own by impersonating a door to door banana salesman (I’ll leave that one to your imagination!).
Usually, his defense was that he couldn’t remember a thing due to the amount of homemade wine he’d consumed. It sounded like a normal night out in Hastings to me.
After my grandma, died, he left his kids to fend for themselves and shacked up with a Mrs Humm, the landlady of the Fortunes of War pub. She called the police on him several times for being drunk and violent, then he reported her for having illegal guns on the premises. According to her, they belonged to her dead husband Herbert Humm, who’d kept them after being in the military.
There was, interestingly, no record of him ever having served in the military, but he had died very suddenly, leaving her to run the pub single-handedly. Predictably, my grandpa also came to a sticky end in her pub from taking an overdose of Soneryl tablets, causing butobarbitone poisoning. It became clear why my Mum never talked of her earlier life.
I found a census from 1911 that showed that my long-suffering grandma, Jane Elizabeth White had lived on Ebernezer Road, just off All Saints Street, and that her father, George Louis Duncan White’s occupation was cited as being a fisherman. This was a revelation to me, I knew my mum had grown up in Hastings but had no idea that she was a part of one of the fishing families.
I was suddenly transported back to a memory as a kid, sitting on a little stool in our utility room in Ore Village. There is washing dangling from a string strung taut along the ceiling and there is rain, so much rain tapping its rhythms on the windows outside, rain drops having races with each other to get to the bottom of the pane. A door at one end leads to a concrete driveway where I have spent many hours bouncing on my rusty, hand-me-down pogo stick and learning how to ride my secondhand bike with rubber rainbow tassels on the handlebars.
“…he’d been in and out of the local courts and prisons during his lifetime for assaulting policemen in Albion Street, driving dangerously, car crashes in Ore village, drunkenness in
and around various different pubs in the Old Town…”
My mum is gutting fish. Chop, slice, swoosh. The fish are flat and brown with orange spots on them. Chop, slice, swoosh. The smell wafts over from the massive freezer trunk she uses as a worktop, you know those ones which often house dead bodies in murder mysteries. I don’t like that smell, it makes my nose wrinkle, but it is a familiar one that has always been in our house. The freezer trunk is always full to the brim of fish. I never question why or wonder where it is all coming from. It doesn’t occur to me that these fish are actually a part of our family.
My whole understanding of my mum had changed. As I delved further back using the discovery of my great-grandfather’s name, I received an email from Nona Jackson at the Fishermen’s Museum containing photographs of him and his son, Louis. To look upon the faces of my recently discovered ancestors was such a thrill.
Newspaper searches threw up a series of articles about a sea mystery that shook the residents of Hastings in March 1940 when a lugger boat called the Happy Return disappeared off the coast of Rye. There were no adverse weather conditions and an eye witness account from the harbour master told of how the boat was there one minute and not, the next.
I quickly went to the next article which talked of a body washing up on the ranges of Lydd several weeks later. There were two fishermen aboard the boat when it disappeared: Richard Eason and my great uncle, Louis White. The body was Richard’s, identified by his family. There was no trace on his body to indicate how he had come to be in the water, only that he had tragically drowned. I felt as though I was in the middle of a mystery novel, except this was about my own family and a town I’d known my whole life. It was nerve shredding as I clicked on the next article. Had Louis survived? How on earth had a whole boat disappeared?
A wave of sadness overtook me. There, in the black and white print, it told me that a second body had washed up, identified by my great grandpa, George White as being Louis. Devastated, I scoured the article for a mention of the boat or why this tragedy had happened. Nothing.
The following article, however, proved more fruitful. A diver from London had been employed by George Steel, the owner of the boat, to investigate where the boat had last been seen. He discovered the boat in its watery grave with the whole of the starboard side blown apart. His conclusion was that a mine had caught up in the trawl net of the Happy Return (the irony of that name!) and had blown the ship apart catapulting the two men into the water.
A heart melting description in the final article of “Crowds of silent watchers gathering at Rock-a-Nore road for the funeral, under the watchful eye of the flags of the fishing fleet at half mast” completely floored me. Listed under the evocative account of that day were all the people I had been researching – my grandma, great aunts, great grandparents, great great uncles and aunts, all grieving for the loss of Louis. It helped me to pull all the research together to be sure that all of these people were indeed my family.
A few weeks later, I found a picture of Great Grandpa George and his brother ‘Jumbo’ in Navy uniforms from WW1. They had both been Minesweepers, locating the underwater bombs and detonating them before they could cause any damage. I can’t imagine how George must have felt when he realised what had happened to his son.
Inspired, I began creating music and writings influenced by the kind of traditional folk music you can hear on a Tuesday at The Stag pub in All Saints Street. Mo Cohen supported me throughout the process as I navigated through some difficult family revelations and my writing gradually began to develop into a one-woman show.
At The Stables Theatre, I was able to work on songs whilst looking straight out into the old town and the stomping ground of my ancestors. My interest began to be held by the women in this community, how had they coped with all the trials and tribulations, the losses and living their lives so closely in tune with the weather and the changing seas? Their lives were so poorly documented and so I allowed my imagination to start telling the stories I could find, but from the perspective of the women. My attention kept drifting back to my grandma and how she would have felt, waiting for the safe return of her brother, Louis.
After finding the story of the Happy Return I posted it on the local Hastings Old Town Fishing Community group on Facebook, asking if anyone knew anything. Incredibly, I was contacted by 95-year-old local, Violet Bailey, whose dad, Jack Simmons went out on the lifeboat looking for my great uncle Louis. I was lucky enough to meet with Violet and hear first hand how close her dad had been to Louis and how shaken he’d been coming back from their fruitless search for the boat. I asked more about the lifeboat he’d been on and when she told me the name of it, I felt a shiver run down my spine. The Cyril and Lilian Bishop was the lifeboat used for the search and now stands, pride of place at the bottom of Harold Road, exactly opposite where I had been staring out of the window, writing the song about the Happy Return in the Stables bar.
Since embarking on my research, I have developed a stronger understanding of my mum, the hardships she faced and how they shaped the kind of mother she was to me. She overcame so many things to give me and my siblings a safe and caring environment to grow up in.
I’ve spent some great quality time with my dad visiting important times in his life. Recording them has been a fun project we’ve both been able to share. Also, by discovering the stories of people in my history and locals, it has given me new
understandings of who I am and where I’m from and through telling the stories of other people it has begun to inform my creativity in new ways.
With the guidance of Mo, I’ve begun to choose which inherited stories I want to take with me and which ones to leave behind and, because this process has worked so well, we are starting up LifeWrights to help others go through the same process that I have.
So, unlike my grandma’s poor brother Louis, over the course of investigating my family ancestry, I have fortunately had a very happy return to my life as a creative. ⚫
Ploughing The Salt Sea, Bev’s solo autobiographical music theatre show, drawing on her recently discovered rich heritage of centuries old, fishing family roots in Hastings, is currently on tour.