Provincial towns and sea ports tend to retain their intrinsic character far better than big cities, where greedy developers can’t wait to knock down historic buildings and whole streets disappear in a matter of days to make way for the new. Believe it or not, every brick and cobblestone of your home town is imprinted on your psyche, but you are probably quite unaware of it.
Spotting historic Connections
In small towns like Ramsgate at the Kent coast much of the fishing community spirit has survived to this day. Locals eye newcomers with customary suspicion and don’t like anyone who’s different. Few urban settlements in Britain retain as many historic buildings in their centres as Ramsgate does and this may be one of the reasons why attitudes towards strangers are as crusty and Victorian as the buildings that dominate the town’s two chalk cliffs. In total, there are 900 listed buildings in the town centre, much of which, incidentally, was designed by notable architects Mary Townley, August and Edward Pugin.
Overlooking the sea from their chalk cliff eeries, there are lovely Georgian seafront mansions that would have welcomed royalty like the young Princess Victoria and people like writer Wilkie Collins, painter Vincent van Gogh and, some decades later, actor John Le Mesurier. Today the town is home to actress Brenda Blethyn OBE and Janet Fielding, the former an enthusiastic supporter of the local fleapit cinema, the Granville Theatre, an art deco building much in need of financial support and refurbishment.
But right in the centre of Ramsgate there’s the late Victorian Sailors’ Church and Harbour Mission and the adjacent Smack Boys Home that would have taken in some of the poorest people in town and it is this building that is so inspirational within the historic harbour.
Soaking up the Spirit of a Place
One feels positively Dickensian as a writer just looking at its red brick facade. Stand along this dockside for a few minutes on a stormy day and feel the wind chill you to the bone. Lick your lips and taste the salt the breeze deposits there; scrape wet hair with icy fingers from your frozen face and squint at grey rain clouds with streaming eyes. Just a mo’ – you’re almost there, all it needs now is for one of those two-storey-high waves that pound the jetty at high tide to soak you to the skin and you’ll know exactly what the life of a young smack boy was like!
Except, nobody would be clouting you around the ears when you’re doing something wrong or the crew and skipper think you’re not pulling your slender weight in a gale force wind aboard one of the fishing vessels that go lobstering or fishing for herring.
You go to a comfy hotel bed with a full belly and rise in the knowledge that you have warm clothing and oil skins that will protect you from the worst of the elements when you join a fishing crew for a day’s excursion. When you leave the harbour, it is to go home to your loved ones. The smack boys had none of that.
The history of this small home for boys is yet to be written and published, but one could come up with at least half a dozen short stories and a really good Victorian murder mystery just by standing there and looking at the home’s mosaic band at first floor level that is inscribed with the important words: The Ramsgate Home for Smack Boys Founded 1881.
It’s the only one of its kind in Britain. It’s handsome plinth with string courses, pilasters, mock machicolations and battlements belies the poverty that the boys experienced and the wretched backgrounds some of them came from. What a wonderfully pushy man the Canon Eustace Brenan must have been to get this project approved by the town worthies! No doubt Charles Dickens, who used to holiday every year in the neighbouring village of Broadstairs, would have made much of such a character in his novels.
Now listed buildings, the charming little Sailors’ Church and Harbour Mission are rarely open to the public these days, but last summer I was fortunate enough to attend a Jazz concert held at this church. The 3-storey Smack Boy Home, which is located next door and also above parts of the church and mission, is no longer refuge to shivering small urchins working on fishing boats. It has been turned into offices and storage space and is sadly not open to the public as a museum.
The church opens its doors throughout the summer months (June to September) on Sundays at 6.00 pm, when sailors and anyone in need of a tranquil, spiritual hour and a cup of tea can visit and see some of the model ships, old photographs and other fishing memorabilia on display. Also, a special Christmas service is held every year for the many people who make a living via Ramsgate Harbour and those who have their boats moored there all year.
A compassionate Victorian with a Vision
Sitting close by the foot of Jacob’s Ladder on Westcliff, the church was built by Canon Eustace Brenan, vicar of nearby Christ Church, in 1878. The Smack Boy Home, Church and Harbour Mission would provide spiritual guidance and physical assistance to the men and boys who made up the crews of the sailing smacks that fished out of Ramsgate Harbour in the latter part of the 19th century.
It was very hard work, especially for the youngest Smack Boys, who were apprenticed to the skipper of each boat. When the boys were ashore, they could look forward to at least a modicum of comfort in the rooms above the church and, a few years later, in the specially built home for them next door.
Over the years the home extended a welcome to sailors who had been rescued, mostly from the wrecks that had come to grief on the notorious Goodwin Sands that lurk beneath the surface of the sea not far from Ramsgate. In World War I. some 3,300 survivors were fed, clothed, sheltered and medically attended to at this small building, an astonishing achievement by anyone’s standards.
When 50 or so registered smacks left Ramsgate Harbour with every incoming tide in 1863, there would have been a skipper and four members of the crew on board, most of whom would have been smack boys of varying ages. By 1906 this number had swelled to 168 sailing smacks – Ramsgate was a popular seaside resort by then and needed plenty of seafood for its tourists. Just imagine how many boys that makes who had no home to go to when they came ashore other than Canon Brenan’s Home for Smack Boys.
Canon Brenan put pressure on the Board of Trade, when he realised that there was nobody looking after these boys when they came ashore. Many of these boys seem to have been orphans and were probably coming from orphanages and workhouses straight onto the sailing smacks, when they were deemed old enough to earn a living (probably aged 10!). No other British fishing port copied this excellent idea, so Ramsgate’s Smack Boy Home is quite unique in its modern and charitable approach to one of the hardest professions on earth.
Recalling Childhood Memories
There are still a few elderly residents around who were smack boys and it would be wonderful if the Ramsgate Historic Society recorded their story before it’s too late and these precious memories are lost for good. We rarely hear from children in history books, and interviewing the surviving smack boys seems such a worthwhile thing to do.
Combined with the Goodwin Sands disasters, the smugglers’ caves all around and the illustrious personages who stayed in Ramsgate at one time or another, there is rich material here for novelists. In this port the past is still casting a long shadow over the present.
The town’s inhabitants have experienced such truly astonishing events since the building of the smack boys’ home that it is hardly surprising many of them keep one foot firmly planted in the mists of time and rarely risk a reluctant toe dipping into the here and now. Our surroundings shape us in many different ways as individuals and communities. The best writers know how to exploit this to their advantage. Still suffering from a blank page and a horror to fill it with words?
Next time you’re out for a stroll because you’ve got a small attack of writer’s block, take a good look at those all too familiar facades in your street. What lurks behind them historically and how has that influenced you? Start with the boy/girl in the mirror and before you’ll know it, that empty page in front of you is no longer staring back blankly. Smack in the middle of your familiar home town, you can discover something new and exciting about your community and yourself.