Read CHAPTER I - THE MEETING of Edward FitzGerald and "Posh" "Herring Merchants", free online book, by James Blyth, on ReadCentral.com.

The biography of a hero written by his valet would be interesting, and, according to proverbial wisdom, unbiased by the heroic repute of its subject. But it would be artificial for all that. Even though the hero be no hero to his valet, the valet is fully aware of his master’s fame; indeed, the man will be so inconsistent as to pride himself, and take pleasure in, those qualities of his master, the existence of which he would be the first to deny.

Where, however, a literary genius condescends to an intimacy with a simple son of sea and shore who is not only practically illiterate but is entirely ignorant of his patron’s prowess, the opinions of the illiterate concerning the personal characteristics of the genius obtain a very remarkable value as being honest criticism by man of man, uninfluenced by the spirit either of disingenuous adulation or of equally disingenuous depreciation. That these opinions are in the eyes of a disciple of the great man quaint, almost insolently crude is a matter of course. But when they tend to show the master not only great in letters but great in heart, soul, human kindness, and generosity, they form, perhaps, the most notable tribute to a great personality.

With the exception of Charles Lamb, no man’s letters have endeared his memory to so many readers as have the letters of Edward FitzGerald. But FitzGerald’s friends (to whom most of the letters hitherto published were addressed) were cultured gentlemen, men of the first rank of the time, of the first rank of all time, men who would necessarily be swayed by the charm of his culture, by the delicacy of his wit, by the refinement of his thoughts.

In the case of “Posh,” however (that typical Lowestoft fisherman who supplied “Fitz” with a period of exaltation which was as extraordinary as it was self-revealing), there were no extraneous influences at work. Posh knew the man as a good-hearted friend, a man of jealous affection, as a free-handed business partner, as a lover of the sea. He neither knew nor cared that his partner (he would not admit that “patron” would be the better word!) was the author of undying verse. To this day it is impossible to make him understand that reminiscences of FitzGerald are of greater public interest than any recollection of him Posh.

It was not easy to explain to him that it was his first meeting with Edward FitzGerald that was the thing and not the theft of his (Posh’s) father’s longshore lugger which led to that meeting. However, time and patience have rendered it possible to separate the wheat from the tares of his narrative; and what tares may be left may be swallowed down with the more nutritious grain without any deleterious effect.

In the early summer of 1865 some daring longshore pirate made off with Fletcher senior’s “punt,” or longshore lugger, without saying as much as “by your leave.” The piracy (as was proper to such a deed of darkness) was effected by night, and on the following morning the coastguard were warned of the act. These worthy fellows (and they are too fine a lot of men to be disbanded by any twopenny Radical Government) traced the boat to Harwich. Here the gallant rover had sought local and expert aid to enable him to bring up, had then raised an awning, as though he were to sleep aboard, and, after thus satisfying the local talent to whom he was still indebted for their services, had slunk ashore and disappeared. Old Mr. Fletcher, on hearing the news, started off to Harwich in another craft of his, and (fateful fact!) took his son Posh with him.

Both the Fletchers were known to Tom Newson, a pilot of Felixstowe Ferry, and they naturally looked him up.

For years Edward FitzGerald had been accustomed to cruise about the Deben and down the river to Harwich in a small craft captained by one West. But in 1865 he was the owner of a smart fifteen-ton schooner, which he had had built for him by Harvey, of Wyvenhoe, two years previously, and of which Tom Newson was the skipper and his nephew Jack the crew. According to Posh, the original name of this schooner was the Shamrock, but she has become famous as the Scandal. It happened that when the Fletchers were at Harwich in search of the stolen punt, Edward FitzGerald had come down the river, and Newson made his two Lowestoft friends known to his master.

There can be no doubt that at that time, when he was twenty-seven years of age, Posh was an exceptionally comely and stalwart man. And he was, doubtless, possessed of the dry humour and the spirit of simple jollity which make his race such charming companions for a time. At all events his personality magnetised the poet, then a man of fifty-six, already a trifle weary of the inanitiés of life.

FitzGerald must have been tolerably conversant with the Harwich and Felixstowe mariners with the “salwagers” of the “Ship-wash” and the characters of the pilots and fishermen of the east coast. But Posh seems to have come to him as something new. How it happened it is impossible to guess. Posh has no idea. He has a more or less contemptuous appreciation of FitzGerald’s great affection for him. But he cannot help any one to get to the root of the question why FitzGerald should have singled him out and set him above all other living men, as, for a brief period of exaltation, he certainly did.

From the first meeting to the inevitable disillusionment FitzGerald delighted in the company of the illiterate fisherman. Whether he took his protege cruising with him on the Scandal, or sat with him in his favourite corner of the kitchen of the old Suffolk Inn at Lowestoft, or played “all-fours” with him, or sat and “mardled” with him and his wife in the little cottage (8 Strand Cottages, Lowestoft) where Posh reared his brood, FitzGerald was fond even to jealousy of his new friend. The least disrespect shown to Posh by any one less appreciative of his merits FitzGerald would treat as an insult personal to himself. On one occasion when he was walking with Posh on the pier some stranger hazarded a casual word or two to the fisherman. “Mr. Fletcher is my guest,” said FitzGerald at once, and drew away his “guest” by the arm.

It must have been soon after their first meeting that FitzGerald wrote to Fletcher senior, Posh’s father:

“MARKETHILL, WOODBRIDGE,
“March 1.

“MR. FLETCHER,

“Your little boy Posh came here yesterday, and is going to-morrow with
Newson to Felixtow Ferry, for a day or two.

“In case he is wanted at Lowestoft to attend a Summons, or for any
other purpose, please to write him a line, directing to him at

“Thomas Newson’s, “Pilot, “Felixtow Ferry, “Ipswich.

“Yours truly,
“EDWARD FITZGERALD.”

At this time Posh was earning his living as the proprietor of a longshore “punt,” or beach lugger. In those days there were good catches of fish to be made inshore, and it was not unusual for a good day’s long-lining (for cod, haddock, etc.) to bring in seven or eight pounds. Shrimps and soles fell victims to the longshoremen’s trawls, and altogether there were a hundred fish to be caught to one in these days. Moreover, before steam made coast traffic independent of wind, the sand-banks outside the roads were a great source of profit to the beach men, who went off in their long yawls to such craft as “missed stays” coming through a “gat,” or managed to run aground on one of the sand-banks in some way or other. The methods of the beach men were sometimes rather questionable, and Colonel Leathes, of Herringfleet Hall, tells a tale of a French brig, named the Confiance en Dieu, which took the ground on the Newcome Sand off Lowestoft about the year 1850. The weather was perfectly calm, but a company of beach men boarded her and got her off, and so established a claim for salvage. As a result she was kept nine weeks in port, and her skipper, the owner, had to pay 1200 pounds to get clear.

All things considered, it is probable that a Lowestoft longshoreman, in the sixties and seventies of the nineteenth century, could make a very good living of it, and even now, now when poverty has fallen on the beach, no beach man, unspoilt by the curse of visitors’ tips, would bow his head to any man as his superior.

FitzGerald always took a humorous delight in the business of “salwaging” (as the men call it), and in his Sea Words and Phrases along the Suffolk Coast (No. II), he defines “Rattlin’ Sam” as follows: “A term of endearment, I suppose, used by Salwagers for a nasty shoal off the Corton coast.” In the same publication (I) he defines “saltwagin.” “So pronounced (if not solwagin’) from, perhaps, an indistinct implication of salt (water) and wages. Salvaging, of course.”

Posh tells how his “guv’nor” would clap him on the back and laugh heartily over a “salwagin’” story. “You sea pirates!” he would say. “You sea pirates!”

In the spring of 1866 FitzGerald stayed at 12 Marine Terrace, Lowestoft, in March and April, and passed most of his time with Posh. In the evenings he would sit and smoke a pipe, or play “all-fours.” In the day he liked to go to sea with Posh in the latter’s punt, the Little Wonder. The Scandal was not launched that year till June, and although he got perished with the N.E. wind, he revelled in the rough work.

He must have been a quaint spectacle to the Lowestoft fishermen, for Posh assures me that he always went to sea in a silk hat, and generally wore a “cross-over,” or a lady’s boa, round his neck. Now a silk hat and a lady’s boa aboard a longshore punt would be about as incongruous as a court suit in a shooting field. But FitzGerald was not vain enough to be self-conscious. He knew when he was comfortable, and that was enough for his healthy intelligence. Why should he care for the foolish trifles of convention? So to sea he went, top hat and all. And a good and hardy sailor man he was, as all who remember his ways afloat will testify.

Shortly before or after his visit to Lowestoft in the spring of 1866 FitzGerald wrote to Posh:

“MARKETHILL, WOODBRIDGE,
“Saturday.

“MY GOOD FELLOW,

“When I came in from my Boat yesterday I found your Hamper of Fish. Mr. Manby has his conger Eel: I gave the Codling to a young Gentleman in his ninetieth year: the Plaice we have eaten here very good and the Skaite I have just sent in my Boat to Newson. I should have gone down myself, but that it set in for rain; but, at the same time, I did not wish to let the Fish miss his mark. Newson was here two days ago, well and jolly; his Smack had a good Thing on the Ship-wash lately; and altogether they have done pretty well this Winter. He is about beginning to paint my Great Ship.

“I had your letter about Nets and Dan. You must not pretend you can’t write as good a Letter as a man needs to write, or to read. I suppose the Nets were cheap if good; and I should be sorry you had not bought more, but that, when you have got a Fleet for alongshore fishing, then you will forsake them for some Lugger; and then I shall have to find another Posh to dabble about, and smoke a pipe, with. George Howe’s Schooner ran down the Slips into the Water yesterday, just as I was in time to see her Masts slipping along. In the Evening she bent a new Main-sail. I doubt she will turn out a dear Bargain, after all, as such Bargains are sure to.

“I was looking at the Whaleboat I told you of, but Mr. Manby thinks
she would . . . you propose.

“Here is a long Yarn; but to-morrow is Sunday; so you can take it
easy. And so ‘Fare ye well.’

“EDWARD FITZGERALD.”

The boat referred to in this letter was probably a small craft in which FitzGerald had been in the habit of cruising up and down river with one “West.” It certainly was not the Scandal, for as transpires in the letter, that “Great Ship” was not yet painted for the yachting season.

Mr. Manby was a ship agent at Woodbridge.

The “Ship-wash” was, and is, the “Rattlin’ Sam” of Felixstowe, and Tom Newson, FitzGerald’s skipper, had evidently had a good bit of “salwagin’.”

“Dan” is not the name of a man, but of a pointed buoy with a flag atop wherewith herring fishers mark the end of their fleets of nets, or (vide Sea Words and Phrases, etc.). “A small buoy, with some ensign atop, to mark where the fishing lines have been shot; and the dan is said to ‘watch well’ if it hold erect against wind and tide. I have often mistaken it for some floating sea bird of an unknown species.”

The prophecy that as soon as Posh got his longshore fleet complete he would wish to go on a “lugger,” that is to say, to the deep-sea fishing, was destined to be fulfilled, and that with the assistance of FitzGerald himself. But no one ever took Posh’s place. FitzGerald’s experience as a “herring merchant” began and ended with his intimacy with Posh.

George Howe, whose schooner was launched so that FitzGerald was just in time to see her masts slipping along, was one of the sons of “old John Howe,” who, with his wife, was caretaker of Little Grange for many years. The schooner was, Posh tells me, exceptionally cheap, and FitzGerald’s reference to her meant that she was too cheap to be good.

Since Posh’s letter-writing powers received praise from one so qualified to bestow it, there must have been a falling off from want of practice, or from some other cause, for the old man is readier with his cod lines than with his pen by a very great deal, and it is difficult to believe that he ever wielded the pen of a ready writer. But perhaps FitzGerald was so fascinated by the qualities which did exist in his protege that he saw his friend through the medium of a glamour which set up, as it were, a mirage of things that were not. Well, it speaks better for a man’s heart to descry non-existent merits than to imagine vain defects, and it was like the generous soul of FitzGerald to attribute excellencies to his friend which only existed in his imagination.