Shrimps and Joe Hatter


By Arthur Woodgate

As a personal friend of Archibald Merdock Hatter, who was known by everybody as Joe Hatter (many Rye people are called by a name other than their right ones) I was always sure of some Rye Bay Shrimps. Now he is no more, the shrimps seem to have gone too, one could at one time buy shrimps from the front doors of many Rye houses. Not only did we get these crustaceans from a profuse group of longshore Fishermen, but also from quite a few amateurs who would obtain a shrimp net and push it in the water edge at Winchelsea Beach and Camber and then sell their catches to friends at about sixpence a pint, as well as there being plenty on the fishmonger’s slab.

I’ve been hoping to hear something about this from Jimper, because his family, Joe Hatter and Bob Cook had long shute stands next to each other at Dogs Hill. Joe had a three bite of nets, which took his outer one well out, so it had to be fished quickly if there were short tides. I’m saying nothing about the Suttons, as I didn’t know much about them, except that they were there, and I didn’t know too much about Bob Cook, but I did see enough of him to see what sort of man he was, and he was quite a character, although he did help toward the supply of Rye Bay Shrimps. He had a rather run down old motor car, (don’t know how old it was) one day it looked rather cleaner and smarter than usual so I remarked to him about it and he just said, “It looks smarter once a year because I slap a coat of paint on it”. I said “It must have taken a long time to clean it” down to repaint”, to which he replied, “I don’t do that, I just slap some paint over everything once a year”. He didn’t seem to worry about much, but I’m here to talk about Old Joe, who I consider to be one of the greatest and most interesting characters along that stretch of coast, at that time.

Joe Hatter
Joe Hatter

He was born into a fishing and retailing family, with a shop next to the Lion Street School. He took on the job of caretaker to the Rye Elementary Schools and he stayed in Lion Street with his wife for some time, then moved into the School House in Mermaid Street, where the back yard entered on to the playground, so we kids got to know him quite well and I knew him very well because I became friendly with his elder son Tom. Some years later my sister married his younger son, Jim. He had no car, so to fish his nets was a long journey on his heavy old trade bike or walk, and whilst he was fishing and shrimping his wife carried on cleaning the Schools and boiling the copper for the shrimps. It all became hard work, especially when a teacher threw chalk which ground into the wooden floors, therefore, in due course they left the School job and moved to a house close to the nets at Dogs Hill. It had to be given a little attention, so I used to call in on him on my way home from work, it was conveniently near enough, and do a bit towards the repairs. It did however have a good old fashioned brick copper, so when he did some shrimping, he could boil them straight away. One afternoon, when I called in, he was swearing like mad. He often did, but it didn’t mean much as he was one of the kindest men one could meet. He had been trying to make his copper boil as he had had a big carton of shrimps and couldn’t cook them. I took the pan out of his copper, put the flue back and replaced the pan, and lit the fire, so we had some shrimps that night after all, he cooked a few fish as well. Mostly gurnets, suddenly, he said “Would you like a gorbill?” Not having heard of such a fish, I thought I’d have a go, so I said “Yes please” (hope I’ve spelt these fish right, can’t find them in the dictionary but that is what he called them). It smelled like a fish, so I opened it with the hope of enjoying it. He sat the other side of the table with a grin on his face which turned into a good old laugh when he saw my look of surprise, and some alarm, the bones were bright green. Rather startling but it was perfectly fresh and quite tasty, and I haven’t seen one since, like shrimps they seem to have become scarce now. There were plenty of shrimps then and Joe couldn’t get a new wooden gallon measure as this was how they supplied the retailers, so, as I went round the country a bit, I looked for one for him, and finally found one in a back street shop in York. I watched him measuring up the shrimps and his customers and he was heaping them up in a triangle till some began to fall off. I reminded him that he had an imperial stamped measure so why over fill it. He said that was their traditional way of dealing in the fish trade, but I still argued that when I bought a pint of shrimps from George Salmon, (yes, he was a fish monger and Salmon was his real name). He levelled them off across a pink glass. That seems unfair, anyway, if we are not going to be able to buy any more shrimps, it doesn’t matter.

Mr & Mrs Joe Hatter
Mr & Mrs Joe Hatter

Whilst I looked round a superstore, not long ago I noticed a crowd around a fixture full of prawns, so I asked a man in a better line of view, if he could see any shrimps and he said, “There are thousands because prawns are just another name for shrimps”. What ignorance, I was disgusted and walked away. If people are getting that ignorant, then I must forget that shrimps ever existed, and be content with the less tasty prawns, unless I can find an amateur who has made a shrimp net to push along the coast, and offer them for sale from their front doors.

If “Rye’s Own” is going to deal with Rye’s great sons? I know it has dealt with Mrs Mason, so daughters count too. Meanwhile, I’ll finish about the life of old Joe.

Joe Hatter, was born in Lion Street. I know I have said much about him in looking for shrimps, there is much more. He was a real old Ryer, he spent a while, including World War One, in the Merchant Navy. When he came home safely and after he and his wife had moved to Winchelsea Beach, he joined the Coast Guards and could be seen practising to catch smugglers, behind his house (funny I should have become his friend, as my Great Grandfather was a convicted Smuggler and served time in Ypres Castle Cells). Be that as it may, I’ve already dealt with his activities since his wife and he gave up the schools and moved to Dogs Hill. But I must go further into his life living and working on the longshore. He would sometimes get a glut of mixed fish, in his nets, and there had been times, at weekends when he would call on his two sons and me. I was the only one with a car, but sometimes his son-in-law, who had a car would turn up. He also had a man in Winchelsea who he sometimes employed, between us we would fill a lorry with cod, which would be taken to a cold store in Hastings until the fish market open on Monday morning. If he got a glut of mixed fish, when the markets were closed, we would each take a load and knock on the doors of houses. People knew what we had to offer was straight from the sea so the doors opened all down the street, so the catch was sold in a very short time, and many people had a very nice fresh fish supper.

The house into which the Hatters moved at Dogs Hill was on of a block of three, (straight row) not terraced with an area. One house had a then notorious character living in it. Frank Simpson was often mentioned in the local press because he was either being picked up in an ambulance after a road accident, or answering charges in court. I remember once taking the ambulance to Wittersham level to get Frank out from his upturned car in a ditch spanning the county boundary. Both Police Kent and Sussex Police forces turned up and we went off to Rye Hospital leaving the police arguing as to which were to charge him. I don’t know if they tossed a coin, but Kent were left to deal with the incident. Meanwhile the Hatters continued to establish their home and business. On this occasion the dangerous person recovered and came home from hospital. One day he was having a bad row with his wife, (or partner) when he suddenly picked up a portable solid fuel fire and threw it out of a window. It rolled back into the area. And it was a good job that Joe had some family visiting who not only called the fire brigade but were able to start dealing with the fire in the cellar. I don’t know what happened to Simpson, but it was the removal of a menace so leaving a more peaceful existence.

It so happened, of course that Joe had herrings in his catches and so he built himself a dee, so he could offer customers bloaters. Now it was difficult to get oak sawdust, so I kept my eyes open, and was able to get him some now and then. He knew a farmer who killed a pig at times, so some pork joints got into his smoke and there became a sort of bartering in bloaters and smoked bacon. No doubt all very irregular, but all who took part are dead, so it can be told.

Lets sum up Joe’s life, as I have scattered it about amongst these stories. First I heard of him was that he was a merchant navy man, working his life to bring food to this country during World War One.

He then joined the Coast Guards to help protect this country during World War Two. He was born in Lion Street next to the school and when his older son Tom and I were first at school in 1917, Mr. and Mrs. Hatter were still working from there to look after us kids. They then moved to the School House in Mermaid Street and continued looking after the interests of us kids and at the same time Joe continued fishing his nets and bringing up shrimps. Before they moved to Dogs Hill he would get to the coast by one means or another. All he had was an old trade bike which broke down from time to time, so leaving his wife to clean the schools he would walk via Camber Castle, and so continued feeding the nation. There is one more kind action which illustrates the nature of the man, he heard a pregnant member of his family, craving for some shrimps, he hadn’t any to hand so, although it was getting dark, he got out his shrimp net and fished her out a few and cooked them for her. That sums up the man he was. In his later years he carried on in great pain, from a spinal disease and although he was lectured and talked to by many of us he carried on shrimping and fishing and indeed helping local farmers. However, in spite of my sister helping her mother-in-law to keep him going he had to give up eventually, and it fell to my ambulance rota turn to help take him to hospital. Now I’m going to quote what he said to me. “You’ve bl**dy well got me where you wanted me now you b*gger”. But as he looked up from the stretcher I knew that was his way of saying thank you. He was sent back from a London specialist hospital to St. Helens in Hastings but did not remain.

If Joe was not one of Rye’s great sons, then how do we measure greatness? There must be many more great Ryers so lets dig them out and put them in the history of our Great Little Town where they belong.

From the March 2008 Issue of “Rye’s Own”