NOSTALGIA: The Eastbourne bruiser who became a businessman

Hounsom's office near the Wish Tower. The bathing stations were leased out until the council took them over after the Great War. The burly figure on the left with the peaked cap must surely be John Hounsom.
Hounsom's office near the Wish Tower. The bathing stations were leased out until the council took them over after the Great War. The burly figure on the left with the peaked cap must surely be John Hounsom.

By far the best summer holiday job I ever had was at Number 3 Bathing Station by the Wish Tower – obscene to get paid for collecting a suntan while paddling at the water’s edge, writes Michael ockenden.

I did not know that this stretch had once been a concession granted to a certain John Hounsom – a former heavy-drinking, bare-knuckle prize-fighter who boasted he could thrash any man in Sussex; whose son (another John) had been captain of the local fire brigade; and that his grandson was “Snyder” Hounsom, my former physics master at Eastbourne Grammar School.

After a bout at West Grinstead – bruised and the worse for a celebratory drink – John became smitten by a certain Ellen Laker.

He later proposed but she would have nothing to do with him unless he gave up the drink.

He accepted the challenge and the pair married in 1840.

But Hounsom’s powerful arms were not confined to breaking jaws: his father was a builder, and burly John followed.

By 1851 Eastbourne was developing and he seized the opportunity, soon sub-contracting for James Peerless owner of the firm that would later build the Town Hall.

Shingle was an essential raw material for builders and there were then no bye-laws prohibiting its removal from the beach.

John and his men would load their wagons – to the annoyance of the bathing machine proprietors, especially a certain Mr Baker.

One morning Hounsom’s men were confronted by Baker’s team who hurled rocks at them.

John was so enraged that he had his carpenters build twelve bathing machines that he set up near the Wish Tower in direct competition. The foreshore rocks had first to be blasted out and were used for the wall surrounding Devonshire Park.

Many years ago an elderly lady told me that she recalled explosives being used to clear rocks in front of the Grand Hotel so perhaps this was the site of his first concession.

His business was running by 1868 and soon became a success. He catered for gentlemen who swam without a bathing costume and ladies for whom there was a separate station. His enterprise spread to Bognor, where it was managed by his son-in-law, Fredrick Jenkins.

Now a prosperous businessman, Hounsom built Old Trees at 14 Hurst Road. The house had a roof terrace overlooking the sea but this was removed during a recent redevelopment.

John was partial to fried herrings but because his wife could not bear the smell he excavated a kitchen and dining room from the solid chalk at the foot of the garden.

In the 1950s they remained, complete with rusting stoves.

Hounsom died in 1897 and was buried in Ocklynge Cemetery. A principal mourner was his son, John Alfred, who took over the building firm before the Great War.

Until Eastbourne was granted borough status in 1883, the town was served by a voluntary fire brigade; John Alfred Hounsom became a member later rising to captain of the municipal brigade, a post he held until 1931.

The son of John Alfred, Snyder Hounsom, was a science master at Eastbourne Grammar School from 1903-1949.

No doubt benefiting from advice from his father, Snyder set up a School Fire Brigade as an alternative for boys not wishing to join the army cadet corps.

The above was submitted by Michael Ockenden of Eastbourne Local History Society and drawn from an article in the Autumn 2001 newsletter by Frances Muncey, who developed research by Marie Lewis.

Additional details were supplied by Ken Miles and the image is from the society’s photographic archive.

For details of ELHS contact Diana Guthrie (dhguthrie@btinternet.com) or telephone 419181.