She’s coming home

A couple of years back, we wrote about how a former Hastings lifeboat had been rescued and restored to glory. Now the duo behind that project, John “Tush” Hamilton and Deeday White, are embarking on a new challenge: to preserve a second Hastings lifeboat, the Cyril & Lilian Bishop, a veteran of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Louise Bell met Tush to find out more

Like all the best stories, the tale of how the Cyril & Lilian Bishop came to find her way back home to Hastings begins with a twist of fate. “A Belgian visitor to the town was taking photos of the Priscilla MacBean,” says Tush, a former Hastings fisherman, fishmonger and now purveyor of the legendary fishermen’s rolls.

“When he got home, he Googled her to try to find out a bit more about her history. But he hadn’t realised she actually registered in Eastbourne, so he was looking in the wrong place. What he found instead was the Cyril & Lilian Bishop, which had ended up in a boatyard in France. He called Hastings Council, and they called us.”

The Ghost on its way back from France. Picture: Ion Castro

The boat, which was originally built by renowned boatbuilders JS White in Cowes, Isle of Wight, came into service as the Hastings lifeboat in 1931. Over the next 19 years she was to save some 34 lives off the coast of East Sussex. But the most illustrious chapter in her history was in late May 1940, when she joined a flotilla of shallow draught vessels in sailing across the Channel to help evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk, earning her the nickname “The Ghost of Dunkirk”.

Tush was already familiar with the boat and aware of her prominent role in the history of the town. So he and Deeday contacted the owner, a private collector, who told them point blank that he wasn’t interested in selling. But the two were determined not to give up. “We kept on calling,” says Tush. “We even sent him before and after pictures of the Priscilla MacBean so he could see the love and work we’d put into that boat. But he was still adamant. So we got in the car, and drove to France to see him face to face.”

Work in progress on the Stade in Hastings. Picture: Louise Bell

At the boatyard, the negotiations continued. “I really didn’t think we were going to get anywhere,” says Tush. “Then suddenly he said, ‘Make me an offer’.” Asked what he thinks swung the deal, and Tush is clear. “We told him what the boat meant to the people of this town,” he says. “There are children and grandchildren of people that were rescued by the Ghost of Dunkirk living here. It’s part of our history, but it’s also still part of people’s everyday lives.”

The sale agreed, the pair swung into action. The sheer goodwill and generosity of spirit that characterised the rescue and refurbishment of the Priscilla MacBean kicked in once again: local firm Skinners’ Sheds agreed to sponsor the purchase of the boat itself, while an anonymous donor paid for her to be brought back to Hastings.

Tush working on the Priscilla MacBean

Now work is under way to restore her – and again, just as with her predecessor, the local community has risen to the challenge. Like before, Tush and Deeday placed an ad in the local paper asking for volunteers. Now a carpenter is working on the boat one day a week, while other members of the team will focus on the finishing. Tush himself is overseeing the work on the boat, while Deeday concentrates on fundraising. “We’ve had so much support already,” says Tush. “But we still need more. The big challenge now is raise the money we need secure a resting place for her and get that landscaped and ready.”

The hope is that the Cyril & Lilian Bishop will find a home near All Saints Church in the heart of Hastings Old Town, near the Priscilla MacBean. The current goal is for the project to be completed by June – the anniversary of when she first arrived in Hastings. Plans include a Blessing of the Sea, and then for the boat to be hauled manually through the streets of the town to her resting place.

The procession taking the Priscilla MacBean to its permanent home. Picture: Roger Streeten

“This is probably the most important lifeboat we’ve ever had in Hastings,” says Tush. “In all she saved hundreds of lives. When people donate money, we’ve been asking them to write a short note telling us why they’re doing it. Some of them would make you cry. There are fishermen here whose fathers and grandfathers were brought home from Dunkirk on that boat. It means so much to the town. It’s only right that we should celebrate her contribution.”

Find out more about the project at www.the-boat.co.uk/Cyril_&_Lilian_Bishop/ If you’d like to donate, cheques should be made payable to The Macbean and Bishop Trust and sent to The Treasurer, 4 All Saints Crescent, Hastings TN35 5PD. Or you can make payments online to Santander Bank, sort code 09-01-28, account number 494443.

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