Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Herring Merchants

The Gay Love Letters of Edward Fitzgerald

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Portrait of Edward Fitzgerald

The English poet and translator Edward Fitzgerald (1809–83) lead a split life: as the friendly local man known as "old Fitz" who socialized with simple fisher folk, and as the literary man, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, who corresponded with Thackeray, Tennyson, and Carlyle: neither group had any knowledge of the other. His first beloved was William Kenworthy Browne, with whom he spent most of his summers from 1832, when Browne was sixteen. Browne married in 1844, and died in a riding accident in 1859. After Browne's death Fitzgerald moved to Lowestoft in Suffolk, where he walked along the beach at night, as he told Browne's widow, "longing for some fellow to accost me who might give me some promise of filling up a very vacant place in my heart." That fellow turned out to be Joseph Fletcher, called "Posh," an east coast fisherman whom he met in 1865, when Posh was twenty-seven and Fitzgerald was fifty-six. Fitzgerald was cruising in the area of Harwich and Felixstowe in his fifteen-ton schooner, originally named the Shamrock but known as the Scandal.

Photograph of Joseph Fletcher, nicknamed Posh

Posh was proprietor of a longshore punt or beach lugger, fishing for cod, haddock, shrimp, rather than deep sea fishing in a proper lugger. He immediately became Fitzgerald's protégé aboard the Scandal, and in the following year became a proper herring merchant with Fitzgerald as his partner. A year after that, Fitzgerald paid for a new boat to be built, which was named the Meum and Tuum (Mine and Yours), known all along the coast as the Mum Tum, "a queer name for a boat." Fitzgerald was "infatuated with the breezy stalwart comeliness" of his captain, but himself always went to sea in a silk top hat, with a lady's fur boa wrapped around his neck. Posh had wife and children, and Fitzgerald spent nearly every evening smoking his pipe in their cottage, or drinking with Posh at the inn. There was a quarrel between them in autumn 1869 because of Posh's habitual drunkenness; Posh asserted his independence by buying another boat without consulting his partner, which lead to another squall. Their partnership broke up in 1870; arrangements were made for Posh to become full owner of the Meum and Tuum, and Fitzgerald in his will directed his heirs not to call in the principal of the mortgage to which Posh was indebted to him. As a memento of their relationship, Fitzgerald commissioned Samuel Laurence to paint a portrait of Posh, and sent him a photo of Posh sitting on a chair, in his jersey, holding an oar, a big but handsome man (the photo survives but the portrait is untraced). Fitzgerald wrote to Laurence "I am sure the Man is fit to be King of a Kingdom as well as of a Lugger. . . . Made in the mould of what Humanity should be, Body and Soul, a poor Fisherman. The proud Fellow had better have kept me for a Partner in some of his responsibilities. But no; he must rule alone, as is right he should too." They occasionally wrote and saw one another again for several years. There was a further rift in 1873 when Fitzgerald, genuinely concerned for his friend's health, tried to force him to become teetotal. In these last years when they met Fitzgerald would grab hold of Posh's blue woollen jersey and pinch him, and say "Oh dear, oh dear, Posh! To think it should have come to this." Fitzgerald was also married, but he and his wife quickly separated, and lived apart. Posh was interviewed in 1907 (when he said "He was a master rum un, was my ole guvnor!"), and told a wonderful story of how one day he and Fitzgerald were walking along when they saw Mrs Fitzgerald walking towards them. As they came up to one another, Fitzgerald and his wife both removed their gloves and reached out in a formal greeting – but Posh could swear that their hands just hovered above one another and that their fingers never actually touched.


Markethill, Woodbridge
Saturday [Spring 1866]

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. . . .
          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. . . .

Markethill Woodbridge
Thursday [c. January 1867]

My dear Poshy,
          My Lawyer can easily manage the Assignment of the Lugger to me, leaving the Agreement as it is between you and Fuller [the builder]. But you must send the Agreement here for him to see.
          As we shall provide that the Lugger when built shall belong to me; so we will provide that, in case of my dying before she is built, you may come on my executors for any money due.
          I think you will believe that I shall propose, and agree to, nothing which is not for your good. For surely I should not have meddled with it at all, but for that one purpose.
          And now, Poshy, I mean to read you a short Sermon, which you can keep till Sunday to read. You know I told you of one danger – and I do think the only one – you are liable to – Drink.
          I do not the least think you are given to it: but you have, and will have, so many friends who will press you to it: perhaps I myself have been one. And when you keep so long without food; could you do so, Posh, without a Drink – of some [of] your bad Beer too – now and then? And then, does not the Drink – and of bad Stuff – take away Appetite for the time? And will, if continued, so spoil the stomach that it will not bear anything but Drink. And this evil comes upon us gradually, without our knowing how it grows. That is why I warn you, Posh. If I am wrong in thinking you want my warning, you must forgive me, believing that I should not warn at all if I were not much interested in your welfare. I know that you do your best to keep out at sea, and watch on shore, for anything that will bring home something for Wife and Family. But do not do so at any such risk as I talk of.
          I say, I tell you all this for your sake: and something for my own also – not as regards the Lugger – but because, thinking you, as I do, so good a Fellow, and being glad of your Company; and taking Pleasure in seeing you prosper; I should now be sorely vext if you went away from what I believe you to be. Only, whether you do well or ill, show me all above-board, as I really think you have done; and do not let a poor old, solitary, and sad Man (as I really am, in spite of my Jokes), do not, I say, let me waste my Anxiety in vain.
          I thought I had done with new Likings: and I had a more easy Life perhaps on that account: now I shall often think of you with uneasiness, for the very reason that I have so much Liking and Interest for you.
          There – the Sermon is done, Posh. You know I am not against Good Beer while at Work: nor a cheerful Glass after work: only do not let it spoil the stomach, or the Head.
                    Your's truly,
                              E. FG.

Friday [June 1867]

My dear Poshy,
          I am only back To-day from London where I had to go for two days; and I am very glad to be back. For the Weather was wretched: the Streets all Slush: and I all alone wandering about in it. So as I was sitting at Night, in a great Room where a Crowd of People were eating Supper, and Singing going on, I thought to myself – Well, Posh might as well be here; and then I should see what a Face he would make at all this – This Thought really came into my mind. . . .
          Well, here is a letter, you see, my little small Captain, in answer to yours, which I was glad to see, for as I do not forget you, as I have told you, so I am glad that you should sometime remember the Old Governor and Herring-merchant
                    Edward FitzGerald


January 13, 1870

. . . If you were down here, I think I should make you take a life-size Oil Sketch of the Head and Shoulders of my Captain of the Lugger. You see by the enclosed that these are neither of them a bad sort: and the Man's Soul is every way as well proportioned, missing in nothing that may become a Man, as I believe. He and I will, I doubt, part Company; well as he likes me, which is perhaps as well as a sailor cares for any one but Wife and Children: he likes to be, what he is born to be, his own sole Master, of himself, and of other men. So now I have got him a fair start, I think he will carry on the Lugger alone: I shall miss my Hobby, which is no doubt the last I shall ride in this world: but I shall also get eased of some Anxiety about the lives of a Crew for which I now feel responsible. . . .

January 20, 1870

. . . I should certainly like a large Oil-sketch like Thackeray's, done in your most hasty, and worst, style, to hang up with Thackeray and Tennyson, with whom he shares a certain Grandeur of Soul and Body. As you guess, the colouring is (when the Man is all well) the finest Saxon type: with that complexion which Montaigne calls ‘vif, Mâle, et flamboyant'; blue eyes; and strictly auburn hair, that any woman might sigh to possess. He says it is coming off, as it sometimes does from those who are constantly wearing the close, hot Sou'-westers. We must see what can be done about a Sketch.

[February 1870]

My dear Laurence,
          . . . I came here a few days ago, for the benefit of my old Doctor, The Sea, and my Captain's Company, which is as good. He has not yet got his new Lugger home; but will do so this week, I hope; and then the way for us will be somewhat clearer.
          If you sketch a head, you might send it down to me to look at, so as I might be able to guess if there were any likelihood in that way of proceeding. Merely the Lines of Feature indicated, even by Chalk, might do. As I told you, the Head is of the large type, or size, the proper Capital of a six-foot Body, of the broad dimensions you see in the Photograph. The fine shape of the Nose, less than Roman, and more than Greek, scarce appear in the Photograph; the Eye, and its delicate Eyelash, of course will remain to be made out; and I think you excel in the Eye.
          When I get home (which I shall do this week) I will send you two little Papers about the Sea words and Phrases used hereabout, for which this Man (quite unconsciously) is my main Authority. You will see in them a little of his simplicity of Soul; but not the Justice of Thought, Tenderness of Nature, and all other good Gifts which make him a Gentleman of Nature's grandest Type.

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.
SOURCE: James Blyth, Edward Fitzgerald and "Posh": "Herring Merchants" (London: John Long, 1908).

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