Busking is an ancient occupation and late Victorian Eastbourne with its crush of visitors would have been a draw to musicians trying to eek a living during the summer.
James Collins was Irish but on 15th February 1861,when he was 20 years old, he was blinded by a shooting accident in Newry. He travelled around England as an entertainer for several years. In Leicester he met Mary, the daughter of a Baptist Minister, and they were married.
The couple arrived in Eastbourne in May 1880 and settled at 1, Gilbert Road. James found a pitch on the seafront near the Wish Tower slopes, close to where the Lifeboat House stands today. He was assisted by his dog, a spaniel called Rosie, who he had rescued from Battersea Dogs Home.
James played a variety of Scottish and Irish songs on his violin including ‘Bonnie Annie Laurie’ and ‘the Devil’s away with the Exciseman’. James entertained the seaside bathers who could hear his music when they used the many bathing machines nearby. On one occasion a horse employed to draw the bathing machines to and from the sea bolted and nearly knocked him over. Luckily a Mr Pratt, a worker at the nearby Devonshire Park, managed to pull him to safety.
George DuMaurier was a talented Victorian cartoonist and on the staff of Punch Magazine. His most famous cartoon was the ‘Curates Egg’ which has become a part of the English language. George was a friend of the author Henry James and the grandfather of Daphne DuMaurier.
George visited Eastbourne in 1888 with a friend, a talented musician. They passed James on a morning stroll and were disappointed that he was being ignored by the passing public. George’s friend took James’s fiddle and played it, gathering a considerable amount of loose change. George and James became unlikely friends and George drew the Blind Fiddler for a cartoon which appeared in Punch. The Cartoon entitled ‘The End of the Season’ shows the blind man playing to an empty promenade.
In 1893 the Mayor ordered the Eastbourne Police to remove entertainers from the seafront however it appears that The Blind Fiddler’, as he had now been dubbed, had a friend in the council in the form of Alderman W. E. Morrison who was lenient towards the Irish beach busker.
In March 1899 James wrote to the Eastbourne Gazette. He reported that his wife had been ill for two weeks but his blindness hindered proper care of her. He thanked the local doctor for attending to her free-of-charge, saying that if the doctor sent a bill it ‘would be as long as the Atlantic Cable’. The doctor had prescribed brandy, eggs, milk and beef-tea but he was too poor to pay. He had asked the Parish Relieving Officers to allow her to be admitted to a local hospital but they had refused.
In May 1900 James attended the Eastbourne Magistrates Court to complain about a man ‘Fred’ who was abusing him and claiming that his blindness was a sham. He reported that he was working until 7pm each evening and on average received about two shillings a day. The Magistrates Clerk said he would deal with the matter.
The following year, 1901 James suffered two losses, his faithful dog Rosie died, shortly followed by his wife who died of bronchitis. James played a lament at her graveside. Being a Catholic, James was helped by the church who found a home for him in Bexhill called Nazareth House. He later moved to Tunbridge Wells where he died.