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So Long, Tom The Sailor

November 21, 2020
by the gentle author

I have to report the recent death of Brick Lane icon, Thomas Hewson Finch, aged seventy-nine

Let me admit, if I had to choose one person who incarnated the spirit of Brick Lane Market, it would have been Tom – Tom the Sailor, as he was widely known – who was to be found almost every day of the week with his faithful dog Matty, stalling out on the pavement with a few bits and pieces for sale.

A distinguished gentleman of soulful character, yet with indefatigable humour and spirit, Thomas Frederick Hewson Finch had been around as long as anyone could remember, although few were aware of his origins or the extraordinary story of how he came to be there.

“In 1941, when the Germans were at war with England, that’s when I came along. My father wasn’t married to my mother. As far as I know, I was born in Goole in Yorkshire, but I don’t know for sure – no-one knows because it was 1941. I don’t think anybody cared about me, I was just a problem. I say my mother died when I was born but I don’t know, and I don’t want to know because I’ve had my life now, and I was slung in a home then which was natural. All I can remember is me lying on a floor and watching a rocking horse.

That home was St John’s in Ipswich, it’s not there any more. You went from baby to cots and then you went to beds, in other words you went through the stages. It was a big place. Loads of people like me needed somewhere to go. Why this place was picked was because there was Yanks all around. Although it may not be true, what I say is that my father was American. My mother went out with other people. She was part gypsy and she had to take care of herself, and naturally she would go with the Yanks who gave her cigarettes and stockings. Why would a woman want to go with Englishmen that were poor and had nothing?

When you sit there as an orphan and see other people being given presents, how do you imagine I felt? One child had an electric train set and I nicked it and buried it, but I when I went back to get it a year later it was rusty and no good. Why take somebody’s train set? It was how I thought. It was wrong, I know this now. I hid above a toilet for three days when they were looking for me, after they thought I had run away. As I got older, they slung me out because I was too unruly, and they put me in a stronger home. It was in East Grinstead, and the one who run it he was – now he would be locked up in  prison – he was very hard.  He used to love hitting me. He used the birch, he kept it in vinegar. He put you over a bench for six of the best. It was always me.

They sent me to a training ship for orphans on the River Medway – the Arethusa – where I reached Chief Petty Officer Boy. We slept in hammocks and you had to climb the one hundred and seventy foot masts everyday and slide down the lanyards. It was sailing ship from Harwich. From there, when you passed out you went to the Ganges in Suffolk where everyone went to go into the Royal Navy. They were training me in Morse code and typing, and I went on HMS Paladin. But I went deaf, on account of the cold weather in Iceland when I was drilling ice off a boat. I was invalided out with a pension of six shillings and ninepence a week which I sold for two hundred and fifty pounds, and with the money I bought a motorbike – a superflash.

I started working with woodworkers, Hollar Bros in Hull where I met my wife. I went in a cafe in Dagger Lane and the chap was doing no good and he asked me if I wanted the cafe for fifteen pounds a month, so I thought, “I’ll have that.” It turned out to be one hell of a place. All the bikers came down and it was packed out with motorcyclists from Brighton and all over England. I was open twenty-four hours and it was so busy you couldn’t park in the street. From there I ended up with seven nightclubs, and ten other cafes with casinos above them. I had dogs on the door, and I had one dressed as a fisherman because they knew me and I went to sea with them.

After that, I was twenty years on the run. I gave up everything when I left, me and my family, we just walked out. All the others ended up in the nick but they couldn’t catch me and I came down here to East End to get away. In other words, I was a bit of a villain. I’ve had a few premises round here, on Great Eastern St, Boundary St and two shops on Brick Lane, and in Cheshire St. I never paid for any of them. I used to have a partner, me and Terry – they called us “Tom & Jerry,” cat and mouse. Our first shop on the Hackney Rd, we sold the shop window just to get going. We used to sell nicked fireplaces, Victorian ranges and marble, you could get that stuff easy when there was no cameras. We sold them at giveaway prices, even the police came to buy from us. The shop was given to me by a Jew that was going to America, I was sitting in the Princess one day and he came in and threw the keys on the counter and said, “Take it, it’s yours!”

A camera crew came round once and asked me to show them how to sell a fireplace. We had one marked at fifteen pounds, so they filmed me and I asked “Thirty pounds” and they gave me the cash. Each time I asked more until it was seventy-five pounds. And when they said, “Can we have our money back ?” I said, “It’s your fireplace!” You can do anything in a market. Me and Terry closed up and went to the stripper pub on the corner. That’s how you sell a fireplace.

All my family are well off, they all made it. My little boy Andrew, he’s my son, he was always with me. He’s grown up now too, but I just carry on in my own stupid way. Why does a man do it?  I can only do what I’ve always done, I know it better than anything. I’ve done it all my life. Old Tom’s still an orphan, it’s the way I was brought up.”

Larger than life yet of this life, Tom the Sailor was the most charismatic rogue you could meet, with his nautical tattoos, weatherbeaten features, white mutton chop whiskers and an endless supply of yarns to regale. He delighted in ruses and fables. With the wisdom and modesty of one who had lived many lives, Tom recognised that the truth of experience is rarely simple, always ambiguous. And if, like me, you are of a similar cast of mind, then there was almost no better way to pass time and learn about the East End than hanging on Old Tom’s ear.

For years, we exchanged discreet greetings every day when I passed him outside the beigel shop and, now he is gone, I shall think of him each time I reach that spot. Brick Lane will be a lesser place without Tom the Sailor.

You may also like to read about

Tom’s Van

Tom’s Flat

16 Responses leave one →
  1. November 21, 2020

    Oh ! I just love this post,what a character. I appreciate this as I come from Birmingham and the “Bull Ring” was the market place there where I used to go with my mom. The atmosphere was electric and some of the characters seemed like your Tom the Sailor. Sad to say the heart has been ripped out of the Bullring market place now so that old atmosphere has gone too. Thank you for sharing this most enjoyable post.

  2. Jo Bacon permalink
    November 21, 2020

    Great post. Is the dog ok? Xx

  3. Lucy permalink
    November 21, 2020

    Thank you for this wonderful portrait and memory of Tom. Some you win, some you lose.

  4. Janet Spink permalink
    November 21, 2020

    There is a birth registered in Goole in 1941; Thomas FH Finch showing the mother’s name as Ball.

    A female birth registered in Goole in 1940; again Finch/Ball.

    Not found a Finch/Ball marriage though.

  5. November 21, 2020


    It is so sad: when a Man like him dies, what Loss of Wisdom and Knowledge it means…

    Love & Peace

  6. November 21, 2020

    “What a vivid character!” — That’s what I began to write here, just now. But…..really…….
    “vivid” is suddenly such a pale word to describe this gent. I’ll put aside the adjectives for now, and say how grateful I am to learn a slice of Tom’s story. And the accompanying photos are

    “the extraordinary story of how he came to be there” — Indeed!
    Thank you for shining a light.
    Stay safe, all.

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    November 21, 2020

    My condolences to the Brick Lane community on the loss of Tom.

    I read through the other pieces you, GA, wrote about him. What a life! What a storyteller!
    Perhaps the Orphan has found peace now.

    I hope his dear companion, Matty, has been adopted into a loving home.

  8. Michael Levy permalink
    November 21, 2020

    A nice story. Wonderfully written. Thank you.

  9. Russ Metz permalink
    November 21, 2020

    This is one fellow I wish I had known, and when I think about it, it’s not often that I can say that. Thank you for the story.

  10. Catherine Morris permalink
    November 21, 2020

    I used to see him down Brick Lane. Friendly chap. I do hope someone will look after his dog

  11. Allison Holmes permalink
    November 21, 2020

    Thank you for today’s report. I enjoyed reading this and the other ones about him and Matty. Could you please let us know what has happened to Matty.

  12. November 21, 2020

    What a character, and what a tough life he lived. He was obviously one of life’s survivors.

  13. Miss Gherkin permalink
    November 21, 2020

    What a loss for the Brick Lane community.

    When on my way to work on a Sunday while I lived in E3, I often got off the bus at the top of Brick Lane and walked from there to the City, enjoying the market before the crowds descended upon it, and stopping along the way to buy a coffee, some fruit at the market stand or a biegel if the queue wasn’t too long. If I had enough time I would detour to Sclater Street Market for a quick browse at the book stand.

    Tom the Sailor was always very much a part of these Sunday morning walks. I always looked forward to seeing him outside the Beigel Bake, and always gave him a quid or two. I was very sad for him when I saw him without his dog some time ago, and he told me that his dog had died.

    Everyone knew him and he was part of the unique fabric of Brick Lane. I was just thinking about him the other day. Bless him, my thoughts are with his family and those close to him.

  14. Pamela Traves permalink
    November 21, 2020

    Thank You So Much for the Wonderful Pictures of Sailor Thomas Finch. I enjoyed this very much.?????????

  15. Hilary permalink
    November 22, 2020

    So glad you befriended Tom.
    I live just round the corner from Dagger Lane in Hull’s Old Town – I must do some research and find out where the motorbike pub would have been…

  16. November 22, 2020

    Dear Gentle Author,
    Thank you for letting us know about the departure of Tom.
    We, at LASSCO, first encountered Tom [and Terry] maybe forty years or more ago.
    I fear that we may have given Tom his taste for fireplaces – and architectural salvage generally.
    He would turn up at our premises at St Michael’s Church in Mark St, off Paul St quite regularly.
    One of many ‘runners’ or rather ‘totters’ who had heard that we bought ‘salvage’ for ready cash – before that sort of transaction became ‘haram’.
    He very quickly developed an ‘eye’ or ‘feel’ for the desirable and commercial. He had the run of decayed Hackney and Tower Hamlets. I seem to recollect he generally used a barrow to collect his merchandise but Terry introduced a motor van into the equation which expanded his field of operations.
    One notable offering of his was a nice Regency door case from Prescott Street. We recognised the provenance and, with the help of the Tower Hamlets conservation officer, it was arranged that the developer of the [still surviving] range of buildings would be required to reinstate it and it was repatriated to its original site.
    No doubt the developer was hoping that the disappearance of the building’s most distinguished feature would persuade the planners to allow the clearance of the listed buildings which stood in the way of a comprehensive redevelopment.
    I rather think that all parties benefitted from the event – barring the developer.
    Regrettably this was not the case where the two magnificent carved console brackets from the building facing the west end of Bethnal Green were concerned. Tom readily admitted to me that he had removed them but where they went I do not know. The building survives.
    Doorcases were Tom’s speciality. I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead but Tom seemed to have picked up a habit of ‘scrumping’ low hanging fruit.
    We were all very fond of Tom – the ladies seemed to be attracted to his ‘animal magnetism’. His buccaneering and intelligent spirit was evident and given different ‘life chances’ he could have been a roaring, conventional success.
    I seem to recollect that Terry moved on and got caught up in a short lived Krugerand scheme and left Tom to his own less ambitious devices.
    Was it Tom that offered us the wonderful mirrors from the Knave of Clubs? If so, this worked out to the benefit of all concerned. We bought the pub, bought the mirrors, restored them [which the PubCo were obliged to pay for in the price we paid for the pub] – and subsequently sold the pub to Les Trois Garçons – another brick in the wall of the gentrification of Shoreditch.
    It might be suggested that Tom was a victim of drink or dissolution – but I reckon he just lived life differently. From what I’ve learnt from your obit his was a life predicated by his upbringing.
    He always spoke with a detectable East Anglian twang which he shared with a lot of the regular Sunday visitors to Brick Lane that I encountered in Gina’s caff. They also had the unfathomable habit of holding their forehead in their hand crouched over their mugs of tea. These displaced folk in their orange Market Boots came to inspect the odd shoes and browse the desperately meagre offerings of Brick Lane attracted by the very faintest lingering myth of ‘Up West’ along the arteries of the Hackney Road, the Roman and Mile End Road which my own father [from Bow] would remind me of as a boy.
    Jack London and Arthur Morrison were not far wrong.
    Again I am obliged to you for your kind recollections of Tom for whom I felt great affection.
    Adrian Amos,
    Brunswick House,

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