9 February 2012

'Will of Samuel Thomas (1807-1878)' by Robert Hughes

Samuel Thomas (Senior) died in 1878, at 71 years of age. He was buried at his parish church in Redditch, but the New Town development in the later 20th Century required his grave to be moved. A photograph taken at this time by my cousin David Guillaume shows a fairly elaborate tomb, with the date of birth reasonably discernible, but that of his wife Mary not clear because of corrosion of the stone.

An intriguing (if possibly apocryphal) story has it that the old guy was by persuasion an atheist, and only agreed to contribute to the church funds if he could be buried in such a place as would require all worshippers to confront the atheist every Sunday: i.e. just outside the church door!

Samuel is generally regarded as having his family origins in Wales, and indeed a scrawled tree by his great-grandson Charles F Guillaume states that he was from a Jewish family 'settled in Wales', and a 'travelling packman' who 'founded the needle industry in Redditch'.

My grandfather Bob Britton spoke little of his family, but I vividly remember hearing from him on at least one occasion that the Thomas family 'founded the needle industry in Redditch'. Independent evidence suggests that numerous producers were in the town well before Samuel Thomas' time, but Samuel Thomas and Co were extremely prominent (the facade of The British Needle Mills their factory is to be seen in the town today as a protected feature), and it is clear that Samuel was responsible for some important innovations, such as a process where needles were machine-sharpened thus replacing the costly and unhealthy sharpening by hand. A letter from Ida Thomas, who died at 102 and was a great-grand-daughter of Samuel, mentions how there was hostility to the introduction of the process, even though the hand-sharpeners had suffered ill-health from their work!

Another cousin tells how Samuel Thomas needed 16 bodyguards to protect him as he walked through the streets of Redditch, so many had he put out of work through the mechanisation of what had been a cottage industry.

The tension between industrial progress and traditonal craft is of course a well-worn theme and the term 'Luddism' today marks the machine-breakers of the period beginning about 1811.

With this background we might expect that Lionel Britton, also a great-grandson of Samuel Thomas (Senior), made him a villain in his seminal work 'Hunger and Love'.

Dr Shaw is the world expert on the volume and indeed on its author, but it would be surprising if he would disagree that the generic Victorian factory owner such as Lionel's great-grandfather Samuel Thomas figures as a major-league bad guy!

In some recent posts I have speculated whether Sam Junior (1835-1912) might have been held in a completely different light by Lionel, who certainly never knew Old Sam, but apparently had Sam Junior as his guardian at least for awhile. There is good evidence that their world views were remarkably similar.

The turning point in Sam Junior's life may well have come when he was cut out of his father's will. Before 1878, he had the expectation (as the eldest son) of inheriting a huge fortune by the standards of the time, but for whatever reason (and this is a long discussion which must be taken up later) he was disinherited in favour of the third surviving son, Henry. The bitterness over this is reflected in letters from Ida Thomas, who recounts how Sam Junior spent all his remaining funds fighting the will.

Above is the record of the probate, the relevant passage reading: "Proved at Worcester the fifteenth day of May 1879 by the oath of Henry Thomas the Son the sole Executor to whom administration was granted_ The Right Honorable Sir James Hannen Knight_ the President of the Probate Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice having on the twenty sixth day of April 1879 by his final Decree in a certain cause or suit then depending in the said Court entitled "Thomas against Thomas" pronounced for the force and validity of the said Will."

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