2 May 2016

Thomas Thomas at the White Hart, by Robert Hughes


Thomas Thomas was the innkeeper of the White Hart Inn, Lower Maudlin Street, Bristol. He could also have been my great-great-great-great-grandfather.

In a city where there were not only many Thomas Thomases, but where at least two who were publicans, it is difficult to identify one individual and attribute a life story to him. Here we do at least make the attempt, but we have to start below: this is an engraving of the British Needle Mills, said to have been the biggest needle factory in the world.

Samuel Thomas was my great-great-great-grandfather, and much has been said about him on this blog. The eccentric writer Lionel Britton, author of Hunger and Love, is among his many descendants.

Although Samuel Thomas (1807-1878) built this mighty factory complex while still in his twenties or very early thirties, there is as yet no record of how he obtained the money to do it. Supposing he had a big fortune behind him in the first place, there would be nothing remarkable as to how he afforded his endeavour, although it was an outstanding enterprise by any standard.

However, Samuel was thought to have started life a ‘simple workman’. Consider this press cutting below, concerning his will after he died.

The contest over Samuel’s will is a whole different story, but what concerns us here is the narrative about his career. Was he really the ‘self-made man’ of this account? (He died 6th Sept, not 4th, and he was 71 not 72. Just to get that straight.)

On the face of it, this is the kind of story which inspired Victorian England. Even if he did not literally start life as a simple workman, his achievement was immense. Lionel Britton was not a great fan of ‘Trade’, and the British Needle Mills were nothing less than ‘Trade’. We have been able to conclude that Hunger and Love is a long (and yes it is long!) primal scream against his own background.

Samuel Thomas may not have been the easiest of men to love, and in other articles we can see he quite openly had a mistress set up in a separate establishment over more than a decade, giving rise to the notorious Redditch Horsewhipping case of 1865. On the other hand, there are articles in the press archives which describe him giving out coal to the poor, receiving an award for generosity to his workpeople, and being ready to lend a hand when it was needed.

So he was an eminent man in his town, and yet did anyone have a clue where he had come from or how he financed the British Needle Mills? It certainly looks as though Samuel felt free to manufacture his own myths alongside his world-renowned needles.

Lionel Britton said that his great-grandfather ‘came from Wales with sixpence to his name’. This was quite likely to have been the prevalent myth within the family, and yet it is nonsense.

Samuel was born in Bitton, Gloucestershire. Three censuses attest to that, including the astonishing record of 1861 where he is at the home of his mistress in Spring St, Edgbaston. On the same day he is recorded in Redditch, where whoever filled in the form put NK as his place of birth. Nowhere else in my researches have I found another individual recorded in two places at once on any of the censuses!

Bitton was a large straggly parish between Bath and Bristol. Somewhere in the village is a stone proclaiming Bath is 6 miles and Bristol is 6 miles.

At the western end of the parish was the chapelry-of-ease at Hanham, where it was convenient for the locals to have their children baptised. Interestingly, we have an example of where a child seems to have had a baptism ceremony in Hanham and also in the parish church of Bitton: Ann Thomas was baptised 29 Jul 1805 at Hanham, and then 25 Aug 1805 at Bitton. The parents were James Thomas and Jane. We can return to this in a subsequent article, as another child of this couple later turns up in Redditch.

Samuel Thomas was baptised 9 Feb 1807 at Hanham. From his tombstone in Redditch, photographed by my cousin David Guillaume before everything was torn up to make whatever Redditch is supposed to be now, he was born 16 Jan 1807. The likely baptism record gives us Samuel Stephens Thomas, and his parents were Thomas Thomas and Jane.

Samuel Thomas of Redditch who built the British Needle Mills was not known to use any middle initial, except that there is one intriguing record. His much-loved daughter Maria died in Paris in 1860, and this clip from the Worcestershire Chronicle quotes that middle initial:

So who were Thomas Thomas and Jane? The only marriage in the Bristol Diocese which would fit was one between Thomas Thomas and Jane Pennington, 13 Apr 1801.

Does this make them the the parents of Samuel Thomas? An argument in favour would be that although Sam is the only child recorded in Bitton rather than in St James, he receives a middle name, like three of the other children of this couple but unlike around 90% of the rest of the population.

An argument against would be that Samuel had 11 children and never called any of them either Thomas or Jane. In the old days, it was something of a norm that names of parents were passed on to children. The only way we can reconcile this with the idea of Sam’s parents being Thomas and Jane is if we postulate that he was a bit of a radical, and wanted to branch out…perhaps even that he had had a breach with them and decided consciously to avoid any name that would honour them. That circumstance would be very sad indeed, but the evidence that those were indeed his parents’ names is rather strong.

He could have been the child of another and unknown Thomas and Jane, who were just passing by in Bitton (or the chapelry of Hanham). Persuading us against that however is that there is a tribe of Thomases in Hanham, and indeed James Thomas (born in Bitton) turns up as a needlemaker in Redditch in several censuses, and raises a big family.

Thomas Thomas and Jane Pennington seem to have had four children besides Samuel Stephens Thomas if he is indeed one of theirs. There is a Jane Thomas baptised in the parish of St James, Bristol 5 Sep 1802, then much later, also in St James, on 24 Mar 1816 three children are baptised at once. In the order in which they appear on the record:

Mary Anne Thomas

Thomas Pennington Thomas

John Pennington Thomas.

No place or abode is mentioned, but the father’s profession is “Brewer”.

The Bristol trade directories for 1819 and 1822 list a Thomas Thomas at the White Hart, Lower Maudlin St.

This website contains the following: The inn was offered for sale by auction in 1824, described it as old-established and well accustomed with brewhouse and good cellarage attached, for many years in the occupation of Thomas Thomas, tenant at will. It was 'situated ajacent to the steps leading to the church yard of the parish church of St James', link here.

A Thomas Thomas of Maudlin Lane was buried 19 Mar 1829. Maudlin Lane is now known as Lower Maudlin St, and it could be that at the time both descriptions were used interchangeably.

By the time of the 1841 census, we have Jane Thomas in a household in a neighbouring street (Great James St) with her son John. She is ‘ind’ which signifies independent means. In 1851, she is back in Lower Maudlin St at No 1, again with her son John who is described rather insensitively as an ‘idiot’ living on Parish Relief. Jane is an ‘annuitant’ which is the same in effect as ‘ind’. This record includes the very important information that she was born in the parish of St George’s, Pill, but she spoils it a little by saying this is ‘Glos’ when in fact Pill is in the parish of Easton in Gordano, Somerset. Jane was probably never going to have been a significant intellectual: note that she signs with a cross on her marriage certificate.

She died just a couple of weeks after the 1851 census, so we are lucky to have that.

John was with his brother Thomas in 1861, but his eventual fate is not yet clear. Given that in 1861 he was a labourer, and a probable record of 1871 gives him as ‘epileptic’, he was unlikely to have been an idiot and could have been simply…epileptic!

Thomas Pennington Thomas is easier to trace thanks to the happy fact that his middle name was included in his death record. He died 19 Nov 1874, said to be aged 62, and was a shoemaker or shoemaker clicker on every census except 1861 when he was a labourer. Possibly he had fallen on hard times in that year, or he chose not to elevate his station above that of his brother.

He married Ann Collings at Bedminster, then Somerset, on 27 Apr 1832. They had three known children:

Clara Ann Thomas, born 18 Apr 1844.

Angelina Pennington Thomas born 25 Jan 1849.

Thomas Alfred Thomas born 29 Mar 1851. These records are from GRO certificates in my possession. Clara Ann Thomas is in this Public Member Tree on Ancestry.co.uk.

Assuming the hypothesis is correct and Samuel Thomas was the child of Thomas Thomas and Jane Pennington, then I have identifiable fifth cousins with whom to make a DNA comparison which would prove it beyond all reasonable doubt.

The ‘Bristol’s lost pubs’ website gives us this image from the 1950s, which is out of copyright and can be freely used. The information includes the fact that Thomas Thomas was the landlord from 1816-1823. This is rather interesting as you will see the church of St James behind the pub and it is tempting to construct a narrative that whatever he had been doing before, he was now settling into running a pub that literally abutted the churchyard of St James, and that he then thought it was high time to have his hitherto unbaptised children christened in the church. This would put him right with the locals.

An item of family legend talks of an itinerant trader, (scrawled family tree by Charles Frederick Guillaume). Thomas may have been exactly that, and made enough to install himself in the White Hart and to increase his fortune by brewing as well as retailing beer.

Neither Thomas Thomas nor his widow Jane made a will unless an exhaustive search of the records has missed something, so is it not possible that Samuel Stephens Thomas, as the eldest son at the death of his father in 1829 acquired a decent pot of cash which he used to expand his needle business?

This is all in the realm of speculation at the moment. We would like to see some confirmation and will welcome any contributions from readers of this blog!

A final note: Ida Thomas (1902-2004) wrote a number of letters to my cousin David Guillaume who was trying to piece together the family tree. The following extract from one dated 30 Jan 2008, when she was already 95 years old, relates that “Original Samuel and a brother came together from Wales S. brother went to Leeds in the shoe manufacturing line…”

Could this be a bit of family legend which contained at least a nugget of truth? Allowing for a mix-up between Leeds and Bristol (large cities NOT London or Birmingham!) and for the fact that we know Samuel himself did not come from Wales, this could be a description of Samuel Stephens Thomas and Thomas Pennington Thomas. One founded the British Needle Mills in Redditch, the other became a shoemaker.

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