Between 1856 and 1889, those who failed to sing loudly enough at St Peter's, or had dirty hands at school, could only hope that "Tommy Twosticks" -
THE WANDERING VICAR OF CRADLEY
First published in The Blackcountryman, Autumn 2000, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp.65-
The Incumbent of Cradley has left his Church for eight weeks, and his parishioners are anxious to know when he is likely to return. He was six months from his Parish at different times in 1861, and bids fair to do so this year. What is to become of poor Cradley Church?
The Cradley vicar who provoked this heartfelt cry was the Reverend James Hesselgrave Thompson who, although he was Cradley's longest-
The son of a Yorkshire businessman, James Thompson is believed to have acted as a tutor for some years before entering Magdalene Hall, Oxford, as a gentleman-
James Thompson was ordained at Worcester in 1846, when he was already 35 years old. He was a curate for ten years, first at St. Nicholas' Church, Worcester (1845-
The vicar's taste for foreign travel was evident at least as early as 1860. In March of that year, The Advertiser carried a brief report of a talk that Mr. Thompson delivered at Cradley Heath Mechanics' Institute, on the subject of his recent trip to Switzerland. The anonymous reporter commented that the vicar's ascent -
Mr. Thompson was not deterred by his parishioners' disapproval. Scarcely five months after their plaintive advertisement appeared, their vicar gave a talk in St. Thomas' schoolroom, Stourbridge, about his recent trip to Italy. The Advertiser's reporter commented: 'The lecturer gave a graphic description of things in general, and did not fail to amuse his audience by graphic strokes of humour'.
On the 9th February, 1867, the County Express (The Advertiser's successor) carried a report of a public presentation to the Cradley curate, the Reverend Thomas Gregg. In the course of his tribute to his curate, Mr. Thompson said: 'I left him in sole charge of the parish on my continental tour. On my return after five or six weeks, I was astonished to find that the congregation had increased to such an extent that they were obliged to get forms from the schoolrooms to place in the aisles to accommodate the people'. The seemingly unconscious irony of that last sentence reflects the allegation of some Cradley people that Mr. Thompson emptied the church and filled the chapels.
In June 1869, Mr. Thompson reported to a Church Missionary meeting on further foreign trips: 'I have seen four countries ... since this time last year -
It was said of Mr. Thompson that his visits abroad were made to gather botanical specimens, but it is obvious that missionary zeal was at least as strong a motive. That he took his missionary work seriously is evident from a lecture lasting two hours that he gave in December 1870 in St. Paul's schoolroom, Blackheath, on his 'recent wanderings in Spain'.
In a talk that was described as 'eloquent, interesting and amusing', Mr. Thompson described some of the places that he had visited, and went on to describe the Spaniards -
It was when he went on to describe his contacts with 'Romish priests' that his ardent Protestant faith came apparent. Mr. Thompson had had St. John's Gospel printed in Spanish, and he handed copies of these round while engaging in theological arguments that often lasted for ninety minutes. Some Catholic priests, he said, regarded these Gospels as a treasure; others tore them up in front of his face.
He expanded on this Spanish trip in another lecture in Wordsley Church School in the following February. (This lecture revealed his itinerary: through Paris, Bordeaux and Tours -
Mr. Thompson gave a vivid description of his proselytising method in his account of his visit to Seville: 'I began to preach in the precincts of the Cathedral, and the priests:, on seeing me, began to rave at me, and told me to get out ... After I had been speaking to the crowd for some time, the Alcalde (Mayor) came up and ordered me off. At first, not knowing who he was, I refused to go, whereupon that gentleman produced his baton and took me prisoner. He took me through some crooked streets, and as soon as the crowd had stopped following us, to my great surprise, my custodian told me that he had no intention of taking me to gaol -
It might seem extraordinary that a Cradley vicar should spend his time trying to convert Roman Catholics in Spain, when it might have been argued that there was more pressing work for him in his own parish. But these were rumbustious times in the matter of religious controversy. In July 1867, in a scene suggestive of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, a posse of policemen armed with cutlasses had descended on Cradley, and taken up station in a room next to the Primitive Methodist Chapel where a lecture against Romanism was to be delivered by one Boanerges Murphy. (Mr. Murphy was an Irish protestant of rabble-
Mr. Thompson's wanderings were not confined to continental Europe; he made frequent forays into Worcestershire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, with either Dudley Geological and Scientific Society or Worcestershire Naturalists' Club. The Dudley Society organised regular day-
A Droitwich Trip
In June 1870, Mr. Thompson was one of a party of about 70 (including 20 ladies) who travelled by train to Droitwich with the Dudley Society. Salt was, of course, a subject for discussion. Mr. Thompson addressed the party: 'It is a popular error to suppose that the salt deposits are confined to the new red sandstone ... At the Hawne coal pit in the neighbourhood of Cradley, I have found a brine spring, and the Netherton saltwells among the coal measures have long been celebrated.' Mr. Thompson added that he had visited all the regions in France, Italy, Spain, Prussia, Bavaria and Switzerland where brine springs were found -
On this, as on all his excursions, Mr. Thompson gave the party a full account of all the plants that he had found, noting particularly those that were rare, or not usually found in that locality.
A Black Country Trip
It is unnecessary to provide a list of all the places that Mr. Thompson visited, but an account of one local visit illustrates both his geological knowledge and his enthusiasm. In June 1878, The Worcestershire Naturalists' Club visited Tipton, Dudley Castle, Wren's Nest and the Foxyards.
"From (Dudley) station, the Rev. J. H. Thompson led the party to the remarkable open coal work at Foxyards ... the grand outcrops of the enormous mass of thick coal ... were very lucidly explained by the Reverend Thompson who has well studied the subject, and who made the succession of carboniferous beds very clear by means of diagrams and sections of his own construction".
Mr. Thompson's manner on these trips was described as 'earnest and instructive'. At no time is there any suggestion of that sense of humour that seems to have garnished his lectures on his foreign travels. Neither geology nor botany was a laughing matter.
And a Cradley Specimen
On another outing with the Worcestershire Club (a joint meeting with Malvern Field Club) to Shrawley Woods, Little Witley and Holt in August 1870, Mr. Thompson illustrated his talk with '... a plant new to Worcestershire that he had recently gathered in Cradley. Mr. Thompson then produced a small specimen of Chenopodium olidium (Stinking goosefoot), which, though curious, had an odour that might be considered in keeping with the Black Country from which it came.' Stinking goosefoot is uncommon, and is usually found near the sea, but sadly, the plant that embodies Cradley's only claim to botanical fame 'grows in waste places and has a fishy smell, which is disgusting in the extreme.'
Mr. Thompson's last recorded outing with the Worcestershire Club was on 31st May, 1888 when he joined a trip to Wolverhampton, Boscobel and Chillington Park. He was 77 years old.
When Mr. Thompson was present in his parish, he seems to have been energetic enough in the performance of his duties; he conducted services at St. Peter's, and his name is frequently found among those reported present at various church and civic functions in his own and neighbouring parishes. On one occasion he officiated at a moment's notice at a funeral in Halesowen when no clergyman could be found there. In November 1867, after an explosion at Homer Hill Colliery, only insistent persuasion by colliery officials prevented his descending the shaft to offer comfort to badly injured miners.
Mr. Thompson was remembered for years after his death as 'ode Tommy Twosticks' because he walked with the aid of two sticks, which were reputedly necessitated by an accident, but neither the date nor the nature of the accident seems to have been recorded. His lameness did not affect the vicar's field trips, but it might have been at least partly responsible for the fact that his overseas trips seem to have ceased at some time in the 1870's.
Mr. Thompson used his sticks for other purposes than helping his legs. Thomas Gough related an account of an elderly Cradley resident some time after the vicar's death. This ancient parishioner remembered that the pupils of Cradley Church School used to be lined up and told to hold out their hands before entering the building. If any hands were dirty, Mr. Thompson struck them with one of his sticks; if hands -
What punishment Mr. Thompson gave to the curate who -
Mr. Thompson also used to walk round the church during hymn-
Mr. Thompson was certainly subjected to criticism by some parishioners, but the criticism was not always justified. In June, 1862, a scandalised correspondent wrote -
Mr. Thompson made no reply to this (at least not through the columns of the press) but an answer appeared in two newspaper advertisements a few months after when the Halesowen Burial Board invited tenders for the right to graze cattle and sheep in the cemetery. It was obviously a common -
Mr. Thompson was not afraid to he in a minority of one. In 1875, he refused to sign a petition for the reprieve of Sarah Liddell of Two Gates, an unmarried mother who, in distressing circumstances, had murdered her ten-
Although the petition was signed by 'dissenting ministers, magistrates, professional men and tradesmen' the vicar of Cradley 'most obstinately refused to sign or take part in it.'
Mr. Thompson also arbitrarily refused to allow the use of the Church School for a quarterly meeting of the Worcester Diocesan Change Ringing Association. The vicar of Old Hill, the Reverend A. K. Atkinson, offered a room, but Mr. Thompson's refusal was not communicated to the Association until after the meeting had been announced as taking place in Cradley. Consequently, half the bellringers turned up in Cradley, and half went to Old Hill.
Mr. Thompson was equally adamant in refusing to allow a vicarage to be built in Cradley, even though Lord Lyttelton had given land in Cradley Park specifically for that purpose. Mr. Thompson, a bachelor, lived in lodgings, and perhaps thought that the building of a vicarage was a waste of money.
But in the matter of church funds, he was not covetous; a letter to the County Express in December 1875 revealed that ' ... owing to the generosity of the present vicar, a large proportion of the sittings in Cradley Church are entirely free and unappropriated.' (These were, of course, the days of pew-
In January, 1873, an anonymous letter (signed 'A Cradleyite') was printed in the County Express, bitterly attacking Mr. Thompson's conduct of Church affairs. His first complaint was merely trivial: the vicar had given thanks 'in a joyous manner' for 'this seasonal and blessed change of weather' on a Christmas morning that was memorable for high winds and rain.
The Cradleyite also accused Mr. Thompson of 'unceasingly assailing the Dissenters' (probably not an unusual thing in a Church of England minister at the time) but the substance of his attack came in a terse peroration: 'The Reverend C. W. Simons left Cradley Church in a flourishing condition; he built new schools ... now almost deserted; his young men's Bible Classes are vanished, so are his communicants' meetings ... and the congregation is dwindled to an average of 100 in a population of nearly 5,000 ... He has a stipend of £300 a year to support his bachelor life ... and a London Society grants him £80 a year for a curate.'
Some of the above accusations were answered by 'Another Cradleyite' the following week, but the vicar's critic was determined to have the last word. In a second letter, he wrote '... it is taught that salvation is in the Church alone but to judge from the empty pews the doctrine is not believed in. Dissent is rampant and progressive; she claims from 2,500 to 3,000 adults and children out of a population of nearly 5,000, notwithstanding the ravings of a self-
Six years before the blast from 'A Cradleyite', on Tuesday 6th August, 1867, 185 people attended a tea-
Mr. Thompson himself made a self-
Mr. Thompson certainly had his critics, but neither the occasion described above, nor the speeches made on that evening, suggest a vicar at odds with his congregation.
Mr. Thompson had lodgings with Mr. and Mrs. John Shuck in one of the two church cottages adjoining the churchyard. On Thursday 18th April, 1889, Mrs. Shuck -
At the subsequent inquest at the Talbot Hotel, Cradley, Dr. Thompson said that death was due to failure of the heart's action, through extreme weakness. The vicar, though still active and in seemingly good health, had recently complained of being weak. The verdict of the coroner's jury, inevitably, was death through natural causes.
The numbers given by 'A Cradleyite' as to the decline in the St. Peter's congregation during Mr. Thompson's incumbency might well have been accurate; it does not necessarily follow that Mr. Thompson was responsible for that decline.
The Cradley population was mainly working class or lower middle-
Mr. Thompson was certainly his own man. In one respect -
As a bachelor, he could afford his trips abroad which, as has been indicated, were not undertaken entirely for personal pleasure. In addition to trying to convert Roman Catholics, he visited -
His bachelorhood would these days inspire intrusive speculation as to his sexuality. He might have been heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual -
Whether or not Mr. Thompson did good in Cradley, he certainly did no ill. The Reverend James Hesselgrove Thompson was undoubtedly a remarkable individual; for that reason alone he is worthy of remembrance.
*Party allegiance did not always determine one's place of worship. Thomas Attwood, the Cradley hammer and anvil manufacturer, was equally loyal as a Conservative and a Wesleyan.
Most of the above material is taken from the pages of either the Brierley Hill Advertiser or the County Express. Some of the anecdotal evidence comes from Volume 5 of T. H. Gough's Black Country and Other Stories (Dudley Herald: 1936 -
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley,
who has generously granted permission to
Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.