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 Reverend James Hesselgrave Thompson - was on one of his many extended absences from the parish.
THE WANDERING VICAR OF CRADLEY
First published in The Blackcountryman, Autumn 2000, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp.65-72
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-serving vicar, possibly spent less time in the parish than some clergymen whose incumbencies were shorter.
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-commoner. In 1845 he graduated with a B.A. degree in Literature and Humanities. Although he gained only fourth class honours, he was regarded as an excellent classical scholar - but this reputation seems to have rested on his ability, later in life, to recite Horace and Virgil by the page (an indication of a retentive memory but not necessarily of scholarship).
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 (1845-1854) and then at Halesowen until his arrival at Cradley in 1856.
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 - and especially his descent - of Mount Rigi were very humourously described.
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 - Ireland, Belgium, Austria and Spain ... I had the pleasure of officiating in a large, noble Protestant Church in that Popish city of Salzburg ... I had the honour of officiating in the first service held in the Protestant church in the great city of Seville. I was invited to preach the first sermon, but I thought that too great an honour, so I preached the second - and that in English as I do not know Spanish sufficiently well.'
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 - in rather intemperate language - as 'thieves, cheats, rogues and assassins' (and idle with it, he added, but affable if you gave them money or bought something from them).
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 - presumably by train - and then 'at the Mediterranean ... in a small steamer with one Frenchman, about a dozen Spaniards and 6,000 chickens.')
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 - simply to take me out of the great danger in which he had found me.' He went on to describe how he had also ' ... distributed the Bible for the first time in Spain in the Parliament House in Madrid.' This announcement was greeted with cheers by his audience. In a lighter vein, Mr. Thompson again revealed his sense of humour by describing 'in a very amusing way' the manner in which customs officers had examined his baggage.
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-rousing inclination. He is reported to have fired a pistol at a meeting in Stourbridge, and on St. Patrick's Day, 1868, he was arrested in Rochdale for "causing tumultuous gatherings.") It had been rumoured that a band of Roman Catholics from Dudley and Stourbridge were planning to break up the meeting. The raid did not take place but Cradley, said the County Express, was '... in a state of lively ferment ... it was estimated that between 600 and 700 persons attended the lecture.' Only the efforts of policemen on the door prevented some people from being trampled underfoot.
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-trips during the summer months, and though Mr. Thompson's interests were not mainly geological, he frequently addressed the excursion parties on the subject. Mr. Thompson had an intimate and extensive knowledge of botany, and this was the subject that chiefly engaged his interest. He was a member of the committee of both the Dudley Society and the Worcestershire Club (to whose presidency he was unanimously elected in June 1879; he was unanimously re-elected the following year).
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 - a further indication of the extent of his European journeys.
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 - and shoes - were clean, their owner was invited to go to 'old Mother Robbo's' (Robinson's) shop after school when the vicar would buy them a nob of toffee.
What punishment Mr. Thompson gave to the curate who - in all innocence - drank a bottle of River Jordan Water that the vicar had brought back from Palestine, is not recorded. The same elderly man told Thomas Gough that Mr. Thompson was popular with poor parishioners because he always 'went for the toffs'. False hair, false eyebrows, rouged cheeks and conspicuous dress always attracted his attention, inside or outside the church. If the offending lady (one assumes it was usually a lady) were among his congregation on the following Sunday, she would be pointed out and criticised from the pulpit.
Mr. Thompson also used to walk round the church during hymn-singing, a hand cupped to his ear, to find out who was joining in the singing, and who was not. Presumably, they too were punished - if only by a vicarial glare and a pointing finger.
Mr. Thompson was certainly subjected to criticism by some parishioners, but the criticism was not always justified. In June, 1862, a scandalised correspondent wrote - anonymously - to the County Express, protesting that the vicar had rented the New Burial Ground to a local butcher for use as a sheepfold. 'And' he added, 'it is not uncommon to see horses there that prance and trample on the graves'.
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 - and officially sanctioned - practice.
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-year-old son, and then attempted to commit suicide.
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-rents).
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-constituted, apostolically-descended parson ...'
Six years before the blast from 'A Cradleyite', on Tuesday 6th August, 1867, 185 people attended a tea-party in Cradley Church School; a further 120 were admitted by ticket afterwards. The purpose of the gathering was to present Mr. Thompson with a decorated Bible (a present from his Sunday School) and a silk gown, hood and stole (from his congregation). Laudatory speeches were made by Mr. F. W. G. Barrs (who praised Mr. Thompson's unflinching and effectual teaching of pure scriptural Gospel) and the Cradley curate, the Reverend T. H. Gregg (who referred to the vicar as a man, a gentleman and a Christian). Obviously such remarks would be made on such an occasion, but the occasion itself seems to have been a spontaneous gesture of affection by the St. Peter's congregation.
Mr. Thompson himself made a self-deprecating speech in reply. 'I am as much over-valued in Cradley as I am undervalued in Corinth.' (Perhaps the vicar was using Corinth - an ancient city known as a place of Babylonian iniquity - as a metaphorical allusion to all the sinful places wherein he preached. 'Notwithstanding my natural inclination to be puffed up with pride ... I know myself to be the vilest creature I ever had acquaintance with. Your love to me, I feel sure, is genuine and it is a source of my highest gratification.' Mr. Thompson then went on to tell humourous tales of his boyhood, but unfortunately none of these appear in the County Express report. Although the vicar's sense of humour is several times mentioned in the press, no example of it seems to have been preserved.
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 - as was her daily custom - took the vicar some coffee to his bedroom at 7.15 a.m. At 10.40 a.m., worried because the vicar was usually up by that time, and because she could get no answer to her knocking, she told her husband. Accompanied by Joseph Jaquiss, the Church School master, Mr. Shuck entered the bedroom. Mr. Thompson was face downwards on the floor, naked apart from a bath towel. Dr. W. H. Thompson, the local doctor, was summoned; he pronounced the vicar dead. He was three days short of his 78th birthday.
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-class; the Church of England was not their natural home. Cradley, unsurprisingly, was strongly Liberal, and the natural home for a Cradley Liberal was a non-conformist chapel, of which there were five in Cradley - besides the two Ragged Schools. It was not until 1917 that Maude Royden referred to the Church of England as 'the Conservative Party at prayer', but the remark would have been equally apt fifty years earlier. Equally, in Mr. Thompson's time, the non-conformist chapels might have been called 'the Liberal Party at prayer.'* But the chapels were more than places of worship; they were centres of social activity. In Cradley - as elsewhere - they organised concerts, lectures, debates and outings. Small wonder that so many Cradley people should prefer them to St. Peter's, where there was less social activity, and whose ambience was more middle class.
Mr. Thompson was certainly his own man. In one respect - his enthusiasm for botany and geology - he was one of a long line of parsons (of whom the best known is Gilbert White) who spent their leisure hours in the study of natural history. Unfortunately, Mr. Thompson seemingly kept no diary; otherwise Cradley might have achieved the same fame as Selborne (though it must be admitted that Mr. Thompson's interests were much narrower than Gilbert White's; he seems to have confined himself to botany and geology).
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 - and preached to - many protestant communities on the continent. It had taken him some time to decide to enter the church, but having done so, there was no doubt of his continuing commitment and enthusiasm. His unorthodox conduct in St. Peter's (besides those regular traits already mentioned, he is known on one occasion, finding a stray hassock impeding him in the pulpit, to have given it a casual kick and sent it flying down the pulpit steps) was perhaps no more than a reflection of his concentration on his job.
His bachelorhood would these days inspire intrusive speculation as to his sexuality. He might have been heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual - we shall never know. It might even be possible that, because of the busy life that he led, he never married because he never found the time.
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 - although the author's introduction is dated March 1937). Mr. Gough was given some of his material by Hedley Satchell, sometime organist and choirmaster at Oldswinford Parish Church. The facts about Stinking goosefoot can be found in Flowers of the Field by the Reverend C. A. Johns (Routledge: 1909). Other details of Mr. Thompson's botanical activities are taken from Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists' Club, 1847 - 1896 (ed. Carlton Rea) for access to which I am grateful to staff at Worcester City Library. Richard Cook of the Church of England Record Centre provided the facts of Mr. Thompson's church career before he came to Cradley. Finally, I again wish to acknowledge the help of the staff in the Reference Section at Stourbridge Library and I also wish to thank Jean and Frank Rolfe for their help and the Rev. David Blackburn for permission to use the photograph of the Rev. James Thompson.
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.