The Rev. James Hesselgrave Thompson - “O, yo' mane ode Tummy-Tew-Sticks, does yer? Ar, 'e was a bit o' a funny 'un 'e were” - was vicar at St. Peter's for thirty-three years.
Unconventional and often blunt, he died on April 18th, 1889. Cradley has been talking about him ever since.
His “Vicar's Notebooks” were (December 2004) transcribed by Margaret Bradley and Barry Blunt, and published by Cradley Then and Now, but even in 1937 his memory was very much alive, as shown by this newspaper article from that year.
Cradley - pronounced for the information of those not familiar with the locality as if spelt Crade-ley - is not to be confused with Cradley with a short “a” near Malvern. The Cradley in Worcestershire is situate just across the Stour from Cradley Heath, in Staffordshire, with which it has much in common, both being Black Country townships and, 70 or 80 years ago, very squalid, Cradley particularly so.
When in 1856, the Rev. James Hesselgrave Thompson, B.A. (Oxen.), known as “Tommy-Two-Sticks,” became incumbent of Cradley Church, or more correctly “chapel,” Cradley had a population of three or four thousand souls, all more or less uncultivated and poverty stricken - living, for the most part, under conditions which, in more enlightened times, would be considered intolerable. Housing in Cradley today is far from ideal, although better than at any period during the time of the Rev. Thompson's incumbency. No one ever went to Cradley then, and no one ever goes there now except when business compels them to do so, or perhaps, urged by curiosity to obtain information about one of the most remarkable men in Holy Orders, known to Black Country people or perhaps elsewhere. He was spoken of as one of the personalities of his generation.
“A FUNNY 'UN.”
Coming across one of the older inhabitants of the place, I mentioned the late Vicar who died in 1889, and met with some little difficulty in making it clear to the old man who was meant. Happening on some incident portraying one of the Vicar's peculiarities, the native referred to said, “O, yo' mane ode Tummy-Tew-Sticks, does yer? Ar, 'e was a bit o' a funny 'un 'e were.” Having started my new-found acquaintance on the right track, he vouchsafed some interesting stories, all recounted in the Black Country vernacular.
The old man recalled the time when, as a boy, he, with other boys, were lined up against the Church wall when about to enter the school and told to hold out their hands which, if found to be dirty, the Vicar hit with one of the two sticks which he always had to use by reason of his lameness caused by an accident-hence the nick-name, “Tommy-Two-Sticks.” Those boys whose shoes and hands were found to be clean were invited to after school hours to old Mother “Robby's” (short for Robinson) shop, and the Vicar bought them nobs of toffee, known as “gob-stoppers.”
NO RESPECTER OF PERSONS
What his poor parishioners liked about the old parson, so the old inhabitant informed me was that he always “went” for the “toffs.” False hair, false eyebrows, rouged cheeks or conspicuous dress immediately attracted his attention, whether inside or outside the Church. If any member of his congregation offended in any of the above respects he deliberately pointed at the pew occupied by them, and made it quite clear who he was reprimanding.
The sermons he preached and his behaviour during the services clearly showed he was no respecter of persons. Whatever their rank in life, if they made one of his congregation, they were expected to join in the singing and in the proper places to make the responses. If he thought any present were not doing so, he proceeded to perambulate the church, and with a hand to ear, listened attentively to find out whether they were or not.
“HE THAT EXPECTETH NOTHING.”
In the course of one of his sermons, with his usual directness and in forcible language, he called attention of those present to the falling off in the amount of the offertories and the preponderance in the collecting bag of the very smallest coin of the realm.
“Of course,” said the Vicar, looking pointedly at a particular pew, “we don't expect even a threepenny bit from those of you who are worth less than nothing by £5,000.”
The occupant of the particular pew had just been made a bankrupt - liabilities £5,000, assets nil.
A regular member of the congregation was an old man who, somewhat hard of hearing, sat close under the pulpit. He was a great supporter of the Vicar and definitely approved of his outspoken methods. He showed his approval by loud spasmodic ejaculations. The interruptions of the old man were so pronounced at one of the services that the Vicar, unable to tolerate them any longer, leaned over the pulpit and, shaking his fist at him said: “If you must keep on saying 'Hem' and 'Ah' say them a little quieter so that my sermon may be heard by the other members of the congregation without unseemly interruptions.”
THE OFFENDING HASSOCK
The Vicar, finding on one occasion that a hassock in the pulpit was incommoding him, he unconcernedly kicked it down the pulpit steps and went on with his sermon.
DRANK THE HOLY WATER
The Rev. Thompson was frequently absent from his parish, travelling often in Spain and the Holy Land, as well as other parts of the world, mainly, it is said, in search of botanical specimens, as he was a most ardent botanist. The Vicar, after a visit to Palestine, brought back some water from the River Jordan which mixed with ordinary water, was used for baptisms. When he was again absent on his travels the curate, who had been left in charge of the parish, found some difficulty in obtaining suitable lodgings. The first night being summer time, he slept in the vestry. Waking up in the night hot and thirsty, he drank the holy water, which he found in a bottle. The verger, when he discovered what had happened, was very concerned, as he anticipated trouble when the Vicar returned and heard of the way in which the precious liquid had been disposed.
EMPTIED THE CHURCH - FILLED THE CHAPELS
Notwithstanding his many eccentricities, in and out of the pulpit, the poor, although they may not have attended to his ministrations in the Church, had a real regard for him and he for them. The Vicar died in 1889 in his seventy-eighth year. He chose to be buried in the Churchyard amidst those of his parishioners who had passed over, and not in the Church precincts as it is recorded he could have been. It was said of this extraordinary personality that he emptied the Church and filled the Chapels (of which there were, as now, quite a number in the parish) and that a then popular schoolmaster filled the Church Schools. Joseph Jacquiss, who is still alive, was the headmaster, from October 1885, to March, 1922.
TIMES HAVE CHANGED
The late Rev. Alfred Timbrell, M.A. succeeded the Rev. James Hesselgrave Thompson, otherwise “Tommy Two-Sticks,” in 1889.
Mr Hedley Satchell, a close friend of Mr Timbrell, has kindly communicated to the writer of this article several of the stories which appear above. Some others were first given publicity many years ago in an article in the London Spectator. The Rev.Thompson's immediate successor found the Church at Cradley practically empty, “gone” as used to be said, “to augment the chapel congregations.” The eccentric Vicar, who was incumbent from 1856-1889, resided in rooms in a cottage near the Church, and would not consent to the building of a Vicarage. Since his time the population of the parish has grown very considerably, and the present incumbent occupies a roomy Vicarage at Colley Gate on the main road from Stourbridge to Birmingham.
A few years ago a big effort was made, and Cradley Church was renovated and enlarged. Also, in recent times, the churchyard has been considerably extended. From the sloping eminence on which the Church and churchyard are situated 500 feet above sea level, there can be obtained a most striking view of a typically Black Country area.
This is perhaps the appropriate place to recount two stories associated with other Black Country Churches.
A commemoration window was placed in a Church in memory of a man and his wife who had been great benefactors to the district in which they had resided. The parishioners had been invited to view the window.
A man stopping in front of a stained-glass representation of Moses and Aaron, said to his wife who accompanied him: “It's very nice, but it doe much fature the ode couple, doo it?”
A CLOSE SHAVE
A Black Country man was asked to stand godfather to a friend's baby. Having mistaken the time, he arrived at the Church much too early. He had not been in a Church for years and, seeing some females kneeling down, he joined them and knelt down, too. The verger approached him and made signs for him to get up and go farther away. As he took no notice the church official persisted, and at last got him to move. Talking to him afterwards, the verger said to the prospective godfather, “Young man, you went damned near to being 'churched'.”
SELECTIVE BLACK COUNTRYISMS
'Er sed 'er wud an' 'er 'cud an 'er shud, but 'er doe.
I wud ef I cud, but ef I cor 'ow con I?
'Ow many am ther on we?
This article first appeared in The Dudley Herald in 1937. It was later reprinted in “Black Country Stories”, compiled by T. H. Gough.
Original Copyright © MMX Cradley Heath Film:
Except where otherwise stated all movies are licensed under:
Creative Commons – Attribution - Non Commercial - No Derivatives
4.0 International Public License.
Creative Commons and the double C in a circle are registered trademarks
of Creative Commons in the United States and other countries.
Third party marks and brands are the property of their respective holders.