Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Holmes, Thomas

4180650Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement — Holmes, Thomas1927Cecil Maurice Chapman

HOLMES, THOMAS (1846–1918), police-court missionary and philanthropist, was born at the small village of Pelsall near Walsall, Staffordshire, 25 January 1846, the son of William Holmes, iron-moulder, by his wife, Cecilia, daughter of Thomas Withington. At the age of twelve Thomas became an iron-moulder himself, working fourteen hours a day and earning three shillings a week. He was dependent for education upon bible readings with his father and on general instruction from an old-fashioned teacher at the church school of Rugeley. He continued to work as an iron-moulder until he was thirty-three. On his scanty earnings he married in 1872 Margaret, daughter of Ralph Brammer, carpenter, of Rugeley, and brought up a family of five sons. In the meantime he had cultivated his mind and earned a reputation for intelligent philanthropy by devoting himself after his hard day's work to the education of his fellow-workers in evening classes and at the Sunday school.

In 1877 Holmes met with a serious accident which eventually made it impossible for him to continue his work as an iron-moulder. His friends, who appreciated the trend of his character, advised him in 1885 to apply for the post, then vacant, of police-court missionary at Lambeth police-court. To his great surprise he was appointed, and there found his true vocation. In 1889 he was transferred to the North London police court. In the course of his twenty years' service as police-court missionary he dealt with thieves, drunkards, prostitutes, and outcasts of every description, devoting himself with characteristic zeal to every side of his work. He described his experiences in his book, Pictures and Problems from London Police Courts (1900), which had a large sale and was widely translated.

Holmes became known both in England and abroad as a criminologist of imagination and judgement, and gained both profit and reputation from his writings. He was thought at the police court to have some resemblance to Dickens, to whose memory he was sincerely devoted. He loved his work and, although not as optimistic as some missionaries of a more robust type of Christianity, he was always ready to receive unpromising cases as guests in his house, and was often surprised by the miraculous effect of practical sympathy upon the roughest characters.

In 1905 Holmes retired from the police courts in order to become secretary to the Howard Association for the reform of prisons and criminal law. In this capacity he worked for ten years, and earned the gratitude of one home secretary after another for his advice and assistance in the matter of prison reform. His efforts, owing to the public support which they received, have effected great improvements in the prison system during the last twenty years. Instead of trying to break the spirit of offenders by harsh punishments, it is now sought to raise them above the level of their old associations and to give them a sense of pleasure and pride in honest work. In 1910 Holmes was sent to the United States as the British representative at the Penological Congress.

The rest of Holmes's life was devoted to philanthropy of his own choosing. In 1904, before he left the police courts, he founded the Home Workers' Aid Association, which rapidly developed into an important undertaking. To use his own description: ‘It is not a trade union, but a union of home workers (women), employers, and the public.’ Its objects were generally to improve the conditions under which home workers live, and to give them an opportunity of enjoying one good holiday every year, towards which they make a reasonable contribution, and for this purpose ‘to establish and maintain homes of rest for home workers needing rest and recreation’. It is difficult for ordinary people to realize the condition of home workers before the establishment (1909) of trades boards. In a pamphlet written in 1920 on behalf of Holmes's association, Mr. William Pett Ridge wrote: ‘The nation was startled to find that a woman and her daughter, of Islington, costume machinists, buying their own thread and using their own sewing machine, earned 1s. 10d. each in a day of 14 hours; that a maker of artificial flowers in Bethnal Green, working 16 hours out of the 24, managed to gain 1¼d. per hour; that other women, engaged in making boxes, or tooth-brushes, or babies' bonnets, working similarly from break of dawn until the light failed, were able to obtain similar emoluments.’ It was this state of things which Holmes, with characteristic shrewdness and sympathy, set himself to redress. In 1910 he was able to establish ‘Singholm’, a fine house with flower and fruit gardens at Walton-on-the-Naze, where forty women during their fortnight's holiday may enjoy fine air, good food, clean rooms, and the rare privilege of having nothing to do.

Besides his police-court experiences and various magazine articles Holmes wrote Known to the Police (1908), London's Underworld (1912), and Psychology and Crime (1912). He died in London 26 March 1918.

[Obituary notice (by the present writer) in The Times, 27 March 1918.]

C. M. C.