The Laboring Classes of England/Letter 6



In order to give the reader a clearer view of the state of the people in this district, I will here relate some remarkable transactions which took place in May, 1838, near Canterbury, in Kent. I was then living about thirty miles from the scene of action, and well remember the sensation these events produced in the public mind.

Kent is one of the most beautiful counties in England, and the villages and scenery around Canterbury are peculiarly English. Gently rising hills and picturesque vales, covered with a rich herbage, all giving proof of a minute and skilful husbandry, succeed to each other. Fields of waving corn are interspersed with gardens, hop grounds and orchards.

The hero of the Kent disturbances, was John Nicolls Thoms, the son of a small farmer and maltster, at St. Columb, in Cornwall. He appears to have entered life as cellarman to a wine merchant in Truro. Succeeding to his master's business, he conducted it for three or four years, when his warehouse was destroyed by fire, and he received about $15,000 in compensation from an insurance company. Since then, during more than ten years, he had been in no settled occupation. In the year 1833, he appeared as a candidate, successively for the representation of Canterbury and East Kent. His fine person and manners, and the eloquent appeals he made to popular feeling, secured him a certain degree of favor; but were not sufficient to gain his object. Though baffled in this, he continued to address the populace as their peculiar friend, and kept up his influence among them. In July of the same year he made an appearance in a court of law on behalf of the crew of a smuggling vessel, when he conducted himself in such a way as to incur a charge of perjury.

He was consequently condemned to transportation for seven years, but, on a showing of his insanity, was committed to permanent confinement in a lunatic asylum, from which he was discharged a few months before his death, on a supposition that he was of sound mind.

Immediately after his liberation, he resumed his intercourse with the populace, whose opinion of him was probably rather elevated than depressed by his having suffered from his friendship for the smugglers. He repeated his old stories of being a man of high birth, and entitled to some of the finest estates in Kent. He sided with them in their dislike of the new regulations for the poor, and led them to expect that whatever he should recover of his birthright, should be as much for their interest as his own. There were two or three persons of substance who were so far deluded by him as to lend him considerable sums of money. One gentleman loaned him $1,000 on some supposed title deeds.

Latterly, pretensions of a more mysterious nature mingled in the ravings of this madman; and he induced a general belief amongst the ignorant peasantry around Canterbury, that he was either the Saviour of mankind sent anew upon earth, or a being of the same order and commissioned for similar purposes. He took the title of Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, Knight of Malta, and King of Jerusalem. One of his deluded followers declared afterwards that he could turn any one that once listened to him whatever way he liked, and make them believe what he pleased. He was very kind to the poor, and would give the last shilling in his pocket to a poor man. His aspect was very imposing. His height about six feet, his features were regular and beautiful, a broad, fair forehead, aquiline nose, small mouth, and full, round chin. The only defect was a somewhat short neck. He possessed uncommon personal strength.

Some curious significations of the enthusiam he had excited were afterwards observed in the shape of scribblings on the walls of a barn, which I copy verbatim. "If you new he was on earth, your harts Wod turn." "But don't Wate too late." On the side of a barn door was the following:—"O that great day of judgment is close at hand." "It now peps in the door every man according to his works;" "our rites and liberties We Will have."

On Monday, the 28th of May, the frenzy of Thorns and his followers seems to have reached its height. With twenty to thirty persons, in a kind of military order, he went about for three days among the farm houses and villages in the vicinity of Canterbury, receiving and paying for refreshments. One woman sent her son to him, with a "mother's blessing," as to join in some great and laudable work. He proclaimed a great meeting for the ensuing Sunday, which he said was to be "a glorious but bloody day."

At one of the places where he ordered provisions for his followers, it was in these words, "feed my sheep." On another occasion he went away from his followers with a man of the name of Wills, and two other of the rioters, saying to them, "Do you stay here, whilst I go yonder," pointing to a bean stack, "and strike the blow."

When they arrived at the stack, to which they marched with a flag, the flag bearer laid his flag on the ground, and knelt down to pray. The other then put in a lighted match, which Thorns seized and forbade it to burn. This on their return to the company was announced as a miracle.

On Wednesday evening they stopped at the farm house of Bossenden, where the farmer finding that his men were seduced by the impostor from their duty, sent for constables to have them apprehended. Two brothers, named Mears, and another man, accordingly went next morning, but on their approach Thoms shot one of the brothers dead with a pistol, and aimed a blow at the other with a dagger, whereupon the two survivers fled.

At an early hour he was abroad with his followers, to the number of about forty. He undertook to administer the sacrament, in bread and water, to the deluded men who followed him. He told them, on this occasion, as he did on many others, that there was great oppression in the land, and throughout the world; but that if they would follow him, he would lead them on to glory. He told them he had come to earth on a cloud, and that on a cloud he should some day be removed from them; that neither bullets nor weapons could injure him or them, if they had but faith in him as their Saviour; and that if ten thousand soldiers came against them, they would either turn to their side, or fall dead at his command. At the end of this harangue, Alexander Foad, whose jaw was afterwards shot off by the military, knelt down at his feet and worshipped him; so did another man of the name of Brankford. Foad then asked Thoms whether he should follow him in the body, or go home and follow him in heart; to which he replied, "Follow me in the body." Foad then sprang on his feet, in an ecstasy of joy, and with a voice of great exultation, exclaimed, "O, be joyful! O, be joyful! The Saviour has accepted me. Go on, go on; till I drop, I'll follow thee!" Brankford also was accepted as a follower, and exhibited the same enthusiastic fervor. At this time his denunciations against those who should desert him, were terriffic. His eyes gleamed like a coal of fire while he was scattering about these awful menaces. It is believed that if any of his followers had attempted to desert him at this time, he would have shot them. A wood-cutter, (not a follower,) went up to him, shook hands, and began to converse with him, and among other things, asked him if it was true that he had shot the constable. "Yes," said he coolly, "I did shoot the vagabond, and I have eaten a hearty breakfast since. I was only executing upon him the justice of heaven, in virtue of the power which God has given me."

The two repulsed constables had immediately proceeded to Feversham, for the purpose of procuring fresh warrants and the necessary assistance. A considerable party of magistrates and other individuals, now advanced to the scene of the murder, and about mid-day (Thursday, May 31st, 1838,) approached Thoms' party, at a place called the Osier-bed, where the Rev. Mr. Handly, the clergyman of the parish and a magistrate, used every exertion to induce the deluded men to surrender themselves, but in vain. Thoms defied the assailants, and fired at Mr Handly, who then deemed it necessary to obtain military aid before attempting further proceedings. A detachment of the 45th regiment, consisting of 100 men, was brought from Canterbury, under the command of Major Armstrong. A young officer, Lieutenant Bennett, who belonged to another regiment, and was at Canterbury on furlough, proposed, under a sense of duty, to accompany the party, on the condition that he should be allowed to return before 6 o'clock to dine with some friends.

At the approach of the military, Thoms and his men took up a position in Bossenden Wood, between two roads. Major Armstrong divided his men into two bodies, of equal numbers, that the wood might be penetrated from both of these roads at once, so as to inclose the rioters; the one party he took command of himself, and the other was placed under the command of Lieutenant Bennett. The magistrates, who accompanied the party, gave orders to the officers to take Thoms dead or alive, and as many of his men as possible. The two parties then advanced into the wood by opposite roads, and soon came within sight of each other, close to the place where the fanatics were posted. A magistrate in Armstrong's party endeavored to address the rioters, and induce them to surrender; but while he was speaking, Lieutenant Bennett had rushed upon his fate. He had advanced, attended by a single private, probably for the purpose of calling upon the insurgents to submit, when the madman who led them advanced to meet him, and Major Armstrong had just time to exclaim, "Bennett, fall back," when Thoms fired a pistol at him within a few yards of his body. Bennett had apprehended his danger, and had his sword raised to defend himself from the approaching maniac; a momentary collision did take place between him and his slayer, but the shot had lodged with fatal effect in his side, and he fell from his horse a dead man. Thoms fought for a few seconds with others of the assailants, but was prostrated by the soldier attending Mr. Bennett, who sent a ball through his brain. The military party then poured in a general discharge of firearms on the followers of the impostor, of whom eight were killed, and others severely wounded, one of whom afterwards died. A charge was made upon the remainder by the surviving officer, and they were speedily overpowered and taken into custody.

Of the deluded men who followed Thoms, nine were killed, who left four widows and ten children; sixteen were sent to jail, and eleven discharged on bail. Nearly the whole were men of steady, reputable character, and some of them were in the receipt of wages considerably above the average of the district.

This occurrence broke upon the public ear with a startling effect, and the Central Society of Education in London sent a gentleman down to investigate the circumstances on the spot. The result of his inquiries has been given to the world in an elaborate paper in the third volume of the publication issued by the Society, to which book I refer the reader for a further account of these riots. I will, however, make a few short extracts to show the state of education among the peasantry of Kent.

The report gives to fifty-one families examined, forty-five children above the age of fourteen years, and 117 under that age. Of the first class, eleven only can read and write, twenty-one can read a little, and the remainder cannot. In the second class, forty-two attend school, but several of these go only occasionally, the rest do not go at all. Six only can read and write; of twenty-two who can read, only thirteen read fluently, and nine very little; and the remainder cannot read at all. In twelve families the boys assist their father in his labor, and seldom receive any instruction. In fifteen families the girls do the household matters, and in thirty-four families they do nothing but wash and needle-work.

The parish possessed a Sunday school, and three others, in one only of which was writing taught. This school was kept by a master, who, being from physical infirmity incapable of labor, was obliged to adopt this mode of life. He had only eighteen scholars, and half of this number came from neighboring parishes. The two other schools were merely dame-schools, in which nothing but sewing and reading are taught. Many of the children attend so irregularly, and are often absent for such long periods, that they forget all they have learned. Owing to this, some children are unable to read, after being members of the school two or three years. The gentleman above mentioned, says, "It would be easy, if it were required, to adduce reasons for believing that the gross ignorance shown to exist in these districts, is not confined to them, but that their condition may be regarded as a fair sample of that of the same class in other parts of the country." And again, "A little consideration of the nature of rural life will show the danger of leaving the peasantry in such a state of ignorance. In the solitude of the country, the uncultivated mind is much more open to the impressions of fanaticism than in the bustle and collision of towns. In such a stagnant state of existence the mind acquires no activity, and is unaccustomed to make those investigations and comparisons necessary to detect imposture. The slightest semblance of evidence is often sufficient with them to support a deceit which elsewhere would not have the smallest chance of escaping detection. If we look for a moment at the absurdities and inconsistencies practised by Thoms, it appears at first utterly inconcievable that any person out of a lunatic asylum could have been deceived by him. That an imposture so gross and so slenderly supported should have succeeded, must teach us, if any thing will, the folly and danger of leaving the agricultural population in the debasing ignorance which now exists among them."

Such is a brief outline of one of the most strange and singular popular delusions of modern times. It would have given me pleasure to have been able to say, that a great improvement had taken place since 1838: such, however, is not the case.