Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thom, William

THOM, WILLIAM (1798?–1848), Scottish poet, was born in Aberdeen about 1798. His father, a business man, died young, and Thom was left to the care of his mother, ‘a widow unable to keep him at home idle’ (Thom, Recollections, p. 37). Run over in infancy by a nobleman's carriage, he was lamed for life, the nobleman sympathising to the extent of 5s. bestowed on the widow after the accident. Thom was educated at a dame's school, which he realistically describes in a note to his poem ‘Old Father Frost and his Family.’ Apprenticed as a weaver in 1810, he joined in 1814 a weaving factory, where his talents and attainments as talker, singer, and flute-player secured him distinction among his fellows.

About 1828 Thom married, and in 1831 he and his wife settled in Dundee; but his wife soon deserted him and returned to Aberdeen. Thom afterwards worked in Newtyle, Forfarshire, where he took to his home the girl Jean whom he celebrated in his prose and verse. She bore him four children, and died in 1840. In 1837 great depression in the weaving trade caused Thom much suffering. He hawked the country with second-hand books, and even played the flute in the streets. He soon found fixed employment at the loom at Aberdeen, and subsequently at Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. In the beginning of 1841 he sent a lyric—part i. of ‘The Blind Boy's Pranks’—to the ‘Aberdeen Herald.’ It was published with a eulogistic editorial note, and instantly secured generous attention and patronage. Through the practical friendship of Gordon of Knokespock, Aberdeenshire, the family had immediate comfort, and Thom was enabled to spend four months of 1841 in London, mingling with literary people.

On returning to his loom at Inverurie Thom chafed against regular employment, and, having published his ‘Rhymes and Recollections’ in the autumn of 1844, he settled in London, at the suggestion of Gordon. In the metropolis he worked for a time as a weaver and composed poems simultaneously. His friends included Eliza Cook, Richard, William, and Mary Howitt, Samuel Carter Hall and his wife, and John Forster. He is said to have been fêted at Lady Blessington's. He was entertained at dinner with William Johnson Fox in the chair, and working men of London held a soirée in his honour. Scottish admirers in Calcutta sent him an offering of 300l., and Margaret Fuller headed an American subscription list which rose to 400l. But Thom was an incorrigible Bohemian. He procured a new consort from Inverurie, by whom he had several children, and he neglected business for unprofitable company. At length poor, comparatively neglected, and very ill, he, by the aid of a few staunch admirers, left London and settled in Hawkhill, Dundee, where he died on 29 Feb. 1848. He was honoured with a public funeral, and was buried in the Western Cemetery, Dundee. A monument was erected at his grave in 1857.

Thom was a keen observer, and both his prose and his verse evince intellectual grasp and power of graphic delineation. The stronger and more characteristic of his poems, such as ‘The Mitherless Bairn,’ ‘The Maniac Mother's Dream,’ ‘The Overgate Orphan,’ and the ‘Extract from a Letter to J. Robertson, Esq.,’ reflect the author's rough and drastic experience. His various lyrics—‘The Blind Boy's Pranks,’ ‘Autumn Winds,’ ‘Bonnie May,’ ‘Ythanside,’ ‘They speak o'Wyles,’ ‘Yon Bower,’ ‘The Wedded Waters,’ and ‘Jeanie's Grave’—display quick fancy and considerable sense of natural beauty. Thom contributed a short autobiography to ‘Chambers's Journal,’ December 1841. This was embodied in the sketch published in ‘Rhymes and Recollections of a Handloom Weaver,’ 1844; 2nd edit. 1845. A new edition, with biography by W. Skinner, appeared in 1880.

[Editions of Rhymes and Recollections of a Handloom Weaver; Whistle Binkie; article by Professor Masson in Macmillan's Magazine, vol. ix.; Walker's Bards of Bon-Accord (1887).]

T. B.