Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tom, John Nichols

TOM or THOM, JOHN NICHOLS (1799–1838), impostor and madman, was baptised on 10 Nov. 1799 at St. Columb Major in Cornwall. His father, William Tom, kept an inn called the Joiner's Arms, and was also a small farmer. His mother, Charity, whose maiden name was Bray, died in the county lunatic asylum. John was educated at Bellevue House academy, Penryn, and at Launceston under Richard Cope [q. v.] From 1817 to 1820 he was clerk to F. C. Paynter, a solicitor at St. Columb, and, after acting as innkeeper at Wadebridge for a few months, he became clerk to Lubbock & Co., wine merchants, Truro, in whose employ he remained until 1826. In that year, with the assistance of his wife, Catherine Fisher, daughter of William Fulpitt of Truro, to whom he was married in February 1821, and who brought him a handsome fortune, he set up in Truro on his own account as a maltster and hop-dealer, and built himself a house in Pydar Street. From an early age he showed a tendency to political and religious enthusiasm. When on a visit to London in 1821 he joined the Spencean Society, founded by Thomas Spence [q. v.] About the beginning of 1832 he is said to have had an epileptic fit, and was regarded by his family as of unsound mind. He disappeared from Cornwall, and is next heard of at Canterbury in August 1832. His own story of intermediate travels in the Holy Land is purely fictitious. He now assumed the name of Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, and claimed to be heir to the earldom of Devon, a title which had been restored to the third Viscount Courtenay in 1831. He also (inconsistently) claimed the Kentish estates of Sir Edward Hales, sixth baronet, who died without issue in 1829. Other names under which he passed were the Hon. Sydney Percy, Count Moses Rothschild, and Squire Thompson. He persistently styled himself knight of Malta, and sometimes king of Jerusalem. The Canterbury people of all classes were won over by his handsome face and figure, his strange oriental garb, and his apparent generosity, which was really derived from loans raised out of his credulous followers. At the general election of December 1832 he was nominated for Canterbury, and polled 375 votes; standing for East Kent a few days later he polled only four. In March 1833 he started a paper at Canterbury, called ‘The Lion,’ which ran to eight numbers. The contents, written by himself, are commonplace appeals to political and religious ignorance, with some fictitious autobiographical details. In Feb. of that year at a trial of some smugglers at Rochester, he swore falsely that he witnessed the fight between them and the revenue officers off the Goodwin Sands. At the Maidstone assizes, in July, he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to three months' imprisonment and seven years' transportation, but was placed in the county lunatic asylum at Barming Heath. Here he remained for four years. He issued a wild address (Nov. 1835), recommending a list of candidates for the town council, and, what is yet more strange, these candidates (including a doctor and two ministers) adopted this address as their own. In August 1837 his father, who had at last learnt what had become of him, petitioned the home secretary (Lord John Russell) for his release, backed by a letter from his former employer, Edward Turner (a partner in the firm of Lubbock & Co.), M.P. for Truro. A free pardon was granted in October, with an order that he should be delivered to his father. Unfortunately he was handed over to one of his former supporters, George Francis of Fairbrook, near Canterbury, who shared his religious delusions, and is believed to have lent him large sums of money. The circumstances of his release subsequently gave rise to a debate in parliament. For some three months he lived with Francis, and then moved to a neighbouring farmhouse on the high road between Canterbury and Faversham. Here he began to preach communistic doctrines, and to assert for the first time that he was the Messiah. He showed the stigmata on his hands and feet, and professed to work miracles. Disciples gathered round him to the number of more than a hundred. He armed them with cudgels and led them about the country side, mounted on a white horse, with a flag bearing the emblem of a lion.

No breach of the peace, however, occurred until a warrant was issued against him on the charge of enticing away the labourers of a farmer. When constables came to serve the warrant, Tom shot one of the party and cruelly mangled the dying man. This was in the early morning of 31 May 1838. That afternoon two companies of the 45th regiment were marched out from Canterbury to arrest him. They found him, with his followers, lurking in Blean Wood, near Hern Hill. He rushed forward with a pistol and shot an officer, Lieutenant Henry Boswell Bennett. Immediately afterwards Bennett received a fatal wound from another hand. The soldiers were ordered to return the fire and charge with the bayonet. The affair was quickly over. Tom, with eight of the rioters, was killed on the spot, and of seven who were wounded three died a few days after. Of those taken three were subsequently sentenced to transportation and six to a year's hard labour; not one was hanged. Tom was buried in the churchyard of Hern Hill with maimed rites, and his grave was guarded that his followers might not assert he had risen on the third day. The spot where he fell is marked on the ordnance map as ‘Mad Tom's Corner,’ and a gate close by is still called Courtenay's Gate. Tom was a tall man, of fine presence, with a full beard, and is said to have borne a striking resemblance to the traditional representations of Christ. A portrait of him, painted in watercolours by H. Hitchcock, a Canterbury artist, shows him in eastern dress and scimitar, looking something like Henry VIII. His earlier imposture forms the subject of a ballad entitled ‘The Knight of Malta’ in Harrison Ainsworth's ‘Rookwood.’

[Contemporary newspapers, particularly the Times and the Lion, ut supra; Essay on the Character of Sir W. Courtenay, Canterbury, 1838; Life and Adventures of Sir W. Courtenay, by Canterburiensis, with portrait and illustrations, containing much material supplied by Tom himself, Canterbury, 1838; History of the Canterbury Riots, by the Rev. J. F. Thorpe, 1888; ‘A Canterbury Tale of Fifty Years Ago,’ reprinted from the Canterbury Press, containing narratives by survivors of the tragedy (1888); Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub. i. 724–7; personal inquiries.]

J. S. C.