John Nichols Thom

John Nichols Thom (1799-1838) was the Cornish self-declared Messiah who in the 19th century led the last battle to be fought on English soil.


John Nichols Thom was born a son of publican in 1799 in St Columb Major in Cornwall. When he was a child, his mother died in an insane asylum. He worked for five years with two wine merchants in Truro until the business collapsed. Thom proceeded to become a wine merchant himself. After four years, fire destroyed his store and he collected £1000 for insurance to begin anew. After two years he disappeared.

After leaving Truro in 1832, he became infatuated with Lady Hester Stanhope. Thom claimed to have followed her to Beirut only to be utterly rejected. These claims that he travelled to the Near East are probably false as he was known to have been in Liverpool and London at the time.

Although seen by many as a charlatan, Thom's populist politics saw him gain a creditable 950 votes when standing for the parliamentary seat of Canterbury in the election of 1832. Thom's popularity was largely confined to the city of Canterbury and he fared poorly when, later that year, he stood again under the name Count Moses Rothschild. He was then living at the Rose Hotel, and campaigned in a crimson velvet suit with gold lacings and carried a sword. When Thom received 374 votes, 1/5 of the vote, he began to call himself Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay of Powderham, the heir to the earl of Devon, the King of Jerusalem and Knight of Malta. He began to tour Kent and spoke against various tax laws.

In 1833 Thom begun to publish a theological journal "The Lion" in which he stated that all the churches just wanted to hoard gold. In July 1833 he also claimed to have seen that a group of alcohol smugglers had "not" thrown their cargo overboard, which they certainly had done. July 24 he was sentenced to penal transportation for perjury. Thom was locked into the Barming Heath asylum in Kent.

His father petitioned for his release and with help of Sir Hussey Vivian who wrote letters to Lord John Russell (the then Home secretary). The petition was successful and a pardon was given.

When Thom was eventually released, he again assumed the mantle of Sir William Courtenay, declared himself "saviour of the world" and became a wandering preacher. He again used his colourful costume, including an embroidered Maltese Cross and his sword that he claimed was Excalibur. Later witnesses also stated that he had nail marks in his hands. He supported the cause of farm workers who resisted the effects of the 1834 Poor Law Act, which ordered all able-bodied men to workhouses if they could not find work.

Thom gathered a following of more than hundred people and convinced them that their faith would make them invulnerable to steel and bullets. He also claimed that he could slay 10,000 men by hitting his left hand with his right and if he would be shot, he would come back to life three days later.

When Thom and his followers paraded in and around the countryside near Boughton, a farmer named Curling asked magistrates in Canterbury to arrest his truant workers who had left with Thom. The authorities sent three constables to arrest Thom in May 31 1838 in the farm of a farmer named Culver. Thom shot constable Nicholas Mears, mutilated the body with his blade and threw it into a ditch. He pacified his followers with a sacrament of eucharist, promised them the estates of the gentry and led a group of 30-40 men to the Bossenden Wood.

The authorities had had enough. The same day they sent 100 soldiers of the 45th Foot regiment to village of Dunkirk to arrest Thom and his followers. Troops surrounded the woods and commanding officer Armstrong demanded their surrenders. Thom would have none of it and shot Lieutenant and killed Henry Boswell Bennett, who was leading his troops. Soldiers opened fire and killed Thom and nine of his followers. After a brief struggle, Thom's followers dispersed but the soldiers captured 25 of them. Local constable George Catt who had accompanied the troops also died in the clash.

Thom's body was taken to Hernhill. Before the inquest, Thom's remaining disciples tore his bloody shirt on his body and divided it for relics. The coroner, having heard the rumour that Thom would rise on the third day, ordered his heart removed and pickled in a jar. The pickled heart survived until the 1950s. On June 5, When Thom and his dead followers were buried in an unmarked grave in Hernhill churchyard, watchmen guarded the grave for some time in case of fervent grave robbers.

Trial against 19 of the surviving followers began August 9 1838 in Maidstone and ended in August 17. Some of them were sentenced to death but all the sentences were commuted to penal transportation or hard labour.

As a result of the battle at Bossenden, the Government realised there was a serious problem in Dunkirk. They dealt leniently with the survivors of Courtenay’s army. Most were given parole. Only two were sentenced to transportation, and one of them went on to make a fortune in the Australian goldfields.

Frightened of further unrest in the area, the Government decided a Christian mission might help, made Dunkirk a proper parish (at last), and built both a church and a school. The church, at the top of Boughton Hill, was declared redundant some years ago and is likely to be converted into a house. The school still thrives.

Although technically a rebel and fanatic, Thom's 19th Century reputation was darker. In a celebrated cartoon by Richard Doyle (the uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) of Madame Tussaud's museum, which named the room of criminal items "the chamber of horrors", in the forefront were a set of statues of various murderers or attempted murderers, including James Greenacre, Daniel Good, James Blomfield Rush, and Edward Oxford. Among these is also John Nichols Tom.

Further reading

*Vagabonds All by His Honour Judge Edward Abbott Parry published by Charles Scribners' Sons in 1926, 264p. illust. See "Ch.IX: John Nichols Tom, The Zealot", p. 184-207.
*The Last Rising of the Agricultural Labourers: Rural Life and Protest in Nineteenth-century England by Barry Reay ISBN 0-19-820187-7 (October 1, 1990).
*Battle in Bossenden Wood the strange story of Sir William Courtenay by P. G. Rogers. published by Oxford University press 1961

ee also

* Messianic complex
* Battle of Bossenden Wood

External links

* [ History of Dunkirk in Kent]
* [ Wackiest self-proclaimed Messiahs]
* [ Listen to the story of John Thom and the battle] which was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 programme; Open Country.
* [ Harvard College] Large image of Thom as he appeared at the time of his final battle.


*In 2003 the story of John Nichols Thom was made into a stage musical [] . Music by Ethan Lewis Maltby, and Lyrics by Christopher Neame.

* Lieutenant Bennett, the officer killed by Thom, was buried with full military honours in Canterbury Cathedral and a tablet to his memory is in the cloisters [] .

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