Reproduced from The Bell News, No. 690 - Vol. XIV - Saturday, June 29th, 1895 (pp. 52-53)
Prefacing the series of short memoirs we propose to publish in our columns, it may be as well to give the following explanation from their author in his own words.
“It has happened, and still frequently happens, in the course of conversation with younger members of the Exercise, more especially those with whom I am more frequently in contact - the members of the Birmingham St. Martin’s Guild, of which I have the honour to be the Presiding Ringing Master - that I am asked for a character or description of some one or other of those celebrities who have in bygone times secured for Birmingham its eminence as a change-ringing centre.
“In this manner most of the descriptions and anecdotes which follow have at one time or other been related, and have aroused so much interest, that I have been again and again urged to write them out, and thus leave a lasting record of them.
“Having accomplished the task, I find the circle of my friends widened out by an appeal for the columns of “The Bell News,” and thus with no original intention of ever committing these recollections to paper, I find myself in a measure forced by circumstances to this publicity.
“In expressing a hope that the readers of ‘ours’ may experience some of the interest and pleasure I obtain from my reflections on these bygones, I also sincerely trust that any shortcomings related of the various actors may appear to my readers, as they do to myself, softened down and mellowed by the hazy atmosphere of the middle distance. Human nature at bottom is to-day very much the same as it always has been, suffering in comparison only from the lack of superior education and modern facilities.”
Next to my uncle Thomas the first man I ever knew as a ringer was the celebrated Thomas Thurstans.
About the year 1830 my father kept a public-house, The Bell, in Smallbrook Street, and a frequent visitor to the house was a man whom I used to hear spoken of as “Tommy Thurstans.” He was looked upon by my parents as somewhat of a nuisance, being generally noisy and intoxicated. Possibly that was the reason I noticed him at so early an age.
When about ten years old I had a boy companion named Thurstans, and through him came to know his father, who was Charles Thurstans, brother to Thomas. In after years I learned that he was a good ringer, and also a skilful musician. He took part in several peals, rang the 9th in the peal of 6,600 Stedman Cinques at St. Martin’s in 1820, and a few after that. In a few years later, about 1825 or 1826, after a peal, or an attempt for one, at All Saints, Worcester, his hands were very much galled, and shewing them to his brother he said - “Tom! I will never touch a bell rope again as long as I live” - and he kept his word.
He became somewhat eminent as a musician, and was the first man in Birmingham to play the ophicleide - then considered the best bass instrument. He was in the orchestral band at the first festival held in the Birmingham Town Hall in 1834, and I have also heard him spoken of as a double bass player.
He was a rather stout well-built man, about 5 ft. 7 in. high, steady, respectable, and long in the employ of Messrs. Elkington and Co., the silversmiths of world-wide reputation. He died in about 1847 or 1848, and I should think was about fifty years of age or a little more.
On reference to the St. Martin’s Youths’ record book I find that it was in October, 1825 when Charles Thurstans rang the 7th at All Saints’ church, Worcester, through a peal of Treble Bob Royal.
At the commencement of my ringing career in the year 1842, one of the first names I heard mentioned in the belfry was Thurstans, and I soon learned that it was the man I had known in my childhood, as it was not long before I saw him. He was a bachelor, and lived with his sister in a small house in Church Street, very near St. Philip’s church. (This property was cleared away some years back for improvements.)
After Sunday morning practice Chattell and I generally passed the house on our way home, and often Thurstans would be standing at his door in shirt sleeves, pipe in mouth, waiting to have a chat with Chattell. He would ask about the young band, give his opinion as to their progress, and generally work his way round to “Lates and Stedman Triples,” since Lates and he were both hard at work at that time, trying to improve the peal.
I only remember ringing with him once when I was a very young hand, and he made a not very complimentary remark about my striking - but it did me no harm.
Thurstans’ name will last probably as long as the Art is practised, as the composer of the peal of Stedman Triples bearing his name. He must have begun to study composition when very young in the Art, as he would be about twenty-four years of age when he called his peal of 6,600 Stedman Cinques, while there were peals of Stedman Caters and Treble Bob Royal of his composition rung even prior to that. No doubt there would be a little rivalry between Thurstans and Cooper, as the latter had made a name before the former came on the scene. Being so good a man at the heavy end would enable Thurstans to assert himself, and claim priority as conductor.
I have heard both my uncle and the late Henry Johnson say that his great fault as a composer was his lack of patience to prove his work, and I had many opportunities of knowing that such was the case. His later peals of Stedman were submitted to Mr. Johnson, and his peals of Treble Bob Major to Mr. T. Day to look over as to their truth.
When he working at Treble Bob Major with the tenors parted, which resulted in his peal of 15,840, he sent a great number of papers to Mr. Day, the late Amos Cresser being the messenger, as he lived in Church Street very near Thurstans.
Mr. Day used to look them over and then put them in an old hat, which he kept for the purpose in a recess over the stairs’ door, and the hat was nearly full before Thurstans produced a true peal.
On one Sunday afternoon on my way to see my uncle, as I usually did once a fortnight, I met Cresser coming away from his house. He told me he had just taken another peal to be looked over, and when I arrived I found my uncle very intent on the figures. Knowing that it was of no use to speak to him while he was so occupied, I sat down and waited quietly for him to break the silence, and he did so presently with his usual “Yes, yes! this will do! If he alters these three courses (shewing me the paper) with the 7th in fifths, I believe it will run true.” The alteration was made, and as is now well-known, the peal was true. Thurstans was much pleased with his success, and went to see Mr. Day, thinking he had superseded the others’ peals, but this was not so, because Mr. Day had a peal of the same number, of which he had said nothing - not even having mentioned it to me. Thurstans was rather annoyed when he learned this, and could not help showing his pique, so that when he was leaving Mr. Day told him that if he sent any more peals to be looked at, he hoped he would send him something of his own, “for” - added he - “what you have sent hitherto is nearly all my own work.”
On one occasion a band met at Aston for a peal of Treble Bob Major, Mr. Day intending to ring the tenor, and to call one of his own peals. Thurstans was in the band, and almost at the last moment asked Mr. Day to call a peal of his (Thurstans’). Being willing to oblige he did so, and an apparently excellent peal was rung. Among those who heard it was Lates, who had just begun to shew his skill as a composer, and as a listener. In due course he asked to see the figures, and pronounced the peal false. False it was! and Mr. Day was so much annoyed at the occurrence, that I believe he never rang another peal of Major.
When Mr. Johnson began to compose Stedman, thinking that he had a good peal of Caters, he asked Thurstans to look over it for him. This he did, pronouncing it true. It was rung at Aston, Thurstans being in the band, and on its publication a Mr. Cross, of Liverpool, sent for the figures, and discovered them to be false. Of course Johnson never trusted Thurstans in this way again.
About the year 1846 there was a great stir about Treble Bob Triples. Day had produced a peal, and Lates had by some means got one (of which I may say more later on), while Day and Cooper had also produced touches. At that time the large bells at St. Martin’s were seldom rung, owing to the eleventh going so badly. Stedman and Treble Bob Triples were practised on the first eight, and some beautiful ringing used to be heard.
The Treble Bob Triples was quite a feature, and Thurstans on hearing a touch rung tried his hand in that direction, and submitted a number of touches to Johnson, not one of which was true. He made a final effort, and said if that was not true it was “onpossible” to get a true touch, and Day’s and Cooper’s must be false, but like all the rest his final effort was false.
Apart from all this I have heard Johnson, my uncle, and others say that no man of his time understood the theory of composition more than he did, but that he jumped at conclusions which were often erroneous.
In appearance Thomas Thurstans was a very broad-set man, about 5 ft. 8 ins. high, although not looking so tall, and in later years he had a stooping and waddling gait. It was very plain to see that he had been a very strong man, as he was very wide from shoulder to hip. By trade he was a brass finisher, and up to 1825 or thereabouts was a quiet and respectable man. About that time there was a trade dispute, resulting in a strike, and through leaving his work in an unfinished state he was summoned before the magistrates, who in the then existing state of the law had power to send him to prison. This they did, for a month’s hard labour in Warwick gaol. The first time I heard of this I was in conversation with Lates. Speaking of Thurstans, who had been having one of his breaks out “Ah!” said Lates, “Tom has never done any good since they made him grind his own com.
There can be no doubt that this disgrace totally upset him, and though steady and right enough at times, on others he would break out, and act more like a madman than anything else. We used also to think he had been jilted in a love affair, for when he had a fit on, if anyone said anything to him relating to women (and I am sorry to say this was sometimes done on purpose), it would make him ten times worse. In fact I and one or two others always avoided him at these times, as they generally lasted for weeks, until he became dirty and ragged, and a fit of illness put an end to it.
The last time I remember seeing him he was respectably dressed in black, I think in mourning for his sister, with whom be had lived for many years. He was carrying a basket of soil, which he bad been getting for his window plants. He told me he was unwell and could not work. That was in the spring of 1858, and in the autumn of that year, Mr. T. Cole - a former member of the St. Martin’s Youths - went to Johnson and told him that “poor Tom” was dead. From what Mr. Cole said, we were led to suppose that he had had a break out, and was taken ill in the street, it was said with English cholera. He was taken to “The General Hospital” and there died. No one knew who he was, and no one enquired about him, so it came to pass that the parish authorities buried him - no friend or relative being near.
We used to think that it was mainly through the influence of his brother Charles that be was employed for some years as a filer at Messrs. Elkingtons, the manager overlooking his transgressions as to loss of time, etc.
This article was reproduced with small editorial changes in The Ringing World, No. 1,202 - Vol. XXIX - Friday, April 6th, 1934 (p.213)
HTML version by Peter Blight, 18th September 2014.