“If you didn’t write it down
and tell somebody about it,
it didn’t happen”
Guy Cosmolmagno S.J. Curator of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory
The author, Colin Thom, obviously subscribes to this dictum, as it has taken thirty five years, on and off, to write his family history. It was only on retirement that he finished the task, an obvious example to all of us who undertake the writing of family genealogy.
Family historians have inevitably referenced “Thom’s Directory” in their research. This book is the family history of Alex Thom, the man who founded the Directory. Colin is the three times great—grandson of Walter Thom (father of Alex) and he has traced the family descent through different lines throughout the world.
This study starts with Alexander Thom (born 1715) from Bervie (hence the title) and his wife Margaret (née Dorward). They came from Kincardinshire, now Aberdeenshire, in Scotland. Alexander and Margaret married when they were 17 and 14 respectively and had two children. All the Thoms referenced in this book descend from the second child, who was also called Alex, born in 1742. This Alexander was a merchant who supplemented his income by resorting to smuggling. His conflicts with the law are detailed from the 1770s. Alex married Christian (née Henderson) and he eventually became a weaver in the linen industry. Their son Walter saw little future in this activity and consequently moved to Aberdeen, where Walter set up as a bookseller. He also acquired a reputation as a writer on historical and statistical matters. In 1800, Walter Thom married Margaret Turner before moving to Edinburgh, to concentrate fully on writing.
In 1813, Robert Peel, Chief Secretary of Ireland, invited Walter to move to Dublin to edit “Faulkner’s Dublin Journal”, a government-subsidised evening newspaper. This was published each Monday, Wednesday and Friday and sold at 5 pence per copy, and was produced from 15 Parliament St., Dublin. Walter accepted the offer and lived above the premises. In 1819, Peel handed proprietorship of the newspaper over to Walter. However, the publication went into decline and sales decreased due to a change of government policy, which conflicted with the views of the Lord Lieutenant, the Marquis of Wellesley, who favoured Catholic Emancipation. The recently introduced “Evening Mail” also attracted Protestant readers from the “Dublin Journal”. Walter Thom struggled in this business environment and in about 1820, his son Alex gave up his studies in Edinburgh High School and moved to Dublin to assist his father. Stress took its toll and Walter died, aged 54, in 1824. Alex Thom subsequently took over the newspaper on his father’s death. In the following year, 1825, Alex closed down the
“Dublin Journal” and relocated his printing plant to 13 Mecklenburgh St. (now Waterford St.), where he restarted in business as a general printer with his foreman, a Mr. Johnson. Some three years later, Alex moved to 21 North Earl St., Dublin, where he set up as a printer, publisher and bookseller. With business slow, Alex had a brainwave! He applied to Sir Robert Peel, now in London, for recognition of his and his late father’s losses, sustained in supporting government policy. Through Peel’s influence, the London Stationery Office gave Alex Thom the entire contract for the Post Office printing in Ireland. The business prospered and Alex received the printing contract for all future Royal Commissions in Ireland. These included “Griffith’s Primary Valuation of Ireland”, another publication familiar to all genealogists.
The firm of Alex Thom and Co. was now expanding at such a rate that it relocated to larger premises at 87-88 Middle Abbey St., Dublin, later the headquarters of “Independent Newspapers”. The firm became the industry leader in the printing trade in Ireland, despite the economic depression which affected the Dublin printing industry from 1839 – 1842. In 1844, Alex Thom’s eldest daughter, Margaret, married Frederick Pilkington of Newbury Hall, Carbury, Co. Kildare. He was a government bookbinder whose premises adjoined Thom’s. The two firms merged and Frederick assumed a management role in the new company. In 1844, Alex Thom launched what was to become the highly successful “Thom’s Directory”. The firm was appointed the Queen’s Printer in Ireland in 1876. Three years later in 1879, after six decades in the printing industry, Alex Thom transferred ownership of the company to Frederick Pilkington. This was also the year in which Alex died, aged 78 years.
Alex Thom had first married Maria (née Dillon) in 1824 and they had nine children. Mariah died in 1867, aged 70, and her death certificate noted that she had been insane for twenty years. Subsequently, Alex married his housekeeper, Sarah Mackay, a widow. Sadly, he became somewhat estranged from his family on his remarriage.
“Thom’s Irish Almanack and Official Directory”, to give it its full title, is considered his greatest achievement and is still extant. It was first published in 1844 with Alex Thom as editor and printer and it contained 650 pages – 7.5 inches by 4.75 inches in size. It was hailed as the most ‘complete and valuable work of reference…that has yet appeared in Ireland’. The 160th and final edition to be published in book form occurred in 2012. It contains a staggering 528,000 business and residential entries on 13,066 streets in Dublin City and County and Bray County. From this year on, it is only available online and on CD Rom. Thom’s Directory’s place in Irish society was surely secured by the mention of it on five occasions in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
“Bervie and Beyond” references those Thom Family descendants throughout the world, principally in Australia and Argentina as well as Britain and Ireland, and individual kin are indexed for easy identification. While primarily of interest to family members, the reference to historical persons, places and events will find a resonance with all readers.
Of particular interest is the reference to “Pedestrianism”. The extraordinary walking feats of Robert Barclay Allardice, who was known as ‘Captain Barclay’, were published by Walter Thom in 1813. A probable acquaintance of Walter, the heroic exploits of this athlete is well documented. They include a feat accomplished in 1809, when Captain Barclay walked a mile in every hour, for 42 consecutive days and nights! Over ten thousand people attended the event. Substantial prize money was won in these events and betting on the outcome was common. Barclay didn’t wear any form of athletic strip and his dress for competition consisted of “a top hat, cravat, warm, woollen suit, lambs wool socks and thick-soled shoes”!
Another fascinating reference in the book is that of Bessie Thom, a probable kinswoman of the author, who was burned at the stake with two others for witchcraft in 1596. This unfortunate woman was one of 23 who lost their lives for the crime of witchcraft over a two-year period. The exact type and cost of materials used in this grizzly event are documented. It is of interest to note that the last burning-at-the-stake of a woman in Great Britain occurred as late as 1789, when a Catherine Murphy suffered this fate at Newgate Prison, London. Her conviction of being a counterfeiter was equated with that of treason. The only recorded mass-trial for witchcraft in Ireland took place in Islandmagee, Co. Antrim in 1711, when eight Presbyterian women were tried and convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to one year in prison. During this time, they were pilloried in public stocks and, presumably, pelted with rotten fruit and stones on market days. Ireland repealed this 1563 witchcraft law in 1821, 110 years after the Islandmagee trial. It is claimed that 200,000 people were burned for witchcraft in Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
The vicissitudes of the Thom family are well-described throughout the generations. Included is the estrangement of the Thom and Pilkington families, who didn’t communicate with each other from the late 19th century until 2011 when the author re-established contact. This was probably due to the unequal distribution of family wealth, as outlined in Alex Thom’s will.
The Boer War in South Africa saw second cousins on opposite sides in this conflict. Alexander Thom, originally from Ireland, opposed the Commonwealth forces, and after peace was agreed, received his discharge papers from General Botha, who led the Boers. General Botha became famous for capturing Winston Churchill. Incredibly, Alexander was fighting against his second cousins, Albert and William Thom, from Australia.
The recall of a suicide in the family is sensitively told as the story of an only-surviving daughter who had eight brothers and led a miserable, lonely life. In 1909, she was bequeathed an annuity of only £25 from her father’s £37,000 estate. This spinster daughter contested the will and succeeded in having the annuity increased to £80, and later to £200, after her over-bearing mother’s death. Occasionally, she went to Dublin and stayed with her brother’s family from her home in Co. Meath. During one such visit, she committed suicide and was found with her throat cut and a razor by her side. She was forty years of age. Newspapers covering the subsequent inquest reported that she left a note, lamenting her dire financial position and expressed concern about her not being successful in her suicide attempt. The scandal was enormous. This unfortunate woman died in poverty in the midst of plenty. As her niece put it, “…the only girl amongst all these boys. One would think she would have been adored”.
This book is crammed with photographs, family trees and indentures. The author diplomatically urges family members, who are now in their twilight years, to write their family stories. He thoughtfully provides blank pages at the end of the book for this purpose – just as was done in family bibles in days of old.
This reviewer has a confession to make. He helped the author, who is Australian, in his research for the book. However, this doesn’t jaundice his eye as to the merits of this charming work, which is an ideal template to anyone considering writing their family history. The greater Thom family owe a debt of gratitude to Colin for this labour of love. I must also refer again to Alex Thom, whose widow, Sarah, made a bequest of Alex Thom’s private library to the National Library of Ireland in Kildare St., Dublin. This collection consists of 3,900 volumes and is known as the “Alexander Thom Collection”. Access to it is permitted, but restricted.
Finally, it is fitting to recall the man who founded what became a national institution. A pen picture of Alex Thom at work, and published in 1936, well after his demise, noted that:
“He took a personal interest, even in the most minute piece of activity in the factory. Every day he inspected the work; and each worker waited, not in fear (but) for the judgements of that low-sized, stout man who stood beside them – his be-tassled velvet smoking cap half-hiding his curly white head and his small hairy hands giving that necessary touch of approval to some form of work. So he went on his daily round, whistling happily as he went, amongst those old gentleman compositors of his, who came to work dressed in tall hats, frock coats and carrying umbrellas.”
Charles Dickens, methinks, couldn’t have described him better.
Every Thom should read this book – and I urge every Dick and Harry to do likewise!
James Robinson is a family historian who published his family history, “The Robinsons of North Kildare – 300 Years of Family History” in 1997. Since then, he has written and lectured extensively on this topic and is a regular contributor to the Irish Family History Society journal.
ISBN Hardcover 978-1-4797-8123-2
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Review by James Robinson