31st May 1838. ‘The False Messiah’.
Nothing serves to prove the facility of the human mind to be moved and opened to the allurement of fanatics, than the case of William Nichols Thom, late maltster and wine-merchant of Truro, Cornwall, later to masquerade under the name of Sir William Courteney.
The 1830s and 1840s were hard times for British agricultural workers, resulting from increasing mechanization of farming; a time of unrest from ‘Captain Swing’ and his rick-burning, to the ‘Tollpuddle Martyrs’.
The 1834 Poor Law resulted in farm labourers existing on the parish out-door-relief, with the alternative being one of the new workhouses.
Then Thom, who had spent four years inside the local asylum, arrived on the scene to persuade the local labourers he was a messiah come to save them from their troubles.
It resulted Today in 1838 in the ‘Battle of Bossenden Wood’, near Dunkirk, Kent, and the death of 11 men including Thom, a constable and an army lieutenant.(1)
Though close to Faversham, Dunkirk had always been a wild area, well-wooded, of 5,000 acres, and simply left out when the area was first divided into parishes, in medieval times.
It was never permanently settled and the sheriff’s writ didn’t run there. It later became the area of petty thieves, ne’er-do-wells and smugglers.
The area was thus ripe ground for the likes of the false-named Courteney to stir up trouble amongst the starving farm labourers of the villages of Hernhill, Dunkirk and Boughton in Kent.
Gathering marauding bands led by a pole with the radical blue and white flag, with lion rampant, and a loaf on top, he managed to convince many of the locals he was the messiah ‘come down from a cloud and to disappear amidst one’, to save them from their peril. Not content with this, he also gave a sacrament of bread and wine, to press his authority.
Unsurprisingly, the local landowners became nervous suspicious of his claims and his hold over the credulous peasantry. Soldiers of the 45th Foot were despatched from Canterbury to arrest the self-styled messiah.(2)
In the process Thom, aka Courteney, was killed and eight of his followers were shot and killed, including two of those, sent to apprehend him.
After a trial in August, before Lord Denman, there was an element of leniency, after all the ring-leaders were dead, and probably with a wish not to inflame the widespread discontent.
Some of those convicted were transported, some imprisoned with hard labour, and many of the others duped, a time to reflect.
(1) The name of Dunkirk, it appears comes from a house of this name in the 17thc owned by a local trader with the Dunkirk across the Channel, at a time when the town was owned by Britain.
One famous ex resident of Dunkirk, Kent, was Jack Cornwall VC, who refused to leave his gun on HMS Cheshire, at Jutland in 1916,
(2) The 45 Foot were later sent to Newport, South Wales, in 1839 to quell the riots there.
Ref: hernhill.net/about-thom/battle-of-bossenden-wood. Reproduced from http://www.classic.com./the canterbury riots 31.5.1838. Also Image of Thom.
Ref: wikipedia.org/battle_of_bossenden_wood. also image of battle.