OLD DEVONPORT . UK
www.olddevonport.uk
 

©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: March 22, 2017.
Webpage updated: March 22, 2017

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WHO WAS WHO IN OLD DEVONPORT

CHARLES BERNARD COURTENAY THOMAS (1845-1914)

Mr Charles Bernard Courtenay Thomas was a notorious figure in Devonport, of whom his obituary writer said: 'Altogether his life was the outcome of the “cursed spite” which makes him feel he was “born to set the world aright”.’  He was the subject of at least two postcards.

The text beneath this postcard picture reads: 'C B Courtenay Thomas, Accountant and Auditor, Devonport,
 Who was the means of compelling the Devonport Borough Officials to adopt a proper System of Book-keeping
 and to produce the whole of the accounts to be audited which had been objected to'.
From a postcard.

Born in the parish of Stoke Damerel ion 1845, he was the eldest son of Mr Charles Courtenay Thomas, a blacksmith in the Royal Dockyard, and his wife, formerly Miss Jane Fitzpatrick.  At the age of 15 years, when the family were living at number 40 Mount Street, he was an apprentice watchmaker but later became a loan and commission agent.  In 1877 he married Miss Mary Hoar, from Liverpool, after which he became an accountant.  They had one child, Miss Elsie Maria Courtenay Thomas, born on April 11th 1879 and baptized at the Anglican Church of Saint Aubyn on May 22nd that year.  They were living at number 21 Chapel Street.

But Mr Thomas was lame and had to use crutches, which made him the butt of comments from the youngsters of Devonport.  This no doubt contributed to the development of a change in his personality, which resulted in his wife, who was described as 'a lady of decent position', getting an act of separation.  His behaviour is best described in his Obituary in the "Western Morning News": ’The death of Mr Thomas removes from Devonport its most notorious figure for many a generation.  His life was a pitiable one pitiably ended.  He had gifts which qualified him for the career of a useful citizen had they been combined with a suitable temperament.  When he controlled himself he could converse shrewdly, cogently, and with force.  But an unconquerable litigiousness proved disastrous to himself and an offence to all with whom he was brought into contact.  In a circular he described himself as “accountant, auditor, expert in figures, Income-tax and rate assessment surveyor”, adding, “Solicitors and clients assisted in working up civil and criminal cases, and in completing titles to freehold and leasehold property: claims for next-of-kin, etc.  Also in in obtaining naval and military unclaimed moneys and bounties”.  He was also an auctioneer, but his chief work was debt-collecting, and his methods resulted in his frequent appearance before magistrates and in the County Court.  He always came armed, with a huge pile of legal books, would talk volubly, and refuse to obey the injunctions of the courts.  The result was that on numerous occasions, after great forbearance of judges and magistrates, he was forcibly ejected, creating painful scenes.  He slandered court officials, solicitors, parties in the actions, and at least on one occasion was imprisoned for contempt of court.  For a term he was an elective auditor of the borough of Devonport.  His election was a joke on the part of some of the burgesses, who acted in anticipation of the enjoyment of the fun his election would cause.  They did the town a great disservice, and Mr Thomas himself a greater.  Committed for trial at the assizes, charged with libelling the borough treasurer, he was found guilty.  The case was, at the suggestion of the prosecution, remitted to the next assizes, to give him an opportunity of apologising and paying the costs.  As he would do neither, he was sent to gaol.  For some time he became a lecturer and public entertainer, taking himself so seriously that his audiences were moved to uproarious laughter.  A feature of his programme was the charge of “The Light Brigade”, in the recital of which he thumped his crutch (for he was lame) on the platform to represent the firing of guns at Balaclava.  Another item was “Strike while the iron is hot”, and in it he also used his crutch.  He attracted large audiences, eager to laugh at him rather than with him, and the evening invariably ended in disorder.  Once he was so badly treated that he took police court proceedings against his assailants, who regarded him as fair game for cowardly action.  In the streets he became the butt of the children, and so fell fowl of justice and the police, whom he charged in vituperative language with failure of duty.  On behalf of the police it was alleged that he courted the attention of the children for the sake of notoriety.  Eventually, losing all means of support, he stood at street corners with a tin box around his neck soliciting alms, and as he would not desist was arrested by the police.  Finally he had to seek refuge in Devonport Workhouse, and there after contests with officers and other inmates passed away.’

After many years of living alone, he was finally admitted to the Devonport Workhouse in October 1910, and it was there that he died on Wednesday October 28th 1914, at the age of 69 years.  His funeral was attended by only his younger brother, Mr William Courtenay Thomas, of London, and the officiating minister, the Reverend J Heywood-Waddington, the chaplain of the Workhouse.

Another of his eccentricities was that he collected top-hats.