Christopher Thomson and the Odd Fellows
In 1953, when Margaret Woodhead’s father-in-law died, she and her husband clearing the attic of his cottage/sweet shop on Edwinstowe High Street discovered several old books. Some going back to 1875 related to Herbert and Isaac Woodhead (joiners and wheelwrights), but they also found the Oddfellows Benevolent Fund signing-in list 1833-1844. This useful primary source is a bound volume comprising the Membership certificate for each new member, usually counter-signed by three officials. When the volume was donated to Nottinghamshire Archives*, Margaret realised that an index would be very useful. This has now been digitised. The original numbers have been retained in the attached searchable database, which generally gives the occupation, age and home village of each member. For further information go to Oddfellows link in organisations
(*Register of members Edwin Lodge of Nottingham Ancient Imperial United Order of Oddfellows 1833-1844, Nottinghamshire Archives ref DD77/1 Inspire)
Commencing on October 2nd, 1833, each certificate is numbered in pencil. Around twenty have been cut out of the volume. Although nearly all the members from Edwinstowe were able to sign their name, some men from neighbouring villages just made their mark. New members had to confirm that they were in good health
For some years, Christopher Thomson tried to make a living for himself and his fellow actors as a strolling player, “barnstorming” in villages from Derbyshire across Nottinghamshire to Lincolnshire. Often, they trudged 20 miles a day, hungry and exhausted and even if they set-up a performance in a room or in a barn, audiences were often meagre. Methodist preachers also dissuaded their congregations from attending. When he visited Edwinstowe Christopher Thomson had been welcomed by Reuben Trueman and the schoolmaster, Henry Russell. In 1832, they persuaded him settle down and try his hand at painting houses instead of scenery!
Sherwood Forest Birches C. Thomson C19th
He soon became a great advocate for the local Oddfellows, frequently acting as Secretary and helping to found 40-50 other lodges. He believed in “self-help” and “union amongst themselves, particularly in rural districts”. He said that “an anxious desire pervaded the congregated brethren, to better their social condition – to lay up sums of money, that by prudent fore-thought, they might be protected against the pangs of poverty, when disease or misfortune assailed them. They were also storing up ample funds for a decent interment of any of their numbers, whenever death should overtake them. They were likewise studiously asking themselves how they could best provide for their widows and procure a home for their orphans.” In Edwinstowe, at this time, instead of applying to the dreaded Union Workhouse at Southwell, hardly any members needed parish relief because they were self-reliant.
A request for land to build a hall was refused on the basis that it would ruin the village publicans if the Oddfellows did not use meeting rooms in local public houses. As Thomson says, “The largest dissenting body in the Kingdom publicly denounce Odd Fellowship. This is to be regretted, for it should be considered that the working classes have been driven to the public-house in very self-defence – no other place being open to them. They will still be forced there until they organise themselves in a better way than they seem to be content with at present.” He was tireless in setting up the Penny Library, evening classes and lectures.
In 1838, Christopher Thompson started the Penny Library. Self-help groups, financial support for the poor and ‘night classes’ for Reading, Writing, Maths, Music and Drawing were provided. This building was later used for classes.
He published his Autobiography of an Artisan in 1847.
By the 1850’s, there was dissention and division between Nottingham Grand Lodge and Sheffield District who disliked central control and wanted the Grand Lodge to be a delegate assembly. (This idea was rejected on grounds of cost.) Thomson objected to money being spent on elaborate regalia and banners which should have gone to the Widows and Orphans. These harsh words were said by Charles Howard from Sheffield in the Odd Fellows Magazine October 1850:
“a greater advocate of the Grand Lodge could not be found than Christopher Thomson so long as a chance remained of him being nicely housed in a good berth; but when he found that neither the Secretaryship of the Widows and Orphans Society, General Funeral Fund or the Editorship of the Indicator was within his grasp, he turned round upon them and they were everything bad that his fertile mind could suggest……it is he that has kept the disaffected on their feet….”.
Also in that month’s magazine, J. Powell of Geddington wrote:
“I would ask why did not the parties who were at the bottom of this movement show their faces at the annual meeting? …one person in particular, Brother Christopher Thomson of Edwinstowe said at Leamington that there was no association in the kingdom in a better condition than the Nottingham Imperial Order. What can we think of a man who after expressing himself in a short time turns upon them and becomes their greatest enemy? Others may think as they please but I think there is no confidence to be placed in such a man; for it must be remembered a ‘double minded man is unstable in all his ways”.
Shortly afterwards Christopher Thomson and his large family left Edwinstowe and settled in Sheffield working as a newsagent.
Quotes: Christopher Thomson, Autobiography of an Artisan J Chapman 1847
This article is based with permission on the extensive research into the Oddfellows and other Benevolent Societies by the late Dr Julie O’Neill.
Portrait of C. Thomson – Courtesy of Sheffield City Council