The Thompsons: Business, Banking, Radicalism and British Political Reform

Two members of the Thompson family were to make their mark in their own individual ways on local, national and even international events during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Thompsons were a self made family but the foundations of their wealth and power were essentially derived from a fortune made in the trade and commerce of Hull. Thomas Thompson, the father, was a farmer’s son from the Holderness village of Swine who went on to become one of the richest men in Hull and was also a Tory MP. His son, Thomas Perronet Thompson, sailor, soldier, radical politician and man of letters not only led an active life which took him to various parts of the world but also made a significant contribution to a host of nineteenth century radical causes.

Thomas Perronet Thompson, reformer and contemporary of William Wilberforce
Source: School Net

Thomas Thompson senior was born in 1754 and as a young man left his native village to become a clerk with the firm of Wilberforce and Smith. At the time this firm was run by Abel Smith and William Wilberforce, the grandfather of the famous emancipator of the slaves. Thomas Thompson proved to have an astute mind for business and soon made a significant contribution to the firm’s prosperity. After old William Wilberforce died, Abel Smith put Thomas in charge on a salary of £500 and in 1784 the two of them opened an additional business venture in the town, this was Smith and Thompson’s Bank. Thompson became the manager and ran the bank from 25, High Street, now better known as Wilberforce House. Both business ventures prospered and Thomas Thompson was later able to buy his partnership in Wilberforce and Smiths and by the early 19th century he had become a very rich man, estimating his salary at £3,700 per annum in 1802.

Thomas ran many of his business affairs from the building we now know as Wilberforce House but had a country retreat in Cottingham, possibly Southwood Hall, from as early as 1787. He built himself a somewhat grand castellated house within half a mile of Southwood Hall. This took a number of years to construct but seems to have been finally completed in 1816. At the time, the elevated site where he had chosen to build his house was somewhat remote and exposed but he thought the air would help his consumptive daughter’s health. However, he planted sheltering belts of woodland to the east and south and landscaped the area with scattered clumps of trees. The House he built became known as Cottingham Castle.

Two views of the Folly at Castle Hill, Cottingham, the only surviving remnant of Cottingham Castle built by Thomas Thompson
Source: Robb Robinson

Despite his great wealth and somewhat ostentatious house, Thomas was an ardent Methodist lay preacher and in earlier life had been a personal friend of John Wesley. In 1807 he became an MP for Midhurst in Surrey and was the first Methodist preacher to enter the House of Commons. Like William Wilberforce, he retained a strong abhorrence of slavery throughout his life and in the early 1820s was prominent in the Anti-Slavery Association. He also retained a keen interest in the affairs of the poor, especially in his own neighbourhood. During the harsh winter of 1812, it is said that he hired unemployed men to tunnel into the hill on the north side of his estate to obtain chalk for the roads: it is said that these tunnels still exist. He was particularly concerned that the pauper families were split up on entering the local workhouse and in 1819 he convinced the local overseers of the poor to allocate land to pauper families in Cottingham where they could settle, build houses and cultivate crops. The land they were allocated which was to the east of the village was originally known as the Pauper Village or Pauper Gardens but was renamed New Village in 1829.

Old Thomas died whilst visiting Paris in 1828 and was buried in the cemetery of Pere la Chaise. He left three sons, the eldest of whom was Thomas Perronet Thompson. Perronet Thompson was born in Hull in 1783 and received his early education at Hull Grammar School which was at the time run by Joseph Milner, the eminent Church historian. He entered Queen’s University, Cambridge in 1798 and obtained his degree in 1802, graduating as seventh wrangler. Soon after returning to Hull he made what was later described as an ‘experimental voyage’ to sea lasting nine months and then in 1803 joined the Royal Navy as midshipman on HMS Isis, then the flagship of Admiral Gambier. HMS Isis then sailed for Newfoundland and on the voyage took several prizes. Young Perronet Thompson was put in charge of one of the captured ships for the remainder of the voyage out. After returning to Portsmouth on the Isis later in the year he joined the frigate Pomona which was blockading the French coast.

In 1806, shortly after being elected a fellow of Queen’s College, Perronet Thompson left the navy and entered the army, joining the 95th regiment as a second Lieutenant. He was part of Crawford’s expedition to Buenos Aires and was taken prisoner but released shortly afterwards under the convention that followed the attack on the town. In 1808, thanks to the influence of his friend William Wilberforce, he was appointed Governor of Sierra Leone. Here he was later described as being ‘more vigorous than was pleasing to the Home Government in putting down the slave trade’ and he was replaced in 1810.

By 1812 he was back in military service. He saw action in the Peninsula War and later in Southern France and at the peace of 1814 he was promoted to Captain. In 1815 he went to Bombay where he saw further service with the Seventh Light Dragoons. Perronet Thompson had already studied Arabic and he was attached as interpreter to an expedition against the Arab tribes in the Persian Gulf in 1819. He was subsequently present at several military encounters and played a principal part in negotiating a peace treaty with tribes in which the slave trade was declared to be piracy.

When Perronet Thompson returned to England in 1821, he was already the commander of a foot regiment and although he continued his military career, eventually becoming a lieutenant general, he became increasingly interested in political, economic and social affairs and cultivated the friendship of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and many others. Unlike his father who was a conservative, Perronet Thompson was very much a radical and was on the side of reform on a wide variety of political issues including the extension of the franchise. During his time in the army he had been regarded as a man of frugal habits and an opponent of corporal punishment as a means of maintaining discipline and seems to have continued in much the same theme throughout his life. During the 1820s he became a regular contributor to the Westminster Review and later its joint proprietor. He published pamphlets and books on a very wide range of economic, political and social issues, as well as mathematics, music and other subjects. He was a strong supporter of free trade and attacked the Corn Laws which he saw as restricting trade. Indeed, he was regarded, according to his obituary in The Times as ‘one of the earliest and ablest asserters of the principles of free trade.’ In 1835 he was elected MP for Hull but only by five votes and lost his seat a couple of years later. After unsuccessful attempts to win other parliamentary seats he was elected as MP for Bradford in 1847. He lost the seat in 1853 but the Bradford voters returned him as their MP once more in 1857. He subsequently retired from the seat and largely from public life in 1859 at the age of 76.

Thomas Perronet Thompson died ten years later in September 1869 at his house in Blackheath near London. His father’s house, Cottingham Castle, had been burnt down a few months earlier and the site is now occupied by Castle Hill Hospital. The only surviving remnant of the estate being the tower or folly situated by the main Beverley Road, close to the top of Castle Hill. The area of New Village, however, is now a thriving eastern suburb of Cottingham.

Select Bibliography

Keith John Allison, Hull Gent Seeks Country Residence 1750 – 1850 (UK: East Yorkshire Local History Society, 1981)

Gordon Jackson, Hull in the Eighteenth century (UK: Oxford University Press, 1972)

David Neave and Edward Waterson, Lost Houses of East Yorkshire (UK: Georgian Society of East Yorkshire, 1988)

Arthur Robinson, The Counting House: Thomas Thompson of Hull (1754 – 1828) and His Family (UK: William sessions, York, 1992)

Peter Stubley, A House Divided: Evangelicals and the Establishment in Hull 1770 – 1914 (UK: University of Hull Press, 1995)

Leonard G Johnson, General T. Perronet Thompson 1783 -1869 (UK: Allen & Unwin, 1957)

Theodorekoditschek, Class Formation and Urban Industrial Society (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (UK: Oxford University Press 2004)

On-line References

Hull Museums Collection. Thomas Thompson (1754 – 1828)

Spartacus Schoolnet. Thomas Perronet Thompson