The History of Kent
Copyright Kent Past 2010
The Courtenay Uprising
In the early morning of 31st May 1838 near Dunkirk, John Tom masquerading as Sir
William Courtenay murdered a village constable who had been sent to arrest him. Later
that day, he led a band of followers into a fight with the military at Bosenden Wood,
in which eleven more lives were lost, including his own.
These singular but mischievous riots occurred on Thursday, the 31st of May 1838, at a place called Bossenden Wood, about five miles from the ancient city of Canterbury, and were the result of the pranks of a madman who had assumed the title of Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, Knight of Malta, and whose insane spirit communicated itself to the rustics, and produced calamitous consequences. The infatuation with which this insane impostor was followed, and even worshipped, by the peasantry of the district into which he intruded himself, affords a striking and melancholy proof of the magic powers of fanaticism. But while one is not surprised that, among the lower orders, he should find persons incapable of resisting his wily and specious arguments and the impudent falsehood of his assertions, it cannot but be the subject of the greatest astonishment that he should have procured the countenance, during a very considerable period, of individuals of superior rank and education in the county.
The best mode of introducing this extraordinary event will be by detailing succinctly the circumstances of the early life of the supposed Sir William Courtenay.
The real name of this pretender was John Nichols Thom, and he was the son of a small farmer and maltster at St Columb in Cornwall. While yet a lad, he procured employment in the establishment of Messrs Plumer and Turner, wine-
He was found to have taken up his residence at the Rose Hotel, Canterbury, and the splendour of his dress, and the eccentricity of his manners, soon gained for him many admirers, even among the respectable inhabitants of the town. During his canvass, he increased the number of his friends, and his success in procuring supporters was most extraordinary. His effort, however, was not fortunate. His opponent candidates were the Hon R. Watson and Lord Fordwich, the former of whom obtained 832 votes and the latter 802, while Courtenay polled 375. This attempt gained him many friends, and great popularity among the lower orders. His persuasive language was exceedingly useful to him, but the peculiarity of his dress, combined with the absurdity of many of his protestations, induced a belief among some of those to whom he procured introduction that he was insane.
After his defeat, he did not confine his proceedings to Canterbury alone, but passed through most of the towns in Kent, declaiming against the poor laws, the revenue laws, and other portions of the statutes of the realm which are usually considered, by the poor, to be obnoxious to their interests. By his speeches, he obtained much eclat, but his exertions in favour of some smugglers led him into a scrape, from which he was likely to have suffered serious consequences. An action took place near the Goodwin Sands in the month of July 1833 between the revenue cruiser Lively and the Admiral Hood smuggler, and, in the course of the flight of the latter vessel and her exertions to escape from the Lively, her crew were observed to throw a great number of tubs overboard, which, on their being picked up, proved to contain spirit. The Admiral Hood was captured, but no contraband goods were found on board, and, on the men being taken into custody, Courtenay presented himself as a witness before the magistrates. He swore positively that he had seen the whole of the action and that no tubs had been thrown from the Admiral Hood. He further stated, that he had observed those which had been picked up by the revenue men floating in the sea all day. This was so diametrically opposed to the truth, that a prosecution for perjury was determined on, and he was indicted at the Maidstone Assizes on the 25th of July 1833. A verdict of conviction followed, and Mr. Justice Park, the presiding judge, passed a sentence of imprisonment, to be followed by seven years’ transportation. The difficulty in which he was placed, however, having reached the knowledge of his friends in Cornwall, they made representations to the Home Secretary that he was insane, and, after having suffered four years’ confinement in a lunatic asylum at Barming Heath, he was at length liberated, on bail being given for his future, good behaviour.
He now took up his abode at the residence of Mr. Francis, a gentleman of fortune, of Fairbrook near Boughton in the neighbourhood of Canterbury, and speedily resumed his wild efforts to gain popularity for himself. His dress now was similar to that which he had worn before his incarceration, and the following sketch of his personal appearance, extracted from the romance of Rookwood by Mr. Ainsworth, well describes him. ‘A magnificent coal-
This is reproduced from ‘Thomas Mears and Others. The Canterbury Rioters 31st May 1838’ with kind permission of Exclassics.
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