From Shepherd Boy To Mayor
The thrilling life story of the Mayor of Maidenhead, retired Bandmaster William Thomas, who once gave a salvation address in the presence of a future Queen. (Abridged from The Bandsman and Songster 12 January 1935)
William Thomas, who was one of a family of nine, was born on a farm at Tilshead, a village on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. His father died when he was quite young so William experienced bereavement and deprivation at once. His schooling, such as it was, took place at Easterton, where the school children met in a cottage, and later in the church. A two-penny fee had to be paid for the eldest child in the family and a penny each for the remainder. Then the family were so poor that they often had to catch sparrows for food.
At eight years of age William began work, driving a donkey and cart laden with wood. Sometimes he started his labouring at three o’clock in the morning and was accordingly nicknamed ‘Early’. A year later his family moved to Market Lavington where things took a turn for the better. As a farm-worker he was up at five in the morning herding the cows for milking, attending to the pigs and carrying water long distances on a yoke. His job was seven days a week with no holidays.
By the age of ten had become a shepherd and he made extra money by picking up all the little bits of wool that scattered over the downs then selling them to the village rag-man. Work in a combined foundry, brick-yard and pottery followed until at the age of 17 he entered the employ of Lord Bouverie, for whom he tended Jersey cows and pedigree white pigs.
William, who had early on in his life had been converted, was attracted to The Salvation Army corps in the village. In spite of warnings as to probable dismissal from his employment he one day went to receive his wages from Lord Bouverie in his Army uniform. Contrary to expectation his lordship was rather sympathetic. ‘I believe it’s a good cause,’ he said, ‘go on with it!’
After becoming a bandsman and the corps sergeant-major William Thomas felt led to offer himself for full-time service in the Army. He was accepted and sent to the Training Home at Woolwich and gained much valuable Bible knowledge and an understanding of the problems faced by the slum-dwellers. Later Cadet Thomas was sent to Eastbourne, where the Army was fighting a hard campaign against a mischievous mob.
‘When we stepped out of Eastbourne station’ said the erstwhile cadet, ‘our caps were pulled off and torn to ribbons. One Sunday morning it took 36 policemen to marshal the Army down to the beach. As soon as you put your instrument to your mouth it was snatched away; some of the instruments were actually thrown into the sea, and we were pelted with all kinds of filth. One day I was dragged along the street by my hair.’
As a commissioned officer Captain Thomas, then barely 20 years of age, was sent to Arlesey, in Bedfordshire, where he started a band. Sunninghill in Berkshire followed. It was a hot spot for the Army in 1892, there being riots and disturbances organised by the so-called ‘skeleton army’. Very soon Captain Thomas found himself with some of his soldiers before the magistrates at Windsor for alleged obstruction and was sentenced to paying a fine or spending a week in Reading prison.
‘I’m like the Apostle Paul’ the captain told the chairman of the Bench: ‘I don’t believe in paying for doing the right.’ The magistrate retorted ‘Well, you can follow the Apostle Paul and go to prison.’ At Reading the captain and his comrades received comfort from the playing of the local band. The Chaplain, visiting his cell, told him that the Army couldn’t last and advised him to break his connection with it!
One Sunday evening, after a rough open-air meeting the Salvationists returned to The Salvation Army hall for their indoor meeting. That night Princess Mary (later Queen Mary) and two of the young Princes attended the meeting in which Captain Thomas gave the salvation address. At the close the Princess and the Princes gave him a hearty handshake and also a donation.
Captain Thomas was later stationed at Reading. Other postings followed until he returned to Maidenhead, Berkshire. It was during the disastrous flood of the 1890s that he was stationed as the officer of the corps in the town of which he was eventually to become Mayor. ‘We got up early in the one morning,’ he says, ‘to find ourselves up to our knees in water.’ It was during that period that he settled down in business in the town, but never for one moment lacking in his zeal for the Army.