The Glasgow Necropolis – “Nae pockets in a shroud”


James Brown Thomson died on 1st October 1898, a very wealthy man. The story seized the imagination of the public and the story appeared in newspapers from Exeter to Aberdeen. The main interest lay in his generous bequests to Glasgow charities – the Sick Children’s Hospital, the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, the Royal Infirmary and so on. One small local newspaper, The Glasgow News, developed the story further, investigating at length James’ background and personal circumstances, even apparently interviewing his neighbours. The story was taken up by The Dundee Advertiser, and the following came from its edition of 5th October.

Thomas, John and James Thomson were the sons of Dumfries farmer, James Thomson and his wife, Jessie Brown. The family moved to Glasgow and the three boys grew up in humble circumstances in Rotten Row. John became a highly successful underwriter in the city. His best investment was the purchase of property at Stobcross. When the Clyde Trust identified the area for the creation of docks, greatly increasing its value, John sold out at the top. In 1854, he was made Justice of the Peace for the County of Lanark, an appointment which included the licensing of theatres. He took particular interest in provision of adequate safety exits in theatres, to prevent tragedies like the Dunlop Street theatre fire. Thomas moved to Chile, setting up a large and successful trading business in Valparaiso.

Some years later, Thomas returned to Glasgow and the two older brothers, both bachelors, moved into what the press described as a mansion in the west end. (22 Westminster Terrace is actually part of a handsome terrace of Victorian town houses off Argyll Street.) Their combined fortunes amounted to around £300,000, and the brothers drew up an agreement whereby, when one died, the estate would be divided into two, one half going to relatives and the other to the surviving brother. Thomas died in September 1887, leaving John his inheritance as arranged. Unfortunately, John died suddenly just a month later, without making a will. James, as his next of kin, scooped the pool.

According to The Glasgow News, James had been working as a stevedore in the docks, unrecognised by his wealthy brothers. In fact, he was described on his death certificate as a retired clerk with the Clyde Trust. He lived in a modest room and kitchen at 27 Smith Street, off Pollokshaws Road and, after a week spent in his late brothers’ west end town house, announced that it was far too expensive and returned to Smith Street. For a while, a cleaning lady and then a neighbour cleaned for him, but he became increasingly reclusive and refused to allow anyone at all into his home. He walked every day to the Mitchell Library for free heating and lighting, and cooked his sole meal of porridge in batches, to minimise fuel consumption.

James’ neighbours grew increasingly disturbed by his behaviour, and the Sanitary Inspector was called in to clean out his house. Attempts were made to move him into an institution but not unreasonably, the authorities argued that he was perfectly well able to fund his own care. He began to have hallucinations, knocking through the room and kitchen wall so that he could lie in bed at night talking to his brother.

James finally admitted to Gartnavel Royal Lunatic Asylum where he died following a heart attack ‘due to old age’. In 1889, the Asylum had ceased to take pauper patients, developing instead as a leading private psychiatric hospital. Set in 66 acres of ground where the patients could walk in landscaped gardens, Gartnavel had already moved far away from the nightmare institutions of earlier decades. The asylum was designed as a therapeutic environment, with a mess room for gentleman patients, music and billiard rooms and day rooms decorated with elegant wallpaper, pictures, pot plants and carpets, giving the impression of a comfortable middle class drawing room. I hope James was able to spend his last months on this earth in rather greater comfort than he had chosen to enjoy before.

While clearly suffering from mental health problems, I do not believe that James Thomson was the eccentric wreck depicted in certain quarters of the press. He comes over as someone deeply conscientious of his duty. Having inherited by accident a vast fortune, he set out to achieve with it the maximum good for those around him, whether charities or relatives of his family. With his lawyers, he identified not only every surviving cousin, second cousin and half-sibling and their children, but also friends of his long deceased parents. He left a legacy to Mrs Stewart who cleaned his house for a while until she fell ill, and to the neighbour who succeeded her. As time went on, some of his cousins passed away and their children reached adulthood, so he added codicils to his will, identifying his cousins’ children by name and leaving them individual legacies. He was tweaking his will up to a few months prior to his death.

Nor is there any indication that James was estranged from his two brothers. He left a bequest to the children of Thomas Aikman, ‘who was an old friend and intimate acquaintance of my brother, Thomas Thomson’, to a business partner of Thomas and to a long time employee in West, Watson and Company, in which John and Thomas had been partners. The three brothers are buried together in the Necropolis in a lair in section Gamma which they share with other members of their extended family.

On 6 October 1898, The Glasgow Herald published a brief report on the funeral of James B Thomson, followed by a statement on behalf of his lawyers, Messrs Moncrieff Barr Paterson and Co. “We are also requested to say that much of the personal and family history of the late Mr Thomson which has been published in some of our contemporaries is entirely inaccurate.” If I am bad-mouthed after my death as poor James was, I do hope my lawyers will try a bit harder!

[The featured photo shows Gartnavel Hospital: courtesy Virtual Mitchell]

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