‘I was born and brought up in Tavistock, a dear old town charmingly situated on a river which varied from a tiny trickle to a rushing torrent according to the mood of Dartmoor.’
On the first page of his memoir Thomas describes his childhood hometown in a loving manner, nostalgically remembering the place he had called home. However we see in the pages to follow that Tavistock was not always a place filled with pleasant memories as the town was detrimental and even fatal to some members of his immediate family. Tavistock at the time was a traditional copper-mining town in West Devon (The Devonshire Association, 2017) and we could argue that the working conditions that these men were subjected to at the time attributed to the rife spreading of disease that brought the lives of Thomas’ closest relatives to an untimely end.
Thomas never met his twin brothers who preceded him James Thomas and Thomas James as they sadly passed away as a result of whooping cough at one month and one year and eight months respectively. (pp.1) Thomas also lost his older brother James aged 24 to ‘consumption’ or tuberculosis and lost his sister Caroline before his own before as she passed away before her second birthday. Thomas’ sisters Elizabeth and Mary Elizabeth passed away after one month and ‘only a few months’ respectively. (pp.2) Thomas explains that ‘A high rate of infant mortality was regarded as inevitable’ (pp.1) at this time, most likely due to the quickly spreading of diseases that plagued Victorian working class communities and the lack of medical treatment to combat the deadly illnesses that he describes at this point in history.
Thomas rarely in his memoir recounts any emotional feelings and is quite factual in almost all his memories of his life. We may think at first glance that the way in which Thomas describes his siblings and their deaths as facts and figures is a quite cold way to express the passing’s of his loved ones, but David Vincent explains that Victorian working-class writers ‘felt themselves unable, or felt it improper or unnecessary to write at length, or even at all, about aspects of their family experience.’ (Vincent, 1980, pp.227) We can assume that Thomas felt this way about his own memoir and can give reasoning to the omission of emotional recollections in Thomas’ autobiographical account of his life.
However we do see one example of Thomas expressing an emotional reaction to the death of one of his siblings, his sister Caroline whom he never met. Thomas describes Caroline as ‘a bright and lovely child, able to talk and walk well, even at the age of about fifteen months.’ (pp.2) This is one of the more humanistic descriptions in Thomas’ memoir and he also tells his reader that ‘My mother never recovered from that loss, and even at an advanced age would at times sit and weep at what ‘the good Lord’ had seen fit to call upon her to bear.’ (pp.2) The taking of an innocent life, particularly that of a child called in to question divine justice and possibly left grief-stricken parents questioning the intentions of their God.
Raymont, Thomas. ‘Memories of an Octogenarian 1864-1949’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:571, available at:
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247
The Devonshire Association (2017) Mines and Mining in the Tavistock District (1914) [online]
[Accessed 12th April 2019]
‘River Tavy’, in
[accessed 12 April 2019]