Leamington Priors was one of only four Spa towns in 19th century England to have Bath-chairs as a form of transport, and Thomas Timms played a major role in developing this form of transport. Towards the end of his life, he published a short memoir, detailing his early life and experiences. He was born on 20 November 1855 in Radford Semele, where his father worked at the local farm. When young Mrs Timms died, leaving her husband with Thomas aged 6, and his brother John a toddler, John Timms senior began to spend most of his earnings in the local inn, leaving very little for food for the family. They were only kept from starvation by the kindness of neighbours such as the verger, William Mills and his sister. Little John Timms died before his fourth birthday, and in autumn 1861, Thomas and his father were evicted from their home for non-payment of rent, and sent to the Warwick Union workhouse.
Life in ‘The Union’ was indescribably hard, but learning to cope there stood Thomas in good stead in the long run. In 1865, he left his father there, found lodgings in Leamington and a job at the brickyard, where at the age of about 10 he worked an 11 hour day for three shillings and sixpence a week (about £90 in today’s currency.) The brick maker was his own uncle, who treated Thomas little better than a slave, making him do errands and bring all his meals, as well as keeping him at work even longer than any other employees. Before too long Thomas ran away, becoming a paid errand boy for Mr C R Burgis, at the Leamington Stores. He learned many skills under Mr Burgis, but in his late teens, always hoping to better his prospects, Thomas left the Stores to work for a butcher in Warwick Street. Many short-lived jobs later, Thomas found himself on the threshold of a new career: Mr Plummer, one of the Bath-chair proprietors in the town was short-staffed and asked Thomas to take a lady out in a Bath-chair. Although slightly built and not very tall, young Thomas was strong. He enjoyed working at the Bath-chair office, where he earned 18 pence (about £40) an hour. At that time, Bath-chair men generally earned between 15 and 25 shillings a week (£380 – £640 per week), – very often largely spent in the nearest public house. The Leamington Spa Courier of 16 May 1885 advertises the rates for Cab and Bath-chair hire, by distance (one shilling per mile), by time (one shilling for a half hour booking, 2/6d for one hour and pro rata for each half hour afterwards), and for waiting time (6d per quarter hour). A note adds that carriers are “not compelled to go more than five miles from the Parish Church”.
As Thomas waited one day with his Bath-chair, he spotted a beautiful young lady. He was so smitten that he decided there and then to give up the ‘fast’ lifestyle of a Bath-chair man. He rented a house, acquired furniture and lived there alone for six months doing his own cooking and cleaning. He and the young lady in question (Miss Jane Adams from Northamptonshire) were married at Saint Mary’s Church on 23 January 1881, in a snowstorm. Thomas gave up Bath-chair work when he first married, to return to more regular work at the butcher’s, but because he earned so little, Jane had no choice but to take work as a cook in order to keep the home together. So he went back once more to the Bath-chair Office. He was a popular Bath-chair man, and soon had plenty of work. He and Jane moved to a cottage nearer his work, but that meant that he was drawn back into the ways of his old colleagues, – hardly conducive to the thrifty and sober life expected of a married man.
However, not long after this, Thomas and Jane attended a Mission meeting in Holly Walk. Thomas was so affected by all that he heard and saw that he said, “I was humbled to the dust”. Much to the scorn of his friends at work, he signed ‘The Pledge’, immediately resolving to give up not only beer, but playing cards and gambling, and even going to the theatre. He was so determined in his beliefs that eventually his colleagues gave up mocking him. At the end of October 1881, the Timms’ first son, also called Thomas, was born. They went on to have four more sons and four daughters.
Thomas was popular with many of the Bath-chair clientèle. With more regular work, he and Jane were able to move a larger house in King Street, and eventually, at the suggestion of his mentor from the Mission, he bought his own Bath-chair. By January 1882 he was in business. As time went on, the business prospered and Thomas and Jane moved to 18 Leicester Street. Although in 1885 Thomas still had only two Bath-chairs, and therefore was not a wealthy man, he contributed 1/6d (about £40) a week from his income towards his father’s maintenance in the workhouse, until his father died in his sleep on 1 August 1890 aged 80.
Thomas later expanded his business to include horses, and in 1896 opened the Stables in Trinity Street as a Cab and Bath-chair proprietor. By June 1912, he owned the largest Bath-chair business in Leamington, with 13 Bath-chairs, Wicker and Carrying Chairs, and Spring Trucks. His boast was that he supplied “anything of the kind suitable for invalids.” He also owned four horses and five carriages, but by this time, the advent of the motor car was beginning to have an adverse effect on trade.
Thomas Timms frequently asserted that “many people have an idea that bath-chair work is a lazy trade. This statement proves to me that they have never tried it. The lazy part of it is in waiting for the work to come”. To prove his point, he quoted one lady in particular who hired him to take her by Bath-chair a total of 222 miles in one month. One working day he started at 3 pm, covering 17 miles that afternoon alone.
Thomas enjoyed relating anecdotes about his early life and his work as a Bath-chair man. He was careful not to relate incidents such as the time when he was verbally abused and physically assaulted by another Bath-chair man as he waited for a fare in Beauchamp Avenue, (reported in the Leamington Courier in December 1887). A treasured experience was the day that Thomas took out an elderly blind man, who began to relate his memories of Radford Semele. It took a little while for Thomas to realise than the man was his childhood saviour, the verger, William Mills. They had not met for 30 years, and were both overjoyed to find each other again. After this, refusing payment of any kind, Thomas took his old friend out regularly, often as far as Radford, until William was laid to rest in the village churchyard on 16 August 1889. Another favourite story was a commission to accompany Mrs General Smith to Llandudno in North Wales. One day, Thomas was required to push her, in his best Bath-chair, round the Great Orme’s Head, a distance of 5 miles round and 2 miles uphill! He said afterwards that he did not think that he could have managed it if the General himself had not pushed from behind. Easier work by far was to take the people of Leamington to the parks and gardens to hear the bands play for a few hours in the summertime.
Two lady passengers were so interested in his stories that they hired him to drive to Radford Semele to see his old home. They had this photograph taken (above), showing Thomas with his horse and carriage outside the thatched cottage.
Thomas Timms’ short autobiography (right) was intended to show how despite the most adverse circumstances, a hard working man with strong convictions to support him, could survive and thrive. It sheds light on a little-known aspect of 19th century life in the celebrated Spa, the often gruelling life and times of an ordinary working man. It also reveals a cult of philanthropy amongst those who did succeed in improving their station in life. Thomas relates how, when he first joined the Bath-chair fraternity, the Bath-chair men’s Annual Supper, which proprietors were supposed to finance by collecting subscriptions, was not very well supported, either by the men or their employers. Determined that it should not become a thing of the past, Thomas set up a system of collecting, first for a Coffee Supper and later for a Beer Supper. For two or three years, he put in many hours of hard work, rallying support, knocking on doors, collecting the subscriptions himself. Eventually, he formed a committee under the chairmanship of his old employer Mr Burgis, to take on the work of collecting subscriptions and organising the suppers. They set up the Bath Chairmen’s Coffee Supper and Benevolent Society, whose funds were used to relieve the sick and distressed, funding such things as a Mr Harrison’s three-week stay at a Kenilworth convalescent home, and paying the funeral costs of a Mr Robbins whose widow had been left penniless. When men fell sick, the fund also supplied them with tickets for bread, groceries, coal, or whatever their families most needed. As his own business progressed, after a decade of unstinting effort, Thomas was forced to give up his duties with the fund, and sadly, as there was no-one to succeed him, the Society was eventually wound up, dividing the remaining balance of £20-0-0 (over £8,00.00 today,) amongst the sick members.
Thomas also chronicles a deep religious commitment, from his Damascene moment at the Mission meeting, to his becoming a preacher in his own right. In 1898 the secretary of the Congregational Local Preachers Association hired Thomas to drive local preachers out to different villages on Sundays, which brought about yet another step-change in his life. From then on, he spent his Sundays not only driving the preachers to their meetings, but occasionally at first, and then regularly, helping them carry out their duties, sometimes leading the prayer or hymn, or reading the lesson. Before long, he was taking services. Thomas was also a respected Sunday School teacher of many years’ standing. When he retired from the Snitterfield Sunday School in 1909, they presented him with a silver-mounted umbrella as a token of their gratitude. (Leamington Spa Courier,26 November) Thomas’ Sunday outings also brought him several hair-raising experiences: once a carriage overturned in the road with two of his sons, Charles and Frederick, on board. Ironically, they had to hire someone else’s horse and trap to get back to Leamington. Another time, a horse bolted, almost taking the passengers into a deep ditch. Fortunately Thomas was driving, and managed to pull the horse up at the last moment. His saddest experience was the death of a popular young preacher, 23-year old William Herringshaw, who was killed by lightning at Long Itchington, as he waited under a tree in a thunderstorm for the carriage to collect him after preaching at Marton in 1910.
Margaret Rushton, based on information supplied by John Ford
Postscript: I was interested in the article on the Last Bath chair man. In the 1930’s I lived in Heath Terrace, overlooking Guys Cliffe Road. Every fine morning Mr Herringshaw, who lived on Guys Cliffe Road near The Midland Stores and A C Jacka’s sweet shop, would bring two wicker bath chairs through his hall (he kept them at the back of the house), and park them on the pavement at the front. I recall that he had a son who was Downs syndrome, who was always smartly dressed in a brown Harris tweed suit and matching flat cap, who with Mrs Herringshaw, sometimes accompanied Mr H. when he went to collect his customers. Mr H. had a very bent back, I guess from years of pulling the Leamington ladies, possibly from the Oaks Hotel around the corner on Warwick New Road.
I assume that Mr H was related to the Herringshaw in the article on the website, and perhaps he inherited the Bath chairs from “The Last Bath Chair man!”
I don’t recall seeing him in the mid 1940’s. JOHN BURROWS, 01.07.2013.