It’s Disability History Month, and in honour of this year’s theme, ‘War and Impairment:
The Social Consequences of Disablement’, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Senior Research Fellow of the Commons 1640-60 section, looks at the life of Col. George Thomson who lost a leg at the battle of Cheriton…
Over the centuries, military veterans will have been a familiar sight at Westminster, especially in the aftermath of international campaigns or civil wars. In the mid seventeenth century, for instance, maimed and disbanded soldiers or their widows and dependents lobbied Parliament for arrears of pay and for compensation. Former officers sat in the House. So too did serving officers, despite the so-called Self Denying Ordinance (April 1645), which attempted for political reasons to exclude them.
In the autumn of 1645, by-elections were held to fill vacancies caused by death or by the expulsion of MPs who had supported King Charles I from the outbreak of war in 1642. Among parliamentarian loyalists ‘recruited’ to Westminster was Colonel George Thomson. This new Member for Southwark was something of a celebrity owing to the way in which he had dealt with a disabling wound sustained in combat. A story circulated in London that when his leg was shot off at the battle of Cheriton (29 March 1644), ‘so far from being discouraged … he said he had another leg to lose for Jesus Christ’ (The Journal of Thomas Juxon, ed. D. Lindley and D. Scott, Camden Society, 5th series, xiii. 49–50). Fitted with a wooden prosthesis, Thomson lived for another 45 years, during which he put in some dedicated public service.
Even before 1644, Thomson had had an extraordinarily varied and productive life. In 1623, at 16, this Hertfordshire gentleman’s son went with his siblings to join their eldest brother, Maurice, in Virginia. At 21 he was a lieutenant in the militia in Elizabeth County and at 22 a member of the Virginian House of Burgesses. Returning to England around 1630, the brothers developed far-flung business interests extending from Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean and India, and in commodities including tobacco and silver wire; Maurice, in particular, became extremely wealthy. Following the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland in 1641, they became procurers of supplies for the troops sent to quell it, and they continued to provide stores to the military through the British civil wars, as well as joining the militia or the army themselves.
George Thomson devoted no less energy to being an MP. At first one preoccupation was to obtain his arrears of army pay, in what was probably a test case before the House. He also sat on committees evaluating the claims of other veterans. However, despite continuing commercial commitments (including beer-trading in Southwark), he soon threw himself into raising money and troops for the war effort. When in 1647 the Presbyterians and the City of London tried to negotiate peace with the king on their terms, without reference to the New Model Army and the Independents, Thomson and his fellow Southwark MP, distiller George Snelling, mobilised their local militia and opened London Bridge to let the army cross the Thames and seize control of Parliament. Under the commonwealth (1649–1653) Thomson was an indefatigable member of the navy and the excise commissions, attending day in and day out, reporting detailed budgets to the House and contributing to the reorganisation of the navy that allowed it to win a notable victory against trade rivals the Dutch.
Thomson’s opposition to the setting-up of the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell resulted in the termination of his commissions. For the next five years he lived in retirement, although the wealth and connections of the Thomson brothers made their expertise and resources valuable to the regime; Robert continued to hold government office and Maurice became governor of the powerful East India Company. In 1659 George and his youngest brother William Thomson, a London alderman, both sat in the Commons. Pragmatists, they anticipated the return of the monarchy; the brothers assisted former navy colleague George Monck to bring about the Restoration, helping to ensure the fleet would be loyal to Charles II.
Despite this, for a few years after 1660, the brothers were under suspicion – George, William (still an MP) and Robert because of their real or supposed religious opinions; Maurice because he allegedly supplied naval intelligence to the Dutch. Samuel Pepys was thus surprised when in 1667 he heard that ‘Thomson with the wooden leg’ was a prospective commissioner of naval accounts (Pepys’s Diary, viii. 569–71). Within a few weeks George Thomson was in post. Soon Pepys acknowledged that Thomson was not only ‘mighty kind’ to himself, but also ‘likely to mind our business more than any’ (Pepys’s Diary, ix. 68). He later found him – apparently characteristically – discovering errors in ships’ logs which other inspectors had missed. Rehabilitated, the brothers served in the admiralty or in Parliament into old age.