Born in Breconshire in about 1767, John Thomas was appointed bedesman at Worcester Cathedral by Royal Charter from Queen Victoria who in 1842 commanded “our poor subject” John Thomas be granted the place of Almsman/Bedesman at the Cathedral “void by the death of John Yeates”.
What exactly was a bedesman? Are there still bedesmen at Worcester Cathedral? Who was John Thomas? We’ve been doing some research.
A Bedesman’s Life
Bedesmen were “men distressed by serious poverty and want, or crippled and maimed in war or worn out by old age or otherwise incapacitated and reduced to need and distress”. (1). Although a gift from the Crown, the selection and appointment of bedesmen was determined by the Cathedral Dean and Chapter. John Thomas, whose charter is shown, received his warrant in August 1842. He resigned in 1857.
They were adequately provided for at the Reformation but long-term inflation eroded the value of the bedesmen’s stipend (about £5 per annum) considerably. In 1824, the Chapter “Ordered that the salary of the Ten Beadsmen be augmented One pound each per annum and in consideration thereof they be required in future to blow the Bellows of the Organ” (4). Additionally, some bedesmen held permanent paid roles in the Cathedral (e.g. verger, porter, sub-sacrist). It was often the bedesmen who escorted paying visitors round the Cathedral, explaining about the architecture and monuments (4,7). By November 1860, the annual stipend of a bedesman was £10, and by the end of the century it had risen to £34.0.0 per year (4).
Clothing or livery was an expensive item provided by the Cathedral. An early nineteenth century commissioners’ report allows each bedesmen 3 yards of cloth annually, before Christmas. Later in the century the Cathedral purchased ready-made gowns of “dark stuff” with a red silk rose on the left shoulder. In 1874, £2.10.0 each was allocated to buy clothes and shoes (1,4). Other occasional benefits to bedesmen included wheat, bread and wood or coal for fuel.
Worcester did not provide accommodation for its bedesmen and many lived with their families. The 1884 church commissioner’s report requires bedesmen “to reside within such a distance of the cathedral as shall enable them to be constantly present there” (1) Men would come to the Cathedral after breakfast to assist before, during and after services. They were on duty at the doors and in the Cathedral to usher the congregation and to keep order, they rang the bells and blew the organ bellows. In between services they cleaned the Cathedral, weeded the grounds and performed other jobs. They would return home in the middle of the day for a meal and be back at the Cathedral in the afternoon.
Discipline and Status
The conduct of a bedesman was of concern to the Cathedral. Sobriety, morality and probity were expected and misconduct was taken seriously. On occasion, the Dean and Chapter disciplined their almsmen. Generally this involved verbal admonishment, sometimes a financial penalty (withholding some stipend) and, rarely, expulsion. Offences mentioned in the Chapter records include failure to attend the Cathedral, impudence to the congregation, drunkenness, assault and the catch-all offence of “incorrigible”! (1)
The duties of bedesmen, such as ushering the congregation, policing the cloisters and guiding tourists bestowed an authority and self respect on the bedesmen, as did taking part in Cathedral ceremonies and mixing with upper echelons of the church and society. The account by Mr Pearce, a bedesman for 29 years from 1915-1944 is both proud and affectionate:
“these duties gave me great pleasure and they have made my life and service worthwhile.” (6)
When and why were the Bedesmen abolished?
Together with the poor stipend, the increase in workload during the nineteenth century led to a decrease in popularity and status of the office of bedesman. Far from having a waiting list of suitable men, as had been the case in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Cathedral had to advertise the posts in the local press. Bedesmen not infrequently resigned from their positions, unheard of in earlier years, and a transfer to the “lower status” St Oswald’s Hospital was regarded as providing a better standard of living with far fewer duties! (1)
During the twentieth century the position of bedesman gradually evolved into that of a paid employee. Pay scales listed by the Cathedral in 1931 explicitly state that “ These men will be known as “Employees”. By 1933 the Crown no longer appointed bedesmen, they were appointed by the Dean. In 1937, bedesman vacancies were advertised in the press and the Dean interviewed applicants. During both World Wars, bedesmen were released for active service and special arrangements were made for others to fulfill their duties in the Cathedral.(4)
A.R. Pearce, mentioned above, has left a personal account of his time at the Cathedral. He describes the introduction of memorial windows in the cloisters after the First World War, the recasting of the Cathedral bells in 1928 and the “laying up” of the Old Colours of the Scots Guards in 1938. During his tenure, Mr Pearce acted as verger “any time when called upon” and was acting Custos for three months. (6)
By 1960, the title of bedesman had become honorary at Worcester and the role had been merged with that of Verger. There had not been the allowed ten bedesmen for a number of years – in 1955 there were just two. The last reference to bedesmen in the Chapter minutes is in 1967, but the text refers to them as vergers.
The office of bedesman, created in the Middle Ages for the salvation of souls and preserved after the Reformation for the service of the Cathedral simply disappeared in the 1960s in Worcester. (4)
Who was John Thomas?
In the Charter/Warrant of August 1842 Queen Victoria commands “our poor subject” John Thomas be granted the place of Almsman/Bedesman at the Cathedral “void by the death of John Yeates”.
Accepted into the Cathedral in June 1842, two months after the death of his predecessor, John Thomas fulfilled his role as bedesman for fifteen years. He was recorded as present each month with only a single absence up to June 1854. By November 1854 three months absence was noted and another two months absence in June 1855. He was absent for four of the five months between June and November 1855 and twice more by the following June 1856. In November 1856 he was absent for two months and then a note in the record simply says “Resigned”. (9, 10, 11) There is no record of where he went. His position seems to have been given to either Joseph Ramkin or Henry Davis. (11)
John Thomas is recorded in the 1851 census, described as “Bead’s Man at Cathedral” and living with his wife Mary in Lich Street, St Helens, Worcester. Lich Street, demolished in the 1960s, was within easy walking distance of the Cathedral. According to the census, John Thomas was born in Breconshire, Wales, and Mary in Bromyard, Herefordshire. The census also records John Thomas’ age as 84 and that of Mary as 82. It is clear that, on his resignation in 1857, John Thomas would have been a very elderly man – around 90 years of age!
The earlier census of 1841 has John and Mary Thomas aged 72 and 69 respectively, living in Regent St in St Martins, Worcester together with 25-year-old Louisa Thomas and 5-year-old Amelia Thomas. Louisa’s occupation is given as a shoe binder. Neither John nor Mary has a listed occupation and the census does not record their places of birth. However, there are no other records of John and Mary Thomas of the right general age living in Worcester. Bedesman John Thomas started work in the Cathedral in June 1842 and he must have been living close enough to the Cathedral to carry out his regular duties as stipulated by the Dean and Chapter. It seems probable that the John Thomas living in St Martins in 1841 became the bedesman.
Louisa Thomas, daughter of John and Mary was baptized on 3rd March 1815 at St Andrew’s Church in Worcester. The parish register shows the family living in Hares Lane, and her father’s occupation as “cordwainer” (that is a shoemaker). John and Mary also had a son, John, born in 1806, daughters Mary Ann, born in 1807, and Ann born in 1812, who were all baptised in St Andrews Church.
Amelia Thomas, aged five in 1841, must have been born around 1836 and the registration of baptisms gives only one possible record, of an Amelia Thomas baptised in St Martin’s, Birmingham on June 6th 1836. She is registered as the daughter of Mary Ann Thomas, “single woman”, no occupation given. At this time Mary Ann, daughter of John and Mary, would have been 29 years old. It seems possible therefore, that Amelia was living with grandparents John and Mary in 1841. In this census, Mary Ann Thomas, still single at 35 years of age, is recorded as living in Claines, Worcester, and employed as a milk woman.
There is no plausible record of Mary Ann Thomas nor of Amelia Thomas in the 1851 census, suggesting that by then one or both of them was dead, or living under a different surname. Sadly, it has not been possible to find a convincing record of the death or burial of John or his wife Mary.
- McGrath, Eileen (2008) The bedesmen of Worcester Cathedral: Post-reformation cathedral charity compared with St Oswald’s Hospital alms people c.1660-1900 PhD Thesis. Dept. History, Keele University
- WCA A6(1) f.102 Cathedral Register 1535-1540
- WCA A294 Extracts from the Chapter Acts 25th Nov 1823 to 23 Nov 1859
- Stratton R. R., (2000) Bedesmen at Worcester Cathedral WCA Add MSS 479
- WCA A 81, p 67 Chapter Act Book November1828
- Pearce A. R., (1944) My Twenty Nine Years Service in Worcester Cathedral 1915-1944 WCA Add MSS 454
- Worcester Cathedral (1937/8) For the use of Visitors to Worcester Cathedral WCH 48. Pamphlet
- WCA A135 “A catalogue of the Members of the Cathedral Church of Worcester 23rd June 1840- 4th March 1847”
- WCA A136 A catalogue of the Members of the Cathedral Church of Worcester June 1847- November 1853
- WCA A 137 A catalogue of the Members of the Cathedral Church of Worcester June 1854- June 1860
- The Illustrations of the Beauties of England and Wales for the County of Worcestershire Volume 1; G.Woodfall and Son, London 1842