The People of Bantock House

by Peter Hickman
with Marion Dance and Gillian Webb

Thomas Bantock

Thomas Bantock.

The second remarkable personality, Thomas Bantock, whom James Bradshaw must have known, was in the house by 1867. 

The life of Thomas could be the plot of a Victorian novel: bright boy, too poor to complete his education, so impresses his employers that he is transferred to a distant town where, sustained by his religion, he is able not only to thrive himself but to serve his community and die honoured by it.

Thomas Bantock was born in 1823 in the little village of Golspie near Inverness, the son of Benjamin Bantock, a gamekeeper. Though a prize-winning schoolboy, he left school at 16.

He was taken into the employ of the Trustees of the Duke of Bridgewater, who had large interests in collieries and canals. Perhaps it was in connection with the nearby Caledonian canal, which had recently been built by Telford and opened in 1822 but closed for extensive repair from 1843 to 1847, that Bantock gained his employment. Whatever the case, he was sent to Wolverhampton as an agent of the Trustees in 1849 at the age of 26. Here he soon saw that the transport of goods in the future would be by railway and that the canal traffic was bound to decline. By 1858 he had a valuable contract in his own right with the Great Western Railway. By 1861 he was the Trustees' district agent, though he also worked for the Great Western Railway.

He then set up in business as Thomas Bantock & Company, resigning thereby from his former employers. In his own right he became an ironmaster, mined coal at Springvale in Bilston and built boats and wagons at Millfields, Ettingshall. It was as head of Thomas Bantock & Co. that he escorted Queen Victoria on her visit to the town in 1866.

He had strong Christian principles which led him into politics as a Liberal and he was elected in 1861 to represent St Mary's Ward, which was one of the poorest areas of the Town. He served this ward for 33 years.

Thomas was liberal in his politics and a devoted free churchman in his religion - he belonged to Queen Street Congregational Church. So he was the "wrong" sort of Christian, which his supporters thought the reason why he was not a JP until after 1887.

He belonged to a group of men from Queen Street Congregational Church who thought that their children were at a disadvantage in education and in 1862 they formed Tettenhall College as a school for able sons of men with slender means.

The original building bought by the College 
trustees, in College Road, Tettenhall.

In 1867 he contributed generously to the rebuilding of Queen Street Church on the site of the old one. This was a fine commodious building designed by George Bidlake. By now Bantock had the means to move into Merridale House which he eventually purchased from the Petits.

Queen Street Congregational Church.
Bantock's political career had its challenges. In 1869 he was proposed as Mayor by Alderman Underhill and was to have been seconded by Sir John Morris. Morris had in the meanwhile learned that not only was Bantock the wrong sort of Christian, he intended to hold the Mayor's Sunday Service at his own Church and not at St Peter's Church of England. This was hardly surprising, since Bantock was a Scotsman, a Presbyterian and the Senior Deacon in a brand new and splendid town centre church. His Tory opponents saw a chance to bar him, claiming "ancient custom" and he had to wait in another room whilst the matter was thrashed out.

The Wolverhampton Chronicle reports the uproar in detail. Thomas, of course, thought he was out of the room as a formality, expecting to be called in a few minutes for warm congratulation. He was dismayed, when he eventually came into the room, that the matter should have created such dissension. 

But the "ancient custom" had been shown to be no more than seven years old and it had been recalled that a Catholic mayor had never entered St Peter's. Bantock had been elected and his position as Mayor was secure.

During his year of office Wolverhampton was one of the first towns to implement the Education Act of 1870. This was despite concern in the papers "that working men will get into the Town Council" and a prophecy of revolution!

In the same year the Free Library was started in the town and weekly issues reached 2,000 per week and in 9 months borrowings totalled 58,251. Only three books had been lost, 18 damaged, and total fines were £29 16s 7d "which with slight exceptions had been cheerfully paid".

The Free Library in Garrick Street.

As mayor Thomas Bantock showed both compassion and common sense. The weather in the first few months of 1870 was frosty so that many of the poor were unable to work. From his own pocket he paid for oatmeal and bread to relieve immediate distress and he persuaded his fellow councillors to "aid him by liberal subscription to the fund raised for the purpose".

Presiding over the Police court he heard the case against "a person summoned for riding a bicycle in the Cleveland Road". It was claimed that such swift and silent movement was likely to frighten horses and knock down unwary pedestrians. He dismissed the summons saying that the inhabitants "had as much right to ride the bicycle as they had to ride on horseback or to ride in a carriage - the road was for all". And that, as a contemporary wrote, settled the matter as far as Wolverhampton was concerned.

Bantock House from the park.

Thomas had married Mary Anne Dickenson in 1852 and by the time of the move to Merridale House had ten children, three sons and seven daughters, the oldest fourteen year old Mary Janet and the youngest baby Walter Thomas. The girls stayed at home till marriage, and helped their parents' entertaining with songs and piano pieces. Their father kept in touch with his first home through life membership of the Edinburgh and London Sutherland Societies, contributing generously to charities there, particularly those to do with education.

He died on 20th July 1895 and was remembered as "invariably found honourable, straightforward and honest in all his transactions".

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