The Mystery of ‘Mrs Captain Thomas’

17897. I intended to mention that, but for a branch of industry begun and carried on by Mrs Captain Thomas – I cannot say whether Mrs Captain Thomas or the Dowager Countess of Dunmore was first in the field, – but for her efforts in connection with Harris, destitution would be of more frequent occurrence than it is.

That industry is web making and stocking making. From Mrs Thomas’s web making, I believe the greater part of their living is derived. It has been far more remunerative than both land and fishing for the last three years. It would be unjust to Mrs Thomas not to mention her efforts, for she is prepared to live and die for the islands. On Monday last she very nearly risked her life going to Taransay in a small boat, and all from love to the people.

17898. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh. – Who is this lady? – The wife of Commander Thomas of the Royal Navy – an English lady.

This brief extract, which comes from the Reverend’s evidence given to the Napier Commission in Tarbert on Wednesday, June 13th 1883, is interesting for he casts doubt on which of the two ladies was ‘first in the field’ and places particular emphasis on the ‘last three years’. It may be that he himself has only been on Harris for that period of time (He appears in the 1881 census as the Minister of the Free Church at Tarbert) but nevertheless his testimony does bring into question again to what extent Lady Dunmore further developed the industry.

The Factor, Kenneth Macdonald, followed him in giving evidence and repudiated the idea that it wasn’t the Countess who had got the industry started, but, as a Factor, he was unlikely to want to be seen to let the island’s owner’s reputation be questioned without offering a defence on her behalf!

If Mrs Captain Thomas is the wife of the Lieutenant Thomas who was surveying the Sound of Harris in the late 1850s (and she is certainly co-credited with establishing the stocking-making industry in 1857 which fits  in with this possibility) then I think that I may have found the two of them:

Frederick W L Thomas, 34, Lieutenant Royal Navy, Lodger, South Street, Culross, Perthshire, b. England
Francis S G Thomas, 29, Officer’s Wife, b. England

Fred W S Thomas, 44, Commander RN & Marine Surveyor, Trinity Crescent No 8, North Leith, b. England
Francis S T Thomas, 39, Wife, b. England

Frederick W L Thomas, 54, Captain Royal Navy Retired, Trinity Road Rose Park, N Leith, b. Surrey
Frances S Thomas, 49, Officer’s Wife, b. Surrey

Frederick W L Thomas, 60, Retired Captain RN, Rose Park, North Leith, b. England
Frances S Thomas, 59, Wife, b. England

I cannot be certain, but there are sufficient matches; such as him being a Lieutenant in the 1850s and then a Commander & Marine Surveyor and the, apparently childless, couple residing in Scotland continuously over the period of 30 years from 1851-1881, to inspire me with a high degree of confidence.

Further, on the 2nd of December 1841, Frederick William Leopold Thomas and Frances Sarah Thomas Bousfield were wed in the Parish of St Paul, Deptford.

He was born on the 2nd of May 1816 to George Thomas, a Surveyor, and his wife Priscilla.

I am therefore proposing that ‘Captain Mrs Thomas’ ( about nothing more than this title was previously known regarding her identity) was in fact:

Frances (Sarah Thomas) Thomas, nee Bousfield.

The daughter of George and Elizabeth Bousfield, she was Baptised on the 27th June 1821 at St Peter, Frimley, Surrey. Her father was, if I have read the script correctly, a Solicitor.

So, unless anyone can detect any flaws in my reasoning, or discover a better fit from within the ranks of the Royal Navy, I think I have finally solved the mystery of the identity of our ‘Mrs Captain Thomas’.

Additional Note:
It has long been assumed that Mrs Thomas returned to London but I can find no records of either her or the Captain living or, indeed, dying there.

I have located these two records in Scotland:

Frederick W Thomas, b 1816, d 1885, Midlothian
Frances Sarah Thomas, b 1820, d 1902 Midlothian

I have not read the original certificates, nor can I find Mrs Thomas anywhere in 1891 and 1901, so there remain plenty of avenues to be explored…

Captain Thomas’ Service Record is held at the National Archives (Kew) and dated 1st Feb 1847 which may reflect the date of his first Commission?

I have now consulted each of the death certificates and confirmed that they are those of the Captain and his wife. However, Frances’ reveals that she married for a second time. She became Mrs Beckett on her wedding on the 2nd of July 1890 in the Parish of All Saints, Paddington to James Flowers Beckett, a Retired Staff Commander.

Even more helpfully, although she died in Edinburgh, her usual place of residence is given as St Leonard’s On Sea. This accords with with the information in Janet Hunter’s ‘Islanders and the Orb’, but she was unsure as to which St Leonard’s ‘Mrs Captain Thomas’ lived in.

So, in conclusion, Frances (Sarah Thomas) Bousfield, wife firstly of Captain FWL Thomas and then of Staff Commander James Flowers Beckett, was indeed the ‘Mrs Captain Thomas’ who I have been seeking.

There is one more thing to add – six years after Frances’ baptism, the Bousfields baptised another daughter or, rather, Elizabeth Bousfield did, because George the Solicitor and father had died. What is strange is that this later lass was named Frances Sarah Thomas Bousfield and ‘our’ Frances Sarah Bousfield only took her second middle name at the time of her marriage. I did wonder for a while if I had the correct daughter, but the second one was only 14 at the time of the marriage and the first is consistent regarding her year of birth. I do not intend exploring the Bousfield family any more…for the moment!

5 thoughts on “The Mystery of ‘Mrs Captain Thomas’

  1. Many thanks – That has allowed me to confirm his presence on HMS Porcupine with Captain Otter and also the Thomas’s long-term association with the isles. Combining this with the Thomas’s living in Edinburgh, where the Angus Macleod Archive refers to Mrs Thomas basing her operations, gives me even more confidence!

  2. There is a small article about Mrs. FWL Thomas and the Harris Tweed industry entitled, ‘Women’s Work in Harris (Hebrides),’ in The British Friend, by Edward Grub (1888).

    You might find it interesting.

  3. Thank you very much for the information, highlandwriter.
    I presume the Thomas’s were members of the Society of Friends (Quakers)?
    I cannot locate the book in the UK but have found one library, at the University of Manchester, that has the original periodical.
    Thanks again.

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