British hero buried in East Church kirkyard
08 May 2009
David Alston was doing some research into the church gravestones in preparation for the church and kirkyard visit, when he discovered to his amazement that the hero of a famed nineteenth-century rescue at sea lies buried here at the East Church.
This is his account of what he discovered:
The gravestone of coastguard officer Lt John Thomson, close to the west door of the church, records that he had served in the East India Company as fourth officer in their ship Kent ‘when burnt in the Bay of Biscay on which occasion he was instrumental in saving many lives’.
This brief epitaph does not reveal the extent of his remarkable courage. On 1st March 1825 the Kent, bound for India with over 600 on board, caught fire in a force 10 gale. As the crew and passengers waited for almost certain death when the fire reached the ship’s magazine, 19-year old Thomson sent a sailor to the masthead from where, against all odds, a ship was sighted. This came to the aid of the sinking Kent but the crew were faced with the almost impossible task of transferring 600 people from one vessel to another in mountainous seas.
Thomson was placed in command of a cutter which took most of the women and children to safety – a feat which required seamanship of the highest order. One woman gave birth two hours after stepping aboard the rescue vessel.
Thomson’s cutter made a further six crossings between the ships during the following nine hours, saving many but also witnessing harrowing scenes. One sailor escaping from the Kent tied three children to him but two were dead before he could be pulled into the boat.
Thomson did not leave the Kent until after midnight, driven away by flames erupting from the ship. Two hours later the magazine exploded and the ship sank. However, in all, 547 were saved.
The loss of the Kent and the courage of those involved inspired a number of artists and Charles Dickens later described it as an event which had ‘roused the whole country’. Unfortunately, the incident also inspired verses by Scotland's worst poet William McGonagall.
John Thomson continued in the East India Company before joining the coastguard, serving in Wells, Peterhead and finally Cromarty, where he died in 1870 at the age of 64.
There is a further twist to the tale. Thomson was the youngest son of Rev John Thomson, artist and minister at Duddingston, Edinburgh, who was married twice. He and his second wife had, between them, fourteen children. She would, so the tradition has it, sometimes introduce them by saying: “These are my children; these are John’s children; and these are our children”. At this point her husband would insist: “No – they’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns” – and this is said to be the origin of that Scots phrase which declares that we are all, under the skin, brothers and sisters.
While this may well not be true, Thomson’s outstanding courage in indisputable and, in the corner of Cromarty kirkyard, there lies long forgotten one of the bravest of “Jock Tamson’s bairns”.