TWO hundred years ago Alderman John Thompson, one of the richest merchants in Cork and once mayor and high sheriff of the county, died leaving his son, William, the bulk of his property.
He knew William had unusual ideas, but little could he have imagined what his son planned to do with his estate.
As a young man, William (who was born in Cork City in 1775) visited revolutionary France, where the king had been executed and noble privileges abolished. Returning to Ireland with a head full of radical ideas – free schooling for all, equal rights for Catholics, votes for women – he stomped around with a tricolour tied to his walking stick. His horrified family called him a “Red Republican”.
When his father died in 1814, William, now 39, inherited his 1,700-acre estate in Carhoogarriff, a remote fishing village lying between Leap and Rosscarbery. Quickly, he slashed his tenants’ rents, saying it was unfair for him, a landowner, to make a living from their efforts. Three years later he went bankrupt and had to sell some of his land.
Undaunted, Thompson sought support for his beliefs at the London home of moral philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. There he became obsessed by Bentham’s notion that “happiness” ought to be distributed more evenly.
Back in Ireland, in 1825 he co-published with Anna Doyle Wheeler An Appeal of One Half of the Human Race – describing women'Red Republican' as an unhappy, “degraded” underclass, incapable of achieving their potential because of the constraints imposed by marriage and “domestic slavery”.
Thompson was careful to acknowledge the book as a “joint property” – part product of Wheeler’s “mind and pen”.
His next major work was Labour Rewarded where he argued that landlords should behave with equal magnanimity by paying labourers the full produce of their work. Instead, he said they were stealing the lion’s share, or “surplus value” – a concept that Marx was to later adopt.
A series of lectures given in Dublin by social reformer, Robert Owen, inspired Thompson to set up a model communist co-operative in 1829. On his estate at Carhoogarriff he granted tenants allotments of 3-20 acres, built special cottages for them and arranged for their children’s schooling.Far from being the traditional absentee landlord, he kept vigil over his co-operative by constructing a round tower on a lofty peak overlooking the estate. It was soon nicknamed“Thompson’s Turret”.
Local people took their benefactor for a wizard, who treated their illnesses, pulled their teeth, and performed bizarre chemical demonstrations in public. They also witnessed his experiments with new farming techniques: hearing that the flesh and bones of animals contain the same ingredients as wood, he began feeding his pigs sawdust, mixed with peat and straw.Unusual for those times, Thompson was a teetotaller, non-smoker and vegetarian (he dined on nothing more than turnips and potatoes), maintaining that he could read and write better without meat.
His one luxury was honey, produced from his own hives, and he would never waste a drop. Once a mouse got stuck in a hive, and he carefully licked the animal clean before releasing it.
His co-operative had only just got under way when he died aged 57 in 1833; he was unmarried and with no direct heirs. Local people were shocked when his nephew gave him a Christian burial in Drombeg cemetery, for Thompson had been well known in Carhoogarriff as an atheist, calling priests “rapacious parasites, ghost dealers in creed and spiritual brimstone”.
Shock soon turned to farce when his body had to be dug up to comply with the wishes of his will, for he had asked that his ribs be “tipped with silver”, to present a “fashionable appearance”; his skull be given to a French phrenologist; and his body awarded to the first successful co-operative in Britain or Ireland. A Dr Donovan later claimed he strung together some of Thompson’s bones and sent them to his writing partner, Anna Wheeler,as a “memento of love”.
When his family learned he had bequeathed the entire estate to the Co-operative Movement, they fought to have his will annulled on the grounds that he was insane. The case dragged on for 25 years – the longest in Irish history – before judgement was finally given in the family’s favour. But by then, legal costs had virtually wiped out its value.
Today, a number of ruined cottages survive in the area. Were they perhaps the core of Thompson’s pioneer co-operative? Although his tower has long since been dismantled to make a road, some claim that, in dry weather, its outline is still noticeable.In his own day, the locals dismissed William Thompson as a figure of fun. However, Cork’s most original and colourful rebel also achieved a profound and enduring impact by exposing oppression in all its forms – above all, the “evils of capitalism”, a whole generation before Marx.