Thomas Timmins was born on 30th October 1841 (some sources say 1840) at Oldbury, Worcestershire (formerly Shropshire), now part of the Borough of Smethwick. It is likely that his father, also named Thomas was a licenced victualler and coalmaster [Solicitor's Journal and Reporter Jan 26 1861] and that he met and probably married Elizabeth Jane McKean, who was born in Sunderland, whilst still in Oldbury. He was educated at the Home Missionary Board and became a Unitarian Minister, as was his father-in-law, around 1863 and moved to Portsmouth where, in 1874, he became Minister at the Unitarian church in High Street. The 1881 Census records that Thomas and Elizabeth were living at 8 King Street, Portsea when they were 40 and 43 years of age respectively.
Apart from his usual duties at the church, which he performed with rigour, Reverend Timmins regularly attended meetings of the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society, later becoming a Vice President. His participation in debates were infrequent, generally restricting himsself to speaking on aesthetic matters such as the meaning of beauty, but also encompassing wider social issues including the persecution of Jews in Russia. In only one known instance, on 24th February 1877, did he present a paper to the society; on the subject of "American Life, Character and Scenery". He opened this talk by 'alluding to the pleasure with which his eye rested on America for the first time'. It is not known exactly when he had crossed the Atlantic, but during the presentation Timmins mentioned that he had been resident there for five years. It is also known that in 1870 Timmins accepted charge of the local Unitarian church in Brighton, Massachusetts for a period of 6 months [The Monthly Journal of the American Unitarian Association: Volume 10 - Page 510]. He must also have travelled widely, including a transcontinental trip by train, given the detailed information he included in his paper.
His involvement in the local community did not stop there as he was the chair of the Choral Union and a member of the board of John Pounds Ragged School, but the cause with which he became identified in both England and America was that of the humane treament of animals. The earliest evidence for this comes from the Hampshire Telegraph of the 22nd September 1880, reporting on an annual meeting of the recently formed Portsmouth and Gosport Branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Chair was occupied by the Mayor Alderman A. Cudlipp who was supported by, amongst others, the Reverend Thomas Timmins. It was during the annual report of the society that mention was made of the "Bands of Mercy" which Timmins was later to export to America with notable success.
The Bands of Mercy were formed at schools and churches and were designed to teach children to abstain from acts of cruelty to animals. They were based on the Bands of Hope which encouraged the abstinence from alcohol.
On 20th May 1882 the Hampshire Telegraph reported that the Rev. Timmins was suffering from 'nervous debility and depression induced by anxiety and overwork' and as a consequence was relinquishing his ministerial position and leaving Portsmouth for a much needed holiday. He preached for the last time on the 4th June that year.
The 'holiday' did not turn out quite as may have been expected. Thomas and Elizabeth set out for America within a few weeks and on July 8th 1882 Thomas was introduced to George Thorndike Angell with whom he was destined to create a whole new movement in America. In his autobiography, Geo. T. Angell (as he was usually described) recalled the incident as follows:-
"I had just got ready to begin a campaign of humane education when, on July 8, 1882.... I was introduced by my friend Chief-Justice Parmenter to the Rev. Thomas Timmins of Portsmouth, Eng., who had been connected with an English "Band of Mercy," and who was, of all men in the world, just the man needed to help carry out the work. If our meeting just at that time was not providential, it was certainly wonderful, and in the light of results will, I am sure, by many who have read Mr. Timmins's interesting history of it, be deemed providential. We immediately began work, determined to found a great order of mercy, which should reach, not only through the State, but over the continent, and as much farther as God willed. During twenty days we laid its foundations, most carefully considering and discussing every point."
Angell decided to promote a new movement based on the idea of the Band of Mercy but to add the prefix "American"; in practice this was often modified to the Universal Band of Mercy in America. As a consequence Timmins became known as the "Apostle of Mercy." They adopted the pledge "I will TRY to be kind to all HARMLESS living creatures, and try to protect them from cruel usage" and then added that any "Band of Mercy member who wishes can cross out the word harmless from his or her pledge. M.S.P.C.A. on our badges mean "Merciful Society Prevention of Cruelty to all."
Angell's enthusiasm for humane education helped to make it one of the most important elements of animal protection work during the late 19C. The MSPCA directed tens of thousands of dollars toward the production and distribution of humane education literature, making it the pre-eminent source of such materials in the nation. It also invested time, effort, and funds toward the formation of Bands of Mercy.
From the 1870s onward, Angell had been on the lookout for suitable literature to guide the young toward the values of kindness. He found his ideal vehicle in Black Beauty, the novel dictated by a dying British invalid, Anna Sewell, and first published in 1878. In 1890 Angell circumvented copyright laws and brought out the first American edition. In just two years, more than one million copies were in circulation.
Within a few years there were estimated to be 5,000 branches, with 320,000 members, of the Band of Mercy in America, and such was the success of the movement it was even said that the President of the United States 'does not disdain to wear the badge of the order'. Timmins addressed countless meetings over this period, one of which was reported by the Hampshire Telegraph at Cincinatti in January 1884 where he was introduced as the "father of the American Bands of Mercy" [HT 26/01/1884] and mentioned that "he went to America to rest but was persuaded to continue his work there by Mr. Angell, the Boston philanthropist." By 1885 Timmins felt that it was time to return home a decision facilitated by the knowledge that the movement in America was safe in the hands of Geo T. Angell.
By May 1885 Timmins was back in England where he set up the headquarters of the movement in London. Renamed the Universal Mercy Band Movement, the organisation formerly began work on 12th September 1885 with Lord Mount-Temple as it's first President, Mr. Timmins as General Secretary and Mr. Ernest Bell of Covent Garden as Treasurer. The endorsement by Mount-Temple was probably only nominal given that a preliminary search of the Broadlands Archive Catalogue reveals no correspondence between him and Timmins. It is also noted that Mount-Temple excused himself from the launch of the movement on the grounds of ill health.
It wasn't long before Timmins turned his attention back to Portsmouth where on 6th March 1886 he applied to the School Board for permission to visit schools under their jurisdiction for the purpose of establishing Bands of Mercy. The Board readily granted him full access and within a few days he had visited Gunwharf Road, Swan Street and Omega Street schools winning hundreds of children and forming them into Bands. The Vicar of Portsmouth (the Rev. E.P. Grant) also made arrangements for Timmins to visit the Portsmouth Sunday Schools. The Hampshire Telegraph claimed, on 13th March 1886, that the movement had ten thousand members in Portsmouth and on the 20th March, that over 76 Bands had been established.
Reverend Timmins continued his work in this field for three more years before in 1889 returning to his original profession as Minister when he accepted a post at the Unitarian church in Billingshurst where he remained until his death, at 9, Alpha Road, New Cross, Kent, on 19th August 1898.
Portsmouth must have remained the spiritual home for Timmins who was interred in Kingston Cemetery (Taplin's Plot). His wife Elizabeth lived on until she died at the Edinbro Nursing Home, 26 Lawrence Road, Southsea on 21st March 1909 when she too was buried in the same grave. In her will she left everything to Alfred Evan Morgan, engineer. Sadly there is little evidence of the role that she played in her husbands ministry or in connection with the Bands of Mercy, but the headstone to their joint grave is engraved to record that she "was companion and co-worker with her husband, forming bands of mercy in America and England. An educator of kindness to all living things she continued to the last her work among the soldiers, sailors and others."
Details of the grave and headstone are contained on the Memorials In Portsmouth website.
Tim Backhouse
Hampshire Telegraph
The Autobiography of Geo. T. Angell