Entries in Collett (1)


Book 2: Collett, J. T. (1848 – 1894). THE DRINK CURSE

Collett, J. T. (1848 – 1894)


I have tried, in these biographies, to tell the stories of ordinary men and women: the labourers, the shoemakers, the teachers and the shopkeepers. Occasionally, however, someone passes through the village whose story is difficult to ignore. It may be a teacher like Albert Crew or a thief like John Hardy. Sometimes also it is the lure of the chase that leads us on: the pleasure of reconstructing an extraordinary life hidden by time and perhaps by deliberate red herrings.


I first came across J. T. Collett PhD when I read in the Wellingborough News of a talk he had given on his, ‘Reminiscences of the Drink Curse’, at the Ringstead Temperance Hall on Monday 4th February 1882. The article was written for those who would have known of the facts of his time in Ringstead so, annoyingly, much was left unsaid.  

The announcement of Mr. Collett’s visit to Ringstead, as might be expected, drew a large number of people to the Temperance Hall. Some were attracted thither by curiosity, others perhaps expected to hear something novel, and may came to hear a man who about seven years ago made no small commotion in the village, and championed the people’s cause in parish matters


Why, ‘expected’? Exactly what the commotion was is never stated but those present certainly gave him a very enthusiastic welcome. He tells of his problems which would have been known to his audience, but not to us.


He expressed the great pleasure it gave him to be once more in Ringstead. It was six and a half years since he left the village. During that time life had passed roughly with him, and some of the angles in life had been rudely rubbed off, but notwithstanding all the vicissitudes of life he dared to come to Ringstead, where (dare he say it) he was once the Baptist Minister. He should ever cherish that thought. Well, he still had the same love for freedom and free thought as then. Though this might bring crosses and rebuffs, he and they should have a purpose true and dare to defend it. He advocated freedom of thought and freedom of speech to his opponents as well as to himself.


We see a ‘Radical’ who would have been much appreciated by a large section of the villagers. He went on to talk of the dangers of drink: how it shortened lives, destroyed careers, blunted the affections and impaired the memory. He admits that he had once drunk intoxicating drinks and could say, ‘from personal experience that the drink was an evil’. He finished by describing:


. . . in graphic terms his experience of prison life while incarcerated in Leicester gaol, a victim of an unjust, vindictive and scandalous prosecution.


The Ringstead Particular Baptist Church Book confirms part of the story but it gives few other details. It tells us:


The church was without a minister from August 1874 to the first Sabbath of 1875. When the church engaged the Reverend J T Collett for 12 months, who commenced his engagement on the first Sunday of November


He was proposed for membership of Ringstead Baptist Church and accepted on December 26th 1875 on a ‘profession of faith’. This seems to imply that they were concerned about his Particular Baptist Minister credentials.

Where did this J. T. Collett come from? A  John Thomas Collet, son of William and Elizabeth, was  born on the 6th November 1846 and baptised on December 26th 1847 at St Mary's Church in Guyhirn. Unfortunately this child was buried the following April aged just 17 months. The cause of death was diarrhoea, perhaps due to the lack of clean drinking water in the fens. Another son was born on 30th December 1848 and also baptised John Thomas on March 9th 1849. The first child had been baptised at the parish church but our John Thomas Collett received a Primitive Methodist baptism and we know that a Primitive Methodist chapel had opened in the adjacent hamlet of Tholomas Drove in 1845.

The parents of John were William and Elizabeth Collett. William is something of a mystery, giving a number of different birth places in the Census returns. We do know, from his marriage certificate, that he was the son of James Collett and was probably born somewhere south of Oxford on the Berkshire, Oxfordshire border. His wife had been born Elizabeth Pywell in Warmington Northamptonshire.

William was a cordwainer or shoemaker and we can only surmise as to what brought him to Guyhirn. In 1841 he was still single and living with shoemaker Charles Kemp and his family in Parsons Drove, very near to Guyhirn. He married Elizabeth at Warmington on May 7th 1844 in his wife's home village. She was a servant at the time of their marriage so perhaps she had been working In the Guyhirn area.

Guyhirn is a village near Wisbech, which is strung along what was once the main road from Peterborough to the port of Wisbech. It had followed the course of the the north bank of the Nene which had been canalised and the high banks erected to protect the lands from the salt water of the tide overflowing as it met the river water. All around were the flat silt fens on which the agricultural wealth of the area was built.

The 1851 Census for Guyhirn shows this dependence of the village on farming for its wealth. There were some on parish relief and agricultural labourers but there were many farmers. We see, among them, millwrights and wheelwrights, brickmakers and bricklayers, carpenters and blacksmiths. There are also two shoemakers, both employing men, and there is  William Collet, cordwainer. It seems likely that they were all making boots and shoes for the farmers and the stout boots which they and the farmworkers would have needed in the damp fields of the fens.

The fens had a history of religious dissent and education. In 1879, William had returned to Guyhirn and was living in Tholomas Drove, a hamlet on the road to Wisbech St Mary. There had been a free school there since 1726, provided by the will of a local Quaker and we also know of other schools, day and Sunday, provided by the various churches. It would seem to have been an unusually good place for a young boy to get at least some schooling.

There had been for centuries little Church of England presence in the parish and this continued until 1871. The Reverend William Carpenter writing of this time before he came states:

Nothing but dame schools existed in the village and the education of the young has been so neglected that many of the inhabitants cannot even read. . .

The latter statement would have been true of many English parishes  and there may be some sectarian bias here. In Guyhirn there was, and still is, an austere little church built as a puritan chapel but finished in 1660 just when Cromwell's Commonwealth gave way to the Anglican kingdom of Charles II. It became the parish chapel of ease for the Guyhirn graveyard and it was in this mixed middle ground that John tried to set his religious life.

By 1854, when their daughter Phoebe was born, William and Elizabeth had moved to the different, although essentially still rural, world of Aston near in Birmingham. He continued with his trade of bootmaker, so perhaps the demand for boots and shoes in Wisbech was being affected by the general depression in farming, together with competition from the new factories. The couple suffered a series of tragedies as child after child was born and died in early infancy. It was not until 1860, when James George Collett was born, that John had a sibling who survived the first few years of life. These two brothers both became pastors in non-conformist churches but their careers could not have been more different.


Perhaps surprisingly, Wisbech once had a Baptist College, the Theological Academy of the General Baptists of the New Connexion, which had transferred in 1813 from the Mile End Road in London. John Collet did not go there but perhaps it helped shape his career thoughts for, by 1871, we find him at the English Baptist College in Bristol.

Its Principal was Frederick William Gotch, who was descended from a well-known family from Kettering in Northamptonshire. Gotch was a progressive man who had a great interest in the new science. It would seem the sort of forward-thinking, broad, broad college that would have suited John but we know from the Bristol Baptist College alumni files that:


J. T. Collett entered College in 1870 from Ely. Charges had been laid against this student at the start of the 1871 session. He had to leave.

In those years after he was thrown out of the Baptist College, much seems to have happened to John. It must have been during this time, if at all, that he gained an M.A., a Ph.D. and the right to be called ‘Reverend’. It appears that, in 1872, he married Hannah and moved to London, where his first child, John, was born. Then, on 25th October 1873, at the Free Church, Princes Risborough, in Buckinghamshire, a ‘Rev. J. T. Collett’ officiated at the wedding of Mr Thomas Gilks and Miss Elizabeth Aldridge. By 4th July 1874 he was a minister at Christ Church, a Unitarian church in Devonport when his second son, George, was born. Within the next eighteen months James, his youngest child was also born there.

Why he left his post in Devonport we do not know but the move to Ringstead was not an obvious one. The Unitarians and Particular Baptists had a number of important theological differences. Nor do we do know how much of his background John revealed to those interviewing him at Ringstead. All we can say is that there could have been a number of reasons why the church members had concerns when appointing him. His father being a bootmaker might have been an advantage at his interview and a number of the schoolmasters appointed to the National School also came from shoemaking backgrounds.

We do get a hint of how John had 'championed the people's cause in Parish matters', that he referred to when he returned to the village in 1882, In the Vestry Minutes for 1876, signed by Edward Sandford, the Vicar, it states:

At the Easter Meeting held in the School on April 21 1876 Mr. Thomas Peach was nominated churchwarden by the Vicar and Dr. Collet for the parish by the parishioners.

The Vestry Committee was the precursor of the Parish Council and was naturally dominated by the local church and its supporters. John seems to have been something of a rabble rouser but he did try to give the ordinary villagers (and the Nonconformists) a voice on this committee. It is not commented on but we can imagine that there was a great deal of 'commotion' and anger at his deliberate intrusion into this important local meeting. It seems to have marked the start of a campaign by the more radical parts of the community to have a say in local politics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more conservative of the Ringstead Particular Church members did not take to John and, a few months later, in September 1876 it was decided not to renew his engagement. One surprising reason given was that he was joining the Catholic Church and indeed, in October 1876 it was proposed that Dr Collett’s name be erased from the Church Book as he had joined the Catholic Church. An 1885 book ‘listing about four thousand Protestants who have recently become Roman Catholics’ does include:

 Rev. D. J. T. Collett, formerly a Baptist minister.

If this is our J. T. Collett then the Catholic Church is just one of a number of churches that he seems to have belonged to concurrently, as we shall see.

After Collett left Ringstead, the first that we hear of him is in a letter sent to the Birmingham Daily Post on 14th February 1880. (His name is variously spelt with and without an ‘e’.)



Sir, - Will you permit me, through the medium of your columns to draw the attention of the sanitary authorities of this district to the existence of a pool, having a circumference of about fifty yards and situated within six yards of the back gate of my residence, and two yards from a street along which about 150 workpeople pass daily to their employ? The pool is filled with stagnant water and is the receptacle for dead dogs, cats &c.; also the refuse of middens in the locality. I saw two cartloads emptied into it on Wednesday morning last, being the third lot within the last month.


As a result of the rising of the poisonous gases from this font of disease I have my children ill with scarlet fever. Now, I am told to remove from my house, and thus shun the evil; but, sir there are other houses in the locality, ten being in the row in which I live. If this pool is allowed to remain and I go, someone else may enter my house and immediately have their children taken with fever, to say nothing of the children of other residents, some of whom have been and are suffering.


I am yours &c




Watt Street, Warwick Road, Greet, Feb. 14.


 We see that he was still a campaigner and had a journalist’s eye for giving the details. We also see that he had a family and was living in poor conditions.

Greet was on the southern outskirts of Birmingham. It was a small rural community, which, like many others suddenly urbanised in the 1870s with rows of terraces being built to house the workers, mainly for the local BSA Small Arms Factory. The sort of problem that ‘J. T. Collette’ complains of was the almost inevitable result.


By October of that year John had moved some twenty-five miles eastward to Nuneaton. ‘J.T.’ successfully sued an Oxfordshire clergyman for 10s 6d for a sermon he had written for him. He describes himself as Master of Arts and author. A letter from him to the Birmingham Daily News explains the situation more clearly and also reveals a little of his gathering problems and aspirations.

. . . I am a Nonconformist minister (Congregationalist) without charge and the sermons I supply to Church clergymen are those preached by myself, containing Nonconformist theology. You would have known this, only I happen to be an advanced Liberal and that is the greatest sin a man can commit in Nuneaton and, therefore, all people in this place look upon me as a ‘dangerous’ man, who would corrupt the minds of the youth of the town with ‘Radical’ principles.


J.T. appears to be a Congregationalist Minister without a congregation. In light of this letter it is no surprise that, when we next encounter him, he had moved again, to 48 Southampton Street in Leicester. The 1881 Census, taken on the 3rd April, lists him as John Collett, aged 31 and a journalist. With him are his wife Hannah, aged 32 and their children John, aged nine born in London, George aged six and James aged five both born in Plymouth in Devon. The birth places of John and Hannah are ‘Not Known’. Now this could be an honest response by the head of the household, in their absence, or it could be John trying to leave his history behind. In this he follows his father's example who gave his place of birth as Auram in Oxfordshire in 1851, Appleford in Berkshire in 1861 and, finally, Sutton (Courtenay) in Berkshire ten years later.The latter two places at least exist but is difficult to guess what village 'Auram' might be. It was only John's mother's consistency of  birthplace, Warmington in Northamptonshire, which confrims that we have the right family each time.


John and his family are lodging with Hannah Forehead, a widow, and her children. He had probably come to Leicester to obtain work. We know that he managed to get a temporary position with the Leicester Newspaper Company as a ‘Newspaper Canvasser’, selling advertising to local businesses. Unfortunately, our knowledge comes from the newspaper reports of his trial for embezzlement from the company, in the months following his employment in March or early April of 1881. One newspaper report also confirms that he was formerly a Unitarian Minister at Devonport, which is part of Plymouth, where, in the 1881 Census, the youngest two children were said to have been born.


On Thursday 1st September 1881 a John Thomas Collett of 48 Southampton Street came before the Leicester Borough Police Court. The charge was that, although he did not have authority to collect accounts he had done so, getting two cheques made out in his name. These cheques had not been paid into the company account. One was for £9 10s and the other for £6 6s. One witness told the court that he had asked for this under the pretext that he received 5% commission on all orders that he personally took in. In spite of his previous ‘excellent character’ and ‘testimonials from persons of the highest standing’, he was only given bail ‘of £80 and two sureties of £40 each. It is unlikely that he would have been able to find this money so probably remained in gaol. He was committed to trial at the next Quarter Sessions and at the Leicester Borough Sessions on Wednesday 19th October 1881 he was sentenced to 12months hard labour.


We know a great deal about his time in Leicester Gaol because he wrote a book entitled Prison Reminiscences of the Drink Curse which was published in 1883 by Marshall Brothers of London, although it was printed in Leicester. It ran to 112 pages and was obviously the basis of the Temperance speech that he gave in Ringstead in the February of that year.




John Thomas Collett (The frontispiece: from Prison Reminiscences of the Drink Curse)


Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library 1883.8.227


For once we have absolute proof that he did indeed write a book for a few copies still exist. There is one in the ‘Rare Books’ department of Cambridge University Library. It is a small fragile paperback about 8 inches by 5 inches with a pale grey cover. John might derive some satisfaction at the care with which it is now handled, and the company that it keeps. We learn that the author, J. T. Collett, Ph.D. F.R.A.S. has also written, ‘The Shades of Hades, Why I am a Liberal and Is Vaccination a Preventative against Disease, etc. etc’. It is the second edition so we must assume that it has had some success although John comments wryly on this at later court case. The book’s main purpose is to show that alcohol is the major reason for crime. Today, we would, perhaps, give drugs a similar prominence. He gives figures to prove his case:


In the particular prison in which I was engaged twenty-five hundred prisoners entered during the year, and all with the exception of seventeen were victims of ‘the drink’, and its curse was manifest upon them.


John worked as a librarian while in the prison and in this way saw many of the prisoners and he recounts some of their lives. He tells us that the real rogues easily coped with prison life and even quite enjoyed it. For other men, however, who had made one mistake it could be a bitter experience. He did not have to step outside his cell to find a prisoner to illustrate this kind of man. He starts, in honest truth:


I shall never forget a prisoner of the latter kind who had held the position of a Christian Minister and had fallen through drink, having a wife and three children whom he dearly loved. One night he had a dream that troubled him greatly, which was to the following effect. He dreamed that he saw his wife and three boys in the corner of the cell, all looking lean and hungry and weeping bitterly. For a moment neither spoke, but they looked at him and he at them. At last he thought his wife cried, ‘Dear Tom, what shall I do with these three boys? And then each boy addressed him, saying ‘Papa, I am so hungry, do give me something to eat. The effect of the dream upon the prisoner was manifest; all that he would say for days after, when spoken to upon any subject, was ‘oh! my dear, dear family. God help them; what a devil I have been’. But the most remarkable thing in connection with the circumstance was on the very day he dreamed the above, his wife and family were compelled to enter the parish union and he in ignorance of the fact.


John talks about the chaplains, the officers, the punishments, the food and the prisoners. He shows up some of the failings of the system and offers ideas on how it could be improved. With regard to the chaplains, many of whom he criticises for their lack of commitment and compassion, he writes, in his Introduction, the following two sentences which might explain some of his own problems with the churches that he was involved with:


Those having the moral training of the prisoners in hand, especially ought to be beyond denominational bias and sectarian cant. Remembering it is not creed but Christ, not ritual but righteousness, not priesthood but piety, that are essential to the uplifting of men.


John does find the Catholic priest one of the best of the chaplains being, ‘a gentleman and a Christian’ but does add, ‘whatever may be the defects of his system and the errors of his theological code’. This does not sound like a man who had joined the Roman Catholic Church.


He also criticised the ‘hard labour’ which he says was not cost effective and did not help to fit the prisoners for their life in the world of work outside. In Leicester Prison, he tells us most of the labour consisted in ‘wood-chopping’. The wood was first sawn by large gangs and Collett feels that the rogues tend to corrupt the first-timers when they are thrown together in this type of work. In his chapter entitled 'On The Saw' Collett describes how the sytem worked. The saw was a development of the 'crank' which in some prisons was used merely for useless mechanical 'hard labour', in the same way as the treadmill. He tells us that:


There were about eighty men employed in the work. It was given as first class "hard labour". They were divided into two portions, first the sawyers, and second choppers and tyers. The "saw" was worked by thirty men changing every quarter of an hour, thus twenty were constantly turning the "crank handles" and ten resting. The "saw" crank was fixed in a long building so that twenty men could stand in one long row, each in a small "stall". Some portion of each day all thirty men would turn, thus bringing two men together in each of ten "stalls".


It was in this situation that Collett thought the first offenders could be corrupted by the old hands as the operation was only supervised by one warder. In general prisoners could not talk to each other. In his book, Victorian Prison Lives, Philip Priestley points out that 1853 a Royal Commission found at Leicester Prison:


. . . untried prisoners "suffered stoppages for offences such as the following:- 'Coughing to each other in the airing yard'; ' attempting to communicate'; attempting to look over the stall in the chapel'; and 'repeatedly turning round in chapel.' 


Perhaps the most revealing part of Collett's book for us is when he manages to link the evils of this work to a prisoner who, once again, we quickly recognize.


To show you the evil of this ‘saw’ association I will here state what occurred to an educated prisoner who had been committed for twelve months upon a very questionable charge of embezzlement. We all felt that his sentence was most excessive. The facts of the ‘case were as follows. He was engaged upon the newspaper press as manager of the contract advertisement department of a daily paper. One day he was apprehended by a county court bailiff for a debt of fifteen pounds sixteen shillings. His employers were indebted to him to the extent of eighteen pounds eighteen shillings as commission. When taken, he desired the bailiff to accompany him to the office, where he would seek payment of the money due and discharge the debt the debt for which he was apprehended. He was denied payment by the manager upon the ground that ‘the proprietors must settle with him.’ He then went to two customers and drew their accounts and paid the bailiff off. He afterward informed the manager what he had done, and gave him an account setting forth the fact of having drawn the accounts to the total of fifteen pounds sixteen shillings, and showing the balance due to him to be three pounds two shillings to make a just settlement. After a few weeks, the manager, upon his own authority, and without consulting the editor – who was the managing director – charged him with the crime of embezzling the amounts he had drawn from the customers to pay off the bailiff. He pleaded not guilty and was committed for trial. At his trial the jury found him guilty of a breach of the letter of the law, and the merciful (?) judge passed the above sentence, notwithstanding he had been previously a clergyman, and that such gentlemen as Gladstone, Bright and others gave him good testimonial. Now, some officers have an idea, fully borne out in their actions, that if an educated and gentlemanly prisoner come under their charge, he shall do all the roughest work and be made to associate with the most vulgar and villainous in the prison.


On ‘the saw’ a pickpocket tells John of an address in Manchester which needed ‘educated men with a gentlemanly appearance’ to act as ‘hooks’ for the ‘hands’. These men, with links to good society, acted as ‘detectives’ to provide information for the ‘hands’ or pickpockets.


We see a very different view of the case here than in the newspaper report and one that seems to have some credibility. Was John too clever for his immediate bosses who resented him and were pleased to orchestrate his downfall, or did he manipulate the true facts? Again, with the recommendations from Gladstone and Bright, if these are true they link him to the most powerful men in the country. Gladstone became Liberal Prime Minister for the second time in 1880. John Bright was a leading radical Liberal who was for many years an M.P for Birmingham and served in Gladstone’s cabinet. These are weighty references indeed and we can at the moment only wonder at how close John’s connection was to these important men, whose politics he shared. John’s record, however, leads us to be dubious of their authenticity


There is a picture of John as the frontispiece to the book. It shows him with a fashionable droopy moustache and thin long sideboards and wearing oval metal rimmed spectacles. As we are to discover later, it was not a book that would change his fortunes.


So we see John, a chastened man giving his lecture on the devil drink to the Ringstead villagers. Well, not exactly, for his speech told of his trial and imprisonment as a result of an ‘unjust prosecution’ and his book spells out clearly how he felt that he had been unfairly treated. Neither would we expect him to be swayed from his radical ideals. On Monday 3rd December 1883 he gave a lecture at Raunds Temperance Hall on ‘Reforms needed by the working classes’.


A few months later, in February 1884, in the Leicester County Court, John was being sued for a debt of £1 that he owed. The debt was for a pair of boots from some five years earlier when Collett had been employed as a traveller for a boot and shoe manufacturer. The case is covered at some length, in the Leicester Chronicle, perhaps because he was beginning to gain some notoriety. In answer to questioning he reveals that he is a newspaper agent and author but only, ‘by commission’. He states that his average earnings are 33s 6d a week but adds that he had been in distress some fifteen months ago and his wife and family had been in the Workhouse for some time. This would have been around the period when he was in gaol, although this is not mentioned.


There is a second case brought against him by a Mr. C, W. Stokes, a traveller to recover:


. . . the sum of £8 odd due for commission on advertisements procured by the defendant for a book which he had written on ‘Prison Life’ – Collett pleaded inability to pay more than 5s a month. (To defendant): On December 28 did you not publish a book entitled ‘Horrible London’? Defendant: - Unfortunately I did. His Honour: He might do so, and probably it was a dead loss. – Defendant: It is sir; out of 5,000 copies published I have 4,800 on my hands (Laughter.) I have to keep my books; my books don’t keep me (Laughter.)


In both cases he was ordered to pay five shillings a month. Mr. J. J. Harper, the judge, appears to have had some sympathy with John Collett and we see that he seems a likeable witty character who could please the crowds


On the 5th August of the same year John was once again in court, this time for not paying a debt owed to L. E. Gee, a solicitor for the sum of £18 under a recent judgement. John admitted that he was the editor of the Birmingham and Midlands Trades Journal and was entitled to 20% of the profits – ‘but up to the present time no profits had been made’. He continues:


Amongst other things, he was the author of a publication entitled ‘Why should London wait?’ and received some £40 for advertisements for the book while the work cost him £84. Of the number printed he had only sold 200 copies. He contributed to nine papers but did not get paid for everything he wrote, as literature was not a very paying game. (Laughter.) . . . He was also the author of a pamphlet entitled ‘Experiences of Prison Life;’ but the sales never reached 6000 copies, They sold at the rate of 500 per week for the first few weeks but as soon as the public read them they did not go off as quickly (Laughter.) He was not aware that the plaintiff had received a letter from his publishers saying that they would not have the remainder of the pamphlets for waste paper. He had written pamphlets on various subjects, and had lectured on temperance in connection with the blue ribbon movement; but altogether his earnings did not average £2 per week.


He was ordered to pay the debt, according to the original judgement. The judge, although called J. J. Hooper could be the same man as at his previous appearance. John is mistakenly reported as James and the titles of his publications differ in both newspaper reports. There are. As usual a few facts which make one wonder about the truth of John’s claims. He declined to answer when asked if he had written the pieces in the Daily Telegraph on ‘Why Should London Wait?’[For better housing etc] and certainly there was a series appearing there in late 1883. Secondly George Robert Sims, born in 1847, and most famous today for the poem beginning, ‘It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse’, was a successful radical journalist, campaigner and writer. He wrote pieces in the newspapers on ‘Horrible London’ which were later reprinted in book form. He also finished his education in Germany, [ where John said in a later case that he had obtained his Ph.D]. Are these coincidences, or was John beginning to lose his hold on reality or was it deliberate fraud?


On 22nd August 1885 the Tamworth Herald printed a short article on the Trent Valley Brewery Company (Limited) of Lichfield. This was taken from The Brewers’ Review, ‘a new publication devoted to the interests of the brewing trade, edited by Mr. J. T. Collette, M.A., Ph.D.’. John had written the article and it seems unlikely that he had remained teetotal in his appraisal of the company and its products. Was his new venture a success? We suspect not. The first prospectus of the Brewing Trade Review has the following statement:


The Country Brewers’ Society contracts with its members to supply them with a Trade Newspaper. For this purpose two Trade Papers have been called into existence in the past which are still being issued. Circumstances in both cases have rendered the severing of the connexion with the County Brewers’ Society necessary. From the large sum of money which the proprietor of the last of these two papers has recently demanded for his property it is clear that the value of the Society’s name and assistance to these papers has been very great.


Somewhere in an archive there may be more to be found but it seems that John’s paper did not last long. Perhaps it was he who tried to sell it for a’ large sum of money’. If so, it seems very likely that he did not succeed.


By May 1887, John had moved to 2 Garfield Place, Bordesley Green, Small Heath, Birmingham. We know this because he was, once again, in court. This time he was in Birmingham Police Court. He hear that John Thomas Collett is described as, ‘a doctor of philosophy, a curate, a scripture reader, editor &c’. He was charged with obtaining money from people by false pretences. The police asked for him remanded but John wanted the case heard immediately as he was sure he could prove his innocence.


Mary Ann Pullar explained how John had come to her house on the 9th May and handed her his card on which was written:


J.T. Collett, M.A., F.R.A.S., Editor of the Birmingham Midland Counties Trades Journal and Commercial Register, Commercial Buildings, Deritend [Now part of Birmingham.]


Answering questions John told the court that he was a Doctor of Philosophy which he had obtained in Germany. The witness stated that he had told her that he was a curate at Ward End Church and that he was collecting on behalf of a family called Inson who were in very distressing circumstances. May Pullar gave him:


. . . a bottle containing spirits, a few biscuits and 1s.


A sickly looking man called Inson was then called and he told the court that Collett had never passed on any of these gifts.


When asked what he had to say to the charge, John spoke at length, as one would expect. He claimed that, finding that Inson was sick and could not work or pay his rent, he had volunteered to collect money for him and had done so for some weeks past


He gave a long list of names and wished to go into the minutest details with regard to the conversations and transactions he had had with the people names; but the Magistrate’s Clerk, (Mr Barradale), frequently interrupted with the remark, ‘Confine yourself to the shilling’.


John told them finally that in all he had collected about 14s 6d but when asked he said that he did not have it with him but had the ‘equivalent at home’.


The case then moved on to a charge that he had sent a letter to a Mr. F. Henshaw of Green Lane asking him for money. The heading of the letter was the Birmingham Midland Counties Trade Journal and Commercial Register.


The circular explained that the paper circulated in India, Ceylon, Japan, Borneo, Java, Manila, Mauritius, Hawaiian Islands and other foreign parts


The next witness said that Collett had asked for money for the Insons and he had said he had been the Scripture Reader at St Martin’s, Bull Ring some nine years previously. John admitted that this was untrue. He was remanded to appear on the Wednesday but it appears that he did not turn up for, on the Thursday, he was arrested and now admitted that he had collected money for the Insons but that he had spent it.


When he was sentenced, on Wednesday 25th May, 1887, it was stated that he had a previous conviction for embezzlement at Chester [I have not found any proof of this], and he was sentenced to three months hard labour as a ‘rogue and vagabond’.


It is obvious that John was on a steep downward spiral into debt and petty crime. He was described at his trial for fraud as a, ‘shabbily dressed, well built man of about forty years of age’. His hopes of a career as preacher, journalist or author seem dashed and debt is driving him to crime. One also wonders if drink was still the major part of his problem.


In August 1887, at Aston Police Court, he again is charged, this time with ‘obtaining alms at Ward End on 5th May by false and fraudulent pretences’ It is reported in the Leicester Chronicle under the headline:




It is clear that the newspaper is querying the title, "Dr". ’It also becomes obvious that these are offences that occurred as part of his previous charges, of collecting money for the Insons, which were not dealt with at the time. Again the amounts are small: one is for 1s another 6d and included are items such as a pair of boots or an old dress. The defence lawyer asked for leniency for John who he said was:


. . . a well educated man who up to about 1880 was in good circumstances but, in consequence of intemperate habits and other causes he had got into trouble in Leicester and was sentenced to 12 months hard labour.


Despite the pleas and his promise to reform he was sentenced to another two months hard labour. Was this just justice taking its course or was John Thomas Collett right in thinking he was being deliberately persecuted because of his political views? Was he just a Micawber who in desperation began to slip ever more into crime and deception?


We know that, like Micawber before him, he decided to try for his fortune in the New World. Exactly when he went is not certain but we do know that his wife Hannah and his three children, John, George and James stated in a later Census that they had emigrated to America in 1887. I have not found the family on board ship with certainty but there is one possibility. On 5th June 1888 the Lord Clive arriving from Liverpool, docked in Philadelphia harbour. She had on board a John T. Collett with his family. Unlike all the other people on that page of the Passenger List there are no ages and, possibly, no other christian names for the family. We have:


Collett     Jno                   a          M          Lab


   "          Mrs                      a          F          Wife


   "          Boy (or Roy?) a          M          Lab


   "          Child                   c          "           Child


   "           Child                  c          F             "


They are all heading for Philadelphia as settlers. Now, some of this is wrong. The oldest son would have been at least 16 and so an adult. The youngest son, however, is shown as female although this may be a mistake made in writing across a page without lines. For the rest, if we take into account the Colletts' entry in the 1881 Leicester Census, where information is wrong or not given, it does seem to follow a pattern. All we can say is that it could be our family and their later assertion that they arrived in 1887 was an understandable mistake.


Almost all the 1990 USA Census was lost in a fire so we do not see them together in a Census in their new country. The 1889 Philadelphia City Directory does record John T Collett as a 'Laborer', and a year later as a Civil Engineer living in the Bullitt Building there, It is almost certainly the same home where we find Hannah and the couple's children in later Directories.


What we also discover is that John died in Philadelphia on 17th December 1894 and was buried four days later in a Philadelphia Cemetery. His occupation was given as journalist and his address as 116 Spruce Street. Was this a current occupation or was it harking back to earlier times in England. He was recorded as married and was just 45 years old. The left hand edge of the certificate is missing but the cause of death appears to be, ‘Mania with Lubitis and periostitis of face and jaw.’


In the Philadelphia City Directory for 1894 Hannah and her sons, John, who is a clerk and George, a 'laborer', are shown living together. There is no sign of the youngest son, James or of John so, probably, either the names were collected after his death or when he was still in hospital. Certainly, by the 1998 Directory Hannah is shown as. 'wid Jno T.' , and her sons John and Thomas J (James?) are shown with her at a new address in Naudain, Philadelphia.


When we find John’s family again they have moved to 148 Cox Street in Camden City, New Jersey. In the 1900 United States Federal Census his son John, aged 29, is now the ‘Head of House’. He is married to Catharine aged 28, who was born in Wisconsin but whose father came from Scotland. John is a proof reader, as is his unmarried brother George who is 26 years old. The youngest brother, James, aged 25, is also living in the house and is a tinsmith. John Thomas’s widow, Hannah, aged 52 is also living with her son. We see that the two eldest sons have followed in their father’s footsteps into the business of print. The family have still not become naturalised American citizens.


Back in England, John’s brother, James George Collett, was also making a name for himself. He had moved back to Birmingham with the family and first worked as a draper’s assistant. He was a Baptist and attended Preachers’ Classes run by Henry Platten the Minister at the Graham Street Baptist Church. From there he progressed to Rawdon Baptist College and became a joint Pastor of the Kings Heath and Moseley Baptist Churches from 1888 until 1913. Was he relieved that his wayward older brother had emigrated to America before he took up his appointment? He lived to be over one hundred years old, dying in 1962. In 2009 the New Life Baptist Church in Kings Heath was being renovated and found, built into the walls, were two time capsules, one from 1872 and the other from 1897. Included, among newspapers and documents of the church was a handwritten note from James George Collett dated 1897.


Although, at times, a painful story to tell, these pages will have to serve as a time capsule for his brother John Thomas Collett, who, for a few months, caused, ‘no small commotion’, in a small Northamptonshire village.




My thanks to Agnes Burton for the details from the Ringstead Baptist Church Book: to Helen Ford ( ) for the details from the Brewing Trade Review: to the Librarian, Mrs. Shirley Shire ,at Bristol Baptist College for details of John Collett’s dismissal from the college. Also to Rudolf Schmidt for helping with the meaning of the cause of death on the death certificate ( )


English Censuses and BMD from as well as 1900 United States Federal Census ( ) .

Wisbech Primitive Methodist Circuit Baptisms; Cambridgeshire Family Hostory Society . (Cambridge Central Library).

Annals of Guyhirn. Rev. William Carpenter 1879. (Cambridge Central Library).

Victoria History of the Counties of England: Cambridge and the Isle of Ely (Un. of London 1967).

Wellingborough News Friday 10th Feb. 1882. Transcribed by Kay Collins ( )


A general history of Baptist Thought. William H Brackney (Mercer University Press 2004)


Free-thinkers & Trouble-makers: Fenland Dissenters. Harry Jones (Wisbech Society & Preservation Trust Ltd.).


The Schools of St Marys. Brian Payne. (Brian Payne 2000).


Ringstead Vestry Minute Book with Parish Minutes 1865 - 1909 (NRO 280P/103).

Prison Reminiscences of the Drink Curse. J. T. Collett Ph.D., F.R.A.S 2nd Edn. (Marshall Bros. 1883 (Cambridge University Library). : Birmingham Daily Post 16th Feb. 1880: Pall Mall Gazette Monday 11th October 1880 :Staffordshire Sentinel Monday 18th October 1880: Nottingham Evening Post Friday 2nd September 1881: Nottingham Evening Post Tuesday 6th Sept. 1881: Birmingham Daily Post Friday 21st October 1881: Northampton Mercury Saturday 10th Feb. 1883: Northampton Mercury Saturday 8th December 1883: Leicester Chronicle Saturday 23rd Feb. 1884: Birmingham Daily News Wednesday 6th Aug. 1884: Tamworth Herald 22nd Aug. 1885: Birmingham Daily Post Saturday 21st May 1887: Western Mail Friday 27th May 1887: Worcester Journal Saturday 28th May 1887: Leicester Chronicle Saturday 03 Sept. 1887.


Victorian Prison Lives. Philip Priestley. Pimlico 1999.


Philadelphia Passenger Lists 1800 - 1945. (


1889, 1890, 1894, 1898 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania City Directories, ( )


Death Certificate of John T Collett in Philadelphia Hospital ( )


Deep Roots Living Branches, A History of Baptists in the English Western Midlands. Alan Betteridge (Troubadour Pub. 2010) (details of the timer capsule found in church wall)