Who was Pirate John ‘Eyebrows’ Thomas?

What happens when the truth turns out to be far duller than the legend?  Do you try to get the facts to fit the exciting story that you

 

would like to believe or do you just acknowledge that history and time has a way of making fools of us all sometimes?

 

And then of course there is a third option – to present other people with what you do know and see what they decide to make of it all.

So the question is who was Pirate John ‘Eyebrows’ Thomas?  The answer to this question was an obvious one or so I thought.  I had read about this chap before and visited his grave at Gulval church.20160315_114612 (1) He seemed like a good candidate for an amusing little story about one of our lesser known but colourful Cornish characters.  I thought that I would just do a little research and try and fill in some details about him to really bring the story to life. . .

You see there is a story that is often told about John Thomas.  He was meant to have been a notorious pirate and smuggler who was so feared and disliked that when he died at Marazion in 1753 the town refused to bury him.  His family we are told had to pay Gulval church to take him.

20160315_114724 (1)
The grave in Gulval Churchyard

 

John Thomas’ date of birth was easy to find, after all I had his date of death and his age when he popped off this moral coil.  He was born in 1692 and baptised at Gulval church, the church record gives his father’s name as John also. His mother’s name was Margery, she gets a mention in her husband’s will (AP/T/2717) when she inherits among others things his best bed.

And there are other facts that I know about him, for example he married a lady called Martha Bant in 1738 and that he was a reasonably wealthy man when he died.  The Cornwall Record Office in Truro has copy of his Last Will and Testament (AP/T/2702) which I have read.  To give 20160315_115012you the bare bones of it so to speak John Thomas left bequests amounting to about £2129 to friends and family when he died. The ‘rest and residue’ he left to Martha.  When you consider that the average labourer earned around £16 a year at that time that sum begins to look slightly different.  Add to that the fact that he also passed on leases for 3 separate properties, in Gulval, Madron and Wendron, and you start to wonder what kind of man John Thomas was.  And where exactly was he getting his money?

However there are some problems.  You see the Will of John Thomas does disprove part of the pirate legend.  In the very first line John requests (quite unusually) that his body be buried in the town of his birth: Gulval. So no mention of ill-will with Marazion, just the simple request of a dying man. Oh.

And the ‘Eyebrows’, some distinctive pseudonym created to build a mysterious persona? Perhaps not, you may have already noticed that the skull and cross bone motif on the gravestone has a fine pair of raised eyebrows and they were most likely just a quirk of the man who craved it. Nothing more.

20160315_114654

So what evidence is there that this legend of the cruel pirate is true?   He did die a rich man when most of his family were recorded as just yeoman and he doesn’t give his trade in his Will. A little strange perhaps.

The inscription on his gravestone is odd also depending on how you interrupt it.

Study to imitate, you won’t excell

If you would live beloved and die so well

Apart from that there is some other circumstantial evidence.  Between 1622 and 1641 Sir James Bagg recorded the names of all the fishermen and sailors in the south of Cornwall.  In Newlyn, just across Mount’s Bay from Gulval and Marazion, Bagg recorded 3 men called John Thomas.  Unfortunately it is impossible to know if any of these men are related to our John Thomas but it does give the impression that there is the possibility that the family had sea-faring roots. There is no record of John being convicted of any crime but that could mean that just he didn’t get caught. Or maybe he had a Letter of Marque.

These certificates were issued by the Crown and the government between 1243 and 1856.  They basically gave the bearer the right to attack and plunder any foreign vessels that strayed into our waters.  Usually issued during times of war they were a cheap way of protecting the coast from invasion as in effect those with a Letter of Marque formed a kind of cheap, rag-tag Naval force.  Was John Thomas one of these privateers?

So you see I have arrived at many more questions through my research than answers.  I want to believe that this great character existed but the evidence is slim at best.

However there is one final point that I have to make, rumours such as this one always start somewhere and just because there is no solid evidence doesn’t mean there is no truth, perhaps the wily John Eyebrows Thomas was just good at covering his tracks!

For more stories of the Cornish sea and Mount’s Bay try Shipwrecked or Storm finds

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5 thoughts on “Who was Pirate John ‘Eyebrows’ Thomas?

  1. Anne Guy April 16, 2016 / 10:01 pm

    Fascinating and well researched article! What an interesting character!

    Like

  2. j Guard May 17, 2016 / 9:45 pm

    I loved to old tales about John ‘Eyebrows’ Thomas, the woggie gang and the gypsy of gulval but they seemed to of died out with my grandfathers generation… I remember one old tale he used to say about the woggie gang being taken by Barbary pirates to be sold for slavery (which used to happen) but alas it was all a plot the Penzance based woggie gang and the small army overtook at first one ship and then the whole fleet within days of capture!

    Liked by 1 person

    • esdale77 May 17, 2016 / 10:09 pm

      I have heard of the Thomas Pellow of Penryn who was taken by the Barbary pirates but never the Woggie Gang!? I will look into it, very interesting! 🙂 thank you!

      Like

  3. The Chaos Realm July 7, 2016 / 4:11 pm

    Thanks for following, because I absolutely love this blog. Grew up reading Du Maurier, and I loved Cornwall when I was there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • esdale77 July 7, 2016 / 11:17 pm

      Thank you!! So glad you are enjoying it, that’s really kind!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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