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Epithet: The first working-man MHK (1862-1920)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Tom Cormode, a blacksmith, was the first manual worker elected to the House of Keys where he represented Peel from 1903 to 1919. Among the foremost progressive reformers in the Keys, he remained, throughout his period of office, their only working-man member.

The Cormodes had been established as blacksmiths at Quine's Hill, about three miles south of Douglas, since the early nineteenth century. Tom's grandfather, William, born in Ramsey in the 1790s, was there in 1841 and probably earlier. By 1861 Tom's father, John, was in charge and remained so until his death in 1899. Tom probably started to work in the smithy during the late 1870s, as did his younger brothers Edward and Arthur in the 1880s. The oldest brother, John, an auctioneer's clerk, died from TB in 1884, aged 24. Tom thus became in 1899 the head of his family, unmarried but responsible for his widowed mother until her death in 1914, and for his unmarried sister. Until shortly before his death, he continued to work as a blacksmith.

Quine's Hill Chapel, built in 1823 and rebuilt in 1890, has a good claim to be the first Primitive Methodist chapel in the Island, and the Cormode family were among its mainstays. At the age of eighteen, in 1880, inspired by a mission service, Tom felt called to a religious life. He began training for the ministry, but abandoned this due to family responsibilities. Instead, from 1880 until his death, he was a lay preacher. Speaking with great rhetorical eloquence, both indoors and outdoors, in a pronounced Manx accent, Tom Cormode became widely known as 'the most distinguished local preacher on the Island'. He also preached in Liverpool, London, and at Mow Cop in Staffordshire - the birthplace of Primitive Methodism - during the sect's centenary celebrations in 1912. Throughout his life, from at least 1882 onwards, he continued to be active in the affairs of Quine's Hill Chapel, acting variously as secretary, treasurer, class leader and trustee.

Another major interest, related both to his religious faith and his strong temperance views, was his membership of the Independent Order of Rechabites, the teetotal mutual insurance society which around 1900 included approximately one in five of the Island's adult male population. In 1901 Tom was District Chief Ruler (or chairman) of the Isle of Man District. From 1903 to 1907 he served as District Superintendent of Juvenile Tents (i.e. in charge of the Island's Rechabite youth movement). He represented the Island as a delegate to both Rechabite and Primitive Methodist conferences in England. His temperance views were so strongly held that, when invited to tender for smithy work for a public house, he declined to do so.

His passionate interest in public questions, and pronounced sympathy for the underdog, led Tom to be described as a 'tribune of the people' long before his election to the Keys. When Tom Mann, general secretary of the Independent Labour Party, addressed a crowded meeting in Douglas in November 1897, 'the radical blacksmith of Quine's Hill' was among the platform party, and gave the vote of thanks to the speaker even though, unlike his younger brother Ben, his political affiliations were broadly progressive rather than specifically socialist. For many years he wrote leading articles for the Mona's Herald.

At the age of 42, already a well-known public figure, Cormode took the plunge into politics when he agreed to stand for Peel against the 75 year old conservative-minded incumbent, High Bailiff Alfred Laughton, in the Keys election of 1903, as no Peel resident would do so. The election was hotly contested, with traditionalists and Tom's Labour allies from Douglas involved; tempers ran high, and riot was narrowly averted. Speaking to crowded meetings, Tom opposed indirect taxation, such as sugar tax, which bore heavily on the poor, and called for income tax on the rich. He demanded help for the fishing industry and an inquiry into its decline. He stressed his temperance views, but above all emphasised his credentials as a progressive reformer and a working man. The final result was Cormode 311, Laughton 287, a 24 vote victory for progressive reformism. Unopposed in 1908, Tom Cormode increased his majority in 1913, with 373 votes against the 'moderate constitutional' candidate's 322.

Tom was elected at a time when the Manx Reform League, led by Samuel Norris, was in its first fine flush of enthusiasm. It was an indication of the regard in which he was held that he was appointed to the committee of five MHKs, including (later Sir) Thomas Henry Hall Caine, which drafted a comprehensive Reform petition during 1904-5, ultimately approved by the Keys and sent to the Home Secretary. Thereafter he remained a consistent reformer, making common cause in the Keys with such men as his special friends, W.M. Kerruish of Douglas and W.T. Crennell of Ramsey, speaking up for old age pensions, national insurance, workmen's compensation, a better education system, and constitutional reform to make the Island's government more democratic. He made an especial point of holding an annual public meeting at Peel at which he formally reported back to his constituents.

But Cormode's years in the Keys were years of mounting frustration for Manx reformers, as most of their aspirations were blocked by Lord Raglan, a Governor who obdurately resisted change. World War I further delayed hopes of reform. Tom Cormode was busy as a member of the Island's military service tribunal, possibly uncongenial work for him. He was also a member of the bread subsidy commission of 1917-18. He had driven himself very hard for many years, and in August 1918 he collapsed into complete nervous breakdown and severe depression. He hated enforced idleness but was medically unfit for public life, and did not stand for the Keys again in the 1919 election. At last an era of reform and social progress was beginning, but Tom could not play a part in it. He entered the Island's mental hospital voluntarily, and then went missing on his daily walk on 13th October 1920. The next day he was found in a field, dead from heart disease. He was 58, and was buried in Braddan Cemetery after a funeral procession from Quine's Hill, and a very well attended funeral service.

Tom Cormode was an extremely serious and conscientious man. His altruism, ability and application were exceptional. Though sometimes described as 'the first Labour member in the Keys', he was an independent progressive radical, who set a standard and blazed a trail for Manx Labour politicians to follow.

A note on the Cormode Family:

Tom's surviving siblings deserve a brief mention. Edward (1864-1924) farmed at Southampton, near the family home, for many years, and was a trustee of Quine's Hill Chapel. Sophia (1868-1929) was a dressmaker, and moved into Douglas after Tom's death. Alfred (1872-1945) lived in Onchan, was a tailor and a member of the Clarion Fellowship - elected to the Onchan School Board in 1902, he became a school attendance officer in 1912, and remained a trustee of Quine's Hill Chapel until his death. C. Arthur Cormode (1870-1948) was blacksmith at St Marks, a job he handed on to his son, Tom. Arthur was a founder-member both of the Manx Socialist Society in 1895 and of the Manx Labour Party in 1918, and stood unsuccessfully for the Keys in Rushen in 1919 and 1924.

The Quine's Hill Chapel, which originally inspired the efforts of this remarkable family, closed in 1981 and is now a joiner's workshop. At the beginning of the 21st century the Cormode family is now only represented in the Island by Clarissa Woodcock of Ramsey, granddaughter of Arthur.

Edward's daughter, Edith Cormode of Douglas, died in 2002 after reaching her 100th birthday.

Biography written by Robert Fyson.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.105-7.)

Culture Vannin



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