Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Firmin, Thomas

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FIRMIN, THOMAS (1632–1697), philanthropist, son of Henry and Prudence Firmin, was born at Ipswich in June 1632. Henry Firmin was a parishioner of Samuel Ward, the puritan incumbent of St. Mary-le-Tower, by whom in 1635 he was accused of erroneous tenets; the matter was brought before the high commission court, but on Firmin's making satisfactory submission the charge (particulars of which are not disclosed) was dismissed. Thomas was apprenticed in London to a mercer, who attended the services of John Goodwin [q. v.] the Arminian, then vicar of St. Stephen's, Coleman Street. He learned shorthand, and took down Goodwin's sermons. As an apprentice his alacrity gained him the nickname of ‘Spirit.’ An elder apprentice accused him of purloining 5l., but afterwards confessed that the theft was his own. The late story (Kennett) according to which Firmin, during his apprenticeship, presented a petition in favour of John Biddle [see Biddle, John], and was dismissed by Cromwell as a ‘curl-pate boy,’ does not tally with earlier accounts. Kennett, however, gives as his authority John Mapletoft, M.D. [q. v.], who was a relative of Firmin.

With a capital of 100l. Firmin began business as a girdler and mercer. His shop was at Three Kings Court, in Lombard Street; he had a garden at Hoxton, in which he took great delight. Slender as were his means he contrived to keep a table for his friends, especially ministers. His frank hospitality brought him (after 1655) into relations with such men as Whitchcote, Worthington, Wilkins, Fowler, and Tillotson. In this way, somewhat earlier, he became acquainted with Biddle, whose influence on Firmin's philanthropic spirit was important. It was from Biddle that he learned to distrust mere almsgiving, but rather to make it his business to fathom the condition of the poor by personal investigation, and to reduce the causes of social distress by economic effort. Biddle also deepened Firmin's convictions on the subject of religious toleration, and without converting him to his own specific opinions made him heterodox in the article of the Trinity. Biddle was Firmin's guest in 1655, prior to his banishment, and it was largely through Firmin's exertions that a pension of one hundred crowns was granted by Cromwell to the banished man.

Sympathy with the oppressed had something to do with Firmin's religious leanings. He expressed himself as hating popery ‘more for its persecuting than for its priestcraft.’ In 1662 he raised money partly by ‘collections in churches’ for the exiled anti-trinitarians of Poland; but when (1681) the Polish Calvinists met the same fate Firmin was foremost in efforts for their relief, collecting about 680l. His acquaintance with religious controversies was gained in conversation, for he was never a student. There was scarcely a divine of note whom he did not know. He helped young clergymen to preferment, and it is said that Tillotson, after becoming dean of Canterbury (1672), when obliged to leave town, ‘generally left it to Mr. Firmin to provide preachers’ for his Tuesday lecture at St. Lawrence, Jewry. Tillotson was aware that Firmin's freedom of opinion did not bias his judgment of men.

Firmin's first philanthropic experiment was occasioned by the trade disorganisation of the plague year (1665). He provided employment at making up clothing for hands thrown out of work. It was the only one of his enterprises by which he suffered no pecuniary loss. During the great fire (1666) his Lombard Street premises were burned. He secured temporary accommodation in Leadenhall Street, and in a few years was able to rebuild in Lombard Street, and to carry on his business with increased success. In 1676 he left the management of the concern in the hands of his nephew and partner, Jonathan James (son of his sister Prudence), who had been his apprentice; he was then worth about 9,000l. Henceforth he devoted his time and great part of his means to works of public benefit. He had been elected about 1673 a governor of Christ's Hospital, the first public recognition of his worth.

He had two schemes already in operation. About 1670 he had erected a building by the river for the storage of corn and coals, to be retailed to the poor in hard times at cost price; how this plan worked is not stated. Early in 1676 he had started a ‘workhouse in Little Britain, for the employment of the poor in the linen manufacture;’ he built new premises expressly for it. Tillotson suggests that the hint of this ‘larger design’ was taken from the example of Thomas Gouge [q. v.], who was one of the frequenters of Firmin's table. Firmin employed as many as seventeen hundred spinners, besides flax-dressers, weavers, &c. He paid them for their work at the current rate, but, finding that they must work sixteen hours a day to earn sixpence, he added to their earnings in various ways, giving a sort of bonus in coal to good workers. His arrangements for the comfort and cleanliness of his hands, and for the industrial training of children rescued from the streets, were admirable. Nothing is said of his directly fostering the education of the children, but he printed large editions of a ‘Scripture Catechism’ (probably by Bishop Edward Fowler [q. v.]), and gave rewards to such as learned it.

The scheme never paid its way. Firmin sold his linens at cost price, but the sale flagged; for the first five years the annual loss was 200l. He invoked the aid of the press, in the hope of getting the corporation of London to take the matter up as a public enterprise, but in vain. The scale of production was diminished, yet the loss increased. Two or three friends helped to make it good, but the main burden rested on Firmin. In 1690 the patentees of the linen manufacture took over the scheme, retaining Firmin as its manager at a salary of 100l. a year, and reducing the rate of wages. The new arrangement was unsuccessful, Firmin's honorarium was not paid, and the enterprise was once more thrown on his hands. He kept it up to the day of his death, and nominally contrived to make it pay, only however by keeping the wages low, and supplementing them by private doles to his workers. His last wish was for two months more of life, in order that he might remodel his ‘workhouse.’ This was done after his death by James, his partner, a prudent man, who had saved Firmin from ruining himself by drawing too largely on the ready money of the firm. He had put down his coach rather than drop some of his spinners. The higher rate of wages obtainable at the woollen manufacture led Firmin to attempt its introduction as a London industry. He took for this purpose a house in Artillery Lane; but wool was too dear; his hands were too slow; after losing money for two years and a quarter he abandoned the trial.

Firmin deserves notice as a prison philanthropist. From about 1676 he interested himself in the condition of prisoners for debt, freeing several hundreds who were detained for small sums, and successfully promoting acts of grace for the liberation of others. He visited prisons, inquired into the treatment pursued, and prosecuted harsh and extortionate gaolers. His biographer relates that one of these incriminated officials hanged himself rather than face a trial.

Firmin was a strong patriot as regards English manufactures, strenuously opposing the importation of French silks. But when the protestant refugees came over from France in 1680 and following years he was the first to set up their own trades. Most of the moneys devoted to their relief passed through his hands, he himself collecting some 4,000l. His pet project of a linen manufacture he started for them at Ipswich in 1682.

In politics Firmin does not seem to have taken any part till 1685. His opposition to James II's unconstitutional proceedings cost him for a time his governorship at Christ's Hospital. Not won by James's declaration for liberty of conscience he largely aided the circulation of pamphlets which sounded the alarm against it. His principles seem to have been republican, but he was a devoted adherent to William of Orange. To Robert Frampton [q. v.], the nonjuring bishop of Gloucester, Firmin remarked, ‘I hope you will not be a nonconformist in your old age.’ Frampton retorted that Firmin himself was ‘a nonconformist to all Christendom besides a few lowsy sectarys in Poland.’ On the protestant exodus from Ireland in 1688–9 Firmin was the principal commissioner for the relief of the refugees; more than 56,000l. went through his hands, and eight of the protestant hierarchy of Ireland addressed to him a joint letter of thanks. He was rendering a similar service for the nonjurors in 1695, when he was stopped by the interference of the government.

In conjunction with his friend, Sir Robert Clayton [q. v.], Firmin was an indefatigable governor of Christ's Hospital, carrying out many improvements, both of structure and arrangement. On Sunday evenings it was his custom to attend the scholars' service, and see that their ‘pudding-pies’ for supper were of proper ‘bigness.’ In April 1693 he was elected a governor of St. Thomas's Hospital, of which Clayton had been made president in the previous year. Firmin carried through the work of rebuilding the hospital and church. Among his admirable qualities was the faculty for interesting others in benevolent designs and calling forth their liberality. He was a kind of almoner-general to the metropolis, keeping a register of the poor he visited, recommending their cases, and apprenticing their children.

Luke Milbourn [q. v.] in 1692 speaks of Firmin as a ‘hawker’ for the Socinians, ‘to disperse their new-fangled divinity.’ Only four books of this class are known with certainty to have been promoted by him. In 1687 was printed at his expense ‘A Brief History of the Unitarians, called also Socinians.’ It is in the shape of four letters, written for his information, probably by Stephen Nye, and is noteworthy as marking the first appearance in English literature of the term ‘unitarian,’ a name unknown to Biddle. In 1689 he printed ‘Brief Notes on the Creed of St. Athanasius,’ a sheet by an unknown author. Tillotson, who had lectured on the Socinian controversy at St. Lawrence, Jewry, in 1679–80, felt himself compelled by ‘calumnies’ to publish the lectures in 1693. He sent a copy to Firmin, who printed a letter (29 Sept. 1694) in reply, probably by Nye, under the title ‘Considerations on the Explications of the Doctrine of the Trinity’ (sometimes confounded with a tract of 1693 with similar title, and by the same hand). This he laid before Tillotson, who remarked that Burnet's forthcoming exposition of the articles ‘shall humble your writers.’ In 1697, at Firmin's instance, appeared ‘The Agreement of the Unitarians with the Catholick Church,’ a work which more closely expresses his own views than any of the foregoing. He never departed from the communion of the church of England, but put a Sabellian sense on the public forms. At the time of his death he was meditating a plan of ‘unitarian congregations’ to meet for devotional purposes as fraternities within the church.

Firmin was an original member of the ‘Society for the Reformation of Manners’ (1691), and was very active in the enforcement of fines for the repression of profane swearing. Kettlewell's biographer speaks of his disinterested charity, and Wesley, who abridged his life for the ‘Arminian Magazine,’ calls him ‘truly pious.’

Firmin had injured his health by overexertion and neglecting his meals, and had become consumptive. He was carried off in a couple of days by a typhoid fever, dying on 20 Dec. 1697. Bishop Fowler [q. v.] attended him on his deathbed. He was buried in the cloisters at Christ's Hospital, where a marble slab is placed to his memory. A memorial pillar stands in the grounds of Marden Park, Surrey, the seat of his friend Clayton, where ‘Firmin's Walk’ perpetuates his name. There is no portrait of Firmin; he is described as a little, active man, of frank address and engaging manner. His autograph will (dated 7 Feb. 1694) shows illiteracy.

Firmin died worth about 3,000l. He was twice married: first, in 1660, to a citizen's daughter with a portion of 500l.; she died while Firmin was at Cambridge on business, leaving a son (d. about 1690) and a daughter (d. in infancy); secondly, in 1664, to Margaret (d. 14 Jan. 1719, aged 77), daughter of Giles Dentt, J.P., of Newport, Essex, alderman of London; by her he had several children, who all died in infancy, except the eldest, Giles, born 22 May 1665 (Tillotson was his godfather). Giles received his mother's portion and became a promising merchant; he married Rachel (d. 11 April 1724), daughter of Perient Trott and sister of Lady Clayton; died at Oporto on 22 Jan. 1694, and was buried at Newport on 13 April; his widow afterwards married Owen Griffith, rector of Blechingley, Surrey.

Firmin's only known publication was ‘Some Proposals for the Imploying of the Poor, especially in and about London, and for the Prevention of Begging. In a Letter to a Friend. By T. F.,’ 1678, 4to. An enlarged issue appeared in 1681, 4to; two editions same year. It was reprinted in a collection of ‘Tracts relating to the Poor,’ 1787, 4to.

[The Charitable Samaritan, or a Short and Impartial Account of … Mr. T. F. … by a gentleman of his acquaintance, 1698, 4to; Life of Mr. Thomas Firmin, 1698, 8vo, 2nd edition, 1791, 12mo (the writer had known him since 1653; appended is a funeral sermon, probably by the same writer, ‘preached in the country’); Vindication of the memory of Thomas Firmin from the Injurious Reflections of … Milbourn, 1698, 4to (apparently by the writer of the Life); Account of Mr. Firmin's Religion, &c., 1698, 8vo; Tillotson's Funeral Sermon for Gouge, 1681; Penn's Key Opening the Way, 1692; Milbourn's Mysteries in Religion, 1692; Grounds and Occasions of the Controversy concerning the Unity of God, 1698; Life of Kettlewell, 1718, p. 420; Kennett's Register, 1728, p. 761; Burnet's Hist. of his own Time, 1734, ii. 211 sq.; Birch's Life of Tillotson, 1753, p. 292 sq.; Life by Cornish, 1780; Arminian Magazine, 1786, p. 253; Wallace's Antitrin. Biog., 1850, i. (historical introduction), iii. 353 sq.; Life of Bishop Frampton (Evans), 1876, p. 187; State Papers, Dom. Chas. I, cclxi. 105; Cole's manuscripts, v. 27 sq.; Hunter's manuscript (Addit. MS. 24478, p. 114 b); Firmin's will at Somerset House.]

A. G.