Thomas Needham, wandering Kerry boy
Out of the wandering Kerry boy He was to fashion a man of God whose chief delight it henceforth should be to preach that gospel which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. (From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.51.)
Thomas (1854 – 1916), the third of the four Needham evangelists (George, Benjamin, Thomas and William) who were friends of DL Moody, was the second youngest of the ten children in the Needham family of County Kerry, Ireland. They were “non-conformists,” though exactly what variety I don’t know, I suspect Methodists or Baptists. Their parents were George and Susan Needham, of Kenmare, in Kerry. George (1802-1862) was a captain in the coastguard. His wife was a lot younger than him (1818-1856), only fifteen when she had her first child, Mary. She died in 1856 when Benjamin was three, Thomas two, and the youngest brother, William, only an infant. She was just 38 years old.
The three little boys, Benjamin, Thomas and William, were subsequently raised by their father and older siblings. Mary, the first born in the family, was 21 when Thomas was born, and 23 when their mother died. Mary became the stand in mother for the family. However, two years later, when she was 25, Mary married and moved out of the family home to Sneem, a few miles to the west, where she settled with her husband, a whitesmith. Mary Needham (Hickson) was my mother’s Irish great grandmother.
Elizabeth, the second sister in the family, was then 19. When Thomas was eight his father also died (1862) and he, along with all the other Needham children were left as orphans. The three youngest boys, Benjamin, Thomas and little William were wholly in the care of their older siblings, except Mary who had had started her own family.
Many years later, Thomas wrote a book about his early life, called From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land (published 1920). It can be read online here. It is a fascinating book and gives a tiny glimpse into his childhood in Ireland as well as his adventures after he left in 1867 at the age of 13. The book is the story of his journey to faith in Jesus, and provides the background to his later life as a minister and evangelist. He writes in the foreword:
Though repeatedly urged to do so, the writer has long hesitated to record the startling experiences of his eventful life. All that he is today as a Christian minister of the Cross of Christ, he owes to that grace that “brought him up of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set his feet upon a rock and established his goings.” To boast anything in his natural self, of courage or exploits, would be to detract from the glory of that grace whose handicraft, as a new creation in Christ, he is. (p.4)
The story is there to be read in its completeness on the Internet, and I will summarise the tale some other time. My purpose here is to reflect a little on the Needham family in Ireland in the 1850s and 60s, to get a picture of their lives there. Thomas’s book is the only real source material that I have to go on, but some pictures are included which are very helpful.
The Needhams before Thomas
His oldest sister, Mary, was born in 1833, and during her teenage years had weathered the storm of the Potato Famine that so shaped Ireland in the seven years after the blight first appeared in 1845. The Needham children grew up in a country that was suffering. They saw starving people around them and deaths from malnutrition and disease were all too common. They saw those neighbours of theirs who had the means departing Ireland for the promised lands of America and Australia. Many others went to England looking for relief. Their mother, Susan (Carter), was herself English and it is not unreasonable to imagine that some of the older children of the family went to relatives in England to escape the ravages of the famine.
The community they lived in was shrinking. George and Susan surely talked too about the pros and cons of leaving their beloved homeland. But they were spared the extreme suffering of many others presumably as a result of George’s steady income, which sustained the family through those difficult years. He is said to have been a captain in the coastguard, but I have not found any document to support this, and the Griffiths Valuation lists him as parish clerk. But they lived close to the sea, a fact that was to shape Thomas’ life profoundly.
They were a family of faith, Protestants in a Catholic community. When Thomas was born (1854) the family lived in Templenoe, quite close to the church. The church of Ireland structure was deconsecrated in 1993 and became The Vestry Restaurant, but is now apparently closed.
The Griffiths valuation for 1852 shows that the family home was on the block of land next to the school and Petty Sessions Court House. It lies on the northern side of the Ring of Kerry Road, looking out over Kenmare Bay. George is listed as the tenant and the landlord is Revd D Mahony. The tenement is described as “house, office and land.” It was here Thomas Needham was born in 1856.
Thomas describes his birthplace as follows, and includes a picture in his book:
I was born by the ocean; on the shores of Kenmare Bay in the South of Ireland, not far from the beautiful lakes of Killarney, with their echoes, their legends and their weird fascinations…
As a child he was filled with “an unconquerable passion for the sea” that “shaped the whole course of my early life.” His passion caused him to devise any means whatever to get out on the waters of Kenmare Bay, to the distress of his father, who knew of the sea’s dangers from his work with the coastguard.
All my youthful pranks took a seaward turn. If my father deprived me of a boat, I launched the pig trough into the heavy breakers. If he hid the oars I made a pair of garden shovels answer the purpose. When all means of rowing failed I made a sailboat with the sheets from my bed. No punishments, no remonstrances from my gentle sisters could subdue the wild passion that constantly drove me into the deepest “perils of waters!” (p.6)
After his father’s death his older siblings had to deal with young Thomas’s obsession with the sea and ships. He describes their solution to his preoccupations:
Finally, it was decided by my family, that the only cure for my fascination, was to send me to sea in earnest, and let me experience some of the hardships, as well as the fun, of the ocean. I was youngest but one of ten children. My father and mother, both godly Protestants in a Catholic community, were dead. So at the early age of thirteen, my brothers and sisters concluded to put me on board a Receiving Ship of the British Navy.
Tom goes to sea
So Thomas joined the navy in 1867, and sailed off into the world. His adventures are recorded in the book and make for great reading. At the end of chapter one he describes his parting:
The parting from home and all its familiar scenes was sad enough. But sadder to those left than to he who was going. I took the farewells, the advice and the gift of a little Bible with a boy’s elastic hopefulness. My older brother George accompanied me to the ship…
It was some years before Thomas returned to Ireland, but I have tried in vain to find dates. He had departed in 1867, two years after Mary and Elizabeth had gone out to Boston. How long he was at sea or in South America is not specified in the book, but it must have been several years.
While he was still in South America he had written to a brother and sister who he knew were in Boston. A reply came eventually from the brother with the news that his older sister Belinda had died.
In reply to my long silence, came one from my brother, urging me to return to them; and telling me that my dear sister Berlinda had died. This news I had got before I quit the river steamer; and it was my urgent reason for my longing desire to leave South America. The death of this sister came as a peculiar blow to me. It was her who had cared for me so tenderly and patiently in my young days. Her hand had packed the little Bible among my sailor traps. Her “God bless you, Tom,” was the last prayer I had heard. Her hand had waved the last farewell as I left my home shore. Her secret prayers, I well knew, had for years followed me over the boisterous waves and wide steppes. And now she was no more. Never again should I see those tender eyes, and that rich raven black hair, and hear that low musical voice. What knew I of the resurrection and its comforts then? Nothing. I only knew that my sister professed godliness and that she had truly acted it. She had been a mystery, but an admiration to me. I had been in awe of the influence her piety had over my life. And now it was ended. Could it be? How she must have yearned for me and I never went back to her. And now it was too late. I sat in my cabin with the little black banded envelope pressed close in my trembling hands. I cried, and cried alone, until my heart was well nigh breaking. Who, or what, could administer comfort to my natural soul, as yet unsatisfied by the grace of God? Today, a saved man, knowing the power of prayer and the strength of Christian hope, I think of my sister as in the arms of Jesus, in that blessed repose of those who are “absent from the body but at home with the Lord.” I know that parting are only for a little while. I know that reunions are eternal. (pp.49-50)
He booked a passage for Europe and the homeland. When he came to England he discovered that none of his family remained in Ireland, but that all had migrated to America, to the Boston area, to the same area that Mary and Elizabeth had settled in 1865.
I lost no time in finding a ship for Boston and finding my kindred. And the home coming was a double. I returned to the bosom of my family, but more wonderful, I, a prodigal, returned to my heavenly Father’s house; for it was in the city of Boston that the grace of God met me and saved me. (p.52)
Thomas was still a young man – in 1870 he was barely more than 16. Who he lived with when he came to Boston I don’t know, nor what he did to earn a crust. Eventually he became a minister, but the process by which that came about is unknown to me. He died suddenly on Sunday 1 October, 1916, some 45 years later, at the age of 62, of a heart attacked sustained just after preaching to a congregation of 700. The afterword of his book explains: