Sunday, 19 August 2012

Like Father Like Sons

                         Tim Bobbin has been described as being eccentric to the point of madness, but it is tragic that the eccentricity that was passed on to his poor sons developed into full-blown madness. 

His eldest son, John Collier junior, was born at Milnrow in February 1744 and was educated as a painter by his father. At twelve years old he was apprenticed to a herald painter, Mr Bowcock of Chester, and after his time was served he returned home, before moving first to York, before settling in Newcastle on Tyne in 1766 as a coach painter and heraldic artist. He prospered there, earning a £60 profit in his first year, and sent for his younger brother, Thomas, to be a servant to him. The brothers quarrelled – John wrote to his father complaining that Thomas was lazy and conceited – and in August 1767, Thomas left and was replaced by Charles, another brother. 
Again, John was dissatisfied with his brother’s customs, and complained about him to his father, although the fault may have been his own stubbornness. In January 1768, John married Betty Ranken, youngest daughter of Robert Ranken, a well-to-do Newcastle businessman. She brought a dowry of £400, which John used to extend his house and studio. Unfortunately, the building extended onto land owned by Mr Drummond, who issued a writ and the extension was demolished by force. His curmudgeonliness increased from then, maybe inspired by the litigation, and grew worse when Betty died in 1777. He met and married Betty Howard, many years his younger, later in that year, although the legality of the wedding has been questioned, not least because she married under the false name of Forster. John began to accuse his young wife of putting iron filings in his shirts and stockings, and at one time he beat her with a poker so badly that it bent across her back. 
In 1778, he published "An Alphabet for the Grown-up Grammarians of Great Britain. By John Collier, a Supposed Lunatic," in which he described the alphabet as, “Fourteen vowels! six mongrels! five consonants! and one devil knows what, form our present alphabet, consisting of twenty-six marks," – the ‘devil knows what’ is the letter Q, which for some reason he took exception to. Early in the same year, he threatened the printer, Mr Slack, and then tried to shoot him. He was committed to an asylum, where brother Thomas found him chained to his bed and had problems in getting the magistrates to release him, planning to take him to Penrith, not least because John repeatedly threatened to remain in Newcastle and to shoot any Justices who tried to prosecute him. 
In January 1779, Thomas secured his brother’s release and they moved to Penrith, where John ran up bills of fifteen shillings for printing and parts for an electrical machine – he had become convinced that one person’s thoughts could be transferred to another my electrical means. He went back home to Milnrow, where he was known as Jacky, and took first to wearing an iron hood which he made for himself, and then to wearing his clothes turned inside out, before finally settling on wearing sackcloth. His clogs troubled him, until he hit upon the solution of pulling them to pieces and re-nailing the leather uppers inside out onto the soles. 
He owned some cottages in Milnrow, and deciding one day that his tenants had affronted him, he tried to get them evicted – but unsatisfied that the legal proceeding were going on too long, he fastened the doors and windows of the cottages shut and stuffed the chimneys with grass and hay. When the tenants lit their fires, the cottages filled with smoke, which could not escape past the improvised plugs; John refused to open the doors until they all agreed to leave. John Collier eventually died at the home of his nephew, James Clegg, in 1809. 

Thomas, his younger brother, although troubled by the actions of his sibling, was not without his own troubles. One day, when the steeple of Newcastle church was being repaired, Thomas climbed up the outside of the spire but froze in panic at the top, and had to be carried down by a steeplejack, who then beat him with a rope-end. He became in politics, and when he was demonstrating with keelers and colliers, he was attacked and almost killed by a mob. He published a book of political poetry, which brought him to the attention of the magistrates, who imprisoned him and burned his book. In later life, he became interested in astrology and started to describe himself as a ‘conjurer and professor of mighty magic.’ His business failed and he too returned to Milnrow, where he died in 1825.

Autograph of Charles Collier

Charles, the youngest of the brothers, was also a painter who also enjoyed an initial success. He married a widow who brought with her £100 a year, and he was soon in the position to be able to buy Tim Bobbin’s cottage for his parents. The money stopped when the widow died, so he returned to Milnrow, where he worked as a portrait painter and flannel merchant. His love of field sports and hunting led to the failure of the flannel merchanting, so he became an itinerant portrait painter – in a three month tour in 1802 he visited Oxford, London, Hertford, Cambridge, Ely, Bury St. Edmunds, Norwich, Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Ipswich, Harwich, Rochester, Chatham, Dover, Brighton, Portsmouth, Gosport, Salisbury, Exeter, Plymouth, Penrhyn, and Falmouth! 
He was obsessed with watching soldiers and walked from Rochdale to Dover just to witness a military review; in 1812 he slept out in the open to be one of the first on the ground the following day for a review at Kersal Moor, Manchester. Broken by travelling and ill health, he died in poverty in 1812.

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