MICHAEL TOMLIN (1814-1903) - “A FISHER OF MEN”
Leigh Lives is indebted to Geoffrey Henderson, the Great Great Grandson of Michael Tomlin for this insight into a well known Leigh character.
When I first got involved with my family tree and the addictive powers of computerised genealogy I was disappointed to find that I seemed to be descended from a long line of agricultural labourers! Well, no disrespect to farm workers but I’d rather hoped for a bit of royalty down the line, or at any rate a famous highwayman or a courtesan. Then I discovered the Reverend Michael Tomlin of Leigh-on-Sea, my great-great maternal grandfather.
Of course Michael wasn’t a Reverend when I first came across him, far from it. He was a rough, tough fisherman who fought and drank his way through life in between risking that life every day as a shrimp fisherman in the early 19th century. He lived in the village of Leigh with his wife Elizabeth. They would have nine children in a small cottage just like the one lovingly recreated at the Leigh Heritage Centre. Michael’s picture still hangs in the Whittingham Road Methodist Church, his big bushy beard spreading beneath shining eyes that seem to reflect the gospel message he would hear and share with others for so many years. Leigh was so tough in those days it was a no-go area for the police and even the Anglican Rector of St Clement’s Church, Edward Newton Walter, was afraid to go down there to preach.
But one day a preacher did go down to the small fishing village, a Jewish immigrant from far away Poland. His name was Ridley Haim Herschell and a street in Southend still bears his name. Ridley spoke simply about Jesus, he often called him by his Hebrew name of Yeshua, and how this Jesus could change people’s lives. In time Michael was touched by the words of this Hebrew evangelist and the big man tearfully went forward at a public meeting in the village, and made a commitment to Jesus.
“Betty, my life has been changed,” he said to his wife when he arrived home that night, “the Jew has been telling me of the love of God and Jesus Christ and how he could alter my life.” Elizabeth thought he was drunk, as he usually was, and pushed him out of the way, but something told her this was much more than the drink talking.
Sometime later Michael learned to read and began to preach, often in the open air or on the beach and, after many trials, he became a full-time Methodist Minister. Tomlin claimed he only ever read the Bible and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Elizabeth, who always supported him in his ministry, died in 1878 but Michael lived on into the new century finally dying in the summer of 1903. To this day the headstone on the grave he shares with Elizabeth reads, “In life and death, Jesus only.”
Michael Tomlin's grave in St Clement's Churchyard
Photo courtesy of Whitingham Avenue Methodist Church - Michael Tomlin Memorial, Southend-on-Sea
Michael Tomlin a Fisher of Men by Alderman S.F. Johnson, 1945
All Love – A Biography of Ridley Herschell by Geoffrey Henderson, 2006