His concern for the poor
After spending a long period in business working for others, Mr Thompson resolved to start working for himself, so he opened a grocery store in Price Street, Birkenhead. His business soon began to prosper and had he given his undivided attention to this he could easily, in time, have become one of Birkenhead's most successful businessmen. However, his concern for the poor and the underprivileged, both young and old caused him to put his earthly ambition aside and to devote himself to the well being of those people. He firstly commenced his work in Brougham Street and wandering around from place to place through Birkenhead he gathered a multitude of the poor, hungry and friendless about him. Also, close to the ancient Abbey, in Abbey Street, he opened a meeting room where he preached the Gospel to them.
The Mission Room, Abbey Street
Mr Thompson laboured incessantly for the cause he had at heart, never taking a holiday; the thought uppermost in his mind, both day and night was of the poor and how to solace and brighten their lives. He sought neither fame, distinction nor wealth, his resolve being to work for the honour and glory of God and the welfare of the poorest of the people. He lived for the poor and made himself poor for their sake. It was said of him that he never made an enemy and never lost a friend. He always had enthusiasm and faith in anything that he undertook.
Over the ensuing years he moved from place to place, including Jackson Street, St Paul's Church in Argyle Street, Price Street, Chester Street, Duke Street and then back to Price Street where the Mission was carried on for a number of years. He then moved to a disused Skating Rink before finally settling in the current premises in Hemingford Street.
The new premises
The building purchased in Hemingford Street, built in 1854 had formerly been known as the 'Friends Meeting House'. A number of gentlemen came forward to help put the mission on a permanent basis. A Company was formed, the liability of the members being limited to the amount of shares held by them. The share capital of the company was £1,500, with the purchase price of the premises being £1,400.
The new building was opened on Saturday 9th January 1892. Eight persons were appointed as Directors and Mr Thompson was appointed as the Superintendent. The name initially given to the Mission was "The Poor Children's Mission". Charles and Esther took residence above the Mission Hall with their six children, moving from their previous residence in Beckwith Street. The new premises were soon put to maximum use and as can be seen from the following, a very full programme of events were held at the Mission each week:
The weekly programme
On Sundays a free breakfast was provided for all at 10am, after which a service was held from 11am to 12 noon. Mr Thompson felt that it was important to provide for the temporal wants of people before meeting the spiritual needs, realising that to preach the Gospel to the hungry would be of little avail; people with empty stomachs care little for long dissertations, no matter how important or instructive the subject might be.
Children's meeting in progress
In the 1904/5 Report it stated that Sunday Breakfast would consist of bread and syrup, current bread and when available, scones and buns, together with tea, coffee or cocoa. This was served very hot, which, on a cold winter's day was much appreciated by them. After breakfast a bright Gospel Service was held. Different young people from the Church of Christ Endeavour would come and give a short address. The little ones would recite Bible verses, sing hymns, solos etc. Sometimes people would come and sing for them and visitors were surprised at the good and orderly conduct of the children. The Sunday evening service commenced at 6.30pm and was one of the happiest gatherings of the week. At 8.15pm a meeting was held for the adults where any fathers or mothers or older children were made welcome. This service was greatly enjoyed by a number of the poor old widows who always attended.
On Monday evenings he held a Band of Hope meeting, which was generally attended by about 300 children. He impressed up them the evils arising from drink, which for many of them they would have been well aware with one or other of their parents often being intoxicated.
On Tuesday there was a children's service, after which those present contributed either recitations or songs, each child endeavouring to outdo the other in point of their ability.
On Wednesday the boys had an improvement class in the evening, with recitations, songs and games taking place.
Thursday evenings were set apart for girls for a similar purpose, but during the winter months a sewing class was held.
Meals being served for the widows
In the afternoon he had as his guests about 80 poor widows, to whom he entertained to a substantial tea afterwards.
On Friday nights there was a united meeting of boys and girls.
Saturdays were devoted to the children's playday and at 4pm tea was provided for them. The children particularly enjoyed the Dolls houses and the Rocking Horses, and for the little children stories were read.
During the winter months free dinners were provided daily to the poor children. The soup was supplied by the director of the Liverpool Food Association - steaming hot, which came across the river in huge tankards, and the room where the children dined was made bright and cheerful looking. The meals were provided by the Food & Betterment Society. Between 200 and 300 children partook daily of these dinners, many of whom wouldn't have had any breakfast before going to school and looked forward to this midday meal with eager anticipation.
Christmas Day and New Year's Day were also occasions when a special meal was provided for the children. One year on New Year's Day 150 of the poorest children had a treat of a roast beef dinner and plum pudding thanks to the Charles Dickens Fellowship.
The children with Father Christmas
On Christmas Day over 500 children, together with a number of poor women and unemployed men were provided with a good dinner of Hot-pot etc. There would be Christmas trees, which was especially appealing the little ones who never tired of looking at them and what was on them. One year, on the platform in front of the trees were arranged three large loaves weighing about 20lbs and stamped on the bread were the words "For Jesus' Sake," which had been given anonymously.
For the girls on Christmas Day little dolls were given, these having been made from flour sacks, filled with sawdust and dressed in clothes from ladies groups.
Both children and adults in great need
In the 1904/5 Report it referred to the previous cold winter and stated that almost before daylight little ones would make their way to the Mission to ask for something to eat before going to school, while others a little bolder would ask for a loaf to take home to mother, a request which was never refused. It was not only the children but also poor old men and women also would come and ask for just a drink of tea and a little bread. One poor old paralysed man in particular was so helpless that he had to be fed like a child.
The children were not fed alone - they were clothed also, only that the clothes were given to those in the greatest need. Looking at the children who visited the hall, some of the children would have been well dressed whilst others would have been attired in motley garb and it would have been natural to assume that the poorest children were amongst the ill-clad section but that was not the case. The poorest children were usually the best attired because their clothing would have been given to them by Mr Thompson in consequence of their old garments refusing to hang together any longer. People would sometimes make a comment that pressure should have been put on the children's parents to properly feed and clothe their children, but the truth of the matter was that their parents were often in as pitiable plight as their children. They were either ill or out of work, poverty staring them in the face. There would be an empty cupboard and a fireless grate; the house would be nearly devoid of furniture, all available articles having been disposed of to the broker, and there would also be a daily or hourly anticipation of a visit from the landlord or bailiffs for arrears of rent. As long as Mr Thompson had a loaf of bread in the cupboard he never turned a deaf ear to an appeal for food made by the young or old.
Children without footwear
Some of the destitute children
In the 1904/5 Report the Lady Superintendent, Charles' daughter Annie Thompson stated that during the previous cold winter that it had been distressing to see so many children coming to the Mission in their bare feet. They did the best that they could at the Mission by providing things like sawdust, in order to make the dining-room nice and warm, for any little bare feet. However one poor girl in particular, the eldest of a large family, was sobbing dreadfully one night, because it was the first time she had been without shoes and stockings, and found it difficult to cope with. When a kind friend heard of her trouble she bought her both new boots and stockings. Because of this great need Annie decided to make a very strong appeal for old boots and shoes, and there was a good response to the appeal, including the young scholars of St Michael's Higher Grade School who brought parcel after parcel of useful clothing to make warm the crowds of little destitute ones.
The May Queen
The May Queen
An important part of Birkenhead life in those days was the Charles Thompson May Queen Festival held each year. The Queen was always selected from amongst the best-conducted girls of the Mission. When the weather was fine the people in Birkenhead turned out in their thousands to witness the 'Royal Section' of the procession. All along the line of the route, spectators would wait patiently for hours to get a glimpse of the May Queen. The procession was generally headed by the band of the 'Indefatigable,' the band being carried in a wagonette drawn by three beautiful grey or white horses. The Queen, attired in white satin was seated on a throne, surrounded by her bodyguard consisting of poor little boys and girls. Dainty little ladies-in-waiting were also in attendance on the Queen, dressed in their many-coloured garments. After passing the Town Hall they would return to the Mission Hall for the crowning ceremony which was usually carried out by a well-known lady or gentleman, usually the Mayoress, with the Mayor presiding. During the following week the Queen, attended by her retinue, would generally pay a visit to the Hospital and the Workhouse.
Speaking about the may Queen Festival in 1894, Councillor John Edwards made the remark that amongst the little boys and girls attending Charles Thompson's Mission there may be a future Mayor or Mayoress of Birkenhead. It was certainly the case though that many of these girls did very well in later life and became very respectable and accomplished women.
Entertainment and concerts provided
Concerts and entertainment were frequently provided for the children and widows at the Mission and the following are some examples of the types of concerts give:
His compassion for the sick
Amongst the many children visiting the mission were cripples, and for these Mr Thompson provided crutches or sticks whilst for the old and infirm he provided bath chairs.
Mr Thompson could not bear to see anyone in pain or sorrow, particularly having suffered himself great physical pain through an illness which necessitated him spending from 12 to 18 months as a patient at the home of Hugh Owen Thomas, a famous bone setter in Liverpool. At the end of this period it was sadly necessary for him to have his foot amputated. At this period, suffering so much himself and seeing many others suffering, he made a vow that if his life was spared he would devote it to the amelioration of the suffering of others.
In spite of his busy life Mr Thompson was always accessible to all, whether they were rich or poor, young or old and he could work with anyone, sympathetic to him or not, so long as they helped along with the work in hand.
Friends in high places
Whenever the cupboard was at the point of getting bare he would often visit likely business people to make known the need and his visits were rarely fruitless for no one could resist the winning ways in which he could make an appeal. Sometimes he would be given permission to take away broken victuals from some big banquet at the Town Hall or elsewhere and he would with glee help to load a cart with the good things, really and truly delighted that he had secured the crumbs from the rich man's table with which to feed his human sparrows.
One of the children's outings
Mr Thompson had a number of good friends in high places. One couple Mr & Mrs Grays Hill delighted to entertain the widows at their pretty residence at Mere Hall, Noctorum with its beautiful gardens. Another couple Mr & Mrs Leyland often used to invite the poor children to their residence, Upton Manor. It was an impressive sight to see the long procession of carts laden with children, many of whom were well nigh naked, but all with clean and smiling faces, singing joyously en route. Mr Thompson generally took his place in the last cart, remarking that "the shepherd should keep his lambs in front of him lest any of them might go astray."
Amongst the most assiduous in helping the work of the Mission were people such as Mr & Mrs W H Lever, Mr John Laird, Mr & Mrs Holt, Sir Elliott and Lady Lees MP, Mr Samuel Smith MP, Mr Joseph Hoult MP and Lady Margaret Ismay.
The support of the press
Ever since Charles Thompson commenced his work the Birkenhead and Liverpool newspapers recorded many events connected with it. There was scarcely a week, and certainly not a month, without some reference being made to the Mission in the Birkenhead Press. The Birkenhead Advertiser was a faithful chronicler of the work, and on more than one occasion the Editor opened his columns for subscriptions towards the object. The Birkenhead News, also particularly during the editorship of Mr Fred Willmer befriended the Mission by bringing it before the public in its news reports.
The Birkenhead Times was also very supportive in a similar way and in the following extract from their paper in 1887 the writer was clearly impressed by a visit to one of his meetings:
"I was struck with the poor little waifs Mr Thompson had on the platform, their appearance alike being creditable to him and those helping him, when we consider the class of children and the appearance they made on the platform. It is, without doubt, a grand and noble work to be engaged in, but it requires an amount of forbearance and patience that few would care to undertake it. It was distressing enough in all conscience to see some of the poor children Mr Thompson had taken in hand, many of whom were stockingless and even shoeless and in some cases might even be called clotheless. One little fellow I noticed could hardly walk, and therefore another little fellow mounted him on his back, and thus he was processioned to his tea."
Some success stories
Those who benefited from Mr Thompson's kindness were truly grateful for what he had done for them. One such person who had been out of work for sometime, at last secured employment and the first thing that he did on receiving his pay was to visit Mr Thompson and ask him to accept a small offering. He said that he had five children and if it had not been for him they would have starved because he had neither money nor friends.
The majority of those who grew up in touch with the Mission became respectable men and women. One day a very neatly dressed man came to the Children's Service and at the close asked the Lady Superintendent if she did not remember him. All were greatly surprised to learn who he was, for some years prior to that he was one of the most wretched little lads attending the Mission. He was now married and in regular employment and for all the kindness that had been shown to him he would try and give a little help whenever he could towards the Mission.
Many boys from the Mission were trained on the "Indefatigable," and a number in time became officers of ships, through Mr Thompson's appeals to ship owners. Many boys and girls, who became respectable members of society, often called to see the place where they had their first start in life. The Hall in Hemingford Street was not a one-day-a-week mission - open on Sunday, closed on weekdays. Anyone who paid a visit to the place in the evening would always find Mr Thompson at his post, just as it was with his daughter and successor Annie Thompson.