James Thomson was born to Scottish parents whose chief characteristics became some of his own. His father, an officer of the merchant marine, was known for his geniality and love of drink, while his mother was known for her melancholy.
Thomson’s father was a chief officer in a ship out of Greenock, Scotland, when he was disabled by a paralytic stroke in 1840. He moved the family to London, where within two years the young Thomson was admitted to the Royal Caledonian Asylum, an institution for the children of indigent Scottish servicemen. His ailing mother died soon thereafter, in 1842.
Thomson’s relatives determined his future as an army schoolmaster and in 1850 enrolled him in the military normal school of the Royal Military College at Chelsea. Successful in his studies, Thomson was posted in 1851 as assistant teacher in a regimental school in Ballincollig, near Cork, Ireland. His nearly year-and-a-half stay there proved pivotal. He made friends with a trooper in the dragoons, Charles Bradlaugh, who later would become an editor and leading proponent of the Free Thought movement in England. He also fell in love with the young Matilda Weller. To Thomson’s great despair, she died soon after his duties took him back to Chelsea. To his dying day, he kept a curl of her hair in a locket.
Made an army schoolmaster in 1854, for the next eight years he served in Devonshire, Dublin, Aldershot, Jersey, and Portsmouth. He also began his career as a poet. His works appeared in periodicals including the Edinburgh Magazine above the signature “B. V.” The first initial represented “Bysshe,” to invoke Percy Bysshe Shelley, while the second represented “Vanolis,” an...
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