Francis J. Thompson, with his zither, holding bible class at Strangeways Prison, Manchester
Francis Thompson was the first Pastor of Union Hall. In the 1960's there was an article about him published in the Manchester Evening News. The article is titled 'Hound by Heaven' and written by Ernest Dewhurst.
Manchester Prison Bible class meets on Thursday nights. The gentle little man with the big brown box, arriving at the prison gate as he has done for 22 years, chirps out, “Thompson, no key.” And inside he goes.
Francis J. Thompson is prison visitor, Bible class leader, preacher, reciter (trained), and building contractor. He is 84. He unpacks from his box a Bible and a zither harp which he bought in 1898 from a pawnshop in Stockport Road, Manchester, for 15 shillings. His lapel badge of the Scripture Union asserts that he has agreed to read the scriptures every day.
The Bible class, in a double cell, is limited to 20 prisoners. “Once,” the little man explains, “we tried 50 in the chapel but it was rather abused. Those on the back row would not be in the spirit of it. They would be having a game of nap.”
The subject tonight is the “I Am’s.” Francis Thompson unrolls a cheerful poster. “I am the bread of life … I am the light of the world … I am the door … the good shepherd … the resurrection and the life … the way … the true vine.” He calls it simply, and with great warmth, “The Word.”
After a biblical hour Mr Thompson fingers the zither to life, accompanying himself. One prisoner, as usual, chips in: “Say the 23rd Psalm, Mr Thompson. Say the ‘Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’”
And afterwards : “Tell us about the tramp, Mr Thompson.” So off he goes, tidy of dress, mind, and memory, into a sweet smell of the uncooped world beyond : I am only a tramp, A merry old scamp, With never a thought or care. I live all the day In the sunshine gay And my home is the sweet fresh air. In his youth, Mr Thompson was a fellow pupil in elocution of John Duxbury, the Lancashire reciter — a man who, he recalls, reduced the Book of Job to a two-hour recital.
The class lasts an hour and a quarter. If a prisoner has a problem, he can write it on a scrap of paper and have it answered the following week. “The men come by choice. They put their names down for the class. If there is no vacancy, they would wait. They can come one week and leave the next, but they generally stay for the session. I have never had any disturbance or opposition. Most of those who come to the class have a background of Christianity.” Francis Thompson is probably the oldest prison visitor in the country. His life has been centred on “The Word,” and his first reaction on being asked if we could write about him was that it would be “to the glory of God.”
“The Word” found him, in 1902, interested in the prison gate mission; usefully deployed at 7am outside the gates of Strangeways prison handing tickets to the discharged — “a cup of coffee and a kind word for you at the prison gate mission.”
The women were released at seven and the men at eight. “Begorra,” one man said to young Thompson, “begorra, a cup of coffee and a kind word. I haven’t had oider for a munth.” Mr Thompson remembers the tall woman. She came out with a revengeful look on her face, drawing a shawl around her shoulders. She noticed, as she overtook her, an old lady without a shawl. She took off her own shawl, tore it in half, and put one half around the other’s shoulders.
When the National Association of Prison Visitors was formed in 1922, Mr Thompson was one of the first two visitors appointed in Manchester. The Bible class sprouted 22 years ago when “they gave me 12 men out of their cells.” Since then, he says, the whole approach to punishment has changed. So has the heart of the prison officer. (“A warder will come to me and say, ‘Can you get so-and-so a good job; he is a good fellow.’”) Governors, he remembers, used to be little gods. “There has been a reassessment of human life.”
He remembers one man of good background who came back into gaol six or seven times. On the seventh, he told Mr Thompson: “I am the prodigal.” He had, he said, got the word from the Bible. Mr Thompson reminded him that the word never appeared in the Bible story. It said, in fact, that a certain man had two sons. “I told him ‘You are a son.’ He said he would never come back again, and he never did.”
At the Smith and Thompson company of building contractors in Upper Brook Street, Manchester, a 10ft. notice board plies the passer-by with a cross and a text, “Love So Amazing.” A new text appears every two or three weeks, and one man at least, Mr Thompson claims, has had his life changed by acting upon it. The firm, in which Mr Thompson was recently succeeded by his son as managing director, has practised what its notice board preaches. It has found jobs for a number of ex-prisoners over the years.