FROM ‘human scarecrow’ to wealthy business magnate who became the first ever mayor of Southend, rags to riches tales are normally the stuff of Hollywood films. Yet in the case of Thomas Dowsett, it was all a wonderful reality…

If Thomas Dowsett’s life story were to be made into a film, people would probably think the plot was too farfetched. He came from such humble beginnings that his journey to success, fuelled by no end of determination and resilience, could come across as unbelievable at times.

When he was a boy Thomas was so poor he had a job working as a field boy- a human scarecrow- where he’d stand in a farmer’s field for hours on end chasing birds away from the crops and seed. Years later when he grew up and became a millionaire, he bought that land where he used to earn a few pennies a day scaring away the crows and built the biggest mansion in Southend on it.

Thomas Dowsett was born in Prittlewell in 1838, just months after Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. His father was a shoemaker and money was tight. At the age of ten he got the job as a field boy earning a few shillings a week. He then went to work at the Ship Hotel and Pub on Marine Parade, where he earned enough money to be able to apprentice himself to his cousin, James Dowsett, as a hairdresser.

Great British Life: Thomas Dowsett's shop in high streetThomas Dowsett's shop in high street (Image: Supplied)

While learning the trade of a hairdresser Dowsett showed early signs of the go-getting attributes that would serve him well. He didn’t wait around for custom, instead he packed up a box with brushes and razors and walked around Essex offering his services to anyone who needed a shave or trim.

His efforts paid off. Before long he was able to open a lean-to hairdressing shop on Marine Parade, at the spot where Chinnerys now stands. At the age of 19 his life was to change forever. He was standing on the street in Prittlewell with some friends one Sunday evening when a woman came along handing out leaflets advertising a church service at a nearby mission. Dowsett was not only impressed with the service after going along to see what all the fuss was about; he was impressed with the leaflet girl. Her name was Eliza Bradley and before long the pair would be married at Rochford Congregational Church.

The mission galvanised his interest in the church, and he began attending services at the Old British School in the High Street, even starting a Sunday school there. He became increasingly interested in the Congregational Church- a branch of Christianity where congregation members are considered equal and help to fund the church through personal contributions.

Dowsett took the word of the gospels literally. After starting his hairdressing business, he came close to being wiped out financially because he wouldn’t open on Sundays. He lost much-needed custom, but he refused to compromise his religious beliefs and eventually managed to struggle through.

Great British Life: Advert in paperAdvert in paper (Image: Supplied)

As he progressed and became involved in town matters Dowsett helped to obtain the land for the building of Cliff Town Congregational Church in Nelson Street.

After the land was bought and it was clear the building project was to proceed, Dowsett was so happy he got up in the early hours of the morning and began digging a hole in the ground so he could plant a large sign saying “Site for a Congregational Church”. The local vicar, the Rev AS Richardson, happened to be looking out of the window and saw Dowsett toiling in the dirt. He went down and joined him in planting the pole in the ground.

In his twenties and thirties Dowsett began investing in property across Southend, buying up the leases to five homes in Marine Parade as well as buildings in Clifton Terrace. He also bought the land where Nazareth House, Milton Hall and the Prittlewell cricket ground stood. Dowsett had quite liberal views for the age, and when a liberal association was formed in Southend in 1880 he was one of the founding members. John Farley Leith, a well-known local QC who lived in Prittlewell Priory, was also one of the early members.

Dowsett went on to snap up another investment - buying the Pier Hotel on the seafront for £750. After his first wife Eliza died in 1878 Dowsett married for a second time. He wed Clarissa Bentall, daughter of Arthur Bentall of Brick House Farm. Dowsett expanded his businesses again, setting up the Milton Brick Company and running an emporium in Southend High Street which sold all sorts of goods from earthenware to leather items and stationery.

He also started up his own estate agent’s firm. As his wealth increased, so did his benevolence across the borough. Dowsett built alms-houses for the poor and elderly in Chelmsford Avenue and paid for two-thirds of the Chelmsford Avenue Congregational Church to be built.

He also gifted his own personal land for the use of Southend people and bought Southchurch Hall, which would later be given to the borough. In 1892 Dowsett experienced one of the greatest honours of his life when he was elected the first-ever mayor of Southend. Upon hearing the news, he said: “I come forward on broad, unbiased and unprejudiced grounds and with but one desire - mainly to promote, as much as my humble abilities will enable me, the true interests and welfare of my fellow ratepayers.”

One of the biggest fights he had during his term as mayor was to get the new pier built in Southend. Not everyone was for knocking down the old wooden pier and building an iron replacement, but Dowsett championed the cause, realising how beneficial the attraction could be for the town economically.

Dowsett fathered ten children and literally left his mark on Southend. He personally installed the first granite kerb and asphalt pavement in Southend (outside his own house). He was involved in every aspect of the town, from building roads, homes and sewers, to serving the Local Board as a council member and working as both a JP and magistrate.

Great British Life: Thomas Dowsett first Southend mayorThomas Dowsett first Southend mayor (Image: Supplied)

Well-liked and respected by his peers around the town, he was known for being a quiet man with fair judgement. He rarely showed emotion in public, expect perhaps one time. After Dowsett’s death a friend revealed how one day, when Dowsett was mayor, the two men were walking towards a church when Dowsett suddenly burst into tears. He explained in the roots of a tree opposite the church was where he’d buried his first savings – four pennies- as there wasn’t a ‘safe bank’ at the time. When Dowsett returned a few days later to retrieve the money, it had gone. Someone had swiped it. The friend wasn’t sure if it was them memory of losing the money or perhaps, realising how far he’d come in life is what pushed the normally steely mayor to tears.

It did show however, that his past struggles had a lasting impact on his life. Perhaps he never got over them. Dowsett’s final months were marred by ill health. He been poorly for some time and had suffered from pneumonia and abdominal problems.

He died in January 1906 aged 68, at his home Rayne Villa in Victoria Avenue. He was survived by his second wife and his children, and upon his death his estate was valued at £222,000 - tens of millions in today’s money. His funeral service attracted crowds of hundreds lining the streets as the cortege made its way to Cliff Town Congregational Church- the place of worship that had become such an important part of his life. He was interred in the family vault at St John’s Churchyard alongside his first wife. So many wreaths were sent for the funeral, there wasn’t space to put them all, demonstrating the high esteem in which Dowsett was held by people from all walks of life. His widow laid a wreath with the message “Til the day breaks and the shadows flee away” while an employee of Dowsett’s penned the poignant message: “Farewell my friend, in memory of my dear master whom I have served for 16 years.”

Within 18 months of Dowsett dying his son Walter died aged 39, and his youngest daughter Nellie, aged just 18, died after from scarlet fever. His son Herbert Arthur went on to be mayor of Southend in his own right, serving the town for three terms and helping to open the town’s general hospital. Thomas Dowsett’s legacy lives on more than a century later in the buildings and roads he helped to create. If you go in Cliff Town Church today see a beautiful stained-glass window at the west end. This was installed by Dowsett to honour his mayoralty.

Dowsett was always determined to succeed as a businessman, but his charitable deeds and his religious convictions are what seemed to occupy his thoughts the most. Right up until he was taken ill and died he was busy writing Christmas cheques for poor people in the community.

“These are my people, I must finish them,” he told a colleague who urged him to rest.

A colleague of Dowsett’s perhaps best summed up the man’s devotion to his hometown, saying: “Thomas believed in wide streets and open spaces. He had a genuine steadfast belief in the borough which was the very hub of his universe.”