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'Artful' Thomas - local character

Page updated 18th October 2014

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Frederick Sayer 'Artful' Thomas, was a well known character around Exeter, who, to those who have heard of him, has achieved an almost mythical status. Indeed, many have seen his image, without knowing who he was, for Artful Thomas is the colourful character on the bottom left of Andrew Stacey's, New Bridge Street, Westgate Festival mural. Artful Thomas married twice and is said to have had 21 children. His first marrage was to Christabel Elizabeth, who was mother to his children. She died in 1928. His second marrage was to Melody M Hatswell in 1931–she died in 1936. There are said to be at least 4 grandchildren still living in Newton Abbot, and Exeter, and there are at least 14 great grandchildren. In his later life, he lived at 20 Chestnut Avenue, off Burnthouse Lane.

The colourful Exeter character died on 20th May 1938, aged 74, and was interred in Higher Cemetery, making his year of birth 1864. His early years were spent living in the West Quarter, a poverty stricken area of the city. As a youngster, he was a 'labouring man' who was caught up in the 1887, Theatre Royal fire. Thomas was in the front row of the theatre along with the Ley family and 'Curly' Westcott, when the fire broke out and the curtain billowed out towards the audience. He made a dash for the exit, only to be halted by a mass of bodies "packed like bricks". Following a handrail in the smoke filled theatre, he made his way down the staircase into the street. A framed, illuminated, script of his escape was later presented to him – the script was still owned by his grandson Fred Moxey in 1980.

However, 'Artful' Thomas is best known for his charity work around Exeter, raising funds for the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and the many carnivals and fetes that were held up to the 1930s. He volunteered as 'Tip the Topper' for the hospital, when he would parade up and down as a target, for members of the public to throw balls at him, to knock off his top hat. He was recognised for his tails, spats and topper, along with a king-size cigar which he referred to as his 'Fleur de Cabagio'.

During the First War he was present at many events, entertaining wounded soldiers, including this one from the Western Times in 1918 – '"Artful" Thomas, as the dude, created much amusement by his antics. He very good-humouredly allowed himself to become the butt for all and sundry to shie at in the in the little show he provided described as "Topping the Topper." He was quite an acquisition, and the soldiers appeared to thoroughly enjoy this item of the programme."

In 1924, Mrs D Short, as a young girl, had to go into the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital for an operation. On the way, in Southernhay, she saw 'Artful' Thomas parading along in his top hat and tails – she asked him not to make her laugh as she was on her way to hospital. He pulled a photo out of his pocket and presented it to her with the words "Look at my photograph and keep smiling – and the best of luck."

It is known that Thomas worked at the Franklin Cinema as an attendant up to 1924 - one of his jobs was to walk up the aisle spraying disinfectant over the audience.

The following memory of Artful Thomas is taken from People Talking.

"Artful Thomas was in all the carnivals; he must have raised a record amount of money for any charitable organisation who asked for his help. St. Thomas Carnival would not have been complete without him. Artful would be parading and conducting the whole proceedings. In those days the carnival was lit by burning oil flares, carried on a plank with holes cut in for the flares; he would dance around and pinch a flare which he would wave around like a whirling dervish.

One of his big days was the Wonford Fete. This was a very big occasion not only for Wonford but for the city. Artful always spent the day as "Top the Topper" - this meant he was behind a net dressed in a top hat and tail coat, white gloves and bow tie. He walked up and down behind the net with just the topper above it; then everyone would throw tennis balls to knock the hat off; I think it cost 3d for 5 balls. His remarks had all the adults laughing. We thought he was very brave as some of the shots were aimed more at him than his hat.

Our carnivals were marvellous. There was nothing automatic about them - it was everybody's shoulder to the wheel; all had to help. Old Faddy Bolt, the baker, who was huge, used to be dressed as John Bull, with the hat and the flag on the waistcoat. We had these ticklers, a metal handle with a bit of hair stuck at the bottom and we used to go round tickling, specially the boys with the girls. It was such innocent fun.

Artful was also paid to do advertising stunts. Once he dressed as a chicken, a yellow chicken. This was for a film of Charlie Chaplin, "The Gold Rush" in which Charlie turns into a chicken in his partner's mind when they are snowbound. Artful walked around town all week, clucking and crowing and occasionally laying an egg; a golden one, of course.

On another stunt he was advertising the new 'in thing' - interior sprung mattresses. For this he had a bed in a shop window. He made a great show to the audience about a woman in the bed, a wax dummy. Before the days of X films he would hold the attention by doing a kind of strip tease. Then he would get into bed and with a great show of modesty, would climb out and pull the shop blind until the next performance.

Then he would stand in High Street, looking intently at the sky until he had people looking with him, until the first mug would ask what he was looking at, to which he would reply, "I think it's going to rain."

Sources: Express and Echo, Western Times and People Talking by Jenny lloyd and various websites. With thanks to Brenda M Berrington for providing the photo and cuttings from the Express and Echo.

Artful Thomas Artful Thomas with his "fleur de cabagio" cigar. This is the photo presented to Mrs Short in 1924.

If you have any further information on Artful Thomas, or other Exeter personalities please email me from the link at the bottom of the page.

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