Urijah Thomas's only ministry was at Redland Park. He came as a young man straight from college and stayed until he died, in harness, 39 years later, in spite of having received two or three invitations from other churches. In 1900 he was very drawn to accept a call to Ilfracombe where he had recently conducted a crusade, but Redland Park Church pleaded with him to stay in Bristol. If he had gone to the smaller seaside church with a quieter life, perhaps he would not have succumbed to pleurisy and pneumonia in 1901, at the age of 62.
He never married, though he loved children, and gave himself unstintingly to the work of the Kingdom at Redland Park and Bristol.
For most of the time he lodged at the house of his great friend Wilberforce Tribe in Westfield Park. Mr Tribe was Treasurer from 1868 till his death in 1900. His large family of children were like brothers and sisters to Urijah. Mr Thomas's grief was great when he had to conduct the funeral service of Mr Tribe in 1900, and not many months later he himself was laid to rest beside his friend in Arnos Vale Cemetery.
Today one can see two gravestones side by side on the hill, one erected to Urijah Thomas, his with an anchor and cross and inscription, and that of Wilberforce Tribe and his wife Selina, whilst just behind is the memorial to one of the Wilberforce sons, Alfred Tribe, and his wife, and not very far away is a cluster of Wills memorials.
Urijah Thomas's views were remarkably modern in many respects. He was very ecumenical in his outlook, and was a friend of the Bishop of Bristol and other Anglicans. In fact when he was being borne to his grave, as the large cortège of carriages passed down Park Street and across College Green, the Cathedral bells were tolled. One wonders how many free church figures were honoured in that way. He was remarkably free of class consciousness, in a time which was perhaps the most class-ridden age of history. He had in his congregation several of the richest and most influential families in Bristol, masters of industry and commerce, and also many humble folk, especially domestic servants. Every big house had its complement of maids, often recruited from South Wales, and a large number found their way to Redland Park , and to the Sunday School and Bible Classes. One can tell by studying the minute books where new members are listed, they are put down as for instance "Sarah Jones at 7 Redland Park".
In those days, church members rented pews, paying a sum of money each year. Apparently all the servants sat in the free seats at the back and not with the family. Surely they would have preferred it that way, and felt more free than if they had been under the eye of their master and mistress. Urijah Thomas welcomed all and treated all in exactly the same friendly way.
One of the causes that Mr Thomas supported was that of temperance; he had seen enough of the miseries caused by drunkenness. Another was the rights of women, years before they were permitted to vote.
One sermon of his, preached in 1876, and printed in the Monthly Record magazine strikes us as very modern in outlook. Advocating moderation and a wise use of all good gifts, he says that since God is the maker of all things, nothing is evil. All nature leads to Him. He says that science and religion are not really opposed, if properly understood. If perfectly known, there would not be a division.
On industrial unrest the following could have been written in 1984 instead of 1876. "Of later years strikes between employers and employed have been bitter, frequent and prolonged. Strikes and lockouts have thrown thousands out of employment through avarice and despotism of the master and through avarice and short-sightedness of the labourers."
One of his greatest concerns was for education. He was a member of the Bristol School Board for 27 years. Year by year he was re-elected, often with the highest poll, and for three years he was its chairman. This was no mean tribute to a member of the generally distrusted Free Churches. He worked unflaggingly to bring in non-sectarian education, up until then the dogma and creed of the Church or England being the only form of Religious Education in schools. He wanted only Bible knowledge taught and morality not dogma, and he had much success. He used to visit schools and give encouragement to all.
One of the tributes after his death was from the Bristol School Board Caretakers’ Association which says : "notwithstanding his busy life he was always ready with a warm shake of the hand and a kind word of encouragement." Such attitudes were unusual in 1901.
Mr Thomas was aware of the poverty and degradation in the Dings area of St Philips, a down-town industrial area, where no-one would dare to walk alone - always in pairs. A coffee house, called Shaftesbury Hall, had recently been opened there by the Bristol City Mission, in an attempt to draw men away from the many public houses, hitherto the only places where they could find some social life and escape from the crowded, dingy, insanitary houses, but where they spent their few shillings of pay leaving practically nothing for their struggling wives to feed and bring up families.
Mr Thomas devised a scheme which had a double benefit. He knew that many young people at Redland Park had not sufficient outlet for their energy and their idealism, so he founded the Shaftesbury Crusade, and encouraged the young people to go down to St Philips, evening by evening, and run boys' and girls' clubs, sports clubs, gymnastics classes, first aid and Bible classes and many other activities. Both sides benefited. The Crusade flourished, larger premises were built and opened in 1900 and then extended; at one time 4023 people were using it weekly. There was a full-time nurse who helped the mothers and taught them child-care. (Redland Park ladies used to knit baby clothes and send them down for new mothers who had not been able to afford to make provision for the newcomers.)
Amongst other activities, the young people were also encouraged in workhouse visiting. They would go in groups to the institution at Fishponds and talk and sing to the indigent residents and take them little presents.
Another brainchild of Urijah Thomas was the Bristol Children's Help Society. It began by providing free breakfasts, halfpenny dinners, winter playrooms, boots, shoes and a holiday for a week in the country. (The last is the only activity which is carried out today.)
A friendly farmer was found at Barton near Winscombe, at the foot of Crook Peak in the Mendips. At first a handful of children were given a holiday at the farm there, but soon a site was bought and wooden buildings set up, with a long dormitory equipped with hammocks, a large dining room, kitchens, washrooms and toilets, and undercover play area for use in wet weather, and smaller rooms for helpers. Girls and boys went on alternate weeks. Thousands of Bristol children have benefited from the fresh air and healthy food, climbed to the top of Crook Peak, participated in rambles over the Mendips, and joined in sing songs and sports. Only in the past few years has the camp been completely rebuilt and modernised, while the only old building retained is the chapel which is kept as a memorial to Urijah Thomas.
Another foundation which owed its origin to Mr Thomas was the Ministers' Seaside Home, The Grange at Morthoe, North Devon. He founded it and was its first warden, going down whenever he could, but leaving the day to day running to a husband and wife team of housekeepers. His aim, carried out faithfully over the years right till 1960, was to provide rest and recreation for ministers and their wives of all denominations, who with their stipends so very low, could not possibly have afforded even the most humble hotel or lodging house. After his death, one form of memorial to him at Redland Park (as well as a stained-glass window and wall-plaque) was the collection of a large sum of money to endow the home, which was thereafter known as the Urijah Thomas Memorial Home.
In The Grange visitors' book are many interesting comments by ministers of numerous denominations. Loud is their praise of the comfort and friendly atmosphere. This is a typical entry written in 1885 by a Mr Kick :
"I came to The Grange broken in health with nervous prostration, so that I could walk scarcely any distance. I return to my home comparatively well. It has been the privilege of me and my dear wife to have the company of the generous and loving founder of the house with us, whose genial presence has contributed largely to my restoration. The home comforts of The Grange, together with the grandly wild scenery, the bracing air, and last but not least the religious association make The Grange a very land of Beulah."
The civic memorial to Urijah Thomas is the fountain and clock at the top of Blackboy Hill. Stop and read the inscribed tablet if you can get across the stream of traffic! It reads :
"This fountain was set up to the memory of the Rev Urijah Thomas by his fellow citizens, of all parties and beliefs, in grateful recognition of the Catholic spirit and generous ardour with which he gave himself to the public service, and especially of his wise and tender care of the children of the city, and for all the friendless and unhappy, the defenceless and poor. This commandment have we from him, ‘that he who loveth God, love his brother also’ 1 John iv."