Rare booklet with link to Horsham acquired for museum collection

Horsham Museum has managed to acquire an incredibly rare 270-year-old booklet, a perfect match for Valentine’s Day and LGBTQ+ History Month.

The Life of Thomas Munn is an autobiographical work about an English man but this original copy came to light in America and was purchased thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the National Libraries.

Jeremy Knight, curator at Horsham Museum & Art Gallery, said: “The publication tells fascinating tales of failed gay seduction, smuggling, robbery and a 19-year-old lad courting a rich 70-year-old widow, causing mayhem and gallivanting across England and France in order to escape his work in brick making.”

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

Thomas, also known as the Gentleman Brick-maker and Tom The Smuggler, was executed on Friday, April 6, 1750, at Chelmsford, and hung in chains near Rumford Gallows, for robbing the Yarmouth Mail on July 20 the previous year.

The cover of the rare 270-year-old booklet, The Life of Thomas Munn, listing places he had visited, including Horsham

Mr Knight said: “This rare autobiographical work was written just before Thomas Munn was hanged. It was sold throughout the land and printed on cheap paper that was also used as toilet paper.”

Thomas owned a horse and the printed cover of the 24-page booklet, published in 1750, lists the places he visited, as well as promising ‘a full account of his behaviour’ during a great number of years as a notorious smuggler and prankster.

It was the details of an incident in Horsham that initially caught the museum’s attention.

Mr Knight said: “This rare publication, found in America by book dealer Justin Croft, is a remarkable and multi-faceted publication that the museum felt it was essential to acquire.

“Fortunately, the charity the Friends of the National Libraries, who rely on donations and subscriptions to enable libraries, archives and museums to buy such important books and manuscripts, concurred and gave the museum a 100 per cent grant to make purchase.

“Without their generosity, and the sharp eye of Justin who saw it on an American auction site, the people of Horsham district and further afield would not have the opportunity to explore this remarkable story.

“What raises this publication, held in only four libraries around the world, above the usual deathbed confessions is the degree to which Thomas was self-aware and reflective on his life.

“The reader, who paid pennies from the ‘hawkers who sold the news’, would have come across a remarkable account of an incident in a Southampton inn as they turned the thin paper pages. The son of the innkeeper, who practised as a barber, joined Munn in his room.

“Later in the evening, on the pretext of keeping warm, the young man slipped into Munn’s bed. Munn threatened him with a penknife he did not have and the chap left, and the following day made ‘many excuses’.”

The acquisition of the leaflet means Horsham Museum now has three historic accounts of homosexuality in its collections. One is a rare letter from a solicitor acting as an intermediary between two parties, asking for £40 as hush money, and the other tells of a 19-year-old man who was hanged for homosexual acts in 1833 before his dead hand was passed over sick women.

Mr Knight said: “Thomas Munn’s account is, by contrast, a remarkably modern approach as it shows that he had a more enlightened approach to sexual identity, as Munn all but came out and said he was tempted to take up the young man’s bedtime offer.”

Thomas was born in Kent in 1705 to a brick-making family. This was a newly-flourishing industry, as houses were being upgraded from wood to brick.

Munn had ‘trudged’ to Horsham to meet up with fellow brick maker Ned Langley, leaving behind an unhappy ‘mistress’. Ned had ‘got a wife’ for him, a 70-year-old widow worth £1,300 to £1,400.

Munn describes the woman is his account as follows: “I instantly observed the poor old Soul could not bite me, because she had ne’er a Tooth in her Head, which made her kiss might soft.”

However, a local solicitor also wanted to marry her and as Munn outlines, the solicitor visited the widow on the pretext of borrowing £20. She then ‘daddled up Staires with him, and seem’d to be long enough there to have tried a Cause’.

As a result of this visit, Munn gave up his suit and the solicitor, who loved money more than the widow, married her. According to the booklet, ‘it was a very unhappy Match’.

Though Horsham had some 18th century brick-making sites, this is the earliest known mention of a brick maker in the town.

Mr Knight said: “The account goes into the practices of the time, such as making bricks during the summer and then finding other employment in the winter months.

“Ned worked in St Leonard’s forest protecting the rabbit warrens from poachers. Thomas didn’t like the work, finding it too cold and too dangerous lying in the forest at night ‘coney-catching’, so he learned to play the flute and to dance and went into Sussex to become a dancing master.

The booklet states he ‘got a set of Young Fellows as undiscerning as myself… to go with me Morris-dancing, as it is called in that County’. This is one of the earliest references to the pastime.

Some three years later, Thomas was back in the area, making bricks at Henfield, seven miles from Horsham.

Mr Knight said: “According to brick historian Molly Beswick, there was a brick field operating in Henfield by 1735 yet this account pre-dates that by seven years. For Tom, it would be the last place he made bricks as the life of crime, music and pranks was more appealing.

“As in good any Valentine’s story, the acquisition of the booklet came about by being in the right place at the right time, from temptation – seeing something online that caught the eye (just as in modern world of dating), grasping an opportunity, and of nervously awaiting a positive response for the first-time grant from FNL.

“Fortunately for Horsham Museum, this romantic adventure paid off and as a result the museum now has an item that ‘turns heads’ and raises envious exclamations of how lucky they are to have found each other.

“The museum now has a brilliant new addition to its collections, a fascinating story that links the town’s early brick making with ‘gold digging’ seduction, the autobiographical account of a robber, smuggler and prankster, not to mention a rare account of a failed gay seduction, all wrapped up in a publication that almost certainly was sold in the Horsham fairs using the marketing ploy of listing all of the places Thomas Munn visited.

“What more could you ask for in a 270-year-old booklet that had travelled to America and back again?”

The publication will go on display in a new gallery when Horsham Museum reopens this summer.