A “Generation of Vipers”: The Taunton Trials of Thomas Coram

By Katie MacDonald and William F. Hanna

In compiling material for our upcoming book, Tetiquet to the Sea: A History of the Taunton River, we have found a boatload of fascinating characters. Rivers seem to attract entertaining people with interesting stories, and one of our favorites is Thomas Coram. Born in Lyme-Regis, on the south coast of England in 1668, Coram was the son of a fishing boat captain. He went to sea before age 12 and was afterward apprenticed to a shipwright. Like many of his generation, Coram was a firm believer in the “greener pastures” approach to life, and so in 1693, at 25 years of age, he set out for America.

Thomas Coram as painted by his friend, William Hogarth

The young shipbuilder was by no means alone in thinking that New England might be the place to find his fortune. In fact, he headed for Boston at the very forefront of a battalion of skilled shipwrights, a movement that continued unabated until Olde England felt the pinch. In 1724, London shipbuilders told the Board of Trade that years of emigration to America had reduced their numbers by half. It was so bad, cried the Londoners, that there were hardly enough workers left in the city to fulfill backlogged contracts.

We don’t know much about Coram’s early years in America, just that he first built ships in Boston. In 1697, attracted by the abundance of timber and locally manufactured ironware, not to mention easy access to the sea, Coram brought his team of experienced shipwrights to Taunton. Beginning work immediately, his crew built at least one 140-ton ship, and soon afterward they began construction of several others. In 1699, with help from investors, Coram bought a piece of land with 190 feet of frontage on the west side of the river in Taunton’s South Purchase, which now is in the town of Dighton, and in the vicinity of today’s Taunton Yacht Club. He built a house and other necessary structures there and for a while, all looked promising.

If Coram were around now to help us with our research, he would certainly admit that his years in Taunton were among the most frustrating of his life. For a while — but only a short while — things went well enough at the shipyard. At the same time, however, his estimation of his Taunton neighbors plummeted to the point where he later remembered them as “Lazy vermin [who] would Ly all night by one another’s fire sides rather than take a little paines to preserve their own cattle.”

While Coram’s poor opinion of his neighbors would never improve, it was more than mutual. Although there may have been other sources of bad feelings, the main reason was religion. In the late seventeenth century Taunton was a still a staunchly Puritan town and Coram was an active, outspoken Anglican. Even his June 1700 marriage to Eunice Wayte, a dyed-in-the-wool New England congregationalist, earned the shipbuilder no favors from the Taunton people. Coram called them “ye most malignantly inveterate of the dissenters.”

Sixteenth and seventeenth century New Englanders were an even more litigious group than their modern descendants, but Coram could play this game as well as anyone. In April 1699, he signed a contract with Peter Walker, a member of one of Taunton’s first families, in which Walker promised to cut and deliver timber to Coram’s shipyard. Walker later complained that Coram was slow to pay, and the shipbuilder countered that Walker’s tardiness had cost him the support of an important English investor. This ended up in court, and in a separate case, Coram sued Eleazar Walker (Peter’s brother) for not allowing him to cut and haul lumber for which the shipwright had paid forty-eight shillings.

Coram’s allegations were heard by Bristol County’s Inferior Court of Common Pleas, and he lost both cases. His nemesis here was Associate Justice Thomas Leonard, one of the iron-making Leonards and a pillar of the Taunton community. By age 58, in addition to farming and ironmaking, the jurist had also held just about every public office, including selectman, militia officer and representative to both the Plymouth and later Massachusetts legislatures. In his spare time he had also married a generation of Tauntonians and perhaps even practiced medicine. Leonard was unmoved by the complaints of a downriver Anglican shipbuilder.

This was not nearly Coram’s only reversal in the Court of Common Pleas. In another quarrelsome case, justices found for Stephen Burt and that ruling resulted in the seizure of some of Coram’s land and household property. Enraged and facing ruin, he tried to appeal the adverse decisions to the Superior Court, but justices there refused to hear the case. Likely as a last resort, he petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature asking that body to order the Superior Court to address his grievances. When this request was finally granted, the Superior Court reluctantly heard Coram’s appeal. The justices found in his favor and reversed the lower court’s judgments against him. “Upon this my House and Land [and] two New Ships, one of them with the Sails to the Yards ready for the Sea, and some other effects . . . were immediately restored,” he wrote.

That was fine, but Coram’s conflict with the Taunton people was nowhere near over. Trouble next appeared in the person of Abel Burt, a deputy sheriff who refused to return some of Coram’s household items and furniture. The shipbuilder prosecuted Burt, who might not have bothered to appear in his own defense, and the court’s later judgment for Coram awarded him 59 acres of Burt’s land. When Burt learned of the decision, he thought some “frontier justice” might be on the horizon. Coram remembered that the deputy “carryed his gun with him and threatened to kill the sheriff or any that attempted to attach [his property].” Because he was a not man for whom de-escalation was a priority, Coram immediately decided to survey his newly acquired 59 acres. But as he and the sheriff inspected the property, Coram said they “were fired upon out of some thick bushes near the roadside[;] we could not see the man that shot but the bullets whistled very near by us.” Not long after that, Coram met the Deputy Burt face-to-face. After threatening Coram with death, Burt grabbed him and, said Coram, “[I] believe [he] would have murdered me had not others Rescued me.”

By early 1704 Coram had decided to return to England, but British North America — even Taunton — was never far from his attention. One of his first efforts after returning was trying to establish an Anglican parish back in Taunton. The town’s Puritans had never changed their opinion of him and his view of them was well known. Years later he recalled that the congregationalists in town had enlisted the help of Cotton Mather, one of the leading lights of New England Puritanism, and that the Boston minister had spoken “many fals and Injuring things of me to Cloath me in a Bares Skin which Hallow’d all the Hellhounds in Town and Country on to Wurry me.”

Statue of Thomas Coram, by William McMillan, as it stands in Brunswick Square, London

Back in London, Coram secured the help of lawyer friends in drawing up a deed giving the Vestrymen at Boston’s King’s Chapel title to the 59 acres he had acquired from Abel Burt. If ever the people of Taunton “should be more civilized than they now are,” wrote Coram, the proceeds from the sale of the land should be applied to the formation of an Anglican parish in the town. The agreement had been carefully written, noted Coram, so that future generations of Tauntonians would be “unable to play their tricks . . . as the last generation of vipers did with me.”

It comes as no surprise that Coram never returned to Taunton, but he lived long enough to see what became St. Thomas Episcopal Church organized in 1728. His hope that the 59 acres of Burt’s forfeited land would support the cause never materialized, but Coram nevertheless sent over a valuable collection of books, one of which, the Book of Common Prayer, was signed by the Speaker of the House of Commons, and is still in the possession of the parish.

Coram lived almost 50 years after sailing away from his shipyard on the Taunton River. Later, he actively promoted England’s importation of tar from the American colonies, and he was an early promoter of the settlement of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He also built at least one ship and sailed to European ports, sometimes in the face of great danger. Rather than being remembered for his disputes with the Taunton Puritans, or even for being a successful businessman, Coram goes down in history as one of the most farsighted philanthropists of his age. In 1732, for example, he was named an original trustee of his friend James Oglethorpe’s colony of Georgia, originally planned as a refuge for impoverished English debtors. In 1739 came the crowning achievement of Coram’s life. After 17 years of hard work and constant agitation, he secured a charter for the London Foundling Hospital, an institution founded to save the many London children who might otherwise die on the streets for lack of care. Relocated and renamed for Coram, it endures. You can read about it here: https://www.coram.org.uk

The grave of Thomas Coram in the Church of St. Andrew, Holborn, London

Coram, like many old men whose wives go first, struggled in his last years. When Eunice died after 40 years of marriage, his interest in most matters waned, though he continued to stress the importance of educating girls, both at the Foundling Hospital in London, as well as in the growing Georgia colony. When he died in 1751, at age 84, Coram’s legacy extended from London, across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia, then southward Georgia, and then back again, upriver to South Dighton. There, and at other places, his successors along the river have ever since built ships.

(Editors’ Notes: Two further things from us: First, Coram was among the first, not last, of the Taunton River shipbuilders. You can read about the others by joining our mailing list for the forthcoming book Tetiquet to the Sea: A History of the Taunton River.

Second, while Thomas Coram is buried in England, his two courtroom arch-enemies, Thomas Leonard and Abel Burt, are buried in Taunton. You can see their graves, and others, on the OCHM’s Neck o’ Land Cemetery tour. Sign up for our monthly newsletter here, and we’ll send you announcements for all upcoming cemetery tour dates.)

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