Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created:  September 22, 2019
Webpage updated: January 04, 2020



THOMAS GILL (1788-1861)

Thomas Gill has been described as 'a wily schemer ever looking to the main chance for personal profit no matter what the consequences were for others' and 'the entrepreneur par excellence of his day', both quotes coming from Mr John W Dawe when presenting a lecture to the Plymouth Institution in 1967.  He was certainly at the centre of Plymouth industry throughout his lifetime.

He was born to John and Barbara Gill at Tavistock, where he was baptised on April 5th 1788.  On June 28th 1816 he married Miss Jane Flashman at Modbury parish church.  He was described as a bachelor of the parish of Plymstock at that time.

A large portion of his wealth was derived from acquiring for a small sum of money some valuable quarry land at Millbay.  After removing the limestone he used the levelled site for the erection of houses.

In 1818 he set up the Millbay Soap Works and he was also an agent for the Tavistock Iron Works, which was owned by the family.  It is known that he supported the Plymouth Public Free School by becoming its Vice-President in 1821.  His name was apparently included on the foundation stone of Saint Andrew's Chapel, which later became Saint Catharine's Church.  In 1831 he purchased part of the old victualling office right on the water-front of Sutton Harbour, which would later come in very useful for despatching emigrants to the New World.

He was elected Mayor of Plymouth in 1836 and followed that up by erecting a pier at Millbay for the purpose of transhipping limestone that he quarried out of the cliff at West Hoe. 

Thomas Gill was Deputy Governor of the Plymouth Company of New Zealand, which purchased 60,000 acres of land from the New Zealand Company and in November 1840 despatched the first party of emigrants from "Old" Plymouth to found New Plymouth on North Island.

In 1841 he was elected as the Whig (Liberal) Member of Parliament, alongside Lord Ebrington, and served until 1846, when he was replaced by Mr Roundell Palmer.  He was not a prominent Member of Parliament but spoke on matters of commercial interest and was a member of several committees.

Thomas supported the South Devon Railway Company in its project to connect Plymouth to London by rail and became chairman of the Company.  He sold his pier at Millbay to the Great Western Dock Company, of which he then became a director.  This grew in to Millbay Docks, of course.

Around 1849/50 he tenanted Buckland Abbey.

By the time of the 1851 Census, Thomas Gill, then reputedly aged 63 years, and declaring himself to be a 'Soap Merchant', was living at Mutley House, on the southern fringe of the parish of Pennycross.  There were four female house servants plus a 30-years-old married manservant by the name of William Featherstone.

Thomas Gill apparently died at 8pm on the evening of Sunday, October 20th 1861 at Ferrum Hill House in Tavistock.  He was 73-years-old.  He had been suffering for some time from a long lingering illness to his eyes, which had caused him to withdraw from his businesses.  At the time of his death he was a county magistrate and a deputy lieutenant for the county of Devon.

The funeral took place at 11.30am on Saturday, October 26th 1861, when his body was deposited in the family vault erected in 1822 by his father at Tavistock parish church.  His workmen from both West Hoe and the iron foundry were afterwards entertained to lunch at the Bedford Hotel.

He was survived by his brother, Mr John Hornbrook Gill, of Bickham Park, and by his sons, John, William and Thomas junior.