On this Day 3rd November 1931

Out of the Frying Pan: Penzance Impressario's Brush with Death

A man may build up treasure on earth: specifically, in this instance, Penzance Cinema, the Picturedrome, the Pavilion Theatre and the Winter Garden. A man may have become a councillor – and he may even entertain hopes of sporting, in a few years’ time, the mayoral chain. But wealth and power are no proof against the vicissitudes of fate. And so it proves this morning for Councillor Robert Thomas of the Regent Hotel, Penzance.

The man has “not been in the best of health” of late. Business worries? Unhealthy habits? Something as simple – yet potentially deadly - as influenza? Maybe he’s been dosing himself with Andrews Liver Salts (“the Harvest of Health”) or even de Witt’s Kidney and Bladder Pills (“for those who find themselves “hating work, and no zest for pleasure… strength just ‘giving out’ “ . And if he hasn’t had recourse to these health-giving products? Well, maybe he should have done.

Thomas's Offerings 3/11/1931Perhaps there’s some work to be done before tonight’s dance at the Pavilion, or maybe the managers he’s put in at the cinemas need a bit of a guidance – a proprietorial hand on the tiller, if you like. At any rate he’s confident of the shows on offer – The Man from Chicago at the Picturedrome, a “car bandit thriller”; and comedy, The Life of the Party, at the Cinema. Or is it tonight’s storm that disturbs his rest, blowing up suddenly after a week of mild, calm weather?

Whatever the cause, Councillor Thomas rises from his bed before it is even light – a rare thing, you might imagine, for a man who makes his living from evening entertainments. But still, up he gets, not feeling “at all well”. He needs his “thick dressing gown” – the room is chilly. He lights the gas fire and paces the room, waiting for its thin warmth to touch him. Overcome by faintness, he perhaps reaches for a chair, but does not find one. Instead, he falls back onto the fire. All Councillor Thomas will remember later is the faintness.

For some time he lies, senseless, perilously close to the gas flame. At 6.30, the household stirring, his moans are heard at last and he is found in his “unfortunate position”. The dressing gown has probably saved his life – he is “found to be suffering from shock, and severe burns to the face and right arm”. His face, according to the newspaper report two days later, has been “badly disfigured”.

Dr McAllister summons a St John’s ambulance and has him sent to the nursing home. And there he lies, a man already unwell even before his mishap, his fate – and that of his business enterprises – uncertain. It is no exaggeration to say that today, on November 3rd 1931, the future of Penzance’s night-time economy hangs in the balance.

Cornishman 5th November 1931 page 4; further detail of patent medicines, entertainments and weather from Evening Tidings 2nd November 1931

At the Mayor choosing, a week after his accident, Robert Thomas was wished a “speedy recovery”, for the benefit of both the council and “the borough as a whole”. He did, indeed, recover – and went on to be Mayor of Penzance in 1935, 1936, and from 1943-1945.

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Penwith Local History Group
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Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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