(November 1823 – April 1864)
The first Captain of the 1st Company of Shropshire Rifle Volunteers 1855, Crimean War Veteran
There is little known about Thomas Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumly) outside of Thoreau’s journal entries and remarks or correspondences between the two men and their mutual friends. A member of English nobility by birth, Cholmondeley was highly regarded as a down-to-earth gentleman whose curiosity about the world led him to travel and observe. After living as a sheep farmer in the British colony of New Zealand in 1851, the Englishman toured Europe and returned to his brother’s home in England before visiting Massachusetts.
Cholmondeley arrived in Concord, Mass. in Sept. 1854 with an introductory letter for Emerson from a mutual friend, Arthur Hugh Clough. Upon hearing the Englishman needed lodging, Emerson suggested inquiring with Mrs. Thoreau. Cholmondeley boarded with the Thoreau family for the remainder of his Concord stay. In an 1893 The Atlantic Monthly essay, “Thoreau and His Friend Thomas Cholmondeley,” Franklin B. Sanborn writes, “there began an intimate acquaintance between the two men,” a friendship that continued until Thoreau’s death.
Sanborn, who named his son for the Englishman, writes:
Those who knew Thomas Cholmondeley could not easily forget him; those who had only a common acquaintance with him would perhaps wonder how any one should remember him. So rare were his gifts, and so well did his ordinary manner conceal them, that few suspected him for the ideal Englishman that he was, or perceived under the humorous mask he wore the sweet simplicity, the magnanimous eccentricity, of his national and individual character.
(Thoreau and His Friend Thomas Cholmondeley, 756)
Cholmondeley was so taken with Thoreau, he invited the Transcendentalist to travel to Yellowstone, South America, the West Indies, and England at the nobleman’s expense. However, at the times the offers were made, Thoreau did not want to leave Concord. During a weeklong visit to Williamstown, Mass. in 1865, Emerson explains to a student:
A Mr. Cholmondeley, an English gentleman and graduate of Oxford, boarded while here with his [Thoreau’s] mother; and, becoming much attached to him, wished him to accompany himself to the mountains of Yellowstone, and afterwards to South America, engaging to defray all expenses. But not only to those invitations, but also to another of a trip across the States, Thoreau returned the unvarying reponse–“I think I had better stay in Concord.”
(Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson, 81-82)
Prior to deploying to Crimea, Capt. Cholmondeley sent 44 volumes of translated Hindu classics which Thoreau received in November 1855. According to Sanborn, upon receiving the letter from Cholmondeley, Thoreau “fashioned for these treasures a new case, out of driftwood that he had brought home in his voyages along the Musketaquid, thus giving Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine” (Thoreau and His Friend Thomas Cholmondeley, 745). According to multiple accounts, Thoreau was excited by such literary gifts in several languages. In a 25 December 1855 letter to Daniel Ricketson, Thoreau writes he received:
a royal gift, in the shape of twenty-one distinct works (one in nine volumes,–forty four volumes in all), almost exclusively relating to Hindoo literature, and scarcely one of them to be bought in America. I am familiar with many of them, and know how to prize them.
I send you this information as I might of the birth of a child.
(The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, 402-403)
While traveling from Montreal, Cholmondeley stayed in Concord again in December 1858 and the two men prepare a trip to Daniel Ricketson’s on short notice. Thoreau writes:
FRIEND RICKETSON, — Thomas Cholmondeley, my English acquaintance, is here, on his way to the West Indies. He wants to see New Bedford, a whaling town. I tell him I would like to introduce him to you there, thinking more of his seeing you than New Bedford. So we propose to come your way tomorrow . . .
(The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, 531)
After the two-day visit, Ricketson writes in his journal that the Englishman reminds him of George William Curtis, a complimentary comparison. Thoreau and Cholmondeley did not see each other again after 1859. The last known letter from the Capt. to Thoreau is dated 23 April 1861, shortly before the Englishman was promoted to Major. Given that the friends exchanged long missives over the years, one can assume Thoreau replied upon returning from Minnesota; however, it is not known.
On 23 June 1863, just over a year after Thoreau’s death, Cholmondeley changed his surname to Owen as part of stipulation to inherit Condover Hall, an Elizabethan estate. By the following spring, the major was married in a grand ceremony. After their wedding on 1 March 1864, Owen and his bride Victoria Alexandrina Cote, a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, set off for their wedding tour of Europe. The 5 March 1864 edition of The Bridgnorth Journal describes the bridegroom as a:
gentleman distinguished for his rare abilities, cultivated by extensive travel; for his kindly disposition and courteousness to all who by business are brought into connexion with him; popular by reason of the patriotic zeal with which he originated, and the generous ardour with which he has carried out, and the volunteer cause in this country.
Unfortunately, wedded bliss did not last as Owen died of malaria in Florence, Italy, on 20 April 1864. A few months later, Sophia Thoreau writes to Ricketson:
I cannot tell you how startled and grieved we all felt to hear of Mr. Cholmondeley’s death. His brother’s letter impressed me as a painful chapter from some romance. It is hard to realize that he has left us. We have always had the truest regard for Mr. C. as a person of rare integrity, great benevolence, and the sincerest friendliness; and I am sure his loss must be very great to those who knew and loved him best.
(Daniel Ricketson and his Friends, 162)
Major Thomas (Cholmondeley) Owen is buried in St. Andrew and St. Mary’s Church in Condover, Shrewsbury, England.
List of Works
Ultima Thule; or Thoughts Suggested by a Residence in New Zealand (1854)