Thelonius’s life was permanently imprinted with the mark of his character on the evening of January 6, 1734. Up to that point in the winter season, the weather had been good to southern England, mild to the extreme of being almost balmy, and nobody was ungrateful, as it demanded less coal in the hearth and lessened the usual stinging rebuke of the cold on the face every morning and evening. In fact, nobody could be more grateful than St. Crispin’s Hall, the old parish workhouse in Portsmouth Common within which those who needed its salvation lived.
A new workhouse had been erected on Warblington Street, St. Crispin’s being the original old warehouse donated to the cause. While the intent was to close its doors, and rightfully to tear down the decrepit structure, the great numbers of poor necessitated its remaining open. It barely stood against the winds that so frequently raced off the waters and pelted the little shore village. So a mild winter was indeed a welcome respite.
But sometime between the evening of January fifth and the morning of the sixth, the weather turned. Father Winter visited with a fury and caught up in his belated delivery of seasonal reprimand. The temperatures descended to naught on the scale and the stoves and furnaces of Portsmouth Common roared to greater life. Through the walls of St. Crispin’s, so inadequate to brave the change in weather, the cold wind left lines of frost on the inside of all the wooden seams, stitching the wall planks together with a white thread. As the day and then evening wore on, one patron after another would place more fuel in the stove in the main room, unaware that someone just before them had done the same, too impatient to see the effect. As a result, the fire grew hotter and hotter. Sometime after dark, the wall behind the stove gave in to the intense heat and spontaneously combusted in an explosion of flame. Given the position of that partition in the center part of St. Crispin’s, the fire spread up through the spine of the building, affecting all rooms within minutes.
By the time Thelonius passed St. Crispin’s on the way home from his employment at the chandler’s, flames were spreading across the roof. Various residents of the workhouse stood across the street wrapped in whatever clothes they had grabbed as they fled. Thelonius ran to the crowd by the main door where several women were sobbing.
As though his presence were a question asked, a cook turned to him and said, “A shame, a real shame, those children upstairs . . .”
But the end of his sentence dissipated into the frigid air like the steam of an anxious breath, falling on no ears but his own, as Thelonius sprinted into the building and up the stairs. Within a few minutes he emerged, his overcoat bulging. Running to a burly ropemaker who stood mesmerized at the sight of the inferno, Thelonius spread his wool coat to reveal a small child clinging to his waist.
The worker stared in disbelief. “How in the world did you—”
“Take him!” Thelonius yelled. The man quickly followed the command and grabbed the child as an anxious mother ran to his side to reclaim what she thought she had lost.
Again Thelonius ran into the building. Again he emerged, this time with a soot-covered girl coughing and clasping his neck.
The distraught mothers realized that if any hope could resist the flames, it would come through this newly anointed patron saint. The five remaining women screamed as he came out yet a third time, yelling names and descriptions of their children. Every other man in that small street stood frozen, watching Thelonius with both respect and horror as he turned into the seething hell again. Once more he emerged, and again and again, delivering three more charges to their mothers.