Thomas was apprenticed to a grocer at the age of sixteen but his master drank and the business failed. Finding another sober master Thomas settled down and began to attend Friends' meetings, a move which enraged his father, and, when he adopted plain dress and plain speech, was not acceptable to his master either. Thomas left his situation and hoped to live with his parents but, as he reports, his father soon told him "he would rather follow me to my grave, than I should have gone amongst the Quakers; and he was determined I should quit his house that day week, and turn out and 'quack' amongst those I had joined myself in profession with."
|Gracechurch Street Meeting|
Thomas Shillitoe was subject throughout his life to severe nervous depression and anxiety. His state of mind could be 'a pit of horrors' and he says that he was twice confined to his bed from the sudden sight of a mouse. While crossing London Bridge he would run for fear that it would collapse under him. Sometimes, for weeks on end, he believed himself to be a teapot, living in dread of anyone coming near him in case they should break him.
|Rural Tottenham in a 19th century painting|
Unsurprisingly Thomas's health did not improve and he says, 'I went about day by day frighted by fear of being frighted - a dreadful situation indeed to be living in.' Eventually, around 1800, he decided to turn his back on the doctors, rely entirely on God's help, and give up all his stimulants at once as he had found that gradually changing things did not work. He became a total abstainer and also took no animal food except milk and eggs. His health improved, although he remained of a nervous disposition. He was known for walking everywhere very fast, which may have been a healthier way of releasing his nervous energy.
As his lifestyle changed and his health improved Thomas was able to retire from business in 1806 and
devote himself to his Quaker ministry. He became a tireless campaigner for temperance before many of his fellow Quakers took up the cause and in 1808 and 1811 visited Ireland where he preached against the evils of alcohol in hundreds of whiskey shops.
|Drawing of Thomas Shillitoe 1830|
Thomas delivered several plain-spoken addresses to British monarchs and George IV never forgot his encounter with 'that little Quaker.' Thomas went with Peter Bedford to deliver an address asking for greater public morality to William IV and his Queen. He told the Friends to whom he submitted it for inspection, 'There must be no lowering it as with water, it must be all pure brandy' - an interesting choice of words for a temperance campaigner.
Thomas Shillitoe was described as being 'below the middle height, spare, active...as if made of wire and muscle.' In 1812 he left Tottenham to be near his children, living for some time in Barnsley, Yorkshire and then for eleven years in Hertfordshire. After his continental visits in 1821 and 1825 he went to America for three years from 1826 when he was over seventy. On his return he went back to Tottenham and remained very active, living near the meeting house and regularly attending meetings there until just before his death in 1836 at the age of 82.