A favourite of many folk from John Donald's Old Greenock Characters....
Thomas Kincaid, called “Tommy Matches,” because those useful articles formed the principle item of the stock of small wares peddled by him in the streets of Greenock in 1890, and for a good number of years afterwards, was born in Co. Donegal,
in 1845. He was a pitiable creature whose woe-begone features were in perfect
harmony with his shabby attire, which usually included a long dark overcoat
buttoned up to the chin, and a dirty cloth cap. Such dignity as might have been
imparted to his appearance by a full bushy dark beard was dissipated by a
shambling gait and the watery eyes, mouth and nose which too clearly indicated
mental weakness. Although quiet and inoffensive, he did not escape the rude
attentions of street urchins. They occasionally pulled his coat and cried
“Tommy Matches” but he never retailiated in any way, and, fortunately for his
peace, the boys found little sport in teasing so tame a quarry.
For a time he sold newspapers and subsequently he appeared as a street musician with a concertina. When he blossomed out as a “general merchant” the late Mr W.C. Orr, grocer, in his kindly way, presented Tommy with a wooden box having the word “matches” legibly printed on the front, for the display of his stock-in-trade. No doubt Tommy was proud of his new box and grateful to the donor; but he was too dull to evince either pride or gratitude. One day a man, nodding to the box, said to him –
“Hallo, Tommy! I suppose we’ll need to call you a timber merchant now.”
“Naw, ye’ll naw; a’m a gen’ral merchant.”
This unusual display of wit rather bewildered the interlocutor, who passed on, pondering.
Now, Tommy used the box not only to show his goods but also (a corner of it) as a cash box, and it seems to have suggested wicked thoughts to wicked minds. Unscrupulous rascals, aware of Tommy’s ignorance and simplicity, would present a silver coin and ask him to “oblige” them with change for it. Tommy, being quite unable to count change, would tell them to take it themselves, when the knaves would abstract more than their due. That was done repeatedly, and the offence was sometimes aggravated by passing off on the unfortunate man counterfeit or foreign coin.
Much amusement was caused when Tommy varied his profession and appeared as a street musician, provided with a wheezy old melodeon. He had no idea of tune and pressed the keys in haphazard fashion while he pulled the bellows out and in. When facetiously requested to favour his audience with a particular melody, he would gravely nod his head in token of comprehension and compliance and continue as before.
Tommy was playing outside a bank while the solemn tolling of the Mid Kirk bell reminded citizens that the remains of Queen
Victoria were being conveyed to their last
resting place. The agent of the bank, who held high rank in the local volunteer
corps and was a most loyal subject, happening to come out, was scandalised to
hear Tommy’s jarring notes in shocking contrast to the funeral bell. It is
questionable whether Tommy knew that the Queen was dead, and highly probable
that he was quite indifferent; but he was certainly amazed when the incensed
gentleman berated him for a performance to which no one had hitherto troubled
to take exception. The bankers tirade was perhaps unduly prolonged, and Tommy’s
amazement gave place to anger. It was great fun, and rather astonishing to the
little crowd that had gathered when the worm turned and Tommy blurted out in
his blubbery way all the opprobrious epithets he could muster against his
assailant, who quickly realised that his dignity could be saved only by an
abrupt retreat. Such a display of spirit by Tommy may seem incredible to many
who knew him, but there is no doubt of its occurrence.
During a coal strike,
was visited by a colliers’ band, out to raise funds. Displayed in various ways
– on boards, musical instruments, caps and collecting boxes – were appeals for
assistance such as “Help the Miners,” “Remember our Wives and Children” and the
like. A wag obtained from a collier the inscription he carried on his cap, and
knowing Tommy to be unmarried decorated him with it and set him off in a
different direction grinding away at his melodeon and bearing the touching
appeal – “Help my Starving Bairns.”
One of Tommy’s favourite pitches was in
Bank Street and another in Regent Street,
opposite Mr Gregor’s tutorial academy, where he often disturbed the serenity of
the spot by unmelodious strains, Mr. Gregor’s daughters, taking pity on the
poor man, and perhaps, for self protection) organised a cake and candy sale and
with the proceeds purchased for him a nice portable hand-organ, whose notes
were a desirable substitute for the monotonous braying of the old melodeon.
Illness in 1898 first brought him to the notice of the Parish Council authorities, and he was subsequently, at intervals, an inmate of Smithston Poorhouse, where he died in 1910.