Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thornton, Henry
THORNTON, HENRY (1760–1815), philanthropist and economist, born on 10 March 1760, was the son of John Thornton, who was himself only son, by his first wife, Hannah Swynocke, of Robert Thornton of Clapham Common, a director of the Bank of England. Samuel Thornton [q. v.] was his elder brother.
The father, John Thornton (1720–1790), born on 1 April 1720, inherited a large fortune and invested it in trade. He was frugal in personal expenditure, and gave away 2,000l. or 3,000l. a year. He became known as a munificent supporter of the first generation of ‘Evangelicals.’ He circulated immense quantities of bibles and religious books in all parts of the world, and printed many at his own expense. He bought advowsons in order to appoint deserving clergymen. When John Newton (1725–1807) [q. v.] settled at Olney, Thornton allowed him 200l. a year to be spent in hospitality, and promised as much more as might be needed. When Cowper took refuge with Newton during his mental disease in 1773–4, Thornton doubled this annuity. Thornton in 1779 presented Newton to the rectory of St. Mary Woolnoth. He was a constant friend to Cowper, who describes him in the poem on ‘Charity,’ and wrote some lines upon his death (Cowper, Works, ed. Southey, x. 29). Thornton was the first treasurer of the Marine Society, and his portrait by Gainsborough is in their board-room in Clarke's Place, Bishopsgate Street Within. He was a director of the Russia Company, but declined to be its governor, on the ground of his disapproval of some indecorums permitted at their public dinners. His strictness, and some oddities of manner, exposed him to sneers, to which he was absolutely indifferent. He was hospitable to congenial persons, though mixing little in general society. He died on 7 Nov. 1790. He had married (28 Nov. 1753) Lucy, only daughter and heiress of Samuel Watson of Kingston-upon-Hull. She had been much influenced by Dr. Watts. They had four children: Samuel [q. v.]; Robert, M.P. for Colchester; Jane, who married the Earl of Leven; and Henry.
Henry was sent at the age of five to the school of a Mr. Davis on Wandsworth Common, and at thirteen to a Mr. Roberts at Point Pleasant, Wandsworth. From his first school he brought more than the usual knowledge of Greek and Latin; but from Roberts, who undertook to teach without assistance not only Greek or Latin, but ‘French, rhetoric, drawing, arithmetic, reading, writing, speaking, geography, bowing, walking, fencing,’ besides Hebrew and mathematics, he learnt nothing except ‘habits of idleness.’ He started in life, as he said, with ‘next to no education,’ and without any political acquaintances. In 1778 Thornton returned to his home, and was placed in the counting-house of a Mr. Godfrey Thornton. In 1780 he entered his father's house, and two or three years later became a partner. The partnership was dissolved in 1784, when he joined the bank of Downe, Free, & Thornton. He was an active member of this firm until his death. In 1782 Thornton was invited to stand for Hull at a by-election, but withdrew upon finding that each voter expected a present of two guineas. In September 1782, however, he was elected for Southwark, and, although he always refused the guinea which was there expected for votes, he held the seat till the end of his life. He had two sharp contests in 1806 and 1807, and was unpopular with the mob, though generally respected for his integrity and independence. Thornton, though he held many whig principles, did not join either political party. He sympathised with the early stages of the French revolution, and, although he considered the war to be necessary in 1793, he supported Wilberforce in a motion (26 Jan. 1795) intended to facilitate negotiations for peace. He afterwards strongly approved of the peace of Amiens. He voted in favour of Grey's motion for parliamentary reform in 1797, and, like Wilberforce, separated from his extreme protestant friends by supporting Roman catholic emancipation. Thornton was not an effective speaker, but became well known in parliament as a high authority upon all matters of finance. In this capacity he gave an independent support to Pitt's measures. He approved the income tax first imposed in 1798, but thought that it operated unfairly in taxing permanent and precarious incomes alike. It is said that when he found a change impracticable, he silently raised his own payment to what it would have been upon his own scheme. He was a member of the committee on the Irish exchange and currency appointed in March 1804, and of the finance committees, the first of which was appointed in February 1807. He was also a member of the famous bullion committee, in which he took a part second only to Horner. Two of his speeches upon their report in 1811 were separately published. In his views upon this question he was opposed to the views of his own family and city connections. Thornton's reputation as a financier was confirmed by his ‘Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain,’ 1802, a book of which J. S. Mill said, in his ‘Political Economy’ (bk. iii. chap. xi. § 4), that it is still the clearest exposition known to him in English of the subject with which it deals. It was reviewed by Horner in the first number of the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ It was partly intended to vindicate the policy of the Bank of England, of which Thornton was a director and governor (see MacCullough, Literature of Political Economy, p. 169). It was also reprinted in America, and in MacCulloch's ‘Collection of Tracts on Paper Currency,’ 1857.
Thornton was at the same time one of the most influential members of ‘the Clapham sect.’ Wilberforce had entered public life about the same time; and Wilberforce's uncle had married Thornton's aunt. They were on most intimate terms from the first. For four years before his death John Thornton had given a room in his house to Wilberforce. In 1792 Henry Thornton bought a house at Battersea Rise upon Clapham Common, and Wilberforce shared in the establishment until his marriage in 1797. The library in this house was designed by William Pitt. It became the meeting-place of the informal councils which gathered round Wilberforce. Thornton supported Wilberforce's anti-slave-trade agitation in parliament, and took a leading part in the foundation of the colony at Sierra Leone intended to provide a centre of civilisation for the African races. He carried through parliament an act (31 George III, c. 55) for the formation of a Sierra Leone Company. He was chairman of the company during its whole existence. He procured the capital, drew up the constitution, selected the governor, superintended the despatch of settlers, and in 1807 arranged for the transfer of the colony to the English government. The first views of the promoters had been, as Thornton wrote in 1808, ‘very crude.’ There was much difficulty in obtaining proper colonists or competent administrators. The expectations of pecuniary success were disappointed, and nearly the whole capital of 240,000l. was spent. Thornton himself lost 2,000l. or 3,000l., but held that he was ‘on the whole a gainer.’ He had been associated with many excellent people, had encouraged an interest in the African race, and had, as he hoped, laid a foundation for more successful enterprises. Among the good results to Thornton was a friendship with Zachary Macaulay [q. v.], who was one of the first governors of the colony, and in later years a zealous member of the Clapham sect. Thornton took an active part in many other cognate enterprises. He was first treasurer of the Society for Missions to Africa and the East, started in 1799, which soon afterwards became the Church Missionary Society. He was also the first treasurer of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which had been frequently discussed at Battersea Rise, and was finally established in 1804.
Thornton's firm had a small business when he became a partner, but prospered under his management, till in later years his share of the yearly profits amounted to from 8,000l. to 12,000l. Until his marriage in 1796 he gave away six-sevenths of his income, which in one year amounted to over 9,000l. After his marriage he reduced his charitable expenditure to one-third of his income. He gave 600l. a year to Hannah More for her schools, and supported schools in the Borough and elsewhere. He deliberately refrained from leaving more than modest fortunes to his children, and told them that his example of personal frugality and large liberality, inherited from his own father, was better than a large fortune. He was careful in educating his children, and endeavoured to interest them at the earliest possible age in politics, and even in the currency. He wrote a paper advocating this practice in the ‘Christian Observer,’ to which in the course of his life he contributed some eighty articles. His eldest daughter left unpublished records which show strikingly his attention to his domestic duties, and his care for his parents as well as his children. Thornton represented the best type of the classes from which was drawn the strength of the early evangelical movement. Intellectually he was distinguished for sincerity and calmness of judgment. In commercial matters he was conspicuous for a high standard of integrity. Sir James Stephen mentions that he once spent 20,000l. to meet liabilities for which he was not legally, but considered himself to be morally, responsible, because he had given credit to the firm immediately concerned and so enabled them to obtain credit elsewhere.
Thornton's health was always delicate. It broke down in 1814, and he died on 16 Jan. 1815 in Wilberforce's house at Kensington Gore. He was buried at Clapham. His portrait was painted by John Hoppner, R.A. (Cat. Third Loan Exhib., No. 182). He had married (1 March 1796) Marianne, only daughter of Joseph Sykes of West Ella, near Hull. He left nine children: Henry Sykes, partner in Messrs. Williams, Deacon, & Co.; Watson, rector of Llanwarne; Charles, the first incumbent of Margaret Street Chapel; Marianne and Lucy, who died unmarried; Isabella, wife of Archdeacon Harrison, canon of Canterbury; Sophia, wife of her cousin, the Earl of Leven and Melville; Henrietta, wife of Richard Synnot, esq.; and Laura, wife of the Rev. Charles Forster, rector of Stisted. Mrs. Thornton died nine months after her husband, when the children were placed under the guardianship of Sir Robert Harry Inglis [q. v.]
Besides the book above mentioned, Thornton composed family prayers for his own use, which were published in 1834 (edited by Sir R. Inglis), and reached a thirty-first edition in 1835. Sir James Stephen speaks highly of its merits. Inglis also edited ‘Family Commentaries’ on the sermon on the mount (1835), on the Pentateuch (1837), ‘Lectures on the Ten Commandments’ (1843), and ‘Female Characters’ (1846). Thornton also published in 1802 a pamphlet upon the ‘Probable Effects of the Peace upon the Commercial Interests of Great Britain.’[Information from family papers kindly communicated by Miss Laura Forster, H. Thornton's granddaughter. For John Thornton, see also Memorials of W. Bull (1864); Cecil's Life of Newton, chap. x.; Cowper's Life and Works by Southey (1835, &c.), i. 244, v. 200. For Henry Thornton see Grover's Old Clapham (1887), pp. 70–4; Colquhoun's Wilberforce and his Friends (2nd ed.), pp. 254 seq.; Life of W. Wilberforce (1838), iv. 227–33, and elsewhere; Sir James Stephen's Essays on Ecclesiastical Biography (‘Clapham Sect’); Christian Observer for 1815, pp. 127, 137, 265.]