Henry Thornton (1760-1815) was a British political economist, slavery abolitionist, Member of Parliament and partner in Down, Thornton & Free from 1784 until his death in 1815.
Background and early life
Henry Thornton was born on 10 March 1760 in a house on the south side of Clapham Common in Surrey. He was the youngest of four children of the philanthropist, banker and merchant John Thornton (1729-90) and his wife Lucy Watson (1722-85). John Thornton supported the abolition of slavery, and sponsored John Newton, the abolitionist and writer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’.
Both of Henry Thornton’s grandfathers had been merchants in Hull, and although John Thornton continued the family business in Hull, he also traded as a merchant in London.
The family also had strong banking connections. John Thornton and his father (Henry’s grandfather) Robert Thornton were both directors of the Bank of England. Henry’s brother Samuel Thornton later served as both director and governor of the Bank.
Henry Thornton was educated at schools in Wandsworth.
Business and banking career
Henry Thornton’s working life began in the firm of his second cousin Godfrey Thornton, a merchant trading with Russia and the Baltic, and later governor of the Bank of England.
In 1780 Thornton moved to work with his father, who was also a merchant trading with Russia and the Baltic, and additionally a partner in Hull sugar and soap firms.
In 1784, seeing that his father’s recent ventures had resulted in considerable losses, and against the advice of his parents, Thornton left the family business to join the banking firm that was to dominate his working life. When he joined the partnership the bank’s name became Down, Thornton & Free.
In the next three decades Down, Thornton & Free grew to become one of London’s largest banks, acting as London agent for an increasing number of banks outside London, including many provincial banking firms and The Royal Bank of Scotland.
In around 1810 Thornton discovered that one of his fellow partners had allowed a firm with which he was connected to build up an unusually large debit balance with the bank. It soon became apparent to Thornton that the money was unlikely to be repaid in full. Although Thornton intervened repeatedly to try to limit the losses, the affair dragged on for several years and the bank eventually – after Thornton’s death – lost £70,000, a sum nearly equalling the bank’s share capital of £72,000. Thornton reproached himself with having allowed too much of his attention to be diverted from the bank towards his parliamentary, religious and campaigning activities. In 1814 he reflected that he, as elder partner in the bank, was ‘a trustee to our customers’, ‘counted on as a guarantee that all is safe’. Although the bank survived this crisis, it eventually failed in 1825, a decade after Thornton’s death.
Abolitionist and evangelical Christian
Henry Thornton was one of the founders of the ‘Clapham Sect’, a name retrospectively applied to the group of evangelical Christians who met at Battersea Rise, Thornton’s home on the west side of Clapham Common. Its prominent members included Thornton’s friends the campaigner Zachary Macaulay; the writer Hannah More; and his close friend and cousin, the slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce.
The Clapham Sect instigated numerous campaigns for social reform and also initiated and supported a variety of charitable and religious causes. The Sect, and Thornton in particular, were central to the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, and in 1799 Thornton introduced the (unsuccessful) Slave Trade Limitation Bill in the House of Commons. Thornton also helped the Sect to publish its own journal, the Christian Observer, for which he wrote many articles.
Thornton was a founder (in 1791) and chairman of the Sierra Leone Company, set up to establish a colony of freed slaves in Africa, intended to demonstrate that profitable trading was not dependent on slavery. He invested his own money in the venture and effectively ran the company from offices in Birchin Lane in the City of London.
After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 Thornton became treasurer of the African Institution.
Thornton was a founder and treasurer of the missionary institutions which exist today as the Church Missionary Society and the Bible Society. He was the first president of the Sunday School Society. He was also a founder and manager of the London Institution for the Promotion of Literature and Useful Knowledge, an organisation which offered scientific education, in part to those excluded from existing universities on grounds of their religious denominational affiliation.
Parliamentarian and political economist
In 1782 Thornton applied to contest one of the two Parliamentary seats for Hull, where his friend and cousin William Wilberforce had held the other seat since 1780. He withdrew, however, upon discovering that he was expected to pay each voter two guineas to obtain their support.
Later the same year he was elected Member of Parliament for Southwark. He held that seat until his death. Although an independent, he generally supported the policies of William Pitt the younger, Henry Addington and the ‘ministry of all the talents’ of Lord Grenville and Charles James Fox. He lent his support to the 1797 campaign of Earl Grey for parliamentary reform and supported measures to counter corruption in public life.
Thornton sat on a number of parliamentary committees, mostly relating to financial affairs. The currency crisis of 1797, prompted by fears of French invasion, led the Bank of England to suspend the payment of gold in exchange for bank notes, and Thornton argued repeatedly for the reversal of this policy. His views on this and other economic matters were in opposition to those of his family, and particularly of his brother Samuel, who became governor of the Bank of England. He was one of three authors of the Bullion Committee report (1810), the timing and circumstances of which led to financial uncertainty, and even put Thornton’s own bank at risk.
Thornton’s 1802 book An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain marked him out as a leading economic thinker. In it, he sought to refute the common view that paper credit was the principal cause of the financial difficulties of the time, and to suggest how the Bank of England should act in relation to currency fluctuations. The book was translated into French and German and also issued in America. Although he was soon overshadowed by other contemporary economic thinkers, in the 20th century his contribution to monetary theory was reassessed, and came to be viewed as a precursor to the ideas of John Maynard Keynes.
Family life and character
On 1 March 1796 Thornton married Marianne Sykes (1765-1815), daughter of Joseph Sykes, a Russia merchant of West Ella near Hull. They lived at Battersea Rise, which Thornton had substantially extended, including the addition of an oval library said to be designed by William Pitt.
Although considered cold and diffident in public, his daughter Marianne portrayed him as an affectionate father. He was noted for his generosity, and whilst a bachelor he gave away six-sevenths of his income. It is reported that he stood by insolvent clients whose difficulties arose from third parties and ventures to which he had provided introductions, on one occasion at a personal cost to him of £20,000. On the introduction of income tax in 1799 he privately insisted on paying more than his due, in accordance with the views he had expressed in the parliamentary debates concerning the new tax.
Thornton suffered poor health throughout his life, including insomnia, headaches and digestive complaints. It was said that overwork contributed to these symptoms, and his banking partner Peter Free wrote in 1807 that ‘Mr Thornton is pretty well, but as usual overworking himself with public and private business'. He took the waters at Bath and Buxton to try to relieve his symptoms.
Henry and Marianne had nine children together:
Marianne, born 1797
Henry Sykes, born 1800
Lucy, born 1801
Watson, born 1802
Isabella, born 1803
Sophia, born 1805
Henrietta, born 1807
Laura, born 1809
Charles, born 1810
Death and legacy
By the autumn of 1814 Thornton was seriously ill with tuberculosis. His friend and cousin William Wilberforce moved his family out of their house in Kensington Gore so that Thornton could live there, avoiding the need to travel to Battersea Rise.
On 16 January 1815 Thornton died at Kensington Gore. He was buried on 24 January in the family vault at St Paul’s Church, Clapham.
His wife Marianne died on 15 October 1815, also of tuberculosis.
Thornton is primarily remembered today for his membership of the Clapham Sect; his associated involvement in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade and active support of missionary and charitable causes; and for his contribution to monetary theory. In 1979 the Cass Business School, City University, London instituted an annual Thornton lecture ‘in the belief that no student of money and banking should be unfamiliar with the name and work of this 19th century economist and banker’.
An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain (London: J Hatchard, 1802), also in FA von Hayek (ed.), An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain (1802) by Henry Thornton, together with his evidence given before the Committees of secrecy of the two houses of Parliament in the Bank of England, March and April, 1797, some manuscript notes, and his speeches on the bullion report, May 1811. Edited with an introduction by F A v Hayek (London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1939)
On the Probable Effects of the Peace, with Respect to the Commercial Interests of Great Britain: being a brief examination of some prevalent opinions (London: J Hatchard, 1802)
Substance of two speeches of Henry Thornton, Esq., in the debate in the House of Commons: on the report of the Bullion Committee, on the 7th and 14th of May, 1811 (London: J Hatchard, 1811)
Prayers to be used by a child or young person - by a grown person - by the master or mistress of a Sunday school - and by the master or mistress of a family (London, 1796)
Family Prayers (London: J Hatchard & Son, 1834), published in more than thirty editions over the following 20 years
The Family Commentary upon the Sermon on the Mount (London: J Hatchard & Son, 1835)
Family Commentary on Portions of the Pentateuch: in lectures, with prayers adapted to the subjects. By the late Henry Thornton, Esquire. MP (London: J Hatchard & Son, 1837)
On the Ten Commandments: Lectures (London, 1843)
Female Characters (London, 1846)
Related publications and online sources
‘Henry Sykes Thornton’, Three Banks Review, March 1966, vol. 69, pp. 29-37, reprinted in Williams Deacon’s, 1771-1970 (privately published by Williams & Glyn’s Bank Ltd, 1971)
EJT Acaster, ‘Henry Thornton – the banker: part 1’, Three Banks Review, December 1974, vol. 104, pp. 46-57
EJT Acaster, ‘Henry Thornton – the banker: part 2’, Three Banks Review, March 1975, vol. 105, pp. 38-52
EJT Acaster, ‘Henry Thornton – the banker: part 3’, Three Banks Review, June 1975, vol. 106, pp. 51-61
E Forster, Marianne Thornton 1797-1887: a domestic biography (London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd, 1956)
D Laidler, ‘Thornton, Henry, 1760-1815’, in J Eatwell, M Milgate, and P Newman (eds.) The New Palgrave: a dictionary of economics, ed., 4 vols. (London : Macmillan, 1987)
EAM Lee, ‘Bankers and evangelicals: Thorntons and Wilberforces’, Three Banks Review, March 1985, vol. 145, pp. 54-62
NS Meacham, Henry Thornton of Clapham (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1964)
Frederick George Hilton Price, A Handbook of London Bankers (London: Chatto and Windus, 1876)
J Stephen, ‘The Clapham sect’, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, 3rd edition, 2 (1853), 289–385
C Tolley, Domestic Biography: the legacy of evangelicalism in four nineteenth-century families (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1997)
‘Henry Thornton’ inOxford Dictionary of National Biography
‘Clapham Sect’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Summary of our archive holdings
Papers of the executors of Henry and Marianne Thornton, including accounts, partnership deeds and business and personal papers of Henry Thornton and his executors, including papers relating to other family members, 1770-1875.
Letters kept by William Simpson, cashier of The Royal Bank of Scotland, including 65 letters and copy letters between Henry Thornton and his banking partners and Simpson, 1801-7.
Archives held elsewhere
The principal collections of papers relating to Henry Thornton are:
Cambridge University Library: Thornton family: letters and papers (Ref: Add.7674) including Henry Thornton’s ‘recollections’ (ref Add.7674/1/N)
Wigan Archives Service: Diary of Henry Thornton 1777-1815, with edition of diary by Edward Hall (Ref: EHC18/M786, EHC7/M775, EHC7/M1248)
Edward James Eliot: Broomfield – His Clapham Villa
His varied political and philanthropic activities drew Edward James into the circle of Wilberforce's many like-minded friends — the group who would later be referred to as "The Clapham Sect". Even though the majority of this group never actually lived in Clapham, Henry Thornton did much to draw a circle of Wilberforce's Christian friends to the area, beginning with his own purchase of Battersea Rise. For five years, he shared this house with Wilberforce as "a chummery" (being bachelors and able to share the expenses of the housekeeping). The two men were cousins and as close as brothers, sharing so completely their religious views, political views and various causes. Thornton hoped that some good would come out of their "Clapham system", saying, "Wilberforce is a candle that should not be hid under a bushel. The influence of his conversation is, I think, great and striking. I am surprised to find how much religion everybody seems to have when they get into our house. They seem all to submit, and to acknowledge the advantage of a religious life, and we are not at all queer or guilty of carrying things too far."
Without a doubt, this candle attracted many great personalities, our hero being one of the first.
It took a little time for Edward James to decide on Clapham as the place of his personal residence. He continued attached to Pitt all of his life, and he had stayed on at Downing Street for five years after Harriot's death — also spending time with his daughter and the Dowager Lady Chatham at Burton Pynsent, of course. As his grief became more controlled, and he worked more and more on matters for reform, Edward James began to want a home of his own in Clapham. This would allow for closer and more detailed work, since Wilberforce would be so near and Pitt often wanted to steal moments of peace in the country. It also gave Edward James the opportunity of bringing his little daughter to live in his own house, instead of being always with her grandmother.
The first notice that appears of Edward James' search for a house comes from the files of Sir John Soane, the noted architect. Soane did much work for the Eliot family (most importantly his early 19th-century renovations of Port Eliot), including quite a lot of help in the family's search for town houses. In March of 1791, he surveyed Captain Lewis' house at Clapham Common for his client. Obviously, this house did not suit, because five months later Soane was placing an ad for a Clapham Villa. Edward James also paid for a clerk's time and expenses in travelling to "Sydenham, Chislehurst and Roehampton to look at houses", as well as the making of plans for three houses. No records of those three house plans appear to survive in Soane's files, but Edward James did write to Mrs. Pretyman by September stating, ". . . the plan of my Clapham house has been changed two or three times since my last letter to you, which I have not at present time to explain farther than to say that it seems to be now pretty well settled, and with rooms (I think I may say considerable) larger than the original design." This is a little hard to fit into a definite order, since Edward James also wrote to Mrs. Pretyman in November, saying that his sister-in-law had been "making inquiries about a house for me in the neighbourhood of Hampstead or Highgate and says she has heard of one that she thinks will do." Perhaps his sister-in-law was hoping that he would settle nearer the family, but this is the only mention of any consideration outside of Clapham.
Whether by special request or private design, Henry Thornton presented the solution to the house-hunting problem. Having purchased a house and land for himself on the West side of Clapham Common (and having convinced Wilberforce to share it with him), he set about his vision of bringing their other friends to the area. To do this, he built two very similar houses, one on each side of his Battersea Rise estate. These were destined for the two closest friends of the Chummery Bachelors. The first was called "Glenelg" and stood next to Battersea Rise House. It was purchased by Thornton's friend, Charles Grant, a director of the East India Company and a strong Evangelicalist with great motivation. The second house was rented to Wilberforce's dear friend (and our hero), Edward James. This house was called "Broomfield" or "Broomfield Lodge", being at slightly more of a distance from Battersea Rise (on the southern end of the estate property), though the gardens were separated by only a few shrubs. By this arrangement, the men were able to meet as often and privately as they wished. (From the references in the above letters, Thornton must have built the house to Eliot's specifications and then rented it to him.)
Broomfield was described as a "small" brick mansion house, built in a rather classic style with a front measuring approximately eighty feet in length. Its situation on the western-side of the Common gave it a lovely view "commanding the beautiful prospects of the Sydenham and Surry-hills", with the ground forming "a pleasing valley towards Wandsworth Common". The public approach to the house came from the West Side of the Common by means of an avenue and carriage drive. (Broomwood Road now follows practically the same approach of the original drive.) Architectural plans dating to 1797 still survive for the ground and principal stories, showing ample rooms for servants and the housekeeping necessities — including areas marked for the Wine Cellar, the Larder, the Scullery, the Pastry, the Dairy, Small Beer, "Shoes, &c", Ashes and Coals. The principle story included a Drawing Room (with bow window), Dining Room, Library or "Common Parlour", Vestibule and a Powdering Room.
Details of Edward James' life at this new home are rather few. Not very many letters survive which were written from there, but the subject does turn up in Wilberforce's diary a number of times. Edward James was now able to bring his little girl to their new home, though a good deal of her time was still spent at Burton Pynsent, with visits to Holwood (Pitt's house) and Port Eliot. Broomfield gave our busy hero ample time for political and spiritual discussion, as well as the opportunity of attending the well-known services of Rev. John Venn at Holy Trinity Church. Pitt came to visit often, and Edward James used every opportunity he could to sustain the friendship of the Premier and the Philanthropist — even if he could not mend the chasm that had formed in the relationship of his two friends.
By 1797, just five years after his taking of Broomfield, his health began to fail at a more rapid rate, and Edward James was not able to spend very much (if any) time in Clapham. When Wilberforce married in May of that year, he and his bride rented Broomfield from Eliot in early June for the rest of the parliamentary term. Edward James never returned to Clapham. During the summer, he was in Bath for his health, only leaving in September to take Harriet Hester on a visit to his parents in Cornwall. Sadly, he never left Port Eliot, where he passed away on the 17th of September, surrounded by those he loved.
It is here that details about Broomfield become even hazier. Without a doubt, Edward James rented the house from Thornton, since he referred to him as "my landlord". However, many books state that, after Edward James' death, Wilberforce purchased Broomfield from his friend's solicitors. The question arises as to whether that is just a faulty statement or Edward James was in a sort of "rent-to-own" agreement with Thornton. No mention of the house or property appears in Eliot's will, but he does not name very many particulars, since his real concern is the guardianship of his daughter, with instructions that all "property" be sold and invested in funds for her use.
Broomfield House, a place of such history and pride, is no more. And before moving on with the story of Edward James Eliot of Port Eliot, it's interesting to document the final years of this edifice, behind whose walls two such great heroes worked and lived.
One year after her father's death, twelve-year-old Harriet Hester received a kind letter from Mr. Wilberforce. He had invited her to visit him at Broomfield, though circumstances had not permitted it — of which he was glad, because he worried that being in her old house might have affected her too much. (Obviously, she and her father had been very happy there.)
After years of being a quiet and private haven to a gentle hero "who loved the shade", Broomfield became the true center of Thornton's "Clapham System", after becoming the home of the most public hero of the group. To this house has been accorded the honour of being undoubtedly called "the place where the abolition of the slave trade was brought about", as well as being the spot where the most famous anti-slavery petition was signed. That another claim to fame may not be forgotten, mention should be made of its being the foundation place of the Church Missionary Society, formed there in 1798. It was recorded that "to Clapham the throng of petitioners flocked. His rooms were filled by crowds, which beset his table and overflowed into his verandah and garden; they came from every quarter, of every creed and tongue." It is unlikely that any famous philanthropist or politician of the era did not, at some time or other, pass through the threshold of this unimposing house.
After the great victory for Abolition in 1807, Wilberforce desired a more quiet and less public life. He moved his family out of Clapham, and Broomfield was sold, thereby fading from public view. The purchaser was Mr. Robert Deacon, banker of Williams, Deacon & Company (the firm in which Henry Thornton and his son were eminent members). By 1851, the house was purchased by Sir Charles Forbes, who changed the name to "Broomwood House". He lived there for twenty-six years, and during this time the house was once again in the fashion reports of newspapers, howbeit for merely social reasons rather than political. (Even Queen Victoria honoured the house with a visit in the late 1860s, viewing it with the possibility of using it as a nursery for the young children of the Prince and Princess of Wales.)
By the last years of the 19th century, Clapham was swallowed by the metropolitan advance of the London masses. No longer the haven of well-to-do businessmen and politicians, the peaceful streets around the Common were attacked by the industrial cranes of modern destruction. House after house, building after building, was torn down to make way for shops and blocks of modern flats. In April of 1904, the house-breakers descended onto the west side and began demolishing Broomwood, standing neglected within its circle of trees. The land was destined for a new development of flats and houses, and all that remains of what could be called the "headquarters" of the Clapham Sect are some faded photos and a plaque on the side of the new building at 111 Broomwood Road, commemorating the site of Wilberforce's residence during the great political campaign.*
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*As nice a thought as this plaque is, the data stated on it is a bit misleading. Broomfield was only the home of Wilberforce during his campaign against the Slave Trade — not Slavery. After the passing of the Slave-Trade Abolition bill, Wilberforce and his family moved to Kensington Gore. He continued campaigning against slavery, but this work was done from several other homes outside of Clapham.