THORNTON, Henry (1760-1815), of Battersea Rise, Clapham Common, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



24 Sept. 1782 - 16 Jan. 1815

Family and Education

b. 10 Mar. 1760, 3rd s. of John Thornton, Russia merchant and dir. Bank of England, of Clapham by 2nd w. Lucy, da. and h. of Samuel Watson, Russia merchant, of Kingston-upon-Hull Yorks.; bro. of Robert Thornton* and Samuel Thornton*. educ. Dr Davis’s sch. Wandsworth Common 1765-73; Mr Roberts’s sch. Point Pleasant, Wandsworth 1773-8. m. 1 Mar. 1796, Mary Anne, da. of Joseph Sykes, Russia merchant, of West Ella, Yorks., 3s. 6da.

Offices Held

Asst. Russia Co. 1789-1811; chairman, Sierra Leone Co. 1791-1811.

Capt. Battersea and Streatham vols. 1798.


Of the Thornton brothers, ‘all City people and connected with merchants, and nothing but merchants on every side’, Henry was the most obvious heir to his father’s evangelical and philanthropic endeavours. Inheriting £40,000 from him in 1790, in addition to his partnership in the London bank of Down, Thornton and Free and a share in the family business interests at Hull, he devoted six-sevenths of his income to charity until his marriage in 1796 (when he was worth £7,000 p.a.) and one-third thereafter. A sharp critic of his father’s rough and ready approach to life, he aspired to the suaviter in modo of his cousin William Wilberforce* who described him in 1789 as ‘a most excellent, upright, pure, and generous young man: may it please God long to continue him a blessing to the public, and to amend his health’. Wilberforce saved him from ‘a sort of infidelity’ and set up house with him from 1792 until his marriage; their enthusiasm for the abolition of the slave trade secured him the chairmanship of the Sierra Leone Company founded in July 1791 to promote African commerce and civilization. He had championed the Company in the House that session and by the end of the year it kept him busy ‘from morning till night’, so that ‘at present, business, politics, friendship, seem all suspended for the sake of it’. He informed the House, 2 Apr. 1792, that he was proud to be the only merchant supporting abolition of the slave trade that day. Around him and Wilberforce gathered the Clapham Sect, or the ‘Saints’ as they were dubbed, including Charles Grant I* and Edward James Eliot*. The King remarked that he hated ‘such canting Methodists’ as Thornton.1

On his unopposed election in 1790, Thornton had combined the profession of ‘just support to administration’ with his perennial claim to independence of party: ‘he never gave one party vote’. He favoured relief for religious dissenters, and abstained from voting with Pitt on the Russian armament; and on 30 Dec. 1794, 26 Jan., 6 Feb. and 27 May 1795 joined Wilberforce in voting on principle for a negotiated peace with France. He admitted (26 Jan.) that the moment was not propitious and, having presented a petition from Southwark in favour of peace on 6 Feb., scrupulously presented a counter-petition on 20 Feb. He was satisfied that the majority of his constituents were in favour of legislation against sedition, 1 Dec. 1795, and next day signed the London merchants’ declaration of support for Pitt. At his re-election in 1796, when he headed the poll, he was still a ‘general friend of administration’, having at first supported the war with France and then waived his objections to it on discovering that government could not honourably negotiate peace. He was prepared to support a temperate and seasonable reform of Parliament and voted for it, 26 May 1797. That session he was a respected spokesman before the secret committee on the Bank of England and a member of the finance committee; he then investigated the Ordnance accounts and, in the following session, the victualling office. He claimed his constituents’ pressure for his opposition to Pitt’s triple tax assessment, 14 and 18 Dec. 1797, but apart from a proposal to improve commercial assessment, he approved the income tax as the only way to continue war finance, 27 Dec. 1798, and silently raised his own contribution in accordance with the proposal he had made in the House. In 1798 and 1799 he assisted Wilberforce by promoting a bill to limit the African slave trade, which was eventually defeated in the Lords, 5 July 1799. He was a champion of paper money, 27 Nov., 5 Dec. 1800, 23 Mar. 1801, denying that it adversely affected the price of provisions, and in 1802 published his views in an authoritative Enquiry into the nature and effects of the paper credit of Great Britain.2

Thornton welcomed the purity of the Southwark election of 1802, in which he again headed the poll; he had complained in the House, 20 Feb. 1797, of the abuses prevalent under a system of electoral treating. He admitted that he had gone far in supporting government and was well disposed to Addington, who had made peace with France.3 He disliked his tampering with Pitt’s sinking fund scheme, 3 June 1802, but assisted in the defence of the continued restriction of cash payments, 11 Feb. 1803. It was the resumption of hostilities that alienated him; he joined the minority on it, 24 May 1803, and probably also voted with Pitt for the orders of the day on 3 June. He joined the minorities against Addington on defence, 10 and 25 Apr. 1804, and was listed a supporter of Pitt by then and during his second ministry, until constituency pressure dictated his votes in the majorities against Melville, 8 Apr. and 12 June 1805. He was preoccupied with the defence of the Sierra Leone Company against its critics in debate, and with the presentation of the case against Burdett in the Middlesex elections, which displeased some of his constituents. He was ‘cool’ about the payment of Pitt’s debts after his death. He voted for the Grenville ministry’s repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, and was not an opponent of theirs in the ensuing election. He was trying to interest them in taking over the management of the Sierra Leone Company, to save him having to apply (as he had done since 1800) for annual grants which never sufficed, 20 Jan. 1807. He approved Windham’s military plans, apart from their neglect of the volunteers, though he feared they would not meet immediate requirements, 23 Jan. 1807. Having been named to the finance committee on 10 Feb., he also gave credit to the ministry’s new plan of finance, 19 Feb. He was among the staunch supporters of their abolition of the slave trade. It looked, when he opposed the grant of the duchy of Lancaster to Perceval on 25 Mar., as if he would go into opposition with the Grenville ministry; but it was as an advocate of retrenchment that he spoke. He informed his electors in May that he disapproved the late ministry’s handling of the Catholic bill and upheld the royal prerogative.4

Thornton tried to interest the Portland ministry, too, in taking over the Sierra Leone Company, 29 July 1807, and in the following year succeeded. After the abolition of the slave trade, a jubilant Wilberforce had asked him ‘well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?’ The reply was, ‘The lottery I think’. In fact it was economical reform that preoccupied Thornton in the Parliament of 1807.

No place or pension ere he got
For self or for connection
We shall not tax the Treasury
By Thornton’s re-election

was the verse sung by his Southwark supporters.5 On being re-elected to the finance committee, 30 June 1807, he sought to carry out the reductions proposed by its predecessor, collaborating with Henry Bankes and sometimes taking the chair. The committee’s report on the Bank, which aimed to save the public £240,000 p.a. was supervised and defended by him in the House, 10 Feb. 1808, in defiance of the views of his family and City connexions. At the same time he concurred with Wilberforce’s line of judging ministerial measures by their merits, which palliated opposition fears that he had gone over to ministers.6 He voted with opposition on the Copenhagen expedition, 3 Feb. 1808, on the mutiny bill, 14 Mar., and on the admission of Catholics to the Bank of Ireland, 30 May. He regretted the amendment secured by the ministerial members of the finance committee to their report on sinecures, 29 June 1808. While he objected to the wilder allegations made by Col. Wardle in the House on corruption in the army administration, 31 Jan. 1809, he thought the Duke of York had connived at it and accordingly voted for Bankes’s amendment of 15 Mar. and opposed Perceval’s exoneratory resolution, 17 Mar. On 20 Mar. he supported the opposition amendment to proceed no further against the duke, following his resignation from the command. This line of conduct did not go far enough to please many of his constituents, as he discovered at a Southwark meeting on the subject, 12 Apr., but they applauded his promise to support parliamentary reform and the abolition of sinecures.7 On 20 Apr. he advocated making the purchase of seats in the House an offence under the sale of offices prevention bill. He voted with opposition on allegations of ministerial corruption, 25 Apr. and 11 May. He was chairman of the committee which exposed the peculation of £44,000 by the Dutch commissioners, debated on 1 May. He was as good as his word in supporting sinecure regulation, 8 May, 2 and 8 June, and parliamentary reform. He complained that Curwen’s reform bill did not go far enough, penalizing voters but not those who bought them, and he voted for Burdett’s reform motion on 15 June. On the other hand, he assured Col. Wardle that there was no more scope for retrenchment than that already sketched by the finance committee, 19 June.

On 31 Jan. 1810, having seconded Bankes’s motion to abolish offices in reversion in perpetuity, he was renamed to the finance committee. He had voted with ministers on the address, 23 Jan., but joined opposition throughout on the Scheldt inquiry, so that they listed him ‘hopeful’. He supported Bankes’s amendment to the army estimates, 1 Mar. He voted against Burdett’s imprisonment and for the release of Gale Jones, 5, 16 Apr., and on 15 June presented his constituents’ petition for Burdett’s release. He voted for Romilly’s bid to limit the imposition of capital punishment for theft, 1 May, spoke and voted for sinecure reform, 3 and 17 May, and voted for parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810: he was circularized, unavailingly it seems, by the Friends of Constitutional Reform in 1811. He joined opposition on the Regency questions of 1 and 21 Jan. 1811 and voted for the election treating bill, 25 Mar. He opposed the reinstatement of the Duke of York as commander-in-chief of the army, 6 June. That session he spoke as a member of two committees: that on commercial credit, appointed 1 Mar., supporting their findings, and as a member (sometimes chairman) of the bullion committee appointed the previous session.

Thornton, with Francis Horner and William Huskisson, had prepared the report of the bullion committee which he defended on 6 May 1811. He set out to prove that if the shortage of specie had its origin in an unfavourable balance of trade, it was exacerbated by the quantity of paper money in circulation, which must be restricted. These views he further defended against his critics on 13 May and published. He went on to express reservations about the bank-note bill, 15 July 1811, 26 Mar., 10 Apr. 1812, but admitted, 8 Dec. 1812, that the time was not ripe for the resumption of cash payments by the Bank, which led Robert Peel to suppose that he had made a ‘complete recantation’. He could scarcely have concurred.8 On 13 Feb. 1812 Thornton opposed Whitbread’s motion blaming the orders in council for the imminence of war with the USA, but he joined opposition to the orders, 3 Mar., and supported investigation into abuses of them, 16 Apr. He voted steadily for sinecure reform and retrenchment that session, describing the grant to the royal princesses as a burden to the people, 23 Mar. He also voted for Catholic relief, 24 Apr., but was in the government minority against a more comprehensive administration, 21 May.

Thornton was listed ‘doubtful’ by the Treasury after his re-election in 1812. As if to confirm this, he opposed Vansittart not only on his bank-note bill but also on his plan of finance, which damaged the sinking fund, 3 Mar., 25 Mar., 7 Apr. 1813. He supported Catholic relief throughout the session and defended the sinecure regulation bill, 29 Mar. He gave a qualified support to the East India Company commercial monopoly, 3 June, suggesting that it be extended, for the time being, to free London merchants. Like his two brothers in the House, he held East India Company stock. He supported Christian missions in India, one of his own interests, and was an advocate (like his father) of relief of prisoners for debt, 8 Apr., and of a resident clergy, 8 July. His attendance fell with declining health in 1814, when he voted for Romilly’s bill against attaintment, 25 Apr.; supported the election expenses bill, 9 May, the London prisons bill, 14 June, and the relief grant to German war victims, 14 July. He had been added to the select committee on the corn trade on 7 Apr. 1813; a year later he advocated the postponement of measures for agricultural protection, 6 May, and was named to the new select committee of 6 June. He died 16 Jan. 1815, an outstanding philanthropist, the intellectual mainstay of the Clapham evangelical group and a most scrupulous Member of Parliament.9

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Lawrence Taylor / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Coupland, Wilberforce, 251; Thornton, Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain ed. Von Hayek, 21, 25; Life of Wilberforce (1838), i. 236, 373-4; Morning Chron. 15 July 1791; J. C. Colquhoun, William Wilberforce, 290, 293; E. M. Howse, Saints in Politics, 46; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 181.
  • 2. Public Advertiser, 17 June 1790; Morning Chron. 23 May 1796, 12 Dec. 1797; Colchester, i. 115, 155; PRO 30/9/31, Abbot diary, 20 July 1797, 12 June 1798; Coupland, 261; Von Hayek, op. cit.; Gent. Mag. (1816) i. 67.
  • 3. The Times, 10, 30 July 1802.
  • 4. Rose Diaries, ii. 238, 239; The Times, 31 Oct. 1806, 5 May 1807.
  • 5. Colquhoun, 286; Life of Wilberforce, iii. 298; E. M. Forster, Marianne Thornton, 55-57.
  • 6. Coupland, 334; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 197.
  • 7. Acct. of the Procs. of the Electors of Southwark, 12 Apr. 1809 .
  • 8. Horner Mems. ii. 47, 61; PRO 30/9/35, Abbot diary, 6 May 1811; Add. 40605, f. 9.
  • 9. Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 304, 307; Colquhoun, 271; E. Halévy, England in 1815, p. 133.