THORNTON, William (1763-1841), of Grosvenor Gate, Park Lane, Mdx.
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Family and Education
bap. 22 July 1763, 1st s. of Maj.-Gen. William Thornton of Lambeth, Surr. by Mary, da. and coh. of Ven. David Trimnell, DD, precentor of Lincoln and archdeacon of Leicester. unm. suc. fa. 1782.
Ensign, 1 Ft. Gds. 1778, lt. and capt. 1782, capt. and lt.-col. 1793; brevet col. 1796, maj.-gen. 1802, lt.-gen. 1808, ret. 1812.
Thornton, who had seen service with his father’s old regiment in Flanders, Holland and Germany in 1794-5, retired from the army with the rank of lieutenant-general, 29 July 1812.1 Not long afterwards he was returned to Parliament for Woodstock on the Duke of Marlborough’s interest, at his own expense. In November 1813 he reluctantly vacated his seat to enable the duke to return George Eden*. Meanwhile he had been a silent and unpredictable Member. Unlike his patron’s son, he started by voting against Catholic relief, 2 Mar. 1813, and for securities, 11 May, but on 13 May voted for the relief bill. At this point he appears to have taken fright and to have developed a fixation about the doctrine of transubstantiation: when he again gave an opinion on the subject (9 May 1817) he was in favour of relief.
In June 1814 Thornton resumed his seat for Woodstock on Eden’s succeeding to the title. He gave a general support to administration, but his particular quibbles in debate embarrassed them; nor, apparently, was he popular at Woodstock. In London society he was best known as ‘a popular professor of the waltz’,2 a curious trait in a metropolitan magistrate of conservative views. He opposed the hackney coaches bill, 26 Nov. 1814, asked for easier access for the public to the British Museum library, 9 May 1815, and the same day opposed the insolvent debtors bill, before counting the House out. On 15 May he proposed an amendment of the Riot Act to make it more severe, which found no support. He opposed rate exemption for dissenting chapels, 1 June, being ‘extremely averse to giving patronage to dissenters’, but failed to secure his point. His view was that ‘indifference to forms of faith was indifference to truth and falsehood’, 5 June. His motion for an account of persons paying for early deliveries of post was immediately negatived, 22 June. He approved the repeal of the assize of bread, 27 June. He suggested a tax on sending pamphlets through the post, 28 June. He voted for the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment bill, 29 June, 3 July. He sprang to the defence of the Bank of England, 29 June 1815, and of the metropolitan vestries, 7 Mar. 1816.
Thornton supported government measures in the session of 1816 except for the continuation of the property tax. On 14 Mar. he suggested the substitution of a tax on absentees from ‘their country’ which he said would raise £700,000 a year; but if ministers could convince him of their case he would support it—otherwise he would abstain. As he later boasted to his constituents, he voted against the tax, 18 Mar. On 13 May he raised a laugh in the debate on the aliens bill when he suggested that absentee compatriots should be recalled on penalty of forfeiting their estates. He was eager to prevent the circulation of forged banknotes, 24 Apr. 1816, and called for the protection of the public by making the Bank liable for them, 7 May. His attempts to pursue the subject were frustrated, but on 1 May 1818 he rejoiced that the House was prepared to deal with the problem and willingly supported Mackintosh’s motion for an inquiry into such forgeries, 14 May. He thought that victory should be celebrated by building new churches rather than by erecting monuments, 25 June 1816. He supported ministers on the composition of the finance committee, 7 Feb. 1817, and paired in favour of the salt duties, 25 Apr., and of the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 June. He was an opponent of the savings bank bill, 23 May 1817. On 10 June he secured the abolition of the punishment of whipping for women, as practised in Inverness. He published his speech of 25 June 1817 in favour of the repeal of the Test Acts: his motion was delayed until 7 May 1818, when it was frustrated. He voted against censure of the Scottish law officers, 10 Feb. 1818, and next day in defence of government employment of agents provocateurs. He supported the Duke of Clarence’s marriage grant, 15 Apr., and the repeal of the usury laws, 21 Apr. He favoured steps to discourage the sale of radical literature, 21 May, and on 3 June 1818 opposed Brougham’s motion for inquiry into popular education.
Thornton was left without a seat in 1818, his patron having died the year before. His farewell address to his constituents, 10 June, referred to his ‘regular attendance ... without the absence of a single day’; to his championship of female offenders in Scotland; and to his hostility to the property tax, based on the maxims of ‘the immortal Burke’.3 Another hero of his was Dean Vincent, whose sermons he edited in 1836. He died 18 Dec. 1841, aged 78.