Henry Thornton

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 free formerly enslaved people 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’.

Published works

  • 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 FA von 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’ in Oxford 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)