Devon and Cornwall Notes & Queries/IX/The Rev. William Henry Thornton

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The Rev. William Henry Thornton, M.A.

70. The Rev. William Henry Thornton, M.A.—It is with the deepest regret and sincere sorrow that we have to record the demise of the Rev. W. H. Thornton, one of our most frequent as well as one of the most able of our contributors. By his death, which took place on the 31st March, 1916, in his 87th year, the County of Devon has lost one of the best known clergy in the diocese of Exeter, the Church one of its most loyal workers, and the Country a fine example of that fast disappearing type of English clergyman, known as the "squire-parson." His loss will be greatly felt, not only by his parishioners, by whom he was held in the highest respect and esteem, but also by a wide circle of friends throughout the country.

Born in 1830, Mr. Thornton was the youngest son of Mr. John Thornton, of Clapham, London, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue.

Writing of him, his son-in-law, the Rev. Edward Robert Gotto, M.A., Vicar of Braunton, says: "He came of a good stock, being a descendant of the Rev. Robert Thornton, the Royalist Rector of Birkin, Yorks, whose deprivation of his living and many privations during the usurpation of the Commonwealth are set forth in Walker's Sufferings of the Clergy. He died in 1665, and there is a monument to him in Birkin Church. Among his descendants are many men distinguished in the public service of their country, and not the least of these is the Samuel Thornton, of Clapham, and of Albury Park, Surrey, M.P. for that county, and, as a prominent member of what was called in those days (circa 1770-1830) the Clapham Sect, an intimate friend of Wilberforce and Macaulay, and an associate with them in the emancipation of the slaves in our British colonies. This Samuel Thornton was a leader, too, in the Evangelical party in the Church of England, and it was at his house at Clapham that the Church Missionary Society — the most flourishing now of all our missionary societies — was founded."

The Rev. W. H. Thornton was educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1853, and was ordained Deacon, at Exeter, in the same year. His first Curacy was that of Lynton and Countisbury, North Devon, in 1853, where, "passing rich on forty pounds a year," he remained till 1856, when he was presented by Sir Frederick Knight to the perpetual Curacy of Exmoor, and thus became the first Vicar of Simonsbath, where his energies were most remarkable, he treating lightly a fifty mile ride, or a twenty or even thirty mile walk across moor, hill and fen.

Here he remained until 1861 when he was appointed Vicar of Dunsford, holding that living until 1866, when, owing to the climate not suiting him or his wife, he exchanged livings with the Rev. G. Arden, Rector of North Bovey, where he remained for fifty years, beloved and esteemed by his moorland parishioners, to whom he was not only a parish priest and faithful pastor, but also a kind and generous friend, ever ready to help the sick and the needy and anyone requiring his aid or advice.

In 1871 he was elected Rural Dean of the Deanery of Moretonhampstead, an office which he held for eight years. At that time the Clerical Association — a society for the study of the Greek Testament — claimed the Rural Dean as its ex-officio Chairman. When he ceased to be Rural Dean, his successor in the office was not a member of the Association, and therefore the Chairmanship became elective, and after nine years, i.e. in 1888, Mr. Thornton was elected President, and so continued for twenty-five more years. He used to regard the task as one of his most important duties — preparing for it by study, writing papers sometimes on special subjects, and driving long distances to attend the meetings. When it was his turn to be host no trouble was too much to satisfy his hospitable instincts. The members who came by train were met with carriages and white horses, and his genial welcome will long be remembered. He was fond of leading the discussion into large questions, and he may, perhaps, have preferred the expression of opinions to the study of the Greek Text. He has, in former days, been criticised as President for his exuberant store of anecdotes, which, people said, interrupted the real purpose of the meetings. But whatever criticism he provoked in this respect, his anecdotes were always appreciated by his hearers; and by the papers which he read he was able to command the attention and elicit the opinions of other men. The Association was much indebted to him for his guidance in any difficulty which arose, and he cultivated amongst the members those qualities which make such meetings useful. He remained a member of this Association until his death; even last June he was very reluctant to surrender his annual custom of receiving the Association at his own house.[1]

But Mr. Thornton's activities were not confined to his clerical duties only. He was also an energetic public servant, doing excellent work as a member of the Newton Abbot Board of Guardians and of the Rural District Council, to which he was appointed in 1885, and held office till 1913, when age compelled him to lead a less strenuous life.

He had very pronounced and strong views on political questions and matters of principle, and often he wailed the laxity of modern ideas thereon, as well as the general want of depth and solidity shown by the younger generation in various matters which, to him, were of such momentous importance. He held the Deceased Wife's Sister's Act in the greatest horror, as also the modern Civil Divorce Laws, and wrote many powerful leaflets and articles on these subjects and on others of the same nature, the Religious Education question especially appealing to him.

As a scholar, too, and a man of considerable literary powers, he was well known, as is shown by the numerous articles and papers which he contributed to various literary, historical and scientific publications, including the Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries, and to the Transactions and Proceedings of several learned and other Societies. But his chief works are his two volumes of Reminiscences of a West Country Clergyman, published in 1897 and 1899 respectively — his magnum opus; Countrymen in Council (1901); Notes on North Bovey and Neighbourhood; and many other papers of a like nature, and Short Devonshire Stories (191 5), which last he prepared for the press as recently as September, 1915. He leaves besides a large number of MSS. on various subjects, which afford delightful reading and testify to his great abilities and wide range of knowledge.

Mr. Thornton was also an active member of both the Devonshire Association and of the Teign Naturalists' Field Club, and contributed many papers of high merit and interest to the Transactions and Reports of these two Societies.

There are few persons more familiar with Dartmoor, its people, its customs, its legends or its ancient monuments and crosses than Mr. Thornton was, and many of his papers and pamphlets relate to them and to their preservation. In fact, he took a prominent part in the preservation of the ancient monuments and wayside and other crosses of the county of Devon generally.

He was also a great lover and student of animals and natural history in all its branches, and was particularly devoted to horses and always kept thoroughly good ones in his stable, treating them with the greatest care and consideration. He loved beautiful scenery, especially the wild moorlands of Dartmoor and Exmoor, and always revelled in the exquisite view over Eastern Down and Lustleigh Cleave from the window of his dining room in the Rectory at North Bovey.

In his younger days Mr. Thornton was a keen and good all round sportsman, but took especial pleasure in hunting and fishing. His cheery, handsome face and kindly greetings were, at one time, well known at the meets of the Dartmoor and the old Eggesford Hounds. He had an abundance of good humour and an endless store of anecdote. A man of charming personality and air, he will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

M. A.


  1. I am indebted to the Rev. Preb. Percival Jackson for this account of the Rev. W. H. Thornton's connection with the Clerical Society.