The Rev. William Henry Thornton [Obituary]

Trans. Devon. Assoc., vol.  48, (1916), pp. 49-52.


Maxwell Adams (Ed.)

Prepared by Michael Steer

The obituary was read at the Association’s July 1916 Plymouth meeting. Rev William Henry Thornton  was initially Vicar of Simonsbath on Exmoor in Somerset, 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. A similar obituary with slight variation appears in Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries VII, (1912-1913), pp. 65, and is available on Genuki Devon’s North Bovey page. A transcript of Rev Thornton’s article “The Bells of North Bovey is also available there. A portrait of Rev. Thornton in formal dress precedes the present facing page 49. The obituary, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.


By the death of the Rev. W. H. Thornton, which took place on the 31st March, 1916, in his 87th year, the Association has lost one of the most valued and most revered of its members, his parishioners a beloved rector, the Diocese of Exeter one of the best known of its clergy, and the Church a fine example of that older and fast disappearing type of parish clergyman known as the “squire-parson”. He was a man of reading, of learning, and of scholarship; a man of wide sympathies and of simple piety, and a man, likewise, of business and affairs, a genial companion, with an abundance of good humour, and an endless store of anecdote, and in his younger days a keen and good all-round sportsman.
His loss will be greatly felt by a wide circle of friends and acquaintances of all classes.
Mr. Thornton was the youngest son of Mr. John Thornton of Clapham, Deputy-Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, and was born in 1830. 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 Reverend Robert Thornton, the Royalist Rector of Birkin, Yorks, whose deprivation of his living and many privations during 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 of all our Missionary Societies - was founded."
The Rev. W. H. Thornton was educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took the 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, 1853. In 1856 he was presented 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 walk of twenty or thirty miles across the Moor.
In 1861 he was appointed vicar of Dunsford, where he remained till 1866, when he exchanged livings with the Rev. G. Allen, rector of North Bovey, which living Mr. Thornton held for fifty years, till his death, 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, which office he held for eight years, and was during that period ex-officio Chairman of the Clerical Association, a society for the study of the Greek Testament. When Mr. Thornton ceased to be Rural Dean, the chairmanship became elective, and after nine years (in 1888) he was elected President of that Association, and so continued for twenty-five years. He looked upon his work for the Clerical Association as among the most important of his duties, and contributed many and valuable papers to its Proceedings, driving long distances to attend its meetings and receiving its members, when it was his turn to be host, with the greatest cordiality and hospitality.
Mr. Thornton was also an energetic public servant, and did 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. As a scholar 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 Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries, the Reports of the Teign Naturalists' Field Club, of which he was an active member, and to the Transactions and Proceedings of several learned and other Societies, besides which he leaves a large number of MSS. on various subjects which afford delightful reading and testify to his great abilities and wide range of knowledge.
But his chief published works are his Reminiscences of a West Country Clergyman, in two volumes, issued in 1897 and 1899; Countrymen in Council (1901), Notes on North Bovey and Neighbourhood, and Short Devonshire Stories (1915). His contributions to the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, of which Society he became a member in 1868 (and thus was one of its very oldest members), were: Some Reminiscences of the Wykes of South Tawton, in vol. xxix. (1897) ; Concerning some old Habits and decaying Industries formerly prevalent in the West of England and more particularly in the County of Devon, and Notes concerning the brief visit of Cromwell and Fairfax to Bovey Tracey and its Neighbourhood in 1646, both in vol. xxxix. (1907).
There are few persons more familiar with Dartmoor, its people, its customs, its legends, or its ancient monuments than Mr. Thornton was. He was also a great lover of animals and of natural history in all its branches, and was particularly devoted to horses, always keeping thoroughly good ones in his stable.