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Richard Napoleon Thornton (Obituary)

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1876, Vol VIII, pp. 47-48.


W Pengelly, FHS, FGS. etc.

Prepared by Michael Steer

Mr Thornton was acknowledged as the son of the remarkable Richard Thornton an East India merchant who left £2,8 million in his will when he died in 1865, said to have made his fortune by blockade running in the Napoleonic wars. While at Oxford Richard  Napoleon Thornton (c.1833-1876) was known as Dick Lee, but he adopted the surname Thornton in compliance with a condition in Richard Thornton's will, in which he inherited £400,000. A barrister-at-law, he had three sons who became county cricketers. His sister Ellen married Alfred Pulford, whose niece Jessy Walter married the Reverend  James Wheeler, a grandson of Ann Attfield (1779-1822) who married James Ellis in 1801. There is a handsome photograph of  Mr Thorton at The article, 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 sources.

RICHARD NAPOLEON THORNTON (commonly called Dick Lee at Oxford) was the son of Mr. Richard Thornton, of Cannon Hill, Merton, in the county of Surrey, who, by successful operations in business, amassed £2,800,000 of the riches of this world, of which he bequeathed £400,000 to the subject of this memoir. Mr. R N Thornton was born on the 15th May, 1833, educated at Oxford, studied for the Bar, and was admitted a member of the Middle Temple on the 26th January, 1860, and joined the Home Circuit. He did not, however, actually practice for any length of time, appearing to prefer the more genial life of a country gentleman, in which sphere he doubtless found far greater facilities for exercising the dictates of his truly generous nature.

Active and athletic in his youth, he became an accomplished player of the noble game of cricket, distinguishing himself as such at Oxford, and in the matches for the Surrey Club and county matches, and his attachment to the game seems never to have waned. During the latter ten years of his life, when he resided at Sidmouth, he continued to encourage it in others, when he was unable to take part in it himself. In order to effect this more completely, he took a fourteen years’ lease under the Manor of the Fort Field, a noble site for a cricket ground, and it was his pride to bring it into first-rate condition — as smooth as a billiard-table, and as velvety as Venetian pile — and for nearly ten years his presence and his liberality kept the game in a very flourishing state.

The property formerly known as Knowle Cottage belonged originally to the late Lord Le Despencer, who erected a dwelling-house there in a rustic style of architecture about the commencement of the present century. It was purchased in or near 1820 by Mr. Fish, who adorned the grounds and filled the cottage with jewellery and works of art, and he threw it open to the public every Monday in the summer months during the long space of forty years, so that its fame as a show-place was generally known all over the county. Mr. Fish bequeathed it to his friend Mr. Marson, who made many alterations, by clearing away much of the dense foliage and throwing the grounds more open. On his death the estate was bought by Mr. Thornton, who, in his turn, made great alterations. He added largely to the house; made the kitchen-garden; erected the conservatory; purchased Ayshford, a house and lands lying nearer the town of Sidmouth and on the station road, pulled the house down and entirely swept it away, throwing the whole into his own grounds, and erected the lower lodge; he also added many acres to the estate by purchasing fields in the direction of Jenny Pyne's Comer and Broadway, and built the higher lodge. The members of the Devonshire Association will not easily forget the splendid entertainment he gave them in these grounds on Thursday, the 24th July, on the occasion of their meeting at Sidmouth in 1873, when he became a member, and was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Association.

As infirmities crept upon him, he gradually withdrew himself from society, and he died at Sidmouth on the 28th May, 1876, at the early age of forty-three. His first family consisted of three boys and a girl, who survive him, and he has left a widow and one son.

Mr. Thornton's great virtue, which is a very wide one, was liberality, and he gave of his wealth with a free hand wherever he thought he could do any good by it.