Incorruptible Thornton started his life with no education or political friends

As Lambeth seeks to rid itself of street names which recall the memory of prominent slavers, one name has stood out as one which all sides could support.

Henry Thornton, MP, was a philanthropist and economist. He influenced hugely important thinkers on the right and left of politics, from Fredrick von Hayek – inspiration of Churchill and Thatcher – to John Maynard Keynes, whose economic theory became the norm in post-Second World War Europe.

Thornton’s father was the first treasurer of the Marine Society, and later a director of the Russia Company, while Samuel, his eldest son, was a director of the Bank of England.

Thornton senior inherited a large fortune and invested it in trade, but he was more interested in religious questions – he was a pioneer of the evangelical movement in London – than in the education of his children.

Henry himself confessed that he started life with “next to no education”, and without any political friends.

He was educated locally, first with a Mr Davis on Wandsworth Common, where he learned Latin and Greek.

Holy Trinity Church, where the Clapham Sect held its meetings

Then by a Mr Roberts of Point Pleasant, Wandsworth, who tried to teach him more Greek and Latin but also “French, rhetoric, drawing, arithmetic, reading, writing, speaking, geography, bowling, walking, fencing, besides Hebrew and maths.”

Instead, he said he learned nothing except “habits of idleness.”

But he was successful in business. He was a partner in his father’s business, then joined the bank of Doune, Free and Thornton – for which he worked until his death.

He was respected as incorruptible. So much so, that in 1792, he was invited to stand for Hull in a bye-election, but withdrew on finding that each voter expected to be given two guineas.

In Southwark, the gift voters expected was half that, and he held the seat as an independent from 1792 until he died in 1815.

He sympathised with the early stages of the French Revolution, and although he considered war to be necessary in 1793, he supported Hull MP William Wilberforce – a fellow member of the Clapham Sect of anti-slavery campaigners – in a motion to begin talks for peace.

He voted in favour of Charles Grey’s Whig motion for Parliamentary Reform in 1797 – an early attempt to widen representation to the cities whose population had exploded as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

Like Wilberforce, he separated from most of his Protestant friends in supporting Roman Catholic Emancipation, long before it became law in 1829.

He was way in advance of his time on many of the moral issues of the day. In the House of Commons, he was not a great speaker but was an authority on finance.

He was a member of the committee on the Irish Exchange and Currency, and also of the famous Bullion Committee.

Battersea Rise, where Thornton and Wilberforce shared a house

His reputation as a financier was enhanced by his “Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain,” sparked by the currency crisis of 1797.

John Stuart Mill, one of Victorian England’s foremost political and moral thinkers, said 51 years later in his “Political Economy” that “it is still the clearest exposition known to him in English of the subject with which it deals.”

Thornton’s house in Battersea Rise – which he shared with Wilberforce – became the meeting-place of the informal councils of the Clapham Sect.

He supported Wilberforce’s anti-slave trade agitation in Parliament. He led a Parliamentary Bill for the formation of a Sierra Leone Company, which began the process of former slaves being able to return to Africa.

But the company was not a success, and Thornton lost a huge amount of money.

Thornton, though, said he was “on the whole a gainer,” as he had encouraged an interest in the African races.

He was also involved in supporting the spread of Christian missionary work, including the founding of the Society for Missions to Africa and the East – later the Church Missionary Society – in 1799.

He also became the first treasurer of the British and Foreign Bible Society – now the Bible Society in 1804.

He was a pioneer of deaf education, setting up, with Rev John Townsend and Henry Cox Mason, rector of Bermondsey, Britain’s first free school for deaf pupils, the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb.

Its name and location changed over the centuries but it closed as The Royal School for Deaf Children Margate in 2015.

Novelist E.M. Forster (1879–1970), who wrote A Passage To India, Howards End and A Room With A View, was one of Thornton’s great-grandchildren.

Henry Thornton was buried at St Paul’s Church, Clapham – and a school, in Elms Road, off Clapham Common, was named after him – it is now the site of Lambeth Academy.

He told his children: “I advise them all to endeavor to direct their mental powers to various Subjects while they are young, to beware of that false Shame which makes us afraid of the discredit attending our first feeble efforts, & looking to the approbation of God rather than that of Man, to lay out their Talents whatever they may be for the public good & to the glory of Him who gave them.”


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