Tag Archives: Henry Thornton

Henry Thornton of Clapham

18696405I came across Henry Thornton, and the rise of the Clapham religious and abolitionist community as perhaps the first suburb reading Robert Fisher’s Bourgeois Utopias. In looking for more information I found this rather quaint book in the LSE library, copyrighted in 1964 and the first (only?) biography of Thornton, but it feels almost of another era in its reflections and open opinions on Thornton’s life and beliefs. I was most interested in the growth of the Clapham group, how this contributed to modern ideas of home, city and suburb, and the involvement of religion upon these constructions, and those of gender roles. I found a very little of that, but so much more. I’m still reeling a little I think.

THORNTONI’ve borrowed the basic bio from his parliament biography (wonderful things these):

b. 10 Mar. 1760, 3rd s. of John Thornton, Russia merchant and dir. Bank of England, of Clapham by 2nd w. Lucy, da. and h. of Samuel Watson, Russia merchant, of Kingston-upon-Hull Yorks.; bro. of Robert Thornton* and Samuel Thornton*. educ. Dr Davis’s sch. Wandsworth Common 1765-73; Mr Roberts’s sch. Point Pleasant, Wandsworth 1773-8. m. 1 Mar. 1796, Mary Anne, da. of Joseph Sykes, Russia merchant, of West Ella, Yorks., 3s. 6da.

Offices Held

Asst. Russia Co. 1789-1811; chairman, Sierra Leone Co. 1791-1811.
Capt. Battersea and Streatham vols. 1798.

His father, John Thornton, was an early promoter of the Evangelical beliefs. They are of the kind that I find frustrating and bewildering, where God is the cause of all things, and we are but his instruments, with a heavy does of predestination thrown in. So you could imagine young and earnest Thornton finding it slightly hard to get on in society. Novelist Fanny Burney writes ‘Mr Thornton, the new member for the borough, a man of Presbyterian extraction, upon which he has grafted of late much ton and nonchalance…was pleased to follow me about with a sort of hard unmeaning curiosity, very disagreeable to me, and to himself very much like nothing’ (26).

In 1785 Thornton met his cousin William Wilberforce, the more charming and famous of the two. Meacham writes:

For Wilberforce was welcome anywhere. A rich man, from a class above the Thorntons, he relished conversation with the London ton–an evening’s gossip with Grenville and Pitt, the rather more exotic chatter of Mme. de Staël (39).

An interesting entry of class into the picture, as opposed to money. Still, the two became fast friends and worked together for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1792 they moved into Battersea Rise, a mansion next to Clapham Common.

ThorntonHouse

Thornton writes in 1793:

On the whole I am in hope some good may come out of our Clapham system. Wilberforce is a candle that should not be hid under a bushel. The influence of his conversation is, I think, great and striking. I am surprised to find how much religion everybody seems to have when they get into our house. They seem all to submit, and to acknowledge the advantage of a religious life, and we are not at all queer or guilty of carrying things too far (28, quoting from Henry Morris, Life of Charles Grant London 1904, p 200).

Meacham describes Clapham at the time:

Clapham, five miles from the city, was a pleasant place to live. The great Common, until 1760 a tangled wilderness, now looked a vast and pleasant stretch of land. Paths had been laid and drains installed. But this was still the country. The parish paid a shilling bounty for every polecat killed, and fourpence for hedgehogs. Horse chesnuts and poplars grew to the edge of many of the ponds. On the north corner stood the parish church: large, solid, unadorned, built in 1775 with money raised by John Thornton. Big enough to hold 1400, by 1790 it was none too large. The 1760 village of 1000 now had a population nearly three times as great (32).

Apart from renovating and adding two wings to Battersea Rise, Thornton built a second house, sold to Charles Grant in 1794. First a merchant in the East India Company and then on the Board of Trade, he joined the Clapham Evangelical community where his family would become one of the closest to the Thorntons. They were joined by John Venn, who became tutor to Grant’s children and later became rector of Clapham. James Stephens, married to WIlberforce’s sister Sarah, who became an abolitionist after working in the West Indies and corresponding with Wilberforce on the conditions on the plantations. Meachem states he became an Evangelical through his hatred of slavery rather than the other way round. Zachary Macauley, formerly a bookkeeper and overseer of a Jamaica plantation from age 16 to 20, became part of the circle (and would later become governor of Sierra Leone). John Shore, Lord Teignmouth also from the East India Company, would join them. William Smith, Charles Elliot, and  John Hatchard, publisher, also joined them. In the wider circle were the Gisbournes, Babingtons and Hannah More, joined by a tangle of shared beliefs and marriages. The book contains a brilliant map showing the Clapham Community and its members, along with a description of what is left — a little disparaging of Clapham as a ‘dreary London suburb’.

Scan 5

Thonrton'sCommon2 Thonrton'sCommon3

These villas would form the basis of future ideals of the suburb, but at this time most of its residents still kept, or took on under the pressures of work, houses in town — King’s Arm Yard, Palace Yard, Kennington, Bloomsbury, Ormond St.

This is partly because Thornton, Wilberforce, Babington, Grant and Stephen all sat in Parliament — quite a political commitment from so religious a community. They saw their bedrock as moral integrity and incorruptibility, thus Meacham argues that while they are usually described as Tory, it was a little more complicated.  They were, of course, remembered for their work to abolish the slave trade. For Thornton it was more than abolition, he wrote:

To promote the instruction of the African in letters and useful knowledge…to induce them to substitute a beneficial commerce in place of the slave trade; to introduce amongst them the useful arts of Europe… (Thornton to Zachary Macauley, 28 May 1806 SB p 34, 97).

And abolish the trade they did.

But then there’s Sierra Leone, and this is where I must confess my ignorance and astonishment and no small degree of horror. Here’s a piece of the history I’m ashamed I didn’t know:

Thornton’s anxiety to better Africa and civilize the Africans equaled his concern for slaves and hatred of the slave trade. Sierra Leone showed itself the means by which that civilizing might begin, and Thornton, committed as he was to abolition, worked less for that than for the colony which he felt promised most for Africa once slave-trading had stopped.

The Act of Parliament creating Sierra Leone Company authorized a court of thirteen Directors, and the Directors elected Thornton their chairman. They chose him as much for his ability as a banker as for his convictions as a Christian. Sierra Leone would prove their point–that Africa could prosper as more than just a market for humanity–only if the Company should show a profit. Thornton, it was hoped, would make the venture pay. The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Sweet Jesus. I don’t even know what to say to either of those two attempts to create a settlement. Now, given a description like that (Who were the women? Why did they come? Who were the Black men? What the hell is happening here?) this clearly isn’t a book that will explore this story with much of a critical eye. I’ll be investigating more, so just a few choice details pulled from a chapter that hardly engages with what is really happening.

The new Sierra Leone Company, when it assumed control of the Colony, made use of what it could at Granville Town and reimbursed [!] Sharp with £1,850. The directors expressed their readiness to spend additional money to turn what had been a philanthropy into a philanthropic business. Their charter spoke of factories and a second town… (104)

Complication came almost at once with the importation of 1196 Negroes who had served in the British army during the American Revolution and been left to fend for themselves in singularly unsuitable Novia Scotia (106).

Turns out those guys didn’t like white capitalists telling them what to do. I applaud them, disagreeing with sentences like these:

It was a noble end–to make a colony remake men: an end, however, that was to prove maddeningly difficult to achieve (107).

When Macauley retired as governor in 1799 he brought 30 children with him back to Clapham to be educated and returned to Sierra Leone as part of this end.

The children had come to Marianne [Thornton’s wife] to learn their Bible and their manners, and they exasperated her. “My African girls have been a plague to me,” she complained to Hannah More. “I mean to send the worst back by the next ship.” The Society would have been wise to ship them all back home. There was nothing to teach them at Clapham that they could not learn at Freetown; hence little reason to pluck them up into cold England. For several years they remained a Clapham “sight,” playing on the Common, displaying themselves in the libraries of their benefactors. But climate took its toll, and one by one they died. In 1805 only six remained alive. It was a well-meant experiment, unmeaningly cruel (111).

Climate my arse, this is the most chilling story I have read in a long time. My heart breaks at the thought of those poor children among people who looked down on them, even hated them, and still used them to raise money. I wonder where they are buried, how to make sure they are remembered and mourned. There is more to be found here.

More on the ‘Nova Scotians’, Thornton writes:

The untoward disposition which too many of the settlers have shown proves, but too plainly, the importance of bestowing on them an intelligent and protective government (108).

Macaulay writes:

Uniting great ignorance with a vain conceit of their own talents, and sufficiently disposed of themselves to regard the share, which Europeans had in the government of the Colony as an usurpation, they were easily persuaded that nothing would so effectually contribute to their happiness as the demolition of the existing establishment (28, 113).

The insurrections kept on coming (hurrah) — especially after transporting a bunch of Maroons from Jamaica — and the Company became convinced the Crown needed to take over. Reading all of this I am still a little in shock that I had never heard of any of it. I knew of Thornton and Wilberforce as abolitionists, but this profit-making venture in Sierra Leone is the stuff of horror, nor did they step in when slavers were capturing Blacks in Sierra Leone and then making of them ‘identured’ servants, because indentured servitude was not illegal.

Apart from Sierra Leone the Clapham group were involved in missions — founding the Society for Missions to Africa and the East in 1799. They also tried their hand at conversions in England. But:

The rich, however, would not be lectured. ‘Having tried them almost in vain” and tiring of cool looks and cold shoulders, the Evangelicals gave it up and taught the poor instead, who could at least be poked awake to hear a sermon.

The English lower classes needed civilizing. Thornton wrote correctly that

“while principles of equity, moderation, and benevolence prevail in a considerable degree among the higher orders of the people, it is much to be lamented that disorders of the most pernicious tendency pervade the lower ranks; and that reformation with repsect to them, has till late, been rather a matter of solicitude and desire, than of serious expectation” (130-131).

Ugh. You throw in the religious beliefs about God defining our station — surely also applicable to the slavery, so I’m curious about how that worked intellectually — and you get a whole lot of initiatives offensive to poor people.

Yet evidence and inclination suggested to Thornton one fact about the poor before all others: that though their lot might improve, they would stay poor…With it he accepted a corollary class system, static in rank, rigid in task. Education under such confining circumstance became instruction in the duties of one’s condition (140).

A little more on this note from Thornton himself:

God often punishes men by sending a real trouble. And the means which discontented people take, to better their condition, not seldom prove the occasion of the new calamity which overtakes them (143).

The last chapter is on the legacy:

the estimates of Evangelicalism commonly diverge. Historians agree it played a great part in shaping the Victorian mind. yet there agreement ceases. Some, following the lead offered by Samuel Butler or Edmund Gosse, discover little more than tepid piety, hypocrisy, self-satisfaction, and cruelty. Others, reading the lives of George Eliot or Beatrice Webb, find instead awareness of a moral code and conviction as to the duty of moral man within society. Both the bad and the good have their roots in the beliefs of Henry Thornton’s generation (153).

I find it so hard to find a moral code and conviction worth anything at all in this recounting. Only by rigidly separating whites from Blacks, and removing actions towards non-whites (and poor people) from the same morality required in interactions with equals, does this make any kind of sense. How this double morality took life through the following decades — century even — is such a key question I think. And one to take sides on.

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