Henry Thornton (abolitionist)

Henry Thornton (abolitionist)

Henry Thornton (1760 – 1815), economist, banker, philanthropist and parliamentarian, was the son of John Thornton (philanthropist) (1729–90) of Clapham, London, who had been one of the early supporters and patrons of the emerging evangelical awakening in Britain. He was one of the founders of the Clapham Sect and campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade.

Early life

At the age of five, Henry attended the school of Mr Davis at Wandsworth Common, and later with Mr Roberts at Point Pleasant, Wandsworth. From 1778 he was employed in the counting house of his cousin Godfrey Thornton, two years later joining his father’s company, where he later became a partner.


In 1784 Thornton joined the banking firm of Down and Free of London, later becoming a partner of the company which became known as Down, Thornton and Free. It was under his direction that this became one of the largest banking firms in London, with regional offices in other British cities.

In 1782 Henry Thornton had been urged to seek a seat in Parliament, and applied to contest one of the two seats for Hull. He soon withdrew on a point of principle, after learning that it was local custom to pay each voter two guineas in order to secure their vote. In September the same year Thornton was elected as member for Southwark, London. Despite lacking popular appeal, and refusing to bribe voters in a similar way to those of Hull, he became respected as a man of morals and integrity.

As an independent MP, Thornton sided with the Pittites, and in 1783 voted for peace with America. In general he tended to support William Pitt, Henry Addington and the Whig administration of William Grenville and Charles Fox. He seldom spoke in the House of Commons, as much of his contribution was in the various parliamentary committees on which he sat.

He served on committees to examine the public debt (1798), the Irish exchange (1804), public expenditure (1807) and the bullion committee (1810), which scrutinized the high price of gold, foreign exchange, and the state of the British currency. The report of the committee, written by Thornton, argued for the resumption of gold payments in exchange for notes and deposits, which the Bank of England (of which his elder brother, Samuel Thornton, was a director) had suspended in 1797, but the recommendation was not well-received at the time, and gold redemption on demand was not restored until 1821. In the next few years he continued to press for these measures to be implemented, publishing two reports in 1811.

This period 1797–1810 was a time of major change and great confusion in the British banking system, and the currency crisis of 1797 led to Thornton’s greatest contribution as an economist, for which he is most remembered today. In 1802 he wrote "An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain", in which he set out to correct common misconceptions, such as the view that the increase in paper credit was the principal cause of the economic ills of the day. This was a work of great importance, and gave a detailed account of the British monetary system as well as a detailed examination of the ways in which the Bank of England should act to counteract fluctuations in the value of the pound.


A highly successful merchant banker, as a monetary theorist Henry Thornton has been described as the father of the modern central bank. An opponent of the Real bills doctrine, he was a defender of the Bullionist position and a significant figure in monetary theory, his process of monetary expansion anticipating the theories of Knut Wicksell regarding the "cumulative process which restates the Quantity Theory in a theoretically coherent form".

His work on 19th century monetary theory has won praise from present-day economists for his forward-thinking ideas, along the lines of those later developed by John Maynard Keynes.

Abolitionist and reformer

Henry Thornton was one of the founders of the Clapham Sect of evangelical reformers and a foremost campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. A close friend and cousin of William Wilberforce, he is credited with being the financial brain behind their many campaigns for social reform and philanthropic causes which the group supported.

In 1791 he played a major part in the establishment of the Sierra Leone Company, which took over the failed attempt by Granville Sharp to create a colony for the settlement for freed slaves in Africa. As the company’s foremost director, he virtually administered the colony as chairman of the company until responsibility was transferred to the Crown in 1808. It was at this time that he became a friend of Zachary Macaulay, who was governor of the colony 1794–99.

In 1802 Thornton was one of the founders of the Christian Observer, the Clapham Sect’s journal edited by Zachary Macaulay, to which he contributed many articles. 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, and the British and Foreign Bible Society (now the Bible Society) in 1804, of which he became the first president. A friend of Hannah More, he assisted in the writing and publication of her Cheap Repository tracts.

Personal life

In 1796 Thornton married Marianne Sykes (1765–1815), daughter of Joseph Sykes, a merchant from Hull. They had nine children, of which the eldest, Henry Sykes Thornton (1800–1881), succeeded his father in the banking business. One of his great-grandchildren was E.M. Forster (1879–1970), the novelist.

Thornton was buried at St Paul's Church, Rectory Grove, Clapham, where a commemorative plaque records the fact, with an additional reference to the family vault nearby.(A selection of photographs is displayed on the website of the school named after him: [http://www.oldthorntoniansclapham.org.uk www.oldthorntoniansclapham.org.uk] )


* Pollock, John. "Wilberforce: God’s Statesman". (Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, 2001). ISBN 0-85476-907-2.
* Stott, Anne. "Hannah More – The First Victorian" (Oxford: University Press, 2003)
* Tolley, Christopher. Henry Thornton in "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" (Oxford: University Press, 2005).


* "An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain", 1802

ee also

* Monetary policy
* Sierra Leone Company
* Abolitionism
* The Clapham Sect

External links

* [http://www.henrythornton.com/page.asp?page_id=4&category_id=9 Henry Thornton] , an independent economists website using the nom-de-plume "Henry Thornton"

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