The Thornton family, which originated in Yorkshire, was large, prosperous and widely connected, with interests in trade and banking, a strong tradition on one side of the family of service in India, and the usual sprinkling of clergymen. The foundations of the family fortune were laid by Robert (1692-1747/8) who was engaged in the Russian trade. He also set up in partnership with Samuel Watson of Hull and others as a 'sugar baker or refiner' at Hull IV/108/2/1. Reference to the firm of Messrs Thornton and Watson appear in many documents in this collection. There was also a soap 'manufactory' at Sutton-in-Holderness. However, in spite of Samuel Watson, whose sister Lucy married Robert's son John, leaving his estate to any son of John Thornton 'who shall be bred to trade and carry on the same in the town of Kingston-upon-Hull' IV/104/3/1, John's children appear to have had little personal interest in carrying on the sugar trade in Hull and preferred to live in or near London and put in a manager. Indeed, John himself bought a large estate on the south side of Clapham Common, where he built houses for himself and members of the family.
John Thornton was a noted Evangelical. He was a friend of Henry Venn, the Evangelical clergyman who was curate of Clapham from 1754-1760, and the founder of the Thornton Trust, which bought up advowsons in order to ensure the presentation of Evangelical clergy. His sons continued the tradition, especially Henry, the youngest (1760-1815). Henry was a friend of Henry Venn's son John, who was Rector of Clapham and founder of the Church Missionary Society, William Wilberforce (a second cousin through Robert Thornton's daughter by his first wife), Hannah More and Zachary Macaulay. His house at Clapham, Battersea Rise, which he bought in 1792, became a centre of the so-called 'Clapham Sect', and he shared it with Wilberforce until his marriage to Marianne Sykes in 1796. In its grounds he built two other houses, Glenelg for Charles Grant, and Broomfield for Edward Eliot.
Samuel and Robert, Henry's older brothers, inherited the houses on the family estate, but Samuel (a Director of the Bank of England and later MP for fir Surrey) moved to Albury Court in 1802 and Robert, after business losses which he tried unsuccessfully to redeem by gambling, fled to America in 1814. The only daughter, Jane, married Alexander, 7th Earl of Leven and Melville, with whose family the Thorntons shared banking interests.
Henry had nine children, including Marianne (the subject of a book by E.M. Forster) Laura, E.M. Forster's grandmother, Isabella, who married Archdeacon Benjamin Harrison, Sophia, who became the second wife of the 9th Earl of Leven and Melville, and Henry Sykes. Much of the material in this collection relates to these children and their descendants. Samuel also had nine children, including Samuel who became a Rear-Admiral and Harriett, who was the 9th Earl's first wife.
In addition to his philanthropical and religious interests, Henry Thornton was MP for Southwark, Chairman of the Sierra Leone Company and a proprietor of the East India Company. He was also a much respected banker and his son Henry Sykes followed him into the profession. One group of these papers IV/104/8 concerns the near collapse in 1826 of Pole, Thornton, Free, Down and Scott, a collapse prevented only by the intervention of the Bank of England.
Henry Sykes married twice and his second wife was the sister of his first. The family upset caused by this was considerable, as at that time such marriages carried civil and canonical disabilities. The Henry Charles Sykes who appears in these documents was his son by his first wife, Harriet Dealtry, the daughter of John Venn's successor as Rector of Clapham. Emily, one of the children of his marriage to Emily Dealtry, later married her cousin Percy Melville Thornton, who appears several times as a trustee and was the son of Samuel Thornton R.N. Henry Grey Thornton IV/104/6 and his sister Evelyn Rose, later Mrs Notley, were the children of Henry Charles Sykes and Julia Mimosa George.
John Thornton the son of Samuel Thornton Senior had a large family and numerous grandchildren. It is not always easy to work out relationships from the wills and settlements, and even Burke's Landed Gentry is not always consistent from edition to edition. It was this branch of the family that was actively connected with India, probably through John's marriage to the daughter of a Governor of Bengal. John's son Edward Parry in particular was a notable administrator, but two of his brothers also entered the service and the oldest, John, married the daughter of Bishop Heber of Calcutta.
The greater part of the collection is composed of legal documents rather than personal papers, though wills such as John Thornton's, IV/104/3/2 with its numerous charitable bequests, can give a clear idea of the character of the testator. Nevertheless it provides an interesting picture of the basis of the family's prosperity. The sugar and soap houses, land in Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Somerset, the advowson of Flowton in Suffolk and shares in the Fulham Bridge appear frequently. Some of the items, however, are only loosely connected with the Thornton family. IV/104/1 is a group of deeds and papers dating from 1585 which relate to an estate in Chobham, Surrey, purchased by Samuel Thornton in 1825. They provide a history of part of Chertsey Abbey's lands from the Dissolution onwards, together with some detailed genealogical information about the Chitty family. IV/104/9 consists of the papers of John Labouchere, a banking associate of Henry Sykes Thornton, and it is likely that the map of Broom Hall Estate IV/104/14/8 is a stray from these papers, since he occupied Broom Hall for some years. Papers of Alexander Leslie Melville, Samuel Thornton's grandson, who became 10th Earl of Leven and Melville in 1876, form class IV/104/11. They relate mainly to his life insurance.
Some of the documents arrived in what were evidently their original bundles, for example deeds concerning the sugar houses, Fulham Bridge, the Chobham estate and Rear-Admiral Samuel Thornton's personal papers. Others, however, were loose or in clearly artificial bundles. Where possible, these have been arranged in what seemed likely to be their original order, for example further series of personal papers. Wills and probates and related documents have been placed in IV/104/3, but there is obviously some overlap as property mentioned in wills is also mentioned in the marriage settlements that form class IV/104/4. Similarly the papers of Henry Grey Thornton concern the same property, but they have been kept together in their original group.
There are several schedules of property and a particularly interesting inventory IV/104/4/14a which lists the possessions of both parties to the settlement down to their books, giving a vivid picture of the surroundings of a well-to-do couple in the 1890s.