Richard Thornton, 1776-1865: A Victorian Millionaire

Although unmentioned in modern reference books and works of economic history, Thornton was one of the greatest commercial figures of the day and, writes W.G. Hoskins, when he died, left “by far the largest fortune of the century to that date.”

W.G. Hoskins | Published in History Today

Richard Thornton’s name means nothing today. He is not even briefly noticed in the Dictionary of National Biography, though in his day he rivalled the Barings and the Rothschilds in wealth.

I came across him by pure chance in the official index of wills for 1865, while looking for an impecunious artist. He appeared in the index as leaving personal estate of some £2,800,000, besides valuable real estate that was not valued for duty, by far the largest fortune of the century to that date.

One would have thought that a man who could leave some three million pounds in mid-Victorian days would have found his way into the standard works of reference, and into the economic histories of the period. In fact, he took a great deal of tracking down.

The pursuit of Richard Thornton and of his contemporaries and descendants opened up a whole world of lesser nineteenth-century characters.

The first clues were provided by Boase’s Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Biography, a very scarce work that is an indispensable supplement to the better known Dictionary of National Biography.

From this start, it was possible to trace Richard Thornton through obscure articles in Victorian journals and magazines and through official sources such as his will.

Though he lived in Clapham for many years, at the same time as the better-known Thorntons of the Clapham Sect, there was no connection at all between the two families.

Richard Thornton was born at Burton-in-Lonsdale, close to the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, on September 13th, 1776, the second son of an old yeoman family. For some reason he was educated at Christ’s Hospital in London, and later appears in business as a hop merchant in the borough of Southwark.

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