THORNTON, Robert (1759-1826), of Clapham, Surr.
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Family and Education
Dir. E.I. Co. 1787-1814, dep. chairman 1812-13, chairman 1813-14; asst. Russia Co. 1789-1811, Eastlands Co. 1795-8.
Marshal, ct. of Admiralty Oct. 1811-Mar. 1815.
Maj. 1 R.E.I. vol. inf. 1796, lt.-col. 1803.
With all the trappings of his mercantile inheritance, Robert was the odd man out among the Thornton brothers. He lived in their world at Clapham, but was not of it. ‘A most agreeable, lively and pleasant man’, he gravitated towards the beau monde, dispensing lavish hospitality at Grafton Street or at his villa where
he had embellished the grounds ... built an exquisite greenhouse, and had the most expensive gardens in the vicinity. He also spent large sums on books and prints and became intimate with some of the royal dukes ... particularly the Duke of Cumberland.
As Member for Bridgwater, Thornton had supported ministers. In January 1790 he canvassed Colchester, ‘sincerely ... attached to the present administration’ and on his own bottom. He inherited £40,000 from his father that year. He headed the poll, but having to contest five out of six general elections to retain the seat on what he termed ‘the low interest, which is of a most democratic kind in that part of Essex’, depleted his resources.1
Thornton shared his family’s enthusiasm for the abolition of the slave trade. On 30 May 1791 he supported the Sierra Leone settlement bill and on 25 Apr. 1792 vehemently deplored the proposal for ‘gradual’ abolition. He was in the minorities favouring abolition on 18 Apr. 1791 and 15 Mar. 1796, and remained staunch, and a critic of compensation (20 Feb. 1807). He spoke and voted with opposition in favour of the release of Lafayette, 17 Mar. 1794. In May he failed to carry a bill enabling Members to make contracts with government. He was sufficiently attached to his kinsman Wilberforce to vote with him for peace negotiations, 30 Dec. 1794, 6 Feb., 27 May 1795. On 25 Nov. 1795 he presented a Colchester petition against the sedition bills and for peace, echoing the latter plea: but he joined his brothers in signing the London merchants’ declaration of support for Pitt, and in the House claimed that the wartime tax burden was bearable, 8 Dec. He supported the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland, April 1791, and Quaker relief, 24 Feb. 1797. He deprecated Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform, 26 May 1797: ‘he would not say that some reform was not requisite; but these were unfriendly times for reformation. In a few years, he hoped it would be otherwise; but when a house was on fire, a man should think only of extinguishing it.’ He blamed the licence of the Press for revolution in France and rebellion in Ireland, 13 June 1798. He contributed to the loyalty loan, voted for Pitt’s assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798, and favoured the redemption of the land tax, 4 Apr., deprecating any division of the moneyed and landed interests. On 17 Dec. 1798 he applauded the income tax, with reservations on behalf of the underprivileged. He commented on poor relief proposals, 3 Apr., 27 June 1800.
Thornton was well disposed to Addington’s ministry and particularly approved of the peace preliminaries: ‘he had reason to think ministers had obtained the most favourable terms that could be had’, 4 Nov. 1801. The ensuing election was the only one that he did not have to contest at Colchester and its theme was his own: ‘the blessings of peace’. Like his brothers, he became disillusioned. On 20 July 1803 he criticized Sunday drilling. He joined Pitt’s attack on Addington in 1804. He was in the minorities of 15 Mar., 23 and 25 Apr. that heralded Pitt’s return to power. He was then listed a supporter. He acted with the ‘Saints’ in censure of Melville, 8 Apr., 12 June 1805, but objected to Whitbread’s bid to exclude ministerialists from the select committee on the tenth naval report, 30 Apr. 1805; and on 30 Apr. 1806 conceded that Pitt’s Additional Force Act had failed. He had indicated on 21 Apr. that he was disposed to support the Grenville ministry.
Thornton had occasionally spoken as a director of the East India Company (7 Mar., 24 May 1793, 25 Nov. 1801, 11 Mar. 1802). He was a leading critic of Lord Wellesley’s Indian administration and on 5 Apr. 1805 approved the substitution of ‘the olive branch for the sword’ in supporting Wellesley’s replacement by Cornwallis. Next session he pressed for an inquiry into Wellesley’s conduct, 17 Mar., 3 Apr. 1806, and supported Hamilton’s motion of 21 Apr. on this ground, complaining that Wellesley had increased the India debt from 11 to 30 millions. On 6 July he sat on the fence when James Paull brought charges against Wellesley, and Lord Temple called for their rejection forthwith. Subsequently he doubted whether Wellesley’s conduct merited impeachment, but the charges should not be allowed ‘to fall to the ground’, 26 Jan. 1807: he insisted that the Company directors had not sanctioned Wellesley’s Carnatic policy, 26 Feb. On 22 Feb., 15 and 31 Mar. 1808 he tried, but failed, to persuade the House that Wellesley’s conduct towards the nawab of Oudh showed that he had been ‘drunk with ambition, and ought to be checked’; though he denied that he was motivated by any personal animosity, 4 Apr.
Nearer home, Thornton was well disposed to the Portland and Perceval administrations. While the Grenville ministry crumbled, he had been a defaulter (20 Mar.). One of the Thorntons voted with the new ministers, 9 Apr. 1807; possibly it was Robert.2 He certainly defended the bombardment of Copenhagen, 21 Mar. 1808. He was host to Queen Charlotte and the royal princesses that year. The Whigs were ‘doubtful’ of him in March 1810 and he rallied to ministers on the Scheldt inquiry, 30 Mar. He voted against the release of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr., and against sinecure reform, 17 May 1810. His speeches were devoted to defending the East India Company against Thomas Creevey and other critics of its insolvency (2 June 1808, 14 June 1810, 4 Mar. 1811, 15 June 1812).
By 1810 Thornton was in financial difficulties, his business (damaged by the continental blockade) winding up and his house for sale. On the Regency propositions he voted with opposition, 1 and 21 Jan. 1811. Mary Berry reported on the former occasion: ‘The Duke of Cumberland, that arch intriguer, has been tampering with him, and persuaded him to vote against the ministers, those very ministers which this Duke of Cumberland intrigued to bring in’. Thornton was described on 3 Apr. 1811 as ‘well known to the Prince’. On 6 June he applauded the restoration of the Duke of York to his army command as ‘an act of justice’. On 27 July he wrote to the Prince Regent:
Having had my property reduced considerably below one half from the difficulties and hazards of the commercial world in the two last years, and having an income less by £5,000 p.a. than belonged to me not long ago, without any immediate hope of increasing it, I am naturally extremely anxious to maintain something of the situation in society to which I have belonged.
He requested the post of marshal of the Admiralty court, in succession to John Crickitt, then on his deathbed. On Crickitt’s death Charles Philip Yorke* offered the post to Spencer Perceval for one of his sons. Perceval replied (31 Aug. 1811) declining the offer for his sons, but interested for his brother-in-law Walpole; he nevertheless warned Yorke that, as he was writing, he had learned that Robert Thornton wished Yorke not to make any appointment until he had heard from the Prince Regent. The Regent had already approached Sir William Scott on behalf of Thornton, and now (1 Sept.) he approached Yorke, through Benjamin Bloomfield. Yorke was surprised, finding that the variable income from the office was declining (it was down to £809 in 1809) and that it was not ‘gentlemanlike’; he still wished Perceval, rather than the Regent, to have the disposal of it. Perceval was in a dilemma: he had already ‘thwarted’ the Regent ‘very lately’ over an office but conceded that ‘Thornton’s claims upon us are certainly very good—his distresses and losses from trade make it an exceeding great object’. He added that he had warned Thornton that the place was as good as promised to his brother-in-law, but that he would urge Yorke not to give it away without the Regent having his say. Yorke obtained an interview with the Regent and informed him that the office was ‘not a proper office to be conferred upon a gentleman of Mr Robert Thornton’s description’, and being unable on the same ground to suggest Walpole, recommended a former court employee, William Price. The Regent advised him to state this to Thornton, who still hankered after the office, whereupon Yorke submitted the decision to the Regent (17 Sept.). The Regent opted for Thornton, on account of ‘the sort of hope HRH held out to him’, and on 19 Sept. Thornton was offered the place by a ‘much disgusted’ Yorke. He accepted and was effusive in his gratitude to Regent and minister (20 Sept.). Wilberforce, who believed Thornton owed it to the Duke of Cumberland and that it was a lucrative office, wrote in his diary, 1 Oct.: ‘This is one of the instances in which the whole connection will be discredited by the misconduct of one man’.3
Thornton’s appointment was denounced as a job by Creevey in the House, 7 Jan. 1812. He was now the Regent’s man and voted in favour of McMahon’s sinecure, 24 Feb. On 21 May he voted against a more efficient administration. He spent over £8,000 to save his seat at the ensuing election, in which he had expected ministerial support: he claimed he would not have persevered but for ‘the point of honour’ that he was provided with a place. On 2 Mar. 1813 he voted against Catholic relief, but was subsequently neutral. East India Company affairs were his burden that session. He had been instrumental in boosting the Regent’s wish that Lord Moira’s appointment to India should be as advantageous to that ruined man as possible. The renewal of the Company charter was to be under his chairmanship. An intrigue by Charles Grant to prevent his election to the chair because he placed cadetships at Moira’s disposal had first to be thwarted: he was chosen by 15 votes to eight. He had also to secure an understanding with the Board of Control.4 On 22 Mar. 1813 he defended the Company’s trade monopoly against private competitors and on 13 Apr. he tried, but failed, to thwart Castlereagh’s motion for a select committee on the Company’s affairs. He was appointed to it. When the new charter bill was debated in June and July, he objected to several clauses and rebutted the Company’s critics, though he assented to the sending of Christian missions to India, if they kept the peace. On 9 Dec. 1813 he was again the Company spokesman against the infringement of their commercial monopoly in the circuitous trade bill.
Thornton declined the baronetcy offered him for his services during the renewal of the Company charter, 15 Aug. 1814. He informed Lord Liverpool that he could not afford it, owing to his losses in commerce and elections and to ‘the severity of some of my connections’. At the same time, he did not regard the proffered honour as undeserved, in view of his ‘frank and perhaps useful support’ of government. Soon afterwards, bankrupt, he fled to France unde