THORNTON, Samuel (1754-1838), of Clapham Common and Albury Park, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1807 - 1812
22 Nov. 1813 - 1818

Family and Education

b. 6 Nov. 1754, 1st s. of John Thornton of Clapham, and bro. of Henry Thornton* and Robert Thornton*. m. 12 Dec. 1780, Elizabeth, da. of Robert Milnes of Wakefield, Yorks., 4s. 6da. suc. fa. 1790.

Offices Held

Dir. Bank of England 1780-97, 1801-36, dep. gov. 1797-9, gov. 1799-1801; asst. Russia Co. 1778, consul 1794, gov. 1810-d.; asst. Eastland Co. 1795, dep. gov. 1810-d.

Lt.-col. Clapham vols. 1798.


Thornton’s family embarked on their career as merchant princes at Hull, which he represented in Parliament for 22 years, being first returned with his cousin William Wilberforce*. By 1788 his interest there was regarded as established, thanks to his commercial concerns (Crosse Co.) and his influence with the dissenters and Methodists. In 1790 his compromise with the Whig interest averted a contest and no mention was made of politics. His own were expected to be to ‘go with the ministry for the time being’.1

On the death of his father, worth about £600,000, in 1790, Thornton became head of the family business trading to the Baltic;2 but in the House he figured first and foremost as a Bank director. As such he co-operated with government whenever he could. Sometimes he disagreed with them: he opposed Pitt’s proposal to take £500,000 from the unclaimed dividends at the Bank, 15 Dec. 1790, as ‘a stab to public credit’. The chief objection, however, was the difficulty that the Bank would have in meeting it, 22 Mar. 1791. He was fourth in the ballot for the select committee on finance, 4 Apr. 1791.3 He defended Bank policy during the crisis in commercial credit, 11, 29 Apr. 1793, approving the issue of Exchequer bills to meet it. He had given evidence to the committee on it, of which he was a member. He admitted that the Bank had advised against the loan to the Emperor, 14 Dec. 1796, but opposed opposition clamour for a bill of indemnity to justify it. As deputy governor he assured the House that the Bank welcomed an inquiry into the stoppage of cash payments, having nothing to fear from it, 28 Feb. 1797. He strongly denied that the Bank’s discount policy was exercised under ministerial pressure in favour of any individual merchants, 27 Mar. He denied a shortage of specie in the banks, 31 Mar., and opposed Pulteney’s motion for an earlier resumption of cash payments, 7 Apr., as well as his proposal to set up a rival national bank, 30 May. He insisted that the Bank was cautious in its issue of paper money, 15 June 1797; and on 21 Mar. 1800, as governor, moving the renewal of the Bank charter 12 years before its expiry, he defended the validity and adequacy of bank-notes against critics of the currency, but conceded that resumption of cash payments a year after an armistice had been agreed. The Bank could answer every demand upon it, he assured the House, 21 Apr. 1800, and made no objection to the £3 million foreign subsidy, 23 Apr. He denied (in the debate on Tierney’s censure motion, 27 Nov. 1800) that there had been an increase in bank-note issue, or that this was the cause of the inflated cost of living. He repeated this denial, 4 Feb. 1803, and on 27 Feb. 1805 moved for an account of note issues month by month since 1803 to make his point for him. On 10 Feb. 1808 he rebuked opposition spokesmen for talking of the Bank’s profit from the public in the debate on a Bank loan of £3 million to the government. When the bullion committee report was debated, 9 May 1811, he opposed the resumption of cash payments. He was a champion of the sinking fund, 27 Apr. 1814. Replying to Grenfell’s motion critical of Bank profits, 13 June 1815, he insisted that the directors were keen to resume cash payments at an early date. He defended the Bank’s exemption from stamp duties, 27 June, and impugned Grenfell’s arithmetic and his supporters’ prejudices, 29 June; the Bank was not a profiteering institution (3 July). On 14 Mar. 1816 he was again a Bank spokesman, opposing Grenfell’s campaign against it, and denying that the directors had any political bias. On 3 May 1816 he again claimed that they were preparing for a resumption of cash payments. On 1 May 1818, opposing Tierney’s motion, he had to explain why the resumption had been further retarded and refused to make any pledges as to the future, 19 May. He repeatedly defended the Bank’s steps to prevent forgery of its notes (21, 30 Apr. 1801, 30 May 1816, 21 Apr., 14 May 1818).

As a Bank director, Thornton could usually be relied on to speak up, even if his colleagues were silent in the House. On other subjects he was less forthcoming. Allowance must be made for confusion in the attribution of speeches between him and his brothers, but he was certainly not as ready in debate as Henry and spoke less regularly than either Henry or Robert. On 21 Mar. 1791 he criticized frauds arising out of the drawback on sugar. Pitt reported him as speaking in favour of his Russian policy, 29 Mar. 1791, but the reporters ignored it.4 As before 1790, he was a spokesman for the Greenland whale fishery, 24 Feb. 1792. He associated himself with his cousin Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade, voting with him in 1791 and 1796, and opposed the West India sugar planters’ lobby, 22 May 1792: but no speech of his on abolition is known. The mantle of the Clapham sect sat somewhat uneasily upon his shoulders, though he favoured the repeal of the Test Act in 1791 and had no hesitation in announcing his opposition to public lotteries, 4 Apr. 1792. For instance, on 27 Mar. 1793 he alleged that if Members were allowed to contract for government loans, there would be more competition for them, to the public advantage. His view of the war against France was not Wilberforce’s; on 30 Apr. 1793 he denied that the war had damaged commercial credit and on 31 Jan. 1794 that convoy protection for the merchant navy was inadequate. On 2 Jan. 1795, admitting that he had not supported the address on the first day, he gave his opinion that

every year during the war we should make an offer of peace to the enemy, provided they should be disposed to remove the grounds of war. What had displeased him in the language of ministers was, that they seemed to hold out no other termination of the war than the destruction of the present French government, an object which he believed could never be effected by force of arms. Now that the question was decided to carry on the war, he was ready to oppose it.

Yet he did not join his brothers and other ‘Saints’ in dividing against Pitt. Later that year he was one of the promoters of the City merchants’ declaration of loyalty to government.5

In defence of the London wet dock, Thornton cited the example of Hull, 16 May 1796, admitting that the scheme had at first been unpopular there. He was not so popular himself at the ensuing election, needing help to take second place in the poll. A proposal that the poor should eat barley during the scarcity of wheat was attributed to him by his critics, but denied. On 17 Mar. 1800 he moved a bounty on the importation of wheat from the Baltic. He contributed £20,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797. He voted for Pitt’s assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798, was teller for the land tax bill, 4 Apr., and was critical of his fiscal measures only in so far as they affected the East India Company, 25 Apr. 1798. Privately he approved of the income tax as ‘highly advantageous to the State’.6

Thornton was more partial to Pitt than to any other minister and he was surely the ‘Mr Thornton’ who on 7 May 1802 seconded Belgrave’s vote of thanks to him, expressing approbation of his financial measures in the preceding decade. He was a member of the committee on the Prince of Wales’s duchy revenues, 17 Feb. 1802, but had little to say in debate during Addington’s ministry. A speech of 3 June 1802 suggests that he had polite reservations about the premier’s financial policy. He headed the poll at Hull, where the dock had proved a success. ‘Nothing could stand against the weight of administration joined to the three corporations in favour of Mr Thornton.’ He informed Charles Long in April 1803 that City opinion was in favour of Pitt’s resuming the helm, but excluding Lord Grenville; yet he did not join Pitt in opposition to Addington until 15 Mar. 1804. He went on to vote with the minorities that forced the ministry to resign, 23, 25 Apr. 1804. He was listed as Pitt’s adherent in March and September 1804 and again in July 1805, though he had joined in the vote against Melville on 8 Apr. and was chosen for the select committee on the tenth naval report on 25 Apr. He wrote to Pitt on 10 Apr.:

I trust you will give me credit in assuring you that an imperious sense of duty in our view of the matter compelled my brothers and me to give our support to Mr Whitbread’s motion.

I wish to inform you that having by that vote expressed my opinion of the facts disclosed by the report of naval enquiry I shall support any motion that may be made to give Lord Melville an opportunity of showing he had no participation with Mr Trotter.7

Accordingly, he opposed Whitbread’s motion of that day for Melville’s dismissal, refusing to believe he was ‘guilty of personal corruption’, as he was ‘an active, zealous and meritorious servant of the public’, who had been sufficiently punished by censure. On 14 June he went on to exonerate Pitt from any blame in his dealings with Boyd & Co., a subject on which he had given evidence to the commissioners for their tenth report on 8 May.

On Pitt’s death, Thornton was prepared to promote a private subscription to pay his debts, but George Rose thought him ‘cool’. On 7 Mar. the bishop of Lincoln informed Rose, ‘I know that Mr Samuel Thornton told Lord Grenville very early that he meant to support’. He was in opposition that session only on the American intercourse bill, 17 June; and Grenville was reluctant to overlook Thornton in favour of his cabinet colleague Earl Fitzwilliam over a piece of Hull patronage. Thornton himself assured Fitzwilliam, whose support he courted, 25 Oct. 1806, ‘it is the intention of my family now likely to possess four seats to give the present administration a general and fair support which is as much as we have done to any government’. But to his mortification he was defeated at Hull. He might have come in for Surrey, where he had become a country gentleman through the purchase of the Albury estate in 1800, but having been put up without his knowledge, declined while in second place rather than displace the bona fide candidates, one of whom was opposed to the abolition of the slave trade. He nevertheless staked his claim for the next election and in 1807 defeated Lord William Russell, who was sure that Thornton was a ministerial nominee. He himself admitted his leaning to government, ‘without attaching myself to any party that may prevent my giving an unbiased, as I trust it will always be a disinterested vote on any measures that may arise’.8

Thornton opposed Folkestone’s motion for the restoration of the Danish fleet, 29 Mar. 1808, denying the necessity for any declaration of intent about it. He was in two minorities against the Duke of York, 17 Mar. 1809, taking the line of the ‘Saints’. But he approved the formation of Perceval’s ministry9 and silently supported it in the session of 1810 on the Scheldt inquiry. The Whigs listed him ‘against the Opposition’. On 21 May 1810 he voted against parliamentary reform. He joined ministers on the Regency question, 1 Jan. 1811. That year he was a steward at the Pitt Club memorial dinner. He sided with ministers against the abolition of McMahon’s paymastership, 24 Feb. 1812 and against a remodelling of the government, 21 May. He opposed a tax on coal to provide a new prison for London, 6 July.

Thornton did not seek re-election in 1812. For several years he had been in financial difficulties. His house lost £50,000 through the failure of the house of Watson of Preston. The depressed state of the Baltic trade brought his London house to a temporary halt in 1810 when he was seeking a licence to export to Russia, assuring ministers of the Tsar’s goodwill towards them. He retained his Hull interests. In 1811 when he sold Albury for £72,000, there were stories of his being in hot water for exporting bullion; it was already known that he meant to give up the county seat. On a vacancy late in 1813 Thornton resumed it, though he was prepared to give the first option to William Joseph Denison*.10 He was listed a Treasury supporter. On 6 June 1814 he presented petitions from Surrey for and against agricultural protection and adopted a neutral stance on it. He voted with ministers on the Regent’s expenditure, 31 May 1815, and on the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment, 29 June, 3 July. He presented petitions against the property tax, 5 Mar. 1816, and admitted that he disliked it in its present form, but would not commit himself either way at present. Next day he voted for the army estimates and took a week’s sick leave. On 12 Mar., admitting that he could not attend the county meeting, he conceded the respectability of the Surrey petition against the property tax presented by his colleague, but he voted for the tax, 18 Mar. As if to make up for it, he opposed rises in Admiralty salaries, 20 Mar. He favoured a select committee on agricultural distress rather than an immediate debate by the House on it, 9 Apr. He agreed with the wool committee, of which he was a member, that the price of wool had no bearing on distress, 29 Apr. He said he would vote for repeal of the leather tax, but did not do so, 9 May. He voted with ministers on the civil list, 6 and 24 May 1816, and again on the composition of the finance committee, 7 Feb. 1817. On 11 Feb. he was one of three Members found behind the Speaker’s chair on a division and consequently obliged to vote. He declared his vote against the Lymington petition for parliamentary reform, unread; and when it was read to him, confirmed his vote. Ridiculed by Cochrane and Burdett, he professed indifference to their ‘praise or censure’. He could not support Brougham’s motion favourable to free trade, 13 Mar. 1817, but conceded the advisability of some tariff reform. (By 1820 he was convinced of it.)11 He voted for Catholic relief in 1816 and 1817. He paired in favour of the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 June 1817, and voted with ministers when its effects were censured, 10 Feb., 5 Mar. 1818. He deplored the spread of the cost of the new London prison to adjacent counties, 10 Feb. 1818, and favoured investigation of City revenues, 24 Feb. On 15 Apr. he joined the opposition majority for a smaller grant to the Duke of Clarence on his marriage, commending the Duke of Gloucester for not having troubled the public on this score.

Faced with a contest for Surrey in 1818, Thornton retired, out of regard for his colleague Sumner. He made no attempt to re-enter Parliament. His commercial and evangelical heritage had been modified by his family pride and genteel ambitions.12 He died 31 July 1838.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Lawrence Taylor / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Fitzwilliam mss, box 39, Hammond to Fitzwilliam, 16 Nov. 1788; box 41, Sykes to same, 20 June 1790.
  • 2. J. C. Colquhoun, William Wilberforce, 270.
  • 3. Public Advertiser, 12 Apr. 1791.
  • 4. Geo. III Corresp. i. 666.
  • 5. Morning Chron. 28 Nov. 1795.
  • 6. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F34/204, 205; The Whole of the Chapters, Songs etc. etc. circulated during the late Election for Hull (1796), 9; P. M. Thornton, Some Things we have Remembered, 12.
  • 7. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 181; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F36/20; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 4/93, 6/42.
  • 8. Rose Diaries, ii. 238-9; Wilberforce Pprs. 89; Add. 42773, f. 49; 51917, anon. memo; Fortescue mss, Grenville to Fitzwilliam, 21 Aug.; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. E210; Fitzwilliam mss, box 70, R. Sykes to Fitzwilliam, 14 Dec. 1806; VCH Surr. iii. 74; J. Telford, A Sect that moved the World, 174; Spencer mss, Thornton to Spencer, 7 Nov. 1806, Russell to same, 28 Apr.; Sidmouth mss, Thornton to Sidmouth, 1 May 1807.
  • 9. Rose Diaries, ii. 402.
  • 10. Farington, iv. 209; J. W. Grover, Old Clapham, 71; Thornton, 17; Gent. Mag. (1838), iii. 326; Rose Diaries, ii. 457; Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, 22 Oct.; Brougham mss, Brougham to Grey [5 Nov. 1811]; Spencer mss, Lady to Ld. Spencer, 8 Nov. 1813,
  • 11. Thornton, 26.
  • 12. Life of Wilberforce (1838), iv. 82; Thornton, 19, 65.