Thornton Family: Letters and Papers

Scope and Content

Letters, diaries, legal documents, formal recollections, and odd scraps of personal information, chronicling the life of the Thornton family and reflecting the social life of the times. The bulk of the material covers the lifetime of E.M. Forster's great aunt Marianne Thornton. In addition to such letters of her own which have survived, she and other members of the family transcribed much of the family correspondence in several volumes of handwritten copies of letters. These include letters to, from, or dealing with, members of the Clapham Sect and a detailed report of Robert Thornton's bankruptcy.

1/A. Letters from John Thornton to John Newton, 1772-1778, 62 items.

1/B. Letters to John Thornton from John Newton, 1773-1778, 25 items.

1/C. Letters from John Thornton to William Richardson, 1774-1790, 21 items.

1/D. Letters from John Thornton to Robert Sandwich, 1772-1777, 6 items.

1/E. Letters to the Thornton family from Hannah More, 1814-1817 and some undated, 11 items.

1/F. Letters from Mrs. Henry (Marianne) Thornton and Marianne Thornton to Hannah More, 1814-1835 and some undated, 13 items.

1/G. Letters to Mrs. Henry (Marianne) Thornton from Charemile Phillipps, 1803-1815 and some undated, 35 items.

1/H. Letters to Marianne Thornton and to Charles Forster from William Wilberforce, 1812-1832 and some undated, 12 items.

1/I. Letters to and from the Thornton family, most pre-1815, 87 items.

1/J. Letters to and from the Thornton family, most pre-1815, 102 items.

1/K. Letters to, from, and concerning Robert Thornton, mainly 1814-1816, 173 items.

1/L. Ten bound volumes of family letters, 1775-1855.

1/M. Notebook containing family letters copied by Marianne Thornton. There is correspondence between Mr. and Mrs. Henry Thornton and Zachary Macaulay, 1794-1815, and to Maria Thornton, 1796-1812.

1/N. Notebook containing family letters copied by Marianne Thornton and Laura Mary Forster.

1/O. Notebook containing family letters.

1/P. Religious meditations of Lucy Thornton, 1742-1763, 15 items.

1/Q. Printed discourse on the death of John Thornton by Thomas Scott, 1791, and abridged version, 1793, 2 items.

1/R. Diary of Henry Thornton, 1795-1814.

1/S. Draft of address by Henry Thornton to the Women's Bible Study Club.

1/T. Marianne Thornton's account of the deaths of her parents.

1/U. 1816 journal of Isabella Sykes.

1/V. Seating arrangements of guests at Battersea Rise, 1826-1828.

1/W. Notes on the Decalogue, 1875-1876. 1 item.

1/X. Typed copies of the correspondence between John Thornton and John Newton (1/A and 1/B), 88 items.

1/Y. Typed copies of letters from the Robert Thornton correspondence (1/K), principally his letters to John Benbow, 56 items.

1/Z. Typed copies of miscellaneous material, 22 items.

2/A. Sketch book of the Thornton family at Battersea Rise before 1833, with added notes by Laura M. Forster.

2/B. 'Battersea Rise', typescript reminiscences with photographs, by Mildred Pym (ne Thornton), Jan. 1938.

2/C. 'Henry Thornton of Clapham, 1760-1815' by Standish Meacham Jr, typescript dissertation, Cambridge, Mass., 1960.

3/A. Letters from Marianne Thornton, c. 1816-1884, but mostly undated.

3/B. Letters from Miss M.F. Smith to Marianne Thornton, c. 1817-1830, but many undated, 27 items.

3/C. Letters from Chanoine Barras, Guest Master at a Hospice of St. Bernard, Switzerland, to Marianne Thornton, 1821-1827, 5 items.

3/D. Letters from Sir Robert Harry Inglis, chiefly to members of the Thornton family, 1818-1853, 18 items.

3/E. Miscellaneous/family letters, c. 1823-1881, but many undated.

3/F. Diary of Marianne Thornton, written in shorthand, April 1815.

3/G. Diary of Laura Forster (ne) Thornton, Jan. - Dec. 1833.

3/H. Notebook containing geography lesson and a dialogue (possible fictional) of Marianne Thornton, undated.

3/I. Diary, in different hands, including two of children, of a visit to France and Italy, 1851, possibly written in part by Marianne Thornton.

3/J. Copy of Marianne Thornton's funeral wishes, undated.

3/K. Handwritten copies of letters written by Marianne Thornton, 1815-1825, 1874, and some undated.

3/L. Typescript copies of letters from Marianne Thornton to her family and friends, 1815 - c. 1865 and some undated.

3/M. Typescript abstract of documents, c. 1766 - c. 1774, relating to John Thornton and the Dartmouth College Trust, undated.

3/N. Envelope marked in E.M. Forster's hand '19th cent. War letters. Napoleonic Sebastopol', containing 7 letters, 1813-1870.

4/A. A brief article, 'Henry Thornton's Brighton Verses 1814' by P.E.H. Hair, offprint, Notes and Queries, October 1970, presented by the author to the Library in November 1970.

Administrative / Biographical History

The papers trace five generations of the Thornton family, descending from John Thornton (1720-1790). Thornton inherited a large fortune, which he invested in trade, and used to provide generous support to the first generation of 'Evangelicals' and to circulate immense quantities of bibles and religious books throughout the world, many of which were printed at his own expense. He also bought advowsons in order to appoint deserving clergymen, such as John Newton (1725-1807).

In 1753 Thornton married Lucy (1722-1785), only daughter and heiress of Samuel Watson of Kingston-upon-Hull. Their son Henry (1760-1815) was a philanthropist and economist. In 1780 he entered his father's counting-house, and two or three years later became a partner. The partnership was dissolved in 1784, when he joined the bank of Downe, Free & Thornton, of which he was an active member until his death. In 1782 Thornton was elected MP for Southwark, and he held the seat until the end of his life. He was an influential member of the 'Clapham Sect', and a friend and supporter of William Wilberforce. In 1792 he bought a house at Battersea Rise upon Clapham Common, which became the family home. He gave freely to charity, including 600 a year to Hannah More for her schools.

In 1796 Thornton married Marianne (d. 1815), only daughter of Joseph Sykes of West Ella, near Hull. They left nine children: Henry Sykes, partner in Messrs. Williams, Deacon & Co.; Watson, rector of Llanwarne; Charles, the first incumbent of Margaret Street Chapel; Marianne (1797-1887) and Lucy, who died unmarried; Isabella, wife of Archdeacon Harrison, canon of Canterbury; Sophia, wife of her cousin, the Earl of Leven and Melville; Henrietta, wife of Richard Synott, esq.; and Laura, wife of the Rev. Charles Forster, rector of Stisted. Mrs. Thornton died nine months after her husband, when the children were placed under the guardianship of Sir Robert Henry Inglis (1786-1855).

The marriage of Charles and Laura Forster produced Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, an architect, who married Alice Clara, daughter of Henry Whichelo. Their only son was Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970), novelist and man of letters. E.M. Forster's great aunt Marianne left him 8,000, which enabled him to go to Cambridge and be financially independent enough to exist as a writer. He repaid his debt by writing her biography in 1956.

Access Information

Open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Acquisition Information

MS.Add.7674/1 was presented by E.M. Forster, King's College, Cambridge, May 1966; MS.Add.7674/2 and 3 were deposited by Forster's executor, Prof. W.H. Sprott, Sept. and Oct. 1970.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives. The history of the family was compiled with reference to the entries on Henry Thornton in Sidney Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XIX, pp. 781-783 (London, 1909), and on E.M. Forster in E.T. Williams and C.S. Nicholls, eds., Dictionary of National Biography 1961-1970, pp. 381-383 (Oxford University Press, 1981).

Other Finding Aids

Additional Manuscripts Catalogue.

Related Material

Cambridge University Library also holds correspondence of John Newton with John Thornton, MS.Add.7826.


Section 1 and particularly section 3 were used extensively by E.M. Forster for his book Marianne Thornton 1797-1887: A Domestic Biography (London, 1956). Forster's own copy of this work, with annotations and corrections, was deposited in the Library in Sept. 1970, Adv.c.106.2.