The Reverend William Thornton (1830-1916)
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The Reverend W. H. Thornton (1830-1916)
Became the first vicar of the parish of Exmoor, Somerset, England in 1856. Exmoor was 18,810 acres and had not had a spiritual leader because the population was too small. By 1856, the population had expanded to give the area parish status.
Married Grace Anne Furnival in 1857
Brought William Burgess to justice for the murder of Anna Burgess, his daughter, in 1858. This followed a chase on horseback from Somerset into Wales.
Moved as rector, to Dunsford, Devon, England in 1860
Became rector of North Bovey in Devon in 1866 and served there for 50 years.
Chased a fraudster to France in 1867, caught him and recovered £40,000 for the church
Died in 1916 and is buried, alongside his wife, in North Bovey churchyard.
William Henry Thornton was born, 9th March 1830. His father was head of the tax department Somerset house and they lived in Clapham Common, London. Educated at Rugby school, where one day, in 1847, following a cross country run to the village of Newbold, the seventeen year old Thornton bought some unripe greengages from a street seller and contracted what is believed to be cholera. He was seriously ill for a time, and, upon recovery was found to be “rather delicate”. He went to a friend in Allerford village in the Selworthy district of the Porlock valley, Somersetshire, to convalesce. and build up his strength. His life would have included hunting, fishing, shooting and riding (at which he would cover prodigious distances for the rest of his life). He developed a lifelong love for the Porlock Valley, which he called “The happy valley and the fairest and choicest little district which exists on the face of the earth”. It was here that he first met Sir Thomas Acland (11th Baronet), from the Holnicote Estate (now owned by the National Trust). He had access to the extensive lands and guns on the estate. He also became a frequent visitor to a house known as Glenthorn, 10 miles away in Countisbury, where he made the acquaintance, and later, friendship of the Knight family from Simonsbath, on Exmoor. It was at this time, also, that he made the acquaintance of John “Jack” Russell, the sporting parson, from Swimbridge, Devon, and they remained in touch until Russell’s death in 1883. Thornton left the Porlock Valley in 1849 and matriculated to Trinity College Cambridge on 24th January. He entered as a "pensioner" (that is a student without emolument). This meant that he was only able to take an ordinary degree (BA) which he gained in 1853. He was awarded an MA from the same college in 1859.
He left the college in February 1853 although he remained in lodgings in the city. He studied here, for the voluntary theological examination, which he passed in the October. He was ordained at Exeter cathedral in December 1853. He was offered the curacy of Lynton, Devon. During this time he established an effective school at Countisbury, and taught there himself most mornings. He resigned the curacy after 2 years.
The population of Simonsbath had expanded due to mining in the area to become the parish of Exmoor. His friend Mr. Knight offered him the living at the newly built church and vicarage in the village. So, in 1856, he became the first vicar of Exmoor.
In 1857 he married Grace Anna Furnival (1826 – 1916). They went on to have 8 daughters, although 2 of these died in infancy and the firstborn is buried in the churchyard at Simonsbath.
Two years into his incumbency on Exmoor the murder of Anna Maria Burgess, aged 6, took place. She died at the hand of her father, William Burgess, who gave out the story that Anna had gone to live with her grandmother in Porlock Weir. Thornton checked with the grandmother, who confirmed that she had not seen the child. Without a body Thornton could prove nothing but Burgess fled and Thornton personally rode into Wales, where he had tracked him down. He brought him back, and had him held in Exford whilst he awaited permission from the authorities to drain the flooded, and defunct, Wheal Eliza mine, a mile and a half along the Barle Valley from Simonsbath village. Local rumour had it that lights had been seen over the mineshaft and sheep-stealers had found an empty grave upon the moor. It took until the October for permission to be granted to pump the shaft and, in the November, a local young man volunteered to be lowered down it. 360 feet down he found a bundle and, when it was recovered to the surface, Thornton unwrapped it to discover the remains of the child. Burgess was tried at Taunton Assizes, found guilty of the murder, and sentenced to hang. Thornton was his parish priest, and was conscious of his responsibility in that regard, so he visited Burgess in prison and heard his confession. Burgess then also confessed to being responsible for an arson attack at a local farm some years previously. This had resulted in three deaths. Thornton visited the other two Burgess children, working in service and told them of their sister’s death at the hands of their father. He tried to persuade them to see Burgess, but they refused. Burgess shook his hand before he died.
The remoteness of Simonsbath in mid-Victorian times proved a worry to Grace Thornton, with young daughters, as the nearest medical man was 11 miles away in South Molton, so, in 1860 the family moved south into Devon to take up the living at Dunsford.
He liked the church there very much but they both missed the moorland people and the bracing moorland air. In 1866, having left a second baby girl buried in Dunsford churchyard, they removed to the parish of North Bovey on Dartmoor, Devon, England.
They remained in North Bovey for 50 years. Thornton went on to become Rural dean in 1870, and also held services in other Dartmoor churches, including an open-air one at Postbridge. In 1867 he chased a fraudster (a trustee of the church) to Paris, France, leaving North Bovey on the Tuesday morning. He took a night boat to Boulogne from London and arrived back at the London solicitor’s office on the Thursday morning with the recovered £40,000 in his pocket, and made it home to North Bovey in time for dinner the same evening.
Thornton created his memoirs over a number of years and published 2 volumes privately. Reminiscences of an Old West Country Clergyman volumes 1 and 2 were leather bound hardback books. An edited version of the both was published in paperback in 2010.
He predeceased Grace by a few months in 1916; he died on the 31st of March and she in the December. They are both buried in North Bovey churchyard.
- Reminiscences of an Old West Country Clergyman. W.H. Thornton, publisher Andrew Iredale, Torquay. Vol 1 (1897) and Vol 2 (1899).
- Reminiscences of an Old West Country Clergyman W.H. Thornton edited by Duff Hart-Davis. Excellent Press, 2010
- A Filthy Barren Ground - Exmoor in the 1850s. Victor Bonham-Carter.