Australian Dictionary of Biography

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George Thornton (1819–1901)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

George Thornton, by William Nicholas, 1852

George Thornton, by William Nicholas, 1852

State Library of New South Wales, MIN 169

George Thornton (1819-1901), merchant and politician, was born on 23 December 1819 in Macquarie Street, Sydney, son of Samuel Thornton (d.1842), publican, and his wife, Sarah (alias Thorn). 'In Newgate before', Sarah had been sentenced to death at the Old Bailey on 3 November 1813 for larceny; with her sentence commuted to transportation for life she reached Sydney in the Broxbornebury in 1814. Samuel arrived free in the Somersetshire the same year. George was educated at St Phillip's primary school, W. T. Cape's academy in King Street and Rev. J. D. Lang's Australian College. About 1836 he joined the Customs Department as a storekeeper and became a clerk. By 1840 he had set up as a Customs House agent and on 4 August he married Mary Ann Solomon (d.1913). In February 1844 he sequestered his estate; paying 5s. in the pound, he resumed business in August and by 1850 was in partnership with Walter Church as Customs House agents and shipbrokers. He owned the schooner, Tom Tough.

Elected to the Sydney Municipal Council in November 1847 for Cook Ward, Thornton was mayor in 1853 and again in 1857. He successfully agitated for the removal of the stocks and pillory, and established the first public baths at Woolloomooloo. His mayoralty is recalled by an obelisk (Thornton's 'scent bottle') in Hyde Park, facing Bathurst Street. Supporting manhood suffrage, in 1858 he won the seat of Sydney in the Legislative Assembly. He carried resolutions against the government questioning the right of Governor Denison to order to India the company of Royal Artillery stationed in Sydney under the control of the New South Wales government; he chaired the subsequent select committee on privilege over the governor's reply; the artillery stayed in Sydney.

Thornton was appointed to the Legislative Council on 10 May 1861, but was prevented from taking his seat by the resignation of the president Sir William Burton. He was a partner in Tucker & Co. in 1859-63 and 1869. A Freemason under the Irish constitution, he was founding provincial grand master in 1857-67, and in 1860 was first chairman of the Woollahra Borough Council. Returning from England in the Duncan Dunbar, he was wrecked off the coast of Pernambuco on 7 October 1865; he organized the passengers and distributed rations. On 17 October they were rescued by the Oneida and returned to London. His fellow passengers presented him with an address of gratitude, but he calculated that his losses were £5845.

A magistrate from the 1850s, Thornton was a founding director and chairman in 1885-88 of the City Bank of Sydney, a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales, chairman of the Mutual Insurance Society of Victoria, a director of two other insurance companies and a committee-man of the Victoria and Reform clubs and a member of the Union Club. In 1867 he was returned to the Legislative Assembly for Goldfields West but resigned in 1868 to revisit England where he administered the Agent-General's Office for more than a year. In 1873-86 he was a New South Wales commissioner for five international exhibitions and in 1880 sat on the royal commission into the fisheries.

Appointed to the Legislative Council in 1877 Thornton carried the Animals Protection Act, 1879, and in 1885 was secretary for mines and (Sir) George Dibbs's government representative in the council. A founding councillor of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Association in 1880, on 29 December he was officially appointed protector of the Aborigines. With the assistance of Edmund Fosbery, inspector-general of police, he organized a census of Aboriginals and recommended that those living in Sydney should be sent back to their own districts. In 1883 he was founding chairman of the Aborigines Protection Board but soon resigned. Long interested in the orthography of native place names, in 1892 with Richard Hill he published Notes on the Aborigines of New South Wales. Enthusiastic about cock-fighting and aquatic sports from his boyhood, Thornton was vice-commodore of the Sydney Yacht Club in 1859, a founding member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in 1862, founding president of the Sydney Rowing Club and of the New South Wales Rowing Association.

Thornton died of dysentery on 23 November 1901 in Lang Syne, the house he had built at Parramatta, and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. Survived by his wife and daughter Fanny, he had been predeceased by a son and a daughter. His assets were valued for probate at £62,500 but his debts exceeded them by £5000.

Select Bibliography

  • K. R. Cramp and G. Mackaness, A History of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales, vol 1 (Syd, 1938)
  • J. Jervis, The History of Woollahra, V. Kelly ed (Syd, 1960)
  • P. R. Stephensen (ed), Sydney Sails (Syd, 1962)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1855, 3, 955
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), Select Committee on the Customs Dept 1856-57, 3, 23 and 1858, 3, 521, 1882, 4, 1525, 1883, 3, 891
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Jan 1866, 25 Nov 1901
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 May 1890, 30 Nov 1901
  • Hassall papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • G. Thornton diary, 1865 (State Library of New South Wales) and papers (National Library of Australia)
  • manuscript and newspaper catalogues (State Library of New South Wales)
  • insolvency file, 1195/2 (State Records New South Wales)
  • CO 201/523, 317.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Thornton, George (1819–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Thornton, by William Nicholas, 1852

George Thornton, by William Nicholas, 1852

State Library of New South Wales, MIN 169