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Samuel Thornton (1835–1917)

by R. E. Northey

This article was published:

Samuel Thornton (1835-1917), by Samuel Calvert, 1875

Samuel Thornton (1835-1917), by Samuel Calvert, 1875

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN14/06/75/85

Samuel Thornton (1835-1917), Anglican bishop, was born on 16 April 1835 in London, son of Thomas Thornton, author and a writer for The Times, and his wife Elizabeth, née Robinson. Educated at the Merchant Taylors' School, in March 1852 he matriculated for The Queen's College, Oxford (B.A., 1855; M.A., 1858; D.D., 1874). Both his brothers were graduates of Oxford; one entered the Church and the other became a judge in the Indian Civil Service. Ordained deacon in 1858, he began an impressive preaching ministry in East London as diocesan clerical missionary. In 1860 he became priest-in-charge of St Jude's, Whitechapel, and in 1864 rector of St George's, Birmingham. In 1866 he married Emily, daughter of H. T. Thornton of Devon.

On 1 May 1875 at Westminster Abbey, Thornton was consecrated first bishop of Ballarat. He arrived in Melbourne with his wife on 5 August in the Lord Warden and on the 11th was installed in Christ Church Pro-Cathedral, Ballarat, at a service conducted by Archdeacon Theodore Carlos Stretch. In December 1876 he was admitted M.A. (ad eund.) at the University of Melbourne. With 'conspicuous energy' and great organizing capacity, he tackled the task of bringing orderly administration to a diocese that extended to Mildura and the South Australian border. He attracted men of high calibre, one of whom described him as 'probably the best scholar on the Australian Episcopal Bench of his day'. He was a brilliant extempore preacher and speaker.

A Broad Churchman, Thornton did not belong to any ecclesiastical party and welcomed both High and Low. Before it became officially accepted, he encouraged the use of the revised version of the Bible; he suggested changes, not doctrinal, to the Book of Common Prayer. He condemned lotteries and raffles as Church fund-raising methods. Politically conservative he was active in discussion of public issues, and as a constant critic of the 1872 Education Act he wanted undenominational scripture teaching in state schools. In the 1890s he was embroiled in long newspaper debates with George (Chinese) Morrison over the efficacy of missionaries in China; he advocated the adoption of partnership schemes between labour and capital, asserting that on their own the former was tyrannical and the latter selfish. On the question of Sunday trains he expressed the view that Christian principles should not upset the recreation of non-Christians. He was not conspicuous in the debate against rationalism, but affirmed that the Church would stand or fall by her care for the people. His annual presidential addresses to the diocesan Church Assembly were published from 1876 to 1899.

In 1900 Thornton resigned and returned to England via South Africa in July; he became assistant bishop of Manchester and vicar of Blackburn, retiring from active ministry in 1910. His first wife had died in 1909 and at 78 he married a widow Caroline Wakefield, née Rice. By 1915 he confessed that his 'boating, and tennis, and horseback days are over; reading is his recreation — in all departments'. He was described as a 'short portly prelate, quick in speech and movement, who had a lofty sense of the dignity of his high office'. Of sometimes hasty judgment, he was nevertheless an independent thinker with a genuine sympathy for knowledge. He died on 27 November 1917 in London, survived by his wife and by his son of his first marriage who was sometime vicar of Colac, Victoria, during his episcopacy.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Cockerill, Scribblers and Statesmen (Melb, 1944)
  • Ballarat Church Chronicle, 8 Dec 1917
  • Punch (Melbourne), 6 Nov 1913
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Nov 1917
  • Ballarat Courier, 30 Nov 1917.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. E. Northey, 'Thornton, Samuel (1835–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 12 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

Samuel Thornton (1835-1917), by Samuel Calvert, 1875

Samuel Thornton (1835-1917), by Samuel Calvert, 1875

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN14/06/75/85

Life Summary [details]


16 April, 1835
London, Middlesex, England


27 November, 1917 (aged 82)
London, Middlesex, England

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