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Thornton of Thornville

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     At the beginning of the present century few names were better known in the sporting world than that of Colonel Thornton, one of the wealthiest of the broad-acred squires of Yorkshire-that land of genuine sportsmen, with its open moors and heathery bills. The Thorntons, as heralds and genealogists tell us, either derived their name from, or gave it to, one of the sixteen lordships in the three Ridings which owned them as superiors. The most ancient of these, Thornton in Craven, perpetuates the family name, which is mentioned in deeds of the age immediately before the arrival of William the Conqueror. As legislators and as soldiers, as civilians, merchants, and diplomatists, the Thorntons have rendered good service to the State at various times and various ways and places. But at present the connection with broad lands in Yorkshire would seem slight, as not a single Thornton figures the modern  'Doomsday Book' as the owner more than about two hundred acres in the why of that county in which once they were wealthy squires.
     The grandfather of the sporting colonel, Sir William Thornton, was in his day so active a zealous a supporter of the rights and privileges of his countrymen that be was chosen, as the leading Yorkshire squire, to present at the foof the throne the articles of the union between England and Scotland in the reign of Queen Anne, on which occasion he received the honor of knighthood. Sir William's son-of the same name-at the outbreak of the second Scott rebellion, raised in Yorkshire, at his own cost, a corps of one hundred men, whom be fed, clothed, and commanded for several months.  At the head of this little band Colonel Thornton marched into Scotland, joined the army of the Duke of Cumberland, and bore himself so bravely on the fields of Falkirk and Culloden that the Stuart clans set a price of one thousand pounds on his head. On returning to England, he entered Parliament as member for York. In this character he signalised himself by revising the old code of the militia laws. He died young, and left his son, the future colonel, a minor.
     The guardians sent the boy to the Charterhouse, where he may have been, and probably was, the school fellow of John Wesley. His health, however, broke short his school career, and he was entered, when fourteen years of age, as a student of the University of Glasgow. Here he seems to have been a diligent scholar in term-time, though in his vacations he devoted himself wholly to field sports, his chief companions being Lords Rivers and Seaforth, Sir Thomas Wallace, and Mr. (afterwards the Right Hon.) William Windham. He took an especial delight in hawking, a diversion which he revived with some success upon the broad moors of his native county; and before he had attained his majority he had gained a name known all over England to the north of the Trent as a very keen rider, and one of the best and most scientific breeders of horses and dogs His stables and his kennels at Old Thornville were said to be the best in the county; and well they may have been such, for he grudged no expense for their maintenance. When the young squire came to London for `the season,' he found that his fame had traveled thither before him in spite of the badness of the roads, which indeed made a journey from the north of Yorkshire to the metropolis a serious undertaking not easily accomplished in bad wintry weather in much less than, 'the inside oil a week.'
On reaching town he was introduced as a member of the 'Savoir Vivre Club,' then recently established, where he met most of the 'young bloods' of the day, and some also of the rank and file of the army of literature, and so saw a little of `life.' Charles James Fox and the Lord Lyttelton, whose 'Ghost Story' I have told in another work,* were among the members of this club; and among its occasional guests and visitors was the kind-hearted Olives Goldsmith. The annual subscription to the club was four guineas, and a guinea was the charge for dinner, including wine. Cards and dice were in vogue at this club, according to the fashion of the age: but the colonel would have nothing to do with either the one or the other, being content, as he used to say, with 'sport,' which rendered play needless. Indeed, it is said that when he put up over the chimney-piece of his library at Thornville a Latin inscription, declaring that his house was open to none but veri amici, he wrote below it: 'By the established rule of this house, all bets are considered to be off if either of the parties, by letter or otherwise, pay into the hands of the landlord one guinea by five the next day.'
     We next find the colonel established malgrť liu as a master of hounds. At first the pack was supported by a subscription among the neighboring gentry; but quarrels and dissensions arose, and in the end the hunt association was dissolved, and the colonel found himself obliged to maintain the pack at his own charges. This, however, was no very great burden, for he was a keen sportsman, and had plenty of ready cash in his pockets or at his bankers. Indeed, so fond was he of sport that for seventeen years in succession he spent several month'. in the Highlands of Scotland, which at that time were almost as difficult of access as the Black Forest is now to the English tourist Here he kept a journal, and, employing a young artist to make sketches of the neighboring country, he brought his work before the public under the title of a 'Sporting Tour through the Highlands of Scotland.' Nor was this all for, before quitting the north, he built on the lands of the Duke of Cordon a shooting-box which he humorously styled Thornton Castle.      Towards the end of the last century he had for his neighbor at Thornville the Duke of York, who had bought the estate of Allerton, and which a few years later the colonel purchased when it came into the market, styling it Thornton Royal. He also added to his Yorkshire estates by the purchase of Boythorp, of the wolds, on which he built a new mansion which he called Falconer's Hall, on accountt of his love for the merry sport of hawking which he indulged on the open moors in the neighborhood.
     The list of the more celebrated of the colonel's horses and dogs occupies three pages in the 'Book of Sporting Anecdotes;' and among the latter are foxhounds, beagles, pointers, setters, greyhounds, spaniels, terriers, &c. Three of the hawks reared in his ' mews,'-named 'Sans Quartier,'Death,' and 'The Deuce,' from their respective qualities-were allowed to distance any tame birds of the kind which have been flown in modern times in pursuit of game.
     The colonel was also a vigorous athlete; on one occasion he walked four miles in thirty-two minutes, and he could leap his own height, five feet nine inches. On one occasion, on the Newmarket race-course, he ran down a hare, picked her up, and carried her off in the presence of a large assemblage. He was also well-known in other circles, and especially as a patron of the 'ring,' which at that day was rendered all the more fashionable on account of the encouragement which it received from the frequent presence of the Prince of Wales-the ' first gentleman in Europe'-at price-fights.
     But no manís life is quite unchequered.  Here and there a dark cloud will overcast the sky of every man. For instance, in spite of the efficiency of the West York Militia, of which he held the colonelcy, he was brought, through private malice, before a court-martial, being accused of unsoldierly conduct. This he felt keenly, and at one time he was tempted resign his commission; but he was consoled by the love and affection of his Yorkshire neighbours, who, on his acquittal, took the horses from his carriage and drew him to his hotel in triumph, and presented him with a beautiful medallion in silver and a handsome sword.
     'The old Colonel,' as he was always called was a good scholar, a man of wit, and a great connoisseur in paintings, both ancient and modern; and his book on 'Sport in Scotland had the honor of being reviewed in the Quarterly by no less a person than Sir Walt Scott.
     As to the after life of Colonel Thornton, it would appear that he survived the malice of his enemies, and passed his declining years in peaceful retirement, retaining his love for his horses and dogs to the last. He did not, he, ever, confine his affection to his horses, dogs, hawks. He married a lady from Essex, a Miss Corston, who was wise enough to cultivate a taste in the same directions as those of her husband. 'The old Colonel' died in 1823, when a large part of his estates was purchased by the late Lord Stourton, who changed the name of Allerton to Stourton Castle.

See 'Tales of Great Families,' 1st series, vol. i

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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