From the category: Individual

Canon Thornton, Rector of Little Downham

Photo courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library


Canon  F.F.M.S. Thornton.


Frederick Ferdinand Martin Schleicher Thornton was Rector of Downham from 1892 to 1907. He was born in Hamburg in 1846. In his youth, he travelled extensively in Europe, America and Australia.

He was ordained deacon in 1872 and became curate of Ringmer, in Sussex, where he was made a priest in 1873. He left Ringmer in 1874 to become vicar of Preston Deanery in Northamptonshire, where he remained for four years – during this time (1875-76) he also studied at Trinity College, Dublin. He then moved to St Sepulchre’s Church, Northampton, between 1878-1890. He was chaplain to the County Hospital, Northampton Prison and the Northamptonshire Regiment. During his tenure, in 1879, he married Harriet Emily Woolston, the daughter of a Wellingborough brewer.

The couple had five children. The only girl, Caroline Emily, died of teething convulsions in 1884, aged 10 months. Two sons – the eldest, Major F.E.Thornton, a professional soldier, and the youngest, A.C.Thornton – died in the First World War. F.E.Thornton died in 1917 leading his Indian Regiment against the Turks in Mesopotamia and Pte.A.C.Thornton, who had emigrated to Canada, died fighting for his adopted country in 1915. He was a good linguist and had been posted to the front as a ‘listener’ to report back on German plans. He was grievously injured when he was blown up – he was operated on at a British clearing station on the French/Belgian border, had a leg amputated but died four days later.

Another son worked in the City and the fourth also became a Major. B.M.Thornton served with the then Ordnance Corps on the Somme, Ypres and in Italy. He was awarded the MC in 1918.

Rev Thornton was made a Canon of Ely in 1890 and was the Special Missioner for the Diocese of Ely from 1890 to 1919. The London Daily News of 31 March 1892 reported that he ‘has accepted the living of Little Downham’.

Ely Remembrancer, August-September 1897, St Leonard’s Church, Downham, carried reports on the Bible Class excursion to London. ‘On 10 July, the Rector took the Bible Class to London for the day. The whole day was spent in sight-seeing from one end of London to the other. The Bank of England, Mansion House, St Paul’s Cathedral, Charing Cross, Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards, St James’ Park, House of Lords, House of Commons, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London were all visited.’ The party then took a steamer on the Thames and saw various bridges ‘including the new Tower Bridge’ (opened in 1894) – finally, they rode on top of an Omnibus which took them back to Liverpool Street Station ‘whence they reached home again after a very happy and instructive day’.

The Rev Canon Thornton was interviewed by Rider Haggard (the author of ‘She’ and ‘King Solomon’s Mines) of the Daily Express on 10 August 1901. It was one of a series of Haggard’s articles and was entitled ‘Downham, by Ely’ and examined ‘the rural problem in Cambridgeshire’. Rider H.Haggard wrote two volumes on Rural England in 1901 and 1902 – they were published by the Fabian Society in August 1905 (cost: 1d). The Rev Canon Thornton felt passionately on the subject of money-lending to the smallholders of land in the area. Rider Haggard examined how, before the drainage of the Fens, bright and hard-working individuals worked out a way of reclaiming and cultivating large areas. However, under the system of ‘copyhold’, ‘that evil burden under which so much English land still labours’, there was a heavy tax on their efforts. Whenever a smallholder died, the lord of the manor demanded two years’ estimated rent or – in the case of a sale – for one and half years’ rent. The smallholder could never find the money and therefore had to use moneylenders.

 ‘On this matter Canon Thornton, under whose guidance we inspected the small holdings, had a great deal to say.’ Unless the practice was stamped out, Thornton told Haggard, life would ‘become unbearable’.

 ‘Canon Thornton is a clergyman whose views certainly demand attention if only on account of what he has done and is doing in his district. The income of the living still amounts, I believe, to £1,000 a year, every halfpenny of which is spent in the parish where he employs no fewer than four curates to attend to the three churches, one of which – a tin building that is also used as a school – he erected himself in the Fen land. Briefly they (his views) are that the conditions of life among many of his parishioners are brutalising in their hardness…and that the people grow stolid, hard and capricious.’

At the end of the article, Haggard comments: ‘As it is, they manage to live, although I agree with Canon Thornton, under conditions that in some cases are almost degrading in their severity.’

(PLEASE NOTE: I was aware of some of the facts made in the next paragraph, ‘Like many of the better clergy…’ on your website but I would be interested to see the sources).

In 1904, he bought Shudy Camps Park, (I have no source that suggests it was ‘with a view to retirement’), an estate in South Cambridgeshire comprising six farms, twenty houses and a pub. (Note: he did not retire in 1907). He continued in his role as Honorary Canon to Ely Cathedral and Special Missioner throughout the Great War. His wife, Harriet Emily, collapsed and died in the church at Shudy Camps two weeks before the end of the war – she was laying flowers in memory of her two sons. It is believed by the family that she died of a broken heart.

The Rev Canon Thornton became vicar of Shudy Camps in 1919. He was a J.P., chairman of Linton Rural District Council and, in 1918, Chairman of the East Coast Flood Defence Committee. He was a member of the National Geographical Society and the Royal Historical Society. In 1935, he tried to resign his canonry but the Bishop of Ely retitled him ‘Canon Emeritus’.

The Rev Canon Thornton died on 7 June 1938, as the World War Two storm clouds were gathering.