THORNE, BENJAMIN, businessman, jp, office holder, and militia officer; b. 4 Jan. 1794 in Sherborne, Dorset, England, son of Benjamin Thorne and Heneritta —,; m. 3 Feb. 1831 Anna Maria Wilcocks in York (Toronto), and they had six sons and three daughters; d. 2 July 1848 in Thornhill, Upper Canada.
No man became a success in Upper Canada faster than Benjamin Thorne, few were more successful, and few fell faster or farther. In 1820 he and a brother-in-law, William Parsons, had come to Upper Canada to make their fortunes. Almost immediately Thorne bought property on Yonge Street north of York. Probably at about the same time, he and Parsons opened a store, run by Parsons, which was to form a focal point of the village (Thornhill) that Thorne helped to create during the 1820s and early 1830s. Within a few years he apparently leased all or part of the nearby milling complex of William Purdy, consisting of saw- and grist-mills and a tannery. By the time he bought the complex in 1829, after fire had destroyed the grist-mill, he had established a reputation as a skilled businessman.
In 1830 Thorne rebuilt and enlarged the mill complex. With a warehouse in Toronto, Thorne and Parsons became a large exporter of flour to England and an importer of metal, groceries, and dry goods. All buying and selling in England was handled by Thorne’s brother, William, and William’s company. To facilitate the forwarding of goods, Benjamin went into partnership in Montreal with Francis Harris Heward.
Thorne and Parsons continued to grow through the 1830s and into the 1840s. New managerial positions within the company were filled by relatives and by people brought out from Dorset. The firm eventually consisted of the two founders as well as Thorne’s brother-in-law Horace S. L. Wilcocks and Henry Thompson, both of whom married daughters of Parsons. The company’s rapid growth can be largely explained by the success of its flour-exporting business, a result in turn of the flour-mill’s size, its location in a major wheat-growing district, and Thorne’s ability to pay cash for wheat, a practice still not common in the colony. The cash came from various sources, including profits, his wife’s family, and bank loans.
Thorne, a successful businessman, enjoyed good relations with banks throughout most of his career. Stock which he purchased in the Bank of Upper Canada allowed him to be elected a director, a position he held by June 1824 at the latest; he was subsequently elected for several one-year terms. In 1838 he became a director of the Toronto branch of the Commercial Bank of the Midland District. Finally, in 1842, he was appointed a director and president of the Toronto branch of the Bank of Montreal. When a committee of the House of Assembly had investigated the province’s banking system in 1835, Thorne recommended that the Bank of Upper Canada open additional agencies and increase its capital stock so that it could provide more loans to help develop the province. Among those also testifying was William Lyon Mackenzie*, an ardent foe of monetary monopolies. It was neither the first time nor the last that Thorne and Mackenzie had public differences of opinion.
In 1830, although Thorne had no great interest in politics, he had been persuaded to run against Mackenzie in the provincial election of that year. To conservatives like Thorne, who failed to win a seat, Mackenzie’s views represented disloyal American republicanism. In 1837, on the night of 4 December, a young man, Richard Frizzell, came to Thorne’s house asking for assistance to reach Toronto and warn the authorities of Mackenzie’s planned descent on the capital. Thorne, feeling that some of his mill employees were sympathizers, gave no aid for fear of retaliation against his property. However, with the defeat of Mackenzie’s forces on the 7th, Thorne’s conservative views prevailed.
Aside from the vexations caused by Mackenzie, life for Thorne was good during the 1830s. Much of Thornhill belonged to him; in 1829 he had had a post office established there and gave land for an Anglican church. There was even a society which imported books for its members, Thorne being the secretary. The small group that stood at the top of Thornhill’s society also monopolized most of the government’s appointments in the area. Thorne, for one, was first commissioned as a magistrate in 1833. As well, about 1837 he was appointed a trustee to finish the macadamization of Yonge Street begun by James Cull, and he was made a commissioner of the Home District Court of Requests during the same decade. Following the rebellion, he was commissioned captain in the 4th Regiment of North York militia.
The 1840s witnessed more growth in Thorne’s enterprises. In 1843 he apparently leased the Red Mill at Holland Landing and turned it over to a partner, John Barwick. With this acquisition Thorne became probably the colony’s largest producer of flour for export. A fourth company, B. Thorne and Company, was created to carry on much of the flour-exporting and metal-importing business.
In spite of friction between the partners, business continued to grow until 1846, when the repeal of the preferential British corn laws caused a huge drop in the demand for Upper Canadian flour. Thorne and his associates were caught with far too large a supply; early in 1847 Thorne and Barwick was dissolved. That year, however, renewed demand and an increase in the price paid for flour allowed Thorne to make up some of his losses. Despite a fall in price later in 1847, he confidently bought heavily for the next season, ignoring the misgivings of some of his associates. To back his purchases he borrowed against his personal wealth, estimated by him at more than £85,000. In 1848, a year of severe depression in Canada, the British market collapsed almost totally. The Bank of Upper Canada, which had backed Thorne in his expansion, called its loans and he was ruined. Ultimately his three companies and his personal holdings would be liquidated, but he did not live to see the final result. On the night of 1 July 1848 Thorne walked out behind his house and shot himself. He died a day later, having ended a brilliant career and lost a substantial fortune because of one bad business decision.
AO, MS 94, William Pitt to John Norton, 16 June 1820; MU 2380, no.9; MU 2577, “An incident of the rebellion: something about the man who warned the people of Toronto of the advance of Mackenzie” (unidentified newspaper clipping, 1894); MU 4734, no.l; RG 22, ser.155. CTA, RG 1, B, Benjamin Thorne to A. T. McCord, 22 May 1841, 4 April 1842; report of committee on Market Block, 9 April, 20 Dec. 1842 (mfm. at AO). Dorset Record Office (Dorchester, Eng.), Sherborne Abbey, reg. of baptisms, 5 Feb. 1794. MTRL, B. Thorne & Co. papers. PAC, RG 1, L1, 36: 288; L3, 510: T leases/104; RG 5, A1: 23431–39, 35398, 89543, 93835–38, 96740–42, 108407; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 472, 507. York North Land Registry Office (Newmarket, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, Markham Township; Vaughan Township (mfm. at AO). M. S. [Gapper] O’Brien, The journals of Mary O’Brien, 1828–1838, ed. Audrey Saunders Miller (Toronto, 1968). [L. W. V.] ith, Young Mr Smith in Upper Canada, ed. M. L. Smith (Toronto, 1980). U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1835, no.3. British Colonist, 14 Oct. 1844 Colonial Advocate, 10 Feb. 1831. Globe, 5 July, 6 Dec. 1848. Toronto Mirror, 7 July 1848. Commemorative biographical record of the county of York, Ontario . . . (Toronto, 1907). Toronto almanac, 1839. D. M. FitzGerald, Old time Thornhill (n.p., 1970). D. M. FitzGerald et al., Thornhill, 1793–1963: the history of an Ontario village (Thornhill, 1964). History of Toronto and county of York, Ontario . . . (2v., Toronto, 1885), 1: 122, 127. Audrey Saunders Miller, “Yonge Street politics, 1828 to 1832,” OH, 62 (1970): 101–18.
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