York’s Founding Fathers – Thornhill

The bustle of Yonge Street attracts millions of people every year.  As you cross the Toronto border into York Region, you hit a little town that really has not changed in a long while.  You can almost feel the familiar warmth coming from the store fronts.  The village would not be named after its first inhabitants; Asa Johnson settled property on the East side of Yonge Street; Nicholas Miller on the West side.  The village was settled circa 1794, but it would be 25 years before it is known by today’s name.  I am pleased to introduce Benjamin Thorne, founding father of Thornhill.

Benjamin Thorne was born in the market town of Sherborne, Dorset, England on January 4th, 1794. He was the first child for Henrietta Wigginton, but the seventh child for his father Benjamin Sr.    Benjamin Sr. first wife, Mary Mills, had passed away and Henrietta was his second wife.  Benjamin Sr. and Henrietta were married in London in 1792. The young Benjamin would be baptized on February 5th, 1794 in Sherborne, Dorsetshire.

Benjamin Sr. was a cooper, who had apprentices. By early in the 1800’s, Benjamin Sr. had begun a company called Benjamin Thorne and Sons, iron mongers.  Benjamin Jr. could have learned his business ways from his father.

On September 19, 1814, Benjamin Jr’s step-sister Susannah married William Parsons.  Parsons was the son of a minister.  Benjamin would become good friends with William.  In 1817, William and his wife would immigrate to Upper Canada.  Three years later, Benjamin followed his step-sister and brother in law and came to York.

Once here, Benjamin and William Parsons opened a store.  Parsons would run the small business.  Thorne began to lease some of Purdy’s mill to run a flour mill. Eventually, he was leasing the whole milling complex west of Yonge Street. Benjamin would ship flour from the mill to a warehouse in York. While in York, he would gather metal and goods to bring back to their store.  Thorne also took the lead in local affairs.

In 1824, Benjamin would purchase stock in the Bank of Upper Canada.  With this purchase, he was able to become a director with the bank.  He was elected and was fulfilling the position in June of that year.

By 1826, Benjamin would travel to Great Britain for business.  Coming home from London aboard the ship “Xenaphon” he met a young lady by the name of Mary Gapper.  She was travelling in a group planning on taking up residences on their land grants. On July 25th, 1826, the ship landed at New York City.  The group would begin the journey from New York to Muddy York.  Benjamin would become friends with Mary’s brothers, Southby and Richard Gapper.

The 1820’s were profitable for Benjamin.  He was involved with purchasing land to build farms or mills on them.

1828 would be a very busy year for the young man. Benjamin was still travelling back and forth from York and London.  He arrived at New York in the summer of 1828. He also began to become smitten with the young Miss Gapper.  He was not alone in his feelings.  A half-pay soldier by the name of Edward O’Brien was also smitten with Mary Gapper.

On December 31st, 1828, Benjamin bought property for himself.  He purchased the “Glen”.  He had become a good business man.  He had a reputation for being fair in business.  Knowing that it was a long ride to St Johns in York Mills to worship, he donated part of his land to build an Anglican church and burying grounds.  Thorne had no problem gathering money to have the church built.  He and William Parson had many well-to-do family and friends who were happy to donate money.

Being a central figure in the community, Thorne would often visit his neighbours’ homes.  He would entertain by singing with his friends.  Benjamin would find any excuse to visit Miss Gapper. On returning from a business trip, Benjamin brought home oysters and gave them to the Gappers.  It was only courteous that the Gappers  would invite Thorne to enjoy the oysters with them.  Thorne was happy to help his employees during bad times.  Purdy’s Mill caught fire and destroyed much of the complex.  Benjamin began the process to buy the mill complex.

Benjamin would find that mail service was needed in the small village. Thorne and brother in law William Parsons began to petition the government for a local post office.  After being called Atkinson’s Mills, Purdy Mills and Thorne’s Mills, the name chosen for the village would be Thornhill, after Benjamin Thorne. The post office was granted to the village with that name.  William Parsons would be the first postmaster.

In 1829, building of the new church began.  Thorne would hire friends and relatives to begin construction on the building. Building began on the Holy Trinity Church, as it was now called.  Thorne and Parson had no difficulty in hiring help for the construction. The land would be on the south east  corner of his property.  Benjamin had also completed the purchase of Purdy’s Mills.  He immediately began to rebuild and enlarge the complex.

Benjamin Thorne was a conservative.  He followed the Family Compact.  When his church was complete, Benjamin wanted Bishop Strachan to consecrate the building.  Strachan was a major player in the Family Compact.  Thorne had heard of William Lyon Mackenzie and his positions.  Edward O’Brien wanted for Benjamin to run in the provincial election.  On August 2, 1829, Edward O’Brien would invite Thorne over to his home with the hope of convincing him to run for office. Eventually, Thorne was convinced to run.

Mary Gapper would marry Edward O’Brien on May 13, 1830.  Thorne would be very gentlemanly towards Mr. O’Brien, but able to provide a jib every now and then.  The couple were, and remained friends with Benjamin.  Four days after their wedding, Benjamin was at their house.  He was bringing a panel member summons for Mary’s brother.

On that same day, Dr. Strachan commissioned Thorne and Parsons to take care of a society that would import books for their members.  They would superintend a branch of the Bartlett’s Building Society books. Many of Thornhill’s elite were able to read.  Thorne would become the secretary of this society.

Thorne would throw himself into his many enterprises. He was the first man to pay cash to the farmers for their grains.  He was also willing to extend credit to new farmers and settlers. His import / export business was growing daily.  He now had a warehouse in York to house the flour export and the iron ore, groceries and dry good imports.

The mills were running well, becoming one of the largest flour exporters.  Along with his partner Parsons, he created a new company in Montreal.  He would partner with Francis Harris Herward to help with the facilitation of the flour to England.  Once there, the flour was handled by Benjamin’s brother William, and his company.

In 1830, the top of Thornhill’s society had a monopoly on many of the area’s governmental appointments.  This is when Edward O’Brien had convinced Benjamin Thorne to throw his hat into the political ring.  It is known that Edward was a staunch canvasser of Thorne’s election bid. The elections for the 11th Parliament would happen in October.  Benjamin opponent was William Lyon Mackenzie, a newspaper man and against the Family Compact.  Also, many of the farmers in York were opposed to the Family Compact.  Benjamin lost to Mackenzie.  This loss did not dampen Thorne’s inspiration of being in government.

Holy Trinity Church was dedicated on February 28, 1830. Bishop Strachan came up from York to officiate the sermon, which lasted for an hour and a half.  Early in the summer, construction on Holy Trinity Church was completed.

By the end of the summer, Benjamin had met a lady by the name of Anna Maria Wilcocks from Cobourg, Ontario.  She was the daughter of John Lodge Wilcocks and Anna Maria Merriman.  By December 18th, 1830, Benjamin confirmed that he was to marry Anna Maria.  A “batchelor” party was held for Thorne on January 19th, 1831. The O’Briens were there, as well as the Parsons and the Drapers.   William Draper took over from Edward O’Brien on the political debate with Thorne.  Even so, Thorne seemed to be absorbed with his love and his mills.  Benjamin and Anna Maria married on February 3rd, 1831.

In 1831, Parsons and Thorne’s mill was extremely busy.  Many times there would be farmers lined-up on Yonge Street to have their grain milled.  By this time, Thornhill had a hotel, a store, stables and sheds.  There were many outbuildings scattered around the town.

The company of Thorne and Parsons would eventually include Horace Wilcocks and Henry Thompson.  Both were brothers in law to Thorne.  Both of them would eventually marry daughters of William Parsons.  Profits continued flowing in.  The milling business and the land that Thorne owned were quite lucrative.

By the end of the year, Benjamin and Anna Maria welcomed their first child. The son was named William Henry.   A daughter, Anna Maria was born in 1833.

Thorne continued to buy more land.  In 1833, he bought the west half of Lot 24, Concession 1 East.  This was in the village of Willowdale.  It was in this same year that Benjamin would be commissioned as a magistrate for the village of Thornhill.

In 1835, a daughter was born to the couple.  They named her Mary Georgina.

That year, the House of Assembly began to investigate the banking system.  Benjamin would testify at this inquiry.  He recommended that the Bank of Upper Canada should open more agencies.  He also suggested that the Bank increase its capital stocks so that more loans could be issued.  Another man testified at the same inquest; William Lyon Mackenzie.  Mackenzie was against the bank having a monopoly.  This would not be the last time that Thorne and Mackenzie would have a difference of opinion.  This led to the Dunscombe Report.

1836 saw the town of Thornhill, thriving.  Benjamin owned much of the property in the town. There were 300 residences and 4 churches. The town also included a school.

A son name John Benjamin was born in 1837.  This year Thorne was appointed as a trustee by James Cull to finish the macadamized paving of Yonge Street.  Yonge Street had become a very busy way of travel.  Benjamin had also been made commissioner of the Home District’s Court of Requests.

Benjamin could  see the rising tension of the people of York.  William Lyon Mackenzie had inspired the masses to rebel against the Family Compact, and the government in Upper Canada.  Thorne still remained courteous and kind to all the farmers, whatever side they were on.    On December 4th, 1837, a local man by the name of Richard Frizzell arrived at Thorne’s home.  He had wanted to ask Benjamin if he may use a horse.  He had become aware of a surprize attack on the government and he wished to inform authorities before it happened.  Benjamin said no.  He was afraid of repercussions to his family, his home, and his mills. Many of William Lyon Mackenzie’s supporters worked in Thorne’s mills.  The squrmish at Montgomery’s Tavern did not end with a clear victor.  After the rebellion, Benjamin Thorne was commissioned a Captain in the North York Militia.

Daughter Catherine was born in 1838 and a son Richard was born in 1839.

By 1840, Benjamin was a partner in four business operations. In spite of partner bickering, business could not have been better.  Benjamin Thorne was now very prosperous.  His mills were very busy and made lots of profits.  His land was generating large revenues.

In 1842, Benjamin was made President of the Bank of Montreal.  He was a clear choice for this position. Thorne laid the cornerstone to a new bank building at the corner of Yonge Street and Front Street.  He was able to enact his beliefs to better the banking system.  He also began a partnership with John Barwick, and leased the Red Mill in Holland Landing.

In 1843, Benjamin and his wife welcomed twins to the family; Horace and Charles Edward.

Partners Barwick and Thorne purchased the Red Mill. Thorne had to purchase this mill to alleviate the stress being put on the mills in Thornhill. This acquisition now made Benjamin Thorne the largest producer of flour for export.  The timing was perfect.  The British government had relaxed parts of the Corn Laws.  Thorne could now send flour to Britain at a lesser tariff rate and duties and keep American flour out. Business for Thorne would flourish until 1846.

In January 1846 Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister of Britain made a three hour speech.  He was announcing the repeal of the Corn Laws and the introduction of Free Trade.  This now allowed every country to export their grains to Britain.  The advantage for Thorne and his partners just disappeared.  As a result, they now had boatloads of unsellable flour.

Son Alfred was born that same year.

Early in 1847, the partnership of Barwick and Thorne dissolved.  Benjamin was able to recoup some of his losses.  Despite a fall in flour prices later in the year, Thorne bought heavily for the next season.  Many of his friends and advisors warned him against this action.  To back the purchase, Thorne used his own personal wealth.  He was estimated to be worth ₤ 85,000.00. Many warned Thorne that the risk was too high.  Yet, Benjamin proceeded.

1848 would see a severe depression in Canada. The British Markets collapsed. Revolutions began to spring up all over Europe.  The Bank of Upper Canada did what they had to.  They called in all of their loans, including the ones that Thorne held.  In one moment, Benjamin Thorne was ruined.

Benjamin had to put his mills up for sale. Unfortunately, there were no buyers.  His creditors began seizing his assets.  He had to declare bankruptcy.  Thorne became despondent and withdrawn. His three remaining companies and his personal holding were soon liquefied.  On June 2, 1848, there was an auction to sell his assets.  An auction of his home, the mills and the stores soon followed.   The destruction of Benjamin Thorne also affected the town of Thornhill.  Thornhill began to see destruction of its own.

A past partner by the name of David McDougall took over the mills, the tannery and the store property.  He eventually would live in the Thorne home, “The Glen”.

Benjamin being a proud man managed to pay off his debts from the bankruptcy.  He did own to the embarrassment of his rash thinking. He was still quite solemn and withdrawn.  On the 1rst of July, Benjamin Thorne walked out to the field behind his home.  He pulled out a gun and shot himself “in the body”.  He was quickly brought inside. The unfortunate man did not die right away.  He lingered in an unstable condition for about 24 hours.  He died July 2nd, 1848.

His funeral took place on the 4th of July.  He was laid to rest at the cemetery of Holy Trinity. The Globe and Mail wrote an article on July 5th relating the “melancholy suicide”.  A coroner’s inquest ruled that Benjamin was “temporarily insane” at the time of the shooting.

The town people were saddened and kindness abounded for the now widowed Anna Thorne and her 9 children.  On the 1851 census, she is still residing at the “Glen”.   She would pass away 33 years after her husband on October 23, 1881.   Benjamin Thorne has had his name carry down with many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Thornhill never saw such a productive growth again.  That is why when you drive up Yonge Street, you feel that old town charm as you pass.  Benjamin had left his footprint on the soil of Thornhill, and the town remained much as he left it.

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7 comments

  1. kevin halligan · · Reply

    can you tell me where “the Glen” was? my dad is at 28 John st., near Richard Frizells house. thx.

    1. Hi Kevin. The “Glen” is located at lot 33, Concession 1 Vaughan. This is now the Thornhill Golf and Country Club on the West side of Yonge Street. I know where your dad is very well. Lovely area. Thank you for reading my story.
      Debbie Watt

  2. Robert Baines · · Reply

    Hello – could you give the reference for the ‘Batchelor’ party on Jan 19 1831? Many thanks.

    1. Hello Robert.
      the reference to Benjamin Thorne’s batchelor party is from the book, “The Journals of Mary O’Brien 1828-1838” on page 149. Thank you for reading my story.
      Debbie Watt

  3. Robert Baines · · Reply

    Many thanks!

  4. Sarah MacLucas nee Thorne (UK) · · Reply

    Hi there, really enjoyed reading this. Benjamin Thorne is traceable relative. I only happened across him recently. Our family are descended from his sibling who owned the Thorne bros brewery! My maiden name is Thorne and I am one of nine, one of whom is another Benjamin Thorne!

  5. Sam Morris · · Reply

    I am a direct descendent of Benjamin Thorne and I am very interested in connecting with anyone else who is as well. My mother has been an active genealogist most of her life and we have extensive information on the family. Any info going back to Sherborne England where Benjamin’s family came from would be very helpful to compare notes against.
    Sincerely,
    Sam Morris

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