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George Thornton (1819–1901)

from Australian Town and Country Journal

The many friends of the Hon. George Thornton, M.L.C., will regret to hear of that gentleman's death, which occurred at 11 a.m. on Saturday, at his residence, "Lang Syne," Parramatta North. The deceased gentleman had only been ill for about a fortnight, and, though he had reached the advanced age of 82, the news of his death will come as a surprise, for he retained his physical and mental vigor in a wonderful degree until the commencement of his last illness. Until two weeks ago he regularly attended to his business in the city, and took the keenest possible interest in all that was going on in political and commercial life. But, at the time mentioned he was compelled to keep to his room with an attack of dysentery, and his strength gradually left him until the end arrived. On the 22nd his medical attendant, Dr. Bowman, advised that his nearest friends should be summoned, and at 6 a.m. on Saturday he relapsed into a state of unconsciousness, which was but the beginning of the end. Mr. Thornton for half a century had occupied a position of influence and prominence in the public and business life of New South Wales, and during that period won for himself, it is safe to say, more friends than any other man in Sydney could boast of. He seemed, in fact, to know everybody who was in any way connected with the inner life of the city. His long career of honorable usefulness as an Australian citizen, part of which dated from a period when good native born citizens were rare, affords an object lesson to his younger fellow-countrymen in which they may well take the deepest interest. He was born on the day preceding Christmas Eve, in the same year as the late Queen Victoria—1819—and in a house situated opposite the site of the present Parliament Buildings, where the late Mr. Burdekin's residence now stands. A great part of his childhood was spent at Parramatta, on the spot where his death has occurred. After attending St. Phillip's Primary School, Cape's School (at the corner of King and Phillip streets, where he had as school-fellows the late Sir Saul Samuel, ex-Judge Dowling, and the Hon. Geoffrey Eagar), and Dr. Lang's Australian College, in Jamieson-street, Mr. Thornton began life as a junior storekeeper in the Queen's Bonded Stores, and after a period of service there started business as a Customs and shipping agent. In 1851 he was elected as an alderman of the City Council, and in 1853 was chosen as Mayor of Sydney. In the following year he retired from business. At this time the council was under the old constitution, and it was soon afterwards abolished by Act of Parliament, and commissioners were appointed, who governed the affairs of the city until 1857, when the Municipal Council, as until recently constituted, came into force, Mr. Thornton being elected first Mayor. During his period of office many improvements were effected in the city; among other things the baths at Woolloomooloo were established. His popularity was amply demonstrated in 1858, when, having declined re-election as Mayor, he was returned to Parliament for the City of Sydney (then all one electorate) at the head of the poll. He shortly afterwards tabled a motion which defeated the Government upon the question of sending the local battery of artillery to active service in India. In 1859 he resumed business in Sydney, and withdrew from politics. Again in 1861 he was compelled to relinquish business owing to illness. In 1868 he was returned to Parliament as member for the Western Gold Fields, but resigned to visit England in the following year. On his return he became first Mayor of the newly incorporated Borough of Woollahra. In 1877 he was appointed to the Upper House, wherein he retained a seat until his death. In the Dibbs Ministry of 1885 Mr. Geo. Thornton was Secretary for Mines, and representative of the Government in the Council. On one occasion, while in England, he managed the Agency of the colony for a year, receiving the thanks of the Ministry for his services. Later he was a commissioner for the International Exhibition held in Sydney in 1879. He was for years an enthusiastic yachtsman, and is credited with having saved over forty persons from drowning, his courage having been recognised by the Humane Society. While returning from England in the ship Duncan Dunbar, in 1865, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Pernambuco. He was honorably mentioned in English and Australian papers, and commended by the Government for his services to the crew and passengers while they were stranded on the desert coast, being presented by various insurance companies with a suitably inscribed gold watch and chain. He retired finally from active business pursuits in 1869, but subsequently always held seats on the directorates of many important companies. Mr. Thornton was the first president, it may also be mentioned, of the Sydney Rowing Association. By his marriage in 1840 with the daughter of Mr. John Solomon, Mr. Thornton had two children—a son and a daughter. His two grandsons were educated in England, where one was called to the bar, and the other chose a military career. Some years ago Mr. Thornton purchased the place at Parramatta North where, as stated, his childhood was spent, and built a new home there, the home in which, as he wished, he breathed his last, and after a life of which his countrymen may well be proud.

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'Thornton, George (1819–1901)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 April 2024.

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