Guest Post by Naomi Clifford – A new life in America: The emigration of Abraham Thornton

We are delighted to welcome back to our blog fellow Pen and Sword author, Naomi Clifford who loves nothing better than nosing around old archives to find stories of forgotten people.

Today Naomi’s going to share with us some information about her latest book, so we’ll hand straight over to her.

—‖―

In Ford Madox Brown’s painting The Last of England, painted in the middle of the 19th century, a young couple on the deck of a ship bound for Australia gaze grimly out to sea, the White Cliffs of Dover behind them. Perhaps they have left hunger and trauma behind them. Perhaps they are merely convinced that better fortunes lie overseas.

Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England (1855). © Birmingham Museums Trust.
Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England (1855). © Birmingham Museums Trust.

Emigration grew throughout the early part of the century: the Irish potato famine, changes in farming and industry, high taxes – all contributed to a great movement of people to dominions across the water. Many went to Australia and Canada but America was perennially popular.

Although there are no reliable statistics before about 1800, it has been estimated that in the first decade of the 19th century more than 20,000 people emigrated to America from the United Kingdom, most of them from Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. A good proportion of them earned their passage by hiring themselves out as indentured servants, their labour sold on by the captain after landing. Some were veterans of the long wars with France, who had been unable to settle or find employment. Others simply found life in Britain and Ireland untenable: wages were low and food prices were high. The steerage of packet ships crossing the Atlantic was stuffed with the labouring poor and their families, who no doubt earnestly hoped for significantly better prospects overseas.

Abraham Thornton, who in the middle of September 1818 left the family farm at Shard End in Castle Bromwich, Warwickshire and travelled to Birmingham to catch the stagecoach to Liverpool, was not one of these.

Abraham Thornton worked as a bricklayer for his father, a respected builder in Castle Bromwich. This portrait, sketched in court, was published in The Observer on 8 February 1818.
Abraham Thornton worked as a bricklayer for his father, a respected builder in Castle Bromwich. This portrait, sketched in court, was published in The Observer on 8 February 1818.

His reason for quitting England was simple: he was hated, notorious throughout the country. In the opinion of most people, he had escaped his rightful fate: swinging on the gallows for the brutal rape and murder of Mary Ashford.

Mary Ashford, a farm servant working for her uncle, went to a party in an inn near Erdington on Whit Monday 1817 and left accompanied by Abraham Thornton and others. Her body was found in a stagnant pond early the next morning. Engraved by J. Thompson from a portrait by John Partridge.
Mary Ashford, a farm servant working for her uncle, went to a party in an inn near Erdington on Whit Monday 1817 and left accompanied by Abraham Thornton and others. Her body was found in a stagnant pond early the next morning. Engraved by J. Thompson from a portrait by John Partridge.

Thornton, the only suspect in Mary’s death, was tried at Warwick Assizes in August 1817, but to the surprise of many was acquitted. Rumours that witnesses and jurymen had been paid off by his father were rife and a few months later Mary’s brother started a civil prosecution in London. The case gripped the country, partly because early on in the proceedings Thornton challenged his accuser to hand-to-hand combat, and the rest of the case was devoted to deciding whether this could legally take place. The public was appalled when the case collapsed. Thornton seemed once more to have evaded justice.

Canning Dock & Custom House, Liverpool, engraved by T. Hughes after a picture by W. H. Bartlett, published in Finden's Ports and Harbours..., 1842. Steel engraved print, good condition. Size 18 x 14.5 cms including title, plus margins. Ref F8482. Image courtesy of ancestryimages.com.
Canning Dock & Custom House, Liverpool, engraved by T. Hughes after a picture by W. H. Bartlett, published in Finden’s Ports and Harbours…, 1842. Steel engraved print, good condition. Size 18 x 14.5 cms including title, plus margins. Ref F8482. Image courtesy of ancestryimages.com.

Once in Liverpool, Thornton browsed the newspapers for a suitable passage. He booked a place on the American-owned packet ship The Independence which was scheduled to sail for New York on the 25th. Fixed sailing dates was a recent innovation, brought in by a group of New York Quaker businessmen who developed the idea of creating a ‘shipping line’ by contracting several vessels to sail on specific dates between established ports. In autumn 1817 they advertised the first service in the Black Ball line, using large three-masted square-rigged schooners. Sailings started in January 1818.

Soon two ships were travelling across the Atlantic each month each way. Rather than follow the trade winds across the Atlantic, the American captains preferred the most direct route – it was rougher but faster. Thompson incentivised his team: If an eastbound sailing was completed in under 22 days or westbound in under 35, the captain was given a new coat, and a dress for his wife.

Liverpool Mercury, 18 September 1818. © Board of Trustees of the British Library.
Liverpool Mercury, 18 September 1818. © Board of Trustees of the British Library.

The Independence was not one of the Black Ball ships (rival shippers were quick to copy Thompson). In the end, however, Thornton was prevented from boarding after he was recognised by a fellow passenger who objected to the prospect of being at close quarters for at least six weeks with a possible murderer.

Hull Packet, 3 November 1818. © Board of Trustees of the British Library.
Hull Packet, 3 November 1818. © Board of Trustees of the British Library.

Aged 25, and of average height, broad and beefy, with a square jaw and thinning dark hair swept forward over a bald patch, Thornton was easy to recognise. His portrait had appeared in numerous pamphlets while the case was in play and had been printed in The Observer.

It is quite possible that in Liverpool he wore the same black hat, black coat and beige leggings he had on at his numerous court appearances in London. There was also something less tangible but equally notable – an aloof confidence, which had so struck the newspaper journalists who saw him in court that they remarked on it in their reports.

Liverpool Mercury, 18 September 1818. © Board of Trustees of the British Library.
Liverpool Mercury, 18 September 1818. © Board of Trustees of the British Library.

A few days after failing to board The Independence, Thornton managed to leave England. He bought a place on The Shamrock which was aiming to leave ‘immediately’ for Baltimore, which probably meant ‘as soon as the agent had booked sufficient cargo and passengers’.

Baltimore. Engraving by J. B. Neagle after the drawing by J. R. Smith, probably 1825-1829. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection. The New York Public Library. 
Baltimore. Engraving by J. B. Neagle after the drawing by J. R. Smith, probably 1825-1829. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection. The New York Public Library.

Most of those who disembarked The Shamrock would have moved on pretty swiftly – Baltimore was the primary gateway to the West. Thornton, however, apparently headed north to New York and into almost complete obscurity.

Back in England, there were rumours about what had happened to him but none can be verified. Like many a traveller before and after him, he found protection in the vastness and anonymity of the US.

The Murder of Mary Ashford: the crime that changed English legal history by Naomi Clifford.

Over the years, the Ashford-Thornton case became known primarily for its effect on the statute book – it led directly to the rescinding of two medieval laws, appeal of murder and trial by battle – rather than the question of Thornton’s guilt or innocence. His solicitor and others speculated that Mary had not been raped and murdered but had drowned herself in remorse for ‘transgressing’ with Thornton in a field on their walk home. Naomi Clifford has uncovered evidence to show that the truth about the events of that night has been hiding in plain sight for 200 years…

The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime That Changed English Legal History is published by Pen & Sword. Introductory price £11.99.

To discover more, check out Naomi’s blog, Love, Life and Death in the Georgian era. Naomi is also on twitter.

Previous titles by Naomi Clifford are The Disappearance of Maria Glenn and Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches, both published by Pen and Sword.

Notes 

Daniel Fearon, Fearon, Henry. Sketches of America: A Narrative of a Journey of Five Thousand Miles (1818). London: Longman et al.

James Flint, Flint’s Letters from America: 1818-1820 (1822). Edinburgh: W. & C. Tait.

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