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History of Political Economy 36.2 (2004) 295-322

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William Thomas Thornton's Career at East India House:


Bricks are undoubtedly an essential ingredient of civilization;
one gets nowhere at all without them.
—J. G. Farrell

Some recent work on William Thornton (1813–1880), culminating in Philip Mirowski and Steven Tradewell's recently published Economic Writings of William Thornton (1999), seeks to cement his place in the history of nineteenth-century economics (see Donoghue 2002). But despite the notoriety Thornton achieved through his role in the wage-fund debates of the 1860s and 1870s, few commentators have explored other aspects of his work, particularly his prescient remarks on the nature of economic, political, and social reform in India.1 This absence is somewhat surprising because, for much of his professional career, Thornton [End Page 295] served the East India Company at its Leadenhall Street headquarters in London, and, in 1858, when the Crown assumed administration of the company's territories, he was appointed secretary of the India Office's Department of Public Works, an important position within the Home Establishment.

Thornton formed important relationships at East India House. For example, he met John Stuart Mill, who was employed there, and the two men's first discussion marked the beginning of a mutually warm and long association. On a day-to-day basis, the demands of drafting company dispatches and attending to other administrative duties were not onerous, so Thornton could pursue his own literary ambitions. The result was the publication of several commendable works on political economy and philosophy, as well as three volumes of poetry. In 1873, as a mark of his unbroken service to the India Office, Thornton was created Companion of the Bath on the recommendation of the Duke of Argyll. Yet, we have no account of his long and successful career.

The aim of this essay is to retrieve the broad outline of Thornton's East India Company career.2 Section 1 examines his administrative responsibilities and duties with the company. Section 2 discusses his close friendship and professional relationship with John Stuart Mill. The two men influenced each other in a variety of ways. Here discussion focuses primarily on their professional activities at East India House before Mill's retirement in 1858. Section 3 explores whether Thornton's advocacy of public works programs in India was an expression of his own thinking on the subject, a manifestation of his work as a steward of empire, or both. Some concluding remarks follow.

1. From Junior Clerk to Company Mandarin

William Thornton's life journey does not seem unusual for a man of his time and social class, but it may strike the modern reader as without shape. Indeed, the reason he decided to join the East India Company is not easy to locate. One explanation is that he simply followed other [End Page 296] family members, perhaps on their advice, into a service that ensured a comfortable standard of living. Thornton's uncle, Sir Edward Thornton (1766–1852), enjoyed a long and successful diplomatic career and may have encouraged his young nephew to enter the permanent civil service (see Lipkes 1999, 116–17).

Or perhaps time spent abroad during adolescence whetted the young man's appetite for the strange sights and smells of distant lands and seas. When William Thornton was fourteen, his well-connected cousin, Sir William Henry Thornton (1786–1859), who was auditor-general of Malta, invited him to reside in Valetta for three years.3 Another opportunity to live abroad materialized in 1830 when the consul-general of Constantinople offered Thornton a position on his staff. Thornton accepted and spent five years working in the Ottoman capital before returning to England to join the East India Company.

Another part of the explanation may stem from Thornton's parents, Thomas Thornton (d. 1814) and Sophie Zohráb (n.d.). Thomas Thornton was active for many years in the Levant consular service. He met Sophie Zohráb in Constantinople, where he was acquainted with her father, Paul...


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pp. 295-322
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Archived 2005
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