Rev. Dr. Robert H. Thornton

Rev. R.H. Thornton was instrumental in encouraging the old township of Whitby to establish a system of school section libraries. He was a prominent figure in the educational field at the time. His life is recorded in “My Story of the Oshawa Schools: 1800 – 1867”.

Rev. Robert H. Thornton was born in April 1806, in the parish of West Calder near Edinburgh, Scotland. He was a brilliant scholar and maintained an interest in education all his life. He became a Presbyterian Minister. He was married on April 16th, 1833 to Miss Margaret Thompson and on May 8th of the same year they sailed from Greenock, Scotland for New York. They landed there after a seven weeks voyage.  They came to Toronto and in the fall of 1833; Rev. Thornton was called to the little parish near Whitby to take charge of a Presbyterian mission.

The district around there was crown land at that time, colloquially called the “Queen’s Bush.”  The name described it very well; it was mostly undeveloped rough country. There is a stone cairn opposite Mount Lawn Cemetery on the south side of Highway 2 that marks the place where he held his first mission services.[1]  It was a log church and an Anabaptist[2] congregation also met there.  They were one of a sect of the 16th century, opposed to infant baptism. It was in this little log church that Rev. Thornton established the Presbyterian Church in Oshawa.

As so happened to many of those early log buildings, it was burned down. Another one, brick this time, was built in 1837 on the site just inside the front gate of the Union Cemetery. He had other small churches in his charge as well, around the district and it was said that he got to them through storm or sunshine on the appointed days. There were no roads at the time even worthy of the name, they were mere paths in the bush and he travelled by horseback or on foot.

His home, the manse, still stands on the north side of Highway 2[3] (King Street West), three doors east of the Union Cemetery. The house was originally situated on the cemetery ground near the church.  Shortly after his death in 1875, it was moved to its present site. The house has not been altered much inside since Rev. Thornton’s day, but the front porch with its frosted glass windows has been removed.

There was quite a large family. One of the boys, R.M. Thornton, was a Presbyterian minister.  He was in Montreal for a while and from there went to Scotland. A daughter, Josephine received a first class teacher’s certificate in June, 1869 and taught in Oshawa for a short time.

He found time in his busy life to work for the improvement of the early schools.  He was the District Superintendent of Education for East Whitby Township 1853 – 1861. It was his duty to visit the different schools that had been established, study the schools progress and recommend any needed improvements. He could be said to be forerunner of the district school supervisor. Most of the teachers had no professional training and only a common school education. He was a friend to them and helped them when he could. He aided some of the local students with their studies and a few of them had important positions later on in their careers. He edited the “Instruction Reader” which was in use until the “National Series” came out. When he resigned the position of District Superintendent in 1861, Rev. J.W. Colston was appointed his place.

In October, 1861, Rev. Thornton was appointed Secretary of the Board of Public Instruction. This was a county organization controlling education. One of his duties was to notify the candidates of the time and place of their first, second and third class teachers’ exams. These were held in different towns or villages around the county. This organization was discontinued in 1871. When Rev. Thornton held this position he received the handsome salary of $20 per year. There seemed to have been a considerable amount of work involved in it, too.

People thought at the time he was not well enough paid for all he did, so they got together and presented him with a purse of money $800. The purse was beautifully decorated with the handwork of the Misses Strickland, skilful seamstresses at that time. There were also other accounts of his having been given money or useful articles by his own friends or parishioners.

Rev. Dr. Thornton was a highly esteemed resident near Oshawa for many years. He was well educated and of high character. Thornton Road was named for him and the district around that way.

He died on February 11, 1875 at the age of 69 after a short illness, the end of a very active and useful life.  He had one son, who entered the ministry and one daughter who was a teacher. Both left Oshawa. Miss Lawlor who taught school for a number of years was a relative of his.

[1] This is located on the southwest corner of Kendalwood Ave. and Dundas Street East in Whitby, ON.

[2] The term anabaptist was used to describe and define certain Christians during the Reformation. These Christians rejected infant baptism, choosing instead believer’s baptism. Contemporary groups with early Anabaptist roots include the Mennonites, Amish, Dunkards, Landmark Baptists, Hutterites, and various Beachy and Brethren groups.

[3] The house was subsequently torn down in the early 1990s.


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