The Yorkshire Thorntons

The Thorntons of Bradford - Leeds and their relatives, past and present







Why Did They Come to America?


Since the 13th century when the English kings encouraged the weaving of wool to reduce imports of linen, the Leeds-Bradford region has been, and still is, in the business of the manufacture of woolen clothing. By the year 1258 a Monday wool cloth market had been established in Leeds. It would not close until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. 


Water Power, circa 1340. Illustration from the Luttrell Psalter, British Museum
Four hundred years ago, our ancestors the Thorntons, Jowetts, Coates and Beaumonts were farmers. In the beginning, farming families worked in the barns and fields when it was time to do that, and worked their spinning wheels and looms the rest of the time to supplement their income. The routine was to take the finished cloth to the cloth hall on Monday, sell it, and buy a new supply of raw wool for the week's work. Over time, weaving won out over farming.

The wool industry has always been regarded as an important resource in England. In the early 14th century "...the king (Edward II)...imposed a general ban on the export of "tassels, bures, madder, woad, fuller's earth and other raw materials. This protection was reinforced by an order forbidding common people to wear cloth imported after Christmas 1326." "Tassels" and "bures" were natural seed cases used to card wool preparatory to spinning it into thread, "madder" and "woad" are respectively red and blue dye sources, and "fullers earth," a type of clay, is used in a process that thickens wool cloth. (For more than you possibly want to know about the early wool industry, see "The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages" by T.H. Lloyd, Cambridge University Press 1977; "Before the Luddites" by Adrian Randall, Cambridge University Press; or "The Genesis of Industrial Capital, A Study of the West Riding Wool Textile Industry c. 1750-1850", Pat Hudson, Cambridge University Press.)

The mills they built were water-powered and they were able to adapt on a small scale the inventions of the 18th century, inventions such as the flying shuttle loom and the rotary spinning machine. To keep this in perspective, harnessing the water of the streams coming rushing down out of the Pennines was not new. Economic historians mention fulling mills as early as the 13th century in this region.

The change from hand- to power-looming came about slowly. This slow rate of adoption was due to the dislike felt by skilled operatives such as our people “for the factory system and factory hands who were drawn from the lowest ranks of society, or from the workhouse.” I would add that Ireland was having the first of its potato famines at this time and the English looked down on the Irish who were flooding the country, desperate for work.

Left: Master clothiers taking their cloth to the Monday wool market.

Another grievance with the growing factory system (read mechanized, steam-powered) was the eroding of the traditional independence of the old time weavers, or as they were called, master clothiers. The Parliamentary Report of 1806 records: “The main grievance of James Ellis, master clothier, was of merchants becoming cloth makers ‘on this large system’ with the result that ‘Many who were masters are brought to be workmen.’” 

The larger scale machines could no longer be dependably powered by the River Aire and its tributaries so coal-fired boilers came to be built and steam power applied. Soon the air was becoming dark, the river was becoming a sewer and the poet William Blake’s vision of “dark satanic mills” was becoming realized. 

The core of the problem was both social and economic. Custom and law had regulated a wool cloth production system that allowed small producers, our "master clothiers", to earn a comfortable living by using family members, apprentices and journeymen in their independent enterprise. In this system, the apprentice could advance to become a journeyman and the journeyman could begin his own business as a master clothier. The new factory system, using the bigger and faster machines, was capital-intensive to a degree that was usually affordable only by the large clothing merchants. In the factory, a worker's upward mobility was severely limited. 

This was not the Yorkshire, the England, our people had known. The voyage to western Pennsylvania in the early years of the 19th century would reset and preserve this traditional and profitable way of life for another two generations. 

Initially, they were escaping the Industrial Revolution. Ultimately, they brought the Industrial Revolution with them. 

When Thomas Thornton, the father of Benjamin and Jowett, was born (circa 1760), the population of Leeds Township was less than 17,000. By the time Benjamin’s son Thomas was born (1816), the population had grown to 49,000 and by the time the first boatload of Thornton cousins left Eccleshill and Calverley in 1832, the population of Leeds was 72,000. Those departing in the 1850's were leaving behind a dark and sooty city of over 100,000. Emigration had been made easier by a transportation system that had improved greatly in the late 18th century. The construction of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was authorized in 1770 and the link with Liverpool, through the Pennine hills and the Aire River Gap was completed in 1816. The canal boats, sixty feet long and fourteen wide, figure prominently in the voyages from Eccleshill.

A Chronology of the Final Thornton Years in Yorkshire


John Arkwright patents a steam-powered rotary spinning machine.


Samuel Compton invents the spinning mule, which mechanically mimics the movement of hand spinning.


Thomas Thornton and   Sarah Jowett marry, January 3, in the village of Calverley
  Population of Bradford 4,700 (estimate)
  Luddite rioting against the use of steam power
  British surrender at Yorktown, USA


Steam engine invented by James Watt


First spinning jenny in Bradford


Worsted spinning by water power commenced


Luddites stopped first attempt at steam power
 First spinning factory in Bradford


Hand spinning frame introduced at Paper Hall, Bradford


Bradford population 5,000 [estimate]


First steam powered   worsted mill 
 Luddite rioting against steam power


Bradford population 13,624
 One worsted mill in Bradford


French engineer Joseph-Marie Jacquard begins work on a loom that uses punched cards to produce elaborate patterns in woven   fabrics.


Five worsted mills in Bradford


Population of Bradford 16,012


"Puffing Billy" locomotive built by William Hedley


Rev. Patrick Bronte & family moved to the village of Thornton, five miles west of Bradford


Leeds to Liverpool Canal opened


First Atlantic crossing assisted by steam, the Savannah



Twenty worsted mills in Bradford


Bradford population 26,309


Bradford Strike
Power loom introduced
(U.S.) Erie Canal opens, linking Albany and Buffalo.


Riot of unemployed & weavers


Population of Bradford approximately 42,000


Bradford population 43,527 
Mechanics Institute formed 
Cholera epidemic - 30 died 
1831-1841 emigration to the U.S. is 75,810 from Britain and 207,381 from   Ireland


Benjamin F. and Elizabeth Burnley Coates emigrate


Factory Act - minimum age for working set at 10


39 worsted mills in Bradford


Flood - "Bradford Deluge" 
Riot because of Poor Law Act


Chartist army marched into Bradford market place
U.S. population 17.1 million


Bradford population   66,715
83 worsted mills in Bradford 
Standard screw threads - Joseph Whitworth
1841-1865 emigration to the U.S. is 267,044 from Britain and 780,719 from   Ireland


Coal Mines Act (children working in mines regulated)
John and Martha Coates Thornton emigrate


Leeds to Bradford Railway opens


Mexico occupied by USA troops
  Bradford population 103,778
  Thomas and Ann Coates Thornton emigrate


Jowett Thornton hired to build first woolen mill in New Mexico, probably at Albuquerque
  Wright M. and Elizabeth Thornton Walker emigrate


Cholera epidemic -   426 died


Mark H. and Sarah Thornton Beaumont emigrate
  U.S. population 23.2 million


Thornton Chapel rebuilt
  Bradford population 103,778
  153 mills (firms) in Bradford
  1851-1860 emigration to the U.S. from Britain is 423,964 and from Ireland   914,119


Last market held in Old Piece (cloth) Hall


Bradford Moor golf course damaged by suffragettes


Joseph Mann and Mary Bladal Thornton emigrate


Names on the Land

There are a number of "Thornton" place names/locations in England and, as we know from DNA analysis, a number of Thornton families that are only vaguely related.

All the tribes that invaded the British Isles contributed to the development of what is now called "english." The Anglo-Saxon "tun", originally an enclosure, a fortified farmstead, then a village, became "ton." "Tree" was "thorn", hence "thornton", a fortified village in the woods. Also, "leah", a clearing in the woods, became "ley", as in Burnley. The Normans littered the landscape with words like "beau" for beautiful, and "mont" for hill, from which comes a place and a family name of Beaumont. 

The village of Bradford was on a "broad ford" on Bradford Beck, a tributary of the River Aire. (Bradford Beck is now an underground storm drain by the Bradford Cathedral.) "Aire" is a rushing or turbulent steam, which the Aire is as it comes tumbling down out of the Pennine hills. The name of the city Leeds is from a very early name of the region and/or the tribe that lived in the region, "Loidis."

When Old Is New
The information available on the World Wide Web is expanding at a rapid pace and the genealogical explorer never knows what has been added to Bradford-Leeds area sites such as:

Baptism, marriage, burial and census records from Calverley and surrounding area:

Bradford Burial Index:

If these addresses do not connect, copy and paste them to your browser.