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Collection Level Description: Papers of Richard Thornton

Reference: GB 0162 MSS.Afr.s.27-53
Title: Papers of Richard Thornton
Dates of Creation: 1854-1866
Extent: 27 volumes
Name of Creator: Richard Thornton

Language of Material: English

Administrative/Biographical History

Richard Thornton was born on the 5 April 1838 in Yorkshire, England. He attended grammar school in Bradford before entering the Royal School of Mines, London, in October 1855. After 2 years he passed his examination with great distinction and won a Government prize and the De la Beche Medal for excellence in geological studies.

Sir Roderick Murchison was director of the Royal School of Mines; he was also a friend and patron of David Livingstone, to whom he recommended Thornton as geologist to the Zambezi Expedition. The appointment was confirmed early in 1858, and in March Thornton joined the Colonial Office steamer "Pearl" which was to take the Expedition from Liverpool to the Zambezi.

About 14 months after the Expedition reached the delta of the Zambezi, Livingstone discharged Thornton, accusing him of being idle and disobeying orders. These charges were brought by David Livingstone's brother Charles, also a member of the Expedition, and were accepted by Dr. Livingstone without verification. Thornton, however, was determined to continue his geological explorations in Africa. He proved to have a knack for making friends and received much help particularly from the Portuguese; one pioneering journey he made, soon after his dismissal by Livingstone, was with Portuguese traders up the Zambezi to Zumbo. In 1861 he accompanied the explorer Baron von der Decken (1833-1865) on his first attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Returning to the Zambezi, Thornton was invited by Livingstone to rejoin the Expedition, and after some hesitation agreed to do so in an independent capacity. Nine months later, on the 21 April 1863, Thornton died on board the "Pioneer" in the upper reaches of the Shire River. He was 25 years old.

Scope and Content

The collection mainly covers Thornton's time in Africa but there are a few papers (included in the volume of letters) which are dated after his death (to September 1866) and one notebook from 1857 which contains notes of geological work in England.

The collection contains:

Administrative Information

Immediate Source of Acquisition


Access Conditions

Bodleian reader's ticket required.

Reproduction Restrictions

No reproduction or publication of personal papers without permission. Contact the library in the first instance.

Further Information

Finding Aids

The library holds a card index of all manuscript collections in its reading room and a handlist is also available for this collection.

Listed as nos. 101-103 in Manuscript Collections of Africana in Rhodes House Library, Oxford, compiled by Louis B. Frewer (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 1968).

Publication Note

Some of the papers were published in 1963 in The Zambezi Papers of Richard Thorntonedited by Edward C. Tabler.

Access Points

Thornton | Richard | 1838-1863 | Geologist

Notebooks | 19th century

Geologists | Correspondence

Africa, East | Discovery and exploration

Zambezi River | Discovery and exploration

Kilimanjaro, Mount (Tanzania) | Discovery and exploration

Transformation from XML to HTML by Lawrence Mielniczuk
20 December 2011