The life and family of William John Thorndike
Much loved elder brother of Fanny Thorndike [Gilbert]
William John Thorndike the son of William Thorndike and Emma Mayhew was born on the 3rd of September 1863 at Johnsons Whiting Works cottages which were in later years known as Flint Cottages or Granny Callars and which laid to the northern end of Cliffe Canal alongside the Canal Tavern, which under the stewardship of one Isaac Thompson was known locally as the Shant.
He was of course not to know that in later years he would become landlord of that same public house whose smells and banter surrounded his crib.
In 1871 William John aged 7 and studying at the village C of E school is living at the same cottage on Cliffe Creek with his father William who aged 32 is as might be expected a cement labourer, mother Emma aged 40 and siblings Joseph aged 5 George 3 and Sarah Just 1. Also present is a 20 year old cement labourer and lodger named Alfred Osborn. In 1881 and aged 17 William John is still living with his father William who was born in Occold, Suffolk and his mother Emma.
William John is like his father and brothers Joseph Edward and George Thomas labouring in the cement works that surround his home.
Also present at this time are further siblings Sarah Ann aged 7, Maria 4 and Fanny just 1. Present also within the home is a boarder; one George Filmer who aged 24 was born at Cliffe.
In 1885 William John decides to travel abroad, in what is most likely a bid to escape the daily toil within the cement works, earn enough for a different life upon return and perhaps win the hand of his childhood sweetheart Priscilla Albon.
He leaves from Southampton on the Steam Ship Liguria which is on charter to the Orient Line in January 1882 on a route that takes him to Gibraltar, Port Said, Suez, and Colombo before reaching his destination in Australia. It is known for reasons that will be explained later that William John ended up at Murray Downs, Swan Hill, in Victoria Australia. Here he most likely worked on one of the many sheep stations that were spread across the area.
Correspondence with Doctor Rob Pilgrim who is the senior curator of the Pioneer Settlement archives at Swan Hill, Victoria has uncovered no record of the activities of William John during the period that he was there. It is most likely then that he worked hard and kept himself within the law.
Even today there is evidence of a substantial Aborigine community at Swan Hill though Murray Downs is now a tourist trap that boasts a up market Golf Course and many hotels.
In May 1889 William John joins the Steam Ship Orient for his return trip to England. Soon after his return to the UK William John Thorndike aged 26 marries Clara Hammond, 27, on the 18th of August 1890 at the church of St Nicholas, Strood. A year later the couple are found to be living at Upper Stoke, a village that is located upon the Hoo peninsular between High Halstow and the Isle of Grain. We can only assume that the reputation of the Thorndike family who for many years had held the licence of the Victory Beer House (later the Victoria Inn) and his hard earned new financial situation impressed a brewery to the extent that he is at this time a Licensed Victualler and landlord of the White Horse in that same village.
On the 31st of July this year a son who is named William Hector is born to the couple and baptised at St Helen’s church, Cliffe on the 30th of August.
When a vacancy for a Landlord in Cliffe arises he takes it and in 1893 when their second child, Winifred May, is baptised at St Helen’s he is the Licensed Victualler running the Canal Tavern [Shant] that is located just a few yards from the cottage where he was born. He is still the landlord of the Shant in 1896 when Gladys Marion, the couple’s third child, is baptised at St Helen’s, Cliffe on the 29th of March of that year.
Sadly on the 29th of December, just l year and 10 months after her birth at Cliffe Creek, on the 20th of February 1896 she is to die of Meningitis .
Another daughter is born on the 6th of April 1899 and baptised as Dorothy at St Helen’s Church on May 14th of that year.
(Sometime about 1894 [assuming that he was aged about 20] Alfred Charles Gilbert travels from his birthplace on the Isle of Wight to Cliffe in search of work. Having little money he is given permission by William John to sleep in one of the outbuildings attached to the Shant.
It was here that he first met Fanny, William John’s youngest sister, who will eventually become his wife.)
In 1901 William John Thorndike, aged 37, is the landlord of the Six Bells Inn, High Street, Cliffe where he shares his life with wife Clara also 37, Mary Ann Clifford, 23 who is his niece and his sister Francis [Fanny] aged 21 who are both in his employ as barmaids/domestic servants and also his son William Hector, aged 9, and daughters Winifred May and Dorothy aged 7and 1.
Another Cliffe girl by the name of Emmaline Petts, aged 15, is also residing and employed by William John and Clara as a domestic servant.
Maud Sophia Wallis, 15, and born in Greenwich who is visiting and George Batchelor, an agricultural labourer aged 61, from Newport on the Isle of Wight who is most likely boarding at the inn complete the household mix.
On Sunday the 7th of July in this year of 1891, which was probably only a few weeks after the census was taken; a terrible tragedy occurs within 100 yards of the Six Bells. This tragic affair may have affected William John for the rest of his life and possibly contributed to his premature death.
Two cottages that lay opposite the chapel [which was later the Temperance Club] and adjoined the forge were destroyed by fire.
The Topley family appear to have escaped before their home collapsed but tragically the Kenknight family, who lived next door, were trapped by the flames. Ellen Elizabeth, aged 7, Lillian May, 4, and their father Richard Henry Kenknight were found in each other’s arms burnt to death. Their mother Elizabeth Jane died two days later in hospital. Their burial takes place on the 15th of that month at St Helen’s Church, Cliffe. It is believed that William John Thorndike was among the would be rescuers and sustained a head injury when the upper floor collapsed upon him.
Sadly Clara, the wife of William John, dies in January 1907 and is buried at St Helen’s, Cliffe on the 31st of that month. A further tragedy hits William John when his son William Hector dies of TB, aged just 17, he is also buried at St Helen’s, Cliffe on the 17,h of August 1908.
Whether William John has a longing for a return to his Australian life of adventure it is not known but what is known however that he has four houses built on Buttway Lane with a view over the Thames and names them Murray Downs, Swan Hill, Victoria and Australia Which replicated his place of settlement in that land.
The 1911 census finds William John, a widower aged 47, still landlord of the Six Bells public house in Cliffe and living with his widowed mother Emma Thorndike [Mayhew] aged 68. Ida Caroline Smith, a Cliffe girl of 19, is employed as a servant within the pub as is Ezerich Farrow, a widow aged 69, who was born in Suffolk.
Having seen William John’s willingness to take in family waifs and strays it is most likely that Ms Farrow is a relative of his Suffolk born Father.
Winifred May Thorndike, his daughter, is also present aged 17 and though no occupation is given she probably assists within the public house.
On the 16th of May 1912 William John marries his child hood sweetheart Priscilla Albon / Payne at Chatham Registry Office. His home is noted as Six Bells, Cliffe at Hoo and his father is named as William Thorndike [deceased] Priscilla’s home is the Fountain Public House, High Street, Chatham and her father Isaac Albon. The ceremony was witnessed by one Henry Tomlin and Edwin Albon: Priscilla’s brother.
When the inquest regarding the death of William John is studied it will show that this was something of clandestine ceremony .The details of which were withheld from his friends and with the known exception of Thomas his cousin who was landlord of the Victoria Inn.
On the 22nd of May 1912 William John Thorndike aged 48 takes his own life within the back room of the Six Bells Public House, High Street, Cliffe.
Details of this tragic event and of the state of mind of William John can be read in all its very sad detail on the Death certificate and the newspaper reports of the time.
William John Thorndike is buried on the 28th of May at St Helen’s Church Cliffe where his headstone [which has escaped a monumental cull carried out by the incumbent Vicar] still stands. It should be noted also that although he committed suicide William John Thorndike was allowed a burial within the church grounds which was not always the case. This perhaps conveys as much as any epitaph can, the stature of the man and reflects perhaps upon the fact that the scars that he carried both physically and mentally after the tragic fire, that took the Kenknight family in 1901, were considered when the decision to allow the burial was made.