Bude: The Thorn Family

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Author Dawn Robinson-Walsh recounts the history of the Thorn family, whom she came across when researching while she was writing a book on Bude. She soon became curious about them and discovered more about their lives and their family history.

Read on below to discover what she found.

Bude has always attracted fascinating people, often creative and innovative in nature. Perhaps it is its situation, just off the main A39, slightly socially and geographically isolated. Today we talk about location, location, location and Bude was always slightly difficult to reach. It has thus, as a community, embraced individualism and maintains a strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency.

When writing my two books on Bude, I happened upon a publication called Views and Likenesses – Photographers & Their Work in Cornwall and Scilly, 1839-1870, written by Charles Thomas, 1988. My special interest within its pages was the Thorn family of Bude who created so many of the old photographic/postcard images used in my books.

The well-known local Thorn photographic family actually originated from Kilkhampton and Launcells, just outside Bude. The family’s heritage here, according to the book, dated from the sixteenth century, or maybe before. Some Thorns were also found in adjoining Devon parishes, but whether they were related or not is a mystery.

The entire family was entrepreneurial in developing a business empire selling old photos/postcards of the Bude area. Bear in mind that Bude was still little known at the time. We are now blessed with a rich library of images.

The story started with Samuel Thorn (a master carpenter) who was baptised on 8th February, 1809, in Launcells, later marrying a Miss Ann Horrell at Stratton on 22nd October, 1835. Nothing extraordinary there. Like others, the couple had many children.

First came Harry, who has no baptismal record but was thought to have been born in 1838. He was listed in various records as a ‘photographic artist’. Sadly, Harry committed suicide in Bude on 30th October (or some say 6th November) 1876, at 38 years of age. Word has it that he had been despondent for some days before, and was spotted near a bridge, but his final means of death was to cut his throat with a razor. Harry seemed to live at 17, the Crescent, New Buildings, Othello Buildings and back to the Crescent. His occupations were listed as photographer and scholar.

There are many photos of Bude bearing the name ‘Thorn’, some being H. Thorn, and others S. Thorn. H. Thorn was the aforementioned Harry.  S. Thorn was Samuel, baby of the family, born on 11th March, 1853. He died in 1887, so again, did not enjoy a long life. Samuel perpetuated the business, adding to the photograph collection, but also using some of his brother’s older photos. The census tell us that in 1881 he lived at 18, The Crescent, in 1861, he lived at number 19, and in 1871, he was at number 16.

What is really interesting is that a third Thorn joined the family business, this time a sister, the strangely named Sarah Pain Thorn, baptised in May 1843. Sarah was buried in Bude on 4th June, 1932, just before she was 90. She bore a child called Nellie Thorn in 1870, which would have made her 27 at the time. Sarah was the Thorn left to carry on, and enlarge, the family business. Little is known about the history of women in the locality yet, it seems they were also economically productive, so it is wonderful to have this story, for this one was something of a commercial phenomenon. She also spent many years living at The Crescent but also some time at Sholder Terrace. Nellie did not become a photographer but her husband, William (Jake) Harrison did. She lived in various places, mainly in Bude but also briefly in Battersea.

A man called John Tyson, reader of the Bude Past and Present website, added some useful information about Sarah’s unusual middle name. My imagination had been running wild, assuming that Pain was some kind of biblical virtue or even a reference to childbirth. He wrote:

‘I believe I can help to clarify why Sarah Pain Thorn had such an unusual middle name. Her mother was called Ann Horrill (b.1807) and she had a sister called Mary Horrill (b.1803). Mary married a Coastguard Boatman from Deal in Kent, who was stationed in Cornwall. He was called Stephen Pain, and he died in Bude in 1877, and is buried at St Michaels Church.  The 1841 Census has Stephen and Mary’s daughter Elizabeth Pain (b.1826), living with Samuel Thorn. In the 1851 Census, Elizabeth Pain is a house servant for her Uncle, Thomas Horrill, along with Harry Thorn. Elizabeth was, of course, Sarah Pain Thorn’s first cousin.’

In 1889, she was advertising her ‘Photographic and Stationery Establishment, The Crescent’ with sea views and portraits. She also had branch outlets at Boscastle and Tintagel. The same advert mentioned Thorn’s Circulating Library and ‘Horses and Carriages Let on Hire’. Quite the businesswoman, and seemingly full of energy, Sarah was still active around 1900, editing a small local paper, The Bude Gazette and Visitor’s Guide, and using the large family stock of photos as postcards to sell.

The image you can see above is an old photograph of Sarah Thorn’s shop.

The Thorns were huge in Bude, having cornered the market. They knew their area very well indeed, got to places which were still very difficult to reach on foot, such as Northcott Beach, and had very little local competition in the image market. They specialised in storms, wrecks and lifeboats. They have a substantial family tree, but the key point is the legacy they left for Bude in their astonishing collection of images.

You can view both websites Bude & Beyond and Bude Past & Present by clicking on the highlighted links.


Images used with permission from Ray Boyd.

Dawn is the Editor/Publisher of the Bude & Beyond website and Bude Past & Present. She is also the author of two books, Bude Through Time and Bude in Postcards. She is interested in all aspects of Bude, both past and contemporary.