William Henry Thornley

Biography of William Henry Thornley

For more than a quarter of a century active in the business and professional life of Rhode Island, where he was both a member of the bar and a prominent figure in business, William Henry Thornley held a place of esteem and affection in the consideration of his fellowmen. Many were the organizations with which he was affiliated, and his career was one of service to others. While Mr. Thornley acquired a certain amount of wealth in the course of his life, he was liberal in giving of his resources for the aid of those in need, for building up the community in which he lived, and for the furthering the best interests of his city. Though he was not a native of Providence, he came to be very fond of his associations here, where he was a very influential factor in the upbuilding of industry, commerce and culture. He has now gone from the midst of his fellowmen, but his memory lives on, a source of encouragement and inspiration to those whose privilege it was to know him.

Mr. Thornley was born on December 10, 1869, at Halifax, Pennsylvania, son of William Henry Thornley, who was born at Oldham, England, and upon coming to America, settled in Rhode Island. Later, the father lived at Halifax, Pennsylvania, and after a time, returned to England, but subsequently removed with his wife and family to Providence, Rhode Island. His wife, the mother of the man whose name heads this review, was Sarah Thornley, a woman of high ideals and character. From his parents, William Henry Thornley inherited those attributes which made him one of the foremost citizens of his place and day. He received his early education in the public schools, where early in boyhood he manifested marked abilities and a desire for academic achievement. After he had finished his preliminary studies, he matriculated at Brown University in the city of Providence, where he was not only a brilliant student, but also a leading figure in undergraduate activities. He was a member of the Delta Upsilon Fraternity, which he joined while a student there, and was later honored by being awarded the Phi Beta Kappa key for distinguished attainments as a student. From Brown University, he received, in 1897, his degree of Bachelor of Arts, and then in the fall of that same year, he became a student at the Harvard Law School, from which he was graduated in 1900, receiving the Bachelor of laws degree. He was admitted in the same year to the Rhode Island Bar, and at once became a member of the firm of Comstock and Gardner, of Providence. A few years later, he was also admitted to membership in the New York State bar. His advancement in the legal profession came rapidly, and he took a leading role in the affairs of the bar, so that, in 1909, he became a member of the firm of Gardner, Pirce and Thornley. With this firm he continued until its dissolution in 1920, after which he was engaged in independent practice of the law. He was widely recognized in Rhode Island and throughout the New England States as a lawyer of marked attainments, and one who possessed remarkable skill in directing the affairs of corporations and in handling large estates. From the outset, he was interested in financial matters, and his sound knowledge of economics enabled him to grasp quickly and thoroughly the many problems presented by the rapid growth of Federal income and inheritance tax legislation during the years following 1916. His ability to recognize and cope with the constantly changing features of this complex new field of legal endeavor, gained for him a widespread reputation, both among taxation officials and among a large number of clients.

Along with his growth in his profession, Mr. Thornley was increasingly engaged in finance and business. He became a director of the National Bank of Commerce, of Providence, and through his relationship with this institution, was active in bringing about the revision of numerous banking laws in this State. He was also president and treasurer of the Tubular Woven Fabric Company; the Chemak Manufacturing Company, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island; and a director of the Lisk Manufacturing Company, of Canandaigua, New York, and the Narragansett Machine Company, of Pawtucket; and a trustee of the Peoples Savings Bank of Providence. Through his activity in the legal profession, Mr. Thornley was for many years a prominent figure in the management of several Rhode Island textile corporations; and at all times he maintained a broad scope of interest in industry, business, finance, and professional life. After his retirement from the firm of Gardner, Pirce and Thornley, in 1920, he devoted his time increasingly to his business interests, and his recognized executive ability brought him many clients who sought constructive suggestions and the benefit of trained judgment in their own fields of industry.

Mr. Thornley, busy as he was with his professional and commercial activities, had time for extensive participation in the civic and social affairs of his city and State. His political affiliation was with the Democratic party; and in politics, as in matters of religion and race, Mr. Thornley was ever tolerant of others, and was always a follower of the policy of honesty. During the World War he served as a member of the Citizens’ Committee, and so rendered valuable aid to his country’s cause. He was also a member of several clubs and lodges, and in the Free and Accepted Masons, his affiliation was with the Adelphi Lodge, of Providence. Mrs. Thornley is a member of the Central Congregational Church, to whose welfare and support her husband contributed substantially throughout the period of his residence in this city.

William Henry Thornley married, on January 15, 1902, in Providence, Rhode Island, Ellen Snow, daughter of Joseph T. and Mary A. (Andrews) Snow. Mrs. Thornley still lives in Providence, her home being at No. 38 Cushing Street. In his life Mr. Thornley found his wife a source of constant help and inspiration, as well as of practical guidance in the perplexities of business affairs in which he was engaged. In many philanthropic enterprises they joined together in their activities, thereby making the family name well known for generosity to others.

The death of William Henry Thornley, which occurred in Providence, on October 5, 1926, was a cause of widespread sorrow among his fellowmen. Many individuals have lost a beloved friend, while the city and State have been deprived of one of their most valued citizens. Numerous were the expressions of sorrow, especially on the part of the different business organizations with which he had been associated. Perhaps no more fitting comment could be made regarding his career than by quoting the statements of some of his business associates. The board of directors of the National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association wrote in part:

His thoroughness and fairness, together with his skill as an organizer, given cheerfully and without reservation, contributed much toward the betterment of the electrical fraternity, particularly during the past two years, when he worked so hard to bring about a merger of all groups of electrical manufacturers into the National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association, now an accomplished fact.

Mr. Thornley’s friendship, his unswerving interest in and regard for the association, his willing advice and prudent guidance, and his earnest desire for constructive progress in all branches of the electrical industry, are part of the history of the past, leaving a profound influence which will not easily be forgotten.

His keen perception, analytical mind and strong sense of equity in regard to business problems rendered his judgment singularly correct. He was justly considered an expert in commercial law.

The National Bank of Commerce

This corporation perhaps owes its existence more to Mr. Thornley than to any other person; for he not only prepared its articles of incorporation and bylaws, but up to the last guided its policies with that skill and judgment for which he was famous among all business men who knew him. At the top of his profession as a lawyer, both in this State and Rhode Island (Gerry Estates, Inc., was formed in the State of New York), his wisdom and advice to his fellow directors enabled the corporation to grow and prosper without the numerous litigations and set-backs so often met with in ill-advised institutions.

The Gerry Estates, Inc.

Mr. Thornley had been associated with the directorate of this company for many years, and rendered invaluable service in the days of its receivership in conserving the interests of stockholders and later in shaping its destiny in the reorganization of the company’s affairs. His calm, dispassionate judgment and fair-mindedness during those trying times commanded the admiration and respect of all with whom he came in contact.

Lisk Manufacturing Company

Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.

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