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Ralph Thornton (1866-1923)

Ralph Thornton
The first Murwillumbah Municipal Council. Ralph Thornton top left. S0430-98

Ralph Thornton was born at Bramham, Yorkshire, England in 1866. In his early teens Ralph was apprenticed to Walter Haige, Builder, Joiner and Undertaker in Manningham UK becoming a skilled tradesman. He would also have learned to make coffins and observed something of the work of an undertaker during this period . Ralph came to Australia in 1889 working his passage as a ship’s carpenter on the Jumna. He landed in Cooktown in far north Queensland in December 1889 and worked his way down the Queensland coast .

In Murwillumbah 1892 - 1905

By 1892 Ralph had settled in Condong on the banks of the Tweed River. The Colonial Sugar Refinery was building a new mill there and Ralph gained employment with the company erecting workers’ cottages . During this time Ralph met and married Maria Louisa Tree (1869 – 1958) on 15 August 1893 in the Presbyterian Church in Murwillumbah and they took up residence at Tygalgah two miles downriver from Murwillumbah . The couple had six children
Harold (1894 – 1975) Served in WWI
Dorothy (1896 – 1978)
Ada (1898 – 1989)
Ralph (1900 – 1971)
Edwin (1904 – 1994)
Clarence (Sept 1909 – Nov 1909)

In 1895 Ralph and Louisa moved into Murwillumbah where Ralph built a small timber and iron cottage for the family on what is now known as hospital hill . On settling in Murwillumbah Ralph established himself as a cabinet maker, carpenter and builder. Murwillumbah was a growing township and would have offered many opportunities for someone with Thornton’s skills. For example, In 1902 Thornton’s tender was accepted to erect a new building for the Wollumbin Public School and over the following years he was involved in a range of building activities both in Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads. Around 1901Ralph built a new house in Murwillumbah on the east bank of the Tweed River which still stands today and in 1907 after the devastating fire which destroyed much of the main part of Murwillumbah Ralph was among the builders who assisted with rebuilding the town

Building on his early experience with Walter Haigh, Ralph undertook training in Embalming with J.S.J. Pengelley, Teacher, Lecturer and Demonstrator and received a document which certifies that Ralph Thornton had received full instruction in the art of embalming and disinfecting works. The certificate is undated but would have been issued sometime between 1895 and 1901 which was the period during which Pengelley was running his School of Embalming . The handwritten document also contains an Embalming Chart and all the particulars pertaining to preparing a body for burial .
Embalming certificate

Embalming certificate back
Ralph Thornton's embalmers certificate. MUS2013.19

The certificate is inscribed as follows:

I certify this to be a true and accurate copy as that supplied to over 500 Undertakers, the contents true in every detail, and the holder of this instrument fully instructed by me in the Art of Embalming and Disinfecting works and capable of conducting any of the branches herein mentioned.

J.S.J. Pengelley

Teacher, Lecturer and Demonstrator now of School of over 500 pupils


Ralph Thornton, Undertaker and Embalmer, Murwillumbah

It is not clear exactly when Ralph worked in this field but he is thought to have done so both in Murwillumbah and then Tweed Heads.

Ralph also played a role in local politics and in 1902 he was elected as an Alderman in the first Murwillumbah Municipal Council , serving until 1903 . In 1904 Ralph returned to England to see his mother and family and was away from his wife and children for close to a year. This was his only trip back to England .

At Tweed Heads

In 1905 Ralph Thornton and his family moved to Tweed Heads . Ralph continued with his building work and opened a carpenter’s shop in Tweed Heads bearing the sign “R Thornton Builder and Contractor”. Ralph participated in the development of Tweed Heads, and was involved in a range of building projects including the original St Cuthbert’s Church of England which was dedicated on 25th January 1907 where both Harold and Ralph jnr were married in 1924 ; the public school at Tweed Heads winning the tender for this project in 1908 ; Morley’s Store , Greenwood’s Grocery Shop and a row of shops leading up to the Railway Station in Bay Street ; Wells Hotel Tweed Heads ; the Grande Hotel in Coolangatta which was built in 1913 but subsequently burnt down in 1923, and in April 1913 Ralph received permission from the Tweed Shire Council to erect a cottage .

In 1916 the Thornton family moved to Mooloola on the coast north of Brisbane where they took up farming, however, after a number of difficult years on the property the family walked off and returned to Tweed Heads in 1922. By this time Ralph was very ill with cancer and died on 28th May 1923 at the age of 58 , an untimely end for a man who in earlier days had prospered and contributed to the development of the townships of Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads.

Ralph and Louisa’s eldest son Harold enlisted for service in WWI on 8 July 1916 and was assigned to 5th Field Company Engineers as a Sapper. He served on the Western Front in France where he was gassed but recovered and returned to Australia on 7 July 1919. Harold served with Edward John (Bluey) Gray. He was a close friend of Gray’s who often mentions Harold in his war diary. Gray also wrote to Ada Thornton from the front and was best man at Harold Thornton’s wedding in 1924 and groomsman at Ralph Jnr’s wedding also in 1924.

Compiled by Christine Stratigos from the comprehensive Thornton family history documents researched and written by Margaret Thornton.

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