Dorothy Thornton, circa 1920.
Dorothy Thornton, circa 1920. Tweed Regional Museum

Life in 1892: Builder, joiner, embalmer all rolled into one

THE idea that 'a job for life' is an outdated concept is fairly well accepted these days.

However, Ralph Thornton's story indicates that as early as 1892, the ability to work at a number of different careers during one's life was not unknown.

Ralph Thornton was apprenticed to Walter Haige, Builder, Joiner and Undertaker, in his early teens in Yorkshire before coming to Australia in 1889.

By 1892 he had settled in Condong on the banks of the Tweed River, gaining employment at The Colonial Sugar Refinery erecting workers' cottages for the mill.

Ralph married Maria Louisa Tree in 1893 and they took up residence at Tygalgah.

In 1895, Ralph and Louisa moved into Murwillumbah, where Ralph established himself as a cabinet maker, carpenter and builder.

Murwillumbah was a growing township and offered many opportunities for someone with Ralph's skills.

MUS2017.97.1R: Ralph Thornton's premises in Tweed Heads.
LEFT: A slightly crumpled photo of Ralph Thornton's premises in Tweed Heads. Tweed Regional Museum

n 1902, Thornton's tender was accepted to erect a new building for the Wollumbin Public School and through the following years he was involved in a range of building activities both in Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads.

In 1907, after the devastating fire that destroyed much of the main part of Murwillumbah, Ralph was among the builders who assisted with rebuilding the town.

By far the most intriguing aspect of Thornton's skills were his qualifications in the 'art of embalming'.

His early experience with Walter Haigh presumably included building coffins. However, Ralph undertook further training, this time in embalming, with J.S.J. Pengelley, 'Teacher, Lecturer and Demonstrator'.

The handwritten certificate awarded to Ralph is now in the museum's collection and contains an embalming chart and all the particulars pertaining to preparing a body for burial.

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

A role in politics also appealed and in 1902 he was elected as an alderman in the first Murwillumbah Municipal Council, serving until early 1904.

In 1905, Ralph Thornton and his family moved to Tweed Heads, where he once again participated in the building of a new town.

TH10-09: St Cuthbert's Church, Tweed Heads, built by Ralph Thornton in 1907. Three of Ralph's children were married in this church.
PERFECT SYMMETRY: St Cuthbert's Church, Tweed Heads, built by Ralph Thornton in 1907. Three of Ralph's children were married in this church. Tweed Regional Museum

He constructed St Cuthbert's Church of England in 1907; the public school at Tweed Heads in 1908; Morley's Store; Greenwood's Grocery Shop and a row of shops leading up to the railway station in Bay St; Wells Hotel; and the Grande Hotel in Coolangatta followed.

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 and died a year later - an untimely end for a man who had prospered and contributed to the development of the townships of Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads.

Ralph and Maria Louisa (known as Lou by her family) had six children.

Interestingly, three of their children, Harold, Dorothy and Ralph Jnr, were married at St Cuthbert's Church at Tweed Heads, built by their father. Dorothy married Syd Thornton (no relation) in 1916. Syd was in real estate and the 1920s were prosperous years for them. Dorothy was a skilled seamstress and created her own outfits to wear to the many parties and balls they attended. The Museum has in its collection a beautiful hand-beaded black georgette evening jacket made by Dorothy. Ralph Jnr became a builder like his father, gaining many contracts for local buildings including St Peter's Church, Coolangatta.

Like his father, Ralph Jnr was a builder and involved in the community, including being a foundation member of Greenmount Surf Club.

* This information has been taken primarily from the excellent Thornton family history memoir In Days Gone By, written by Margaret Thornton.

  • Talking History is a new column that runs in the Tweed Daily News every Saturday. It is supplied by staff at Tweed Regional Museum, and includes the stories behind its rich collection.