Behind the Lens

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Taken from Bude Past & Present

Adapted from: Views and Likenesses – Photographers & Their Work in Cornwall and Scilly, 1839-1870, by Charles Thomas, 1988

The well-known local Thorn photographic family originated from Kilkhampton and Launcells in the 16th century, or maybe before, according to the book “Views and Likenesses” by Charles Thomas. 

Some Thorns were also found in adjoining Devon parishes. 

The family were entrepreneurial in developing a business empire selling old photos/postcards of the Bude area which was still little known at the time.

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 1876, at 38 years of age. 

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, the baby of the family, born in 1853. Samuel perpetuated the business, adding to the photograph collection, but also using some of his brother’s older photos.

What is really interesting is that a third Thorn joined the family business, this time a sister, called Sarah Pain Thorn, baptised with her unusual name in May 1843. If anyone knows why she was baptised Pain (whether is was an old family surname or related to a particularly difficult birth, or something entirely different) please contact us.

Sarah was buried in Bude on 4th June 1932, just before she was 90. Samuel had meanwhile died on 27th January 1898, leaving Sarah 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.

In 1889, she was advertising her ‘Photographic and Stationery Establishment, The Crescent’ with sea views and portraits. She also had branch outlets in 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 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, and had very little competition. They specialised in storms, wrecks and lifeboats. And you will see their photos recurring on this website. 

We think this is by Sarah Thorn - image courtesy of Ray Boyd

We think this is by Sarah Thorn


A reader of the site, John Tyson, mailed me with the following additional comment which might help us here:

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 Michael’s 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.

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