Former Thorntons chocolate company chairman - who helped set up Derbyshire factory - dies aged 91

A former chairman of the Thorntons confectionary empire has died.

Thursday, 4th February 2021, 4:45 pm
Updated Friday, 5th February 2021, 11:10 am
Tony Thornton has died aged 91.

Anthony (Tony) Thornton spent his working life in the firm and saw it grow to more than 150 shops before he retired in 1984.

He spent his retirement pursing a lifelong ambition to nurture music and the arts and took on a number of high-profile positions, most notably as chairman of Sheffield Theatres.

Tony Thornton was born on October 4, 1929, at Huntley Road, High Storrs. He led a fulfilling and accomplished life which was close to being curtailed in his teens due to a severe bout of pneumonia which he survived thanks to the care of his loving mother, Muriel, and the recent discovery of penicillin.

Tony was the eldest son of Norman William Thornton and grandson of Joseph who founded the confectionery firm in 1911, selling homemade sweets from a shop at 159 Norfolk Street, Sheffield.

Shortly after completing National Service in 1950, Tony joined his father and uncle in the family company.

He travelled daily from Sheffield to a former Rolls-Royce warehouse in Belper, which was purchased as the original factory in Archer Road was no longer able to meet demand.

Tony was responsible for developing the boiled sweets department at the new factory. He spent many winter nights sleeping on the floor of the near derelict factory to avoid the worst of the Derbyshire weather in his less than reliable car.

Following his retirement, Tony Thornton pursued his true passion and lifelong ambition to develop and nurture music and the arts in Yorkshire.

During this time, he sustained a life-long back injury lifting pans of boiling sugar - such was his determination and endeavour.

In 1954, Tony, a fan of bright colours, was sent to Derby train station in his pink two-seater sports car to collect Walter Willen, a young Swiss chocolatier who had been persuaded to join the company. He had only a smattering of schoolboy German and Walter spoke no English. Their early communication difficulties made for an interesting start to a long and fruitful friendship.

Tony took over the retail and marketing arms of the business from his father. The new responsibility played to his artistic flair. Recognising their importance, he was an early pioneer in standardising window displays across what was a rapidly growing chain of shops.

He was well known for his remarkable moving window displays, using concealed motors and magnets to move massive chocolate rabbits, Easter eggs and Father Christmases to catch the attention of the passing public.

Sometimes the displays would melt which only attracted more attention! He also led the company’s tentative steps into television advertising when the industry was in its infancy.

He was highly regarded by shop staff and prided himself on knowing the names of every shop assistant. Tony’s management style relied on his charm, rather than applying a heavy hand.

He became chairman of Thorntons in the 1970s and remained focused upon retail development. By the time he retired in 1984, the company had more than 150 shops and 70 franchise outlets.

Following his retirement, he pursued his true passion and lifelong ambition to use his expertise to develop and nurture music and the arts in Yorkshire.

Through his enthusiasm for classical music and the arts in general, he became involved with Sheffield Theatres Trust and its musicians and took on a number of high-profile positions within Sheffield arts, most notably as Chairman of Sheffield Theatres.

During this time, he helped with ‘generosity and extraordinary business acumen’ to transform the fortunes of the Crucible Theatre. He particularly enjoyed productions which involved the likes of Lindsay String Quartet and Sheffield Chamber Music Festival.

He was awarded an honorary master’s degree by Sheffield University in 1986, the same year his three sons also graduated, in acknowledgement of his support for the arts in the city.

Tony’s involvement with Sheffield Theatres encouraged him to create a charitable trust, Mayfield Valley Arts Trust, in 1987. His vision was to provide support and encouragement to exceptionally talented young musicians and ensembles who would otherwise struggle to get the backing they needed to fulfill their potential.

The trust widened its objectives to supporting music in educational settings. Over the decades, Tony’s input as chairman helped the expansion of several other charitable trusts - namely Live Music Now, Music in The Round, National Centre for Early Music, Wigmore Hall, Ensemble 360, York Early Music Foundation and Prussia Cove.

The Mayfield Valley Arts Trust has also transformed the artistic lives of innumerable young musicians in Yorkshire, bringing their work to wide audiences across the UK.

Tony’s vision for the trust, his underpinning of the musical fabric of the country and the influence he had on countless individuals will remain long after his death. Although he never sought recognition, he was awarded an MBE in 2018 for ‘services to music in Yorkshire’.

An avid reader, he had a lifelong passion for the writings and life of Charles Dickens and spent many happy hours researching them in his later years. He enjoyed his collection of books and letters and was a generous supporter of the Charles Dickens Museum.

Tony was a keen sailor and had a collection of vivid yellow boats, a ‘poor’ golfer, and an enthusiast for life. He was a Friend of the Royal Academy, National Gallery and The Tate.

To quote Charles Dickens, his favourite author, ‘Death is a mighty, universal truth’. Death is not the greatest loss in life, it is what dies inside us while we will live!

‘Oldtone’ (as he was fondly known) is survived and much missed by his sons James, Mark, Simon and his five grandchildren Max, Elen, Joshua, William and Gwen.

He died on January 31, 2021 at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, age 91.

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We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.