ON a wall at St Paul’s Church in Shipley is a Victorian family gravestone, damaged over time but with a lengthy inscription still visible.

One of several old headstones in the churchyard, it has stood largely unnoticed for well over a century. But behind it lies the remarkable story of a local man who, aged just 19, accompanied Dr David Livingstone on landmark expeditions to Africa and became a ‘righthand man’ to the legendary explorer.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The Thornton family headstone at St Paul's Church in Shipley The Thornton family headstone at St Paul's Church in Shipley (Image: Bradford Through the Lens)

David Livingstone, Scottish missionary, physician, scientific investigator, explorer and anti-slavery campaigner, among many other things, became one of the most popular British heroes of the 19th-century.

Now, after researching the family headstone in Shipley, a group of local historians have discovered that Richard Thornton, born in Cottingley, was a geologist recruited by Livingstone. They travelled together along the East African coast, up the Zambezi and Shire Rivers. Richard died aged 25 in Malawi and is buried there - his grave a local attraction.

Richard’s fascinating story is revealed in a new film produced by Bradford Through the Lens, a popular YouTube channel exploring the history and heritage of hidden and unusual spaces in the district. Run by Riaz Ahmed, with Andrew Bolt and Mark Nicholson among the researchers, the channel (youtube.com/bradfordthroughthelens) has made several videos about Bradford’s past, including hidden Saltaire tunnels, a war grave mystery and an unsolved Victorian murder.

In this latest film, Andrew Bolt begins by examining an old map of Cottingley. He reveals that Richard was born in 1838 in Cottingley House, which became Cottingley Hall, now long gone.

When he was a child, Richard’s mother, Elizabeth, advertised for a governess for teach him but “the person who came for the interview didn’t get the job”. It was noted that she had no musical skills, but she could write.

“That person turned out to be Charlotte Bronte,” says Andrew. “It seems a pivotal moment in time, a ‘Sliding Doors’ effect. If Richard had been taught by Charlotte, would he have gone on to do what he did, or would he have taken a more literary, academic route?”

The Bradford Through the Lens team went on to discover more about Richard at St Paul’s Church in Shipley. “His family has a vault in the graveyard; Richard’s parents and siblings are buried here, in an area now grassed over,” says Andrew. “What got us on the track of Richard was the headstone on the wall. It is damaged, the date is missing, but its inscription gives clues about his life and death. The story on this headstone gives Richard a position in history, yet here it is, broken and forgotten.”

The top of the inscription bears the name of Richard’s father, also called Richard, then further down it says: ‘Richard Thornton, who died April 21 1863 aged 25 whilst performing his duties as geologist to the Zambezi expedition in East Central Africa and is buried near the Murchison Cataracts on the River Shire’.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Richard Thornton was just 19 when he set off with Dr Livingstone Richard Thornton was just 19 when he set off with Dr Livingstone (Image: Bradford Through the Lens)

Andrew researched the African expedition and discovered that Richard’s boss was Dr Livingstone. Says Andrew: “He was the righthand man, the geologist to Livingstone, which puts him right up there with the most famous explorers that ever existed.”

Examining drawings of the expedition, Andrew says they travelled on HMS Pioneer in harsh conditions. Richard suffered malaria, dysentery and prickly heat. “He was only 19 when he set off with Livingstone, in 1859, and along the route he taught himself to draw maps,” says Andrew. “He made over 7,000 observations on that trip.”

When Richard was later sacked by Livingstone, after a fall-out, he teamed up with a German traveller. “They were the first European surveyors of mountains around Kilimanjaro and created the very first contoured maps of the region,” says Andrew. Richard’s work clearly impressed Livingstone, who re-employed him for his next African venture.

“Richard remained with Livingstone on the trip until his untimely death in 1863,” says Andrew. “He is buried 500 yards from the foot of the first Cataract tree on the bank of the Shire, with a headstone memorial: ‘In memory of Richard Thornton, one of Dr Livingstone’s companions’.

In front of Ng’ona Lodge, where the grave is located, are rapids where Richard and Livingstone would have dismantled their boat to continue their exploration.

Andrew discovered that pupils from a local school in Malawi, have visited the grave. On the Hill View School website it says pupils “discussed the significance of his legacy”.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Richard Thornton's grave in Malawi Richard Thornton's grave in Malawi (Image: Hill View School)

Says Andrew: “Out of all this, what I find most poignant is that here (in Bradford) we don’t seem to remember Richard Thornton, but in Malawi school trips are going to his grave.

“Now we have brought him to the world’s attention again. His story has come full circle.”

* To watch the film, Incredible Memorial of Livingstone’s geologist - Richard Thornton in Shipley, go to https://www.youtube.com/bradfordthroughthelens