William Isaac Thorndale, or WIT as he was known, was born on 17th July 1861 in the parish of Kingswood, Reigate, Surrey, England, the son of a shepherd named William Thorndell and a mother Sarah nee Mason. His birth certificate records his name as Isaac Thorndell; it is unclear where the discrepancy originates. The April 1861 census record is unfortunately damaged and the street name is unreadable, but might be No. 29, Cheaseleys Town, Kingswood, though it appears a number of families occupied the building (not unusual in those days). The Thorndell family those few months before WIT's birth consisted of the head of the household, William aged 43 from Abinger, Surrey; his wife Sarah aged 38 from Shere, Surrey; daughters Lucy (14) born in Abinger, Surrey; Phoeby (9) born in Effingham, Surrey; son Michael (7) born in Effingham, Surrey; and daughter Eliza (2) born in Kingswood. I should point out that whilst I have a concern about the spelling as recorded by the census numerator, since he spelt William's occupation as "Shepperd", this is not the cause of the surname anomaly as William and Sarah's marriage certificate of 1845 also clearly records it as Thorndell.
His father died soon after he was born (perhaps his mother started calling him William as a result). Sarah was the informant of WIT's birth, though had William been dead at the time of registration, the father's entry would surely have read "William Thorndell (deceased)". His mother passed away when he was 12 which would be late in 1873, following which the orphan went to live with a kindly brother in Nutley Lane, Reigate. This just possibly could have been Michael who would only have been 19 at the time, but might equally mean a brother-in-law. It seems one Felix Walder, part of a huge family in Reigate, had married a Phoebe Thorndale in May 1867, and had started his family in Nutley Lane, along with a large number of his relatives in that street. If this is WIT's Phoeby, she would have been 15 or perhaps just 16 at the time of marriage, also just possible I suppose. It might equally have been another sister who had married and who also happened to live in Nutley Lane, which contained a great many people at the time, but I haven't been able to trace the pre-married surnames to check. The only one I know who was nee Thorndale and living in Nutley Lane in 1873 was Phoebe. Sadly, she died very young at the age of 21 in that same year. Perhaps this was why WIT in his memoirs referred to going to live with a brother rather than a sister.
Leaving school at 14, he first started a 12 hour shift of work in the chalk pits at nearby Betchworth, then took a position as 'Errand Boy' in the firm of Marriage & Brooks, Bell Street, Reigate, followed fairly shortly by a move to the fishmongers opposite, owned by a Mr. Ongley who would become, in 1895, Reigate's 16th mayor. The street was the main thoroughfare and trading area, and still exists today.
WIT was clearly very happy at Ongley's, and the family were certainly extremely kind to the boy and not at all the stereotypical Victorian employer that Dickens so loved.
When he was 15, he and his friend Charlie Jordan enlisted in the Royal Navy which recorded his surname as 'Thorndale'. Since WIT could read and write and would have seen the naval register entry (whilst his mother who registered his birth could not and so was unable to check the birth certificate), it seems that Thorndale had somehow become the spelling of choice, taken not only by WIT but also, I know, by Michael and Phoebe.