Will Thorne (1857 – 1946)
“He was, above all, a practical trade unionist, whose ideas were the result of his own experience”
Will Thorne was a leading light in the development of ‘New Unionism’ in the late 1880s and was a Labour MP from 1906 to 1945. He wrote an autobiography published in 1925 which was an important chronicle of working class life in the nineteenth century.
Credit: frontispiece to `Will Thorne: constructive militant` by EA and GH Radice
He was born in Birmingham and both parents worked in local brick works. In addition, his father was seasonally employed in Saltley Gas Works. At the age of six, Will worked in a rope making works with a 12-hour day, with one and a half hours permitted for meal breaks. Following the death of his father the following year, Will became the substantial breadwinner with his mother also working and the family in receipt of basic Poor Law relief. Like many unskilled workers he was laid off when trade was poor or could only obtain employment on a seasonal basis.
A biography1 concluded that ‘brutalising work in the factory, sweated labour and Poor Relief at home for his widowed mother...remained indelibly marked on his character’.
After a period of tramping and navvying, Will was married in 1879 and had to sign the marriage certificate with an X owing to his illiteracy.
The period between his arrival in London in 1881 and the formation of the Gas Workers Union in 1889 was spent acquiring an education in trade union and political organisation. He joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and developed a political consciousness through meeting William Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Tom Mann, Friedrich Engels, William Morris and, above all, Eleanor Marx. His autobiography recorded a deep sense of frustration that the existing trade union movement cared little for semi-skilled or unskilled labourers.
Thorne had had much experience of the operation of the gas industry in Birmingham before seeking to organise labour in London. In response to workers having to work an 18-hour shift, he organised a meeting of gas workers in East London to demand an 8-hour day.
The new union became the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers and in the view of Thorne rejuvenated trade unionism and gave considerable impetus to the Labour Movement. Thorne received both personal and political support from Eleanor Marx who helped Thorne increase his literacy and office skills but who also worked effectively both with gasworkers and in assisting with the Dock Strike which took place later in 1889.
The efforts of Thorne and thousands of working people resulted in what became known as ‘New Unionism’ and the important principle behind that was to be general in character – to be able to recruit a broad spectrum of workers.
He became involved in International Socialism to an extent not shared by many other trade union and political activists at the time, and attended International Socialist Congresses for most of his career.
Will Thorne, although remaining a member of the SDF, did play an important role in the setting up of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900. He became part of a complicated situation in the seat of West Ham South through his continuing membership of the SDF and failed to win the seat in 1900. The withdrawal of the SDF from the LRC put Thorne in a difficult situation but after a number of compromises he was elected for West Ham South in 1906.
He remained in the House of Commons until 1945 and remained active in local politics as Councillor and as Mayor.
Although strongly internationalist, he gave his full backing to World War I. He joined the West Ham Volunteer Force and was given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) attacked Thorne for his pro-war views.
Following the Russian Revolution of March 1917 Thorne was part of a deputation which was sent to report on the situation. In reality, it was part of an attempt to try and ensure that Russia remained in the War. Thorne warned that Russia was becoming anti-war, something which he attributed to German propaganda and the ‘Jewish element’ (a popular view of the time was to refer to the Bolsheviks, who were about to seize power, as Jewish).
After World War I, Thorne was effectively de-selected from West Ham South when anti-war factions gained control of the constituency. He was ‘awarded’ the neighbouring constituency of Plaistow where he stayed as MP until 1945.
Will Thorne achieved much in his political and trade union life. He was not a particularly inspiring speaker but as an MP he was one who worked hard to raise issues on behalf of his constituents and in defence of trade unionism.
After 1918, he was an integral part of the processes of trade union amalgamation which resulted in larger ‘general’ trade unions. He was a member of the SDF, present at the creation of the LRC and an MP for 39 years. Philip Snowden wrote of him as ‘blunt and rough in manner, but genial and good – natured, and he is respected for his sincerity and honesty by all parties’2. He lacks a full length, critical biography (although the 1974 work Will Thorne: constructive militant by E.A & G.H. Radice has been invaluable in writing this portrait) and does not attract much research interest. And yet, this is a man who contributed much to the development of the Labour Movement.
(1) The quotes at the beginning and here are both from Will Thorne: constructive militant by E.A & G.H. Radice. George Allen & Unwin, London: 1974 (Shelfmark: B19), a work which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the mergers which created the General and Municipal Workers’ Union.
(2) From the Spartacus Educational profile of Will Thorne http://spartacus-educational.com/TUthorne.htm accessed 27 July 2015.
A longer version of this biography of Thorne can be read here.