Will Thorne: My life’s battles

Will Thorne: My life’s battles John Callow (ed.), Lawrence and Wishart, London, 227 pages, £9.99, 9781910448090
The GMB union is to be commended for bringing back into print the autobiography of an outstanding figure of trade unionism in Britain. This is the life and works of one Will Thorne. It comes with a new foreword by Paul Kenny, soon to depart GMB general secretary, and an introduction from historian, John Callow, Director of Archives of the Marx Memorial Library.

Leaving school at the age of six, Thorne became a semi-skilled industrial labourer in Birmingham and went on to found the gas workers’ union in 1889, campaign on behalf of the unemployed and fight for the eight-hour day. Eventually, he went on to lead the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, a forerunner of today’s GMB union, being its general secretary for 44 years and was an east London MP for almost forty years.

Born in Hockley, Birmingham, on 8 October 1857, Thorne’s father died in a fight when he was seven. The young Thorne worked from six in the morning to six at night, with half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner. Thorne recalls that when the spinner he worked for wanted to reduce his wages from 2 shillings and 6 pence to 2 shillings, he ‘went on strike’ and never returned to the job. His family was on poor relief. Thorne took a job with his uncle at a brick and tile works, and later, at another brickworks further away. At the age of nine Thorne recalls ‘my mother got me up at four o’clock every morning to give me my breakfast’. It was a four-mile walk to work. He wrote on page 19:

I had to give up this job finally because my mother said that the work was too hard and the distance too long for me to walk every morning and night. I remember her telling me that the 8 s[hillings] a week would be missed; someone would have to go short. But it was no use being slowly killed by such work as I was doing, and it was making me hump backed. It was not until I had been away from the work for several weeks that I was able to straighten myself out again.

In 1882, he moved to London and found employment at a gas works. There, he became a Marxist and member of the Social Democratic Federation, soon becoming a branch secretary and saying later in 1910 at the Trades Union Congress of that year that he described himself as a ‘revolutionary, class conscious, trade unionist and social democrat’ (when social democracy meant socialist). It was the experience of state oppression as the organised expression of capitalists’ interests that led Thorne to realise the state must be challenged so he stood for and was elected to Parliament in 1906.

In 1889, he played a major role in founding the gas workers’ union and later helped organise the London dock strike. These were key events in the development of what was known as ‘new unionism’, namely, the unionisation of semi- and unskilled workers. Then in 1925, he sat down with pen and paper to record it all. In this he was assisted by Eleanor Marx who many years before had help teach him to read and write. But by the time he died in 1946, he was no longer quite the radical and internationalist he had once been. He recruited workers into the army for the Great War, gaining a CBE for his pains in 1930, and opposed the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He had also experienced the defeat and retreat of the 1926 general strike and is aftermath with Labour joining an austerity inducing National Government.

Yet because My life’s battles was written in 1925, it concentrates most on the early years of his life when hope was in the ascendancy and everything seemed close to possible. And because, he was a humble man, Thorne underplays his own role in many episodes he recounts. Nonetheless, he records the spectacular growth of the union and then the counter-offensive of the employers as well as the internal struggles within the union between radicals and moderates (and which lead to his marginalisation as a more radical figure).

My life’s battles is not a simply story of a radical that became less radical due to old age or the corrupting influence of the trappings of Westminster or those of high union office. In fact, it is not that at all. The explanation for why Thorne moved in the ways he did belies a simple linear path. Indeed, as John Callow demonstrates in his introduction, Thorne was still an active member of the Social Democratic Federation in 1936.

My life’s battles is a valuable and dynamic memoir of a key figure who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps for the benefit of others. Along the way, he became an accomplished orator, negotiator and organiser. Whether it is for inspiration, understanding or succour in these times, My life’s battles is well worth a read.

Gregor Gall