Will Thorne (1857-1946) was an amazing trade union activist back at the dawn of trade unions. Born in Hockley, Birmingham he lived in London’s East End from 1882.
Originally published in 1925, this is perhaps not the most eloquent of books, but plain-spoken and deeply felt. Written by a self-educated man who shaped our lives, and yet is all but forgotten.
He started work at age 6, ‘turning a wheel for a rope and twine spinner at Rob’s Rope Walk’ from 6 am to 6 pm, a half hour breakfast and one hour for dinner, on Saturday’s he worked a half day and then went to his uncle’s who was a barber to lather faces for him until 11 pm.
His first strike? The rope maker reduced his wages from 2s. 6d. a week to 2s., and he refused and walked off.
He worked for another uncle at a brick and tile works, describes how each brickmaker was essentially an independent contractor, paid piece work and paying piece work in turn for the various other labourers needed. Dismissed for being caught asleep while tending the fire, he got work somewhere in another factory further away.
Aged nine, he awoke at 4:30 am, walked 4 miles to work, worked a 12 hour day, and then walked back home to a scanty meal. He writes of his mother telling him he had to quite, that:
‘I remember her telling me that the 8s. a week would be missed; some one would have to go short. But it was no use my being slowly killed by such work as I was doing, and it was making me humpbacked. It was not until I was away from the work for several weeks that I was able to straighten myself out again. (19)
Later he began in the gas works:
The retort houses are exceedingly hot, for both behind and in front of the stoker are the burning eyes of the furnaces; amidst the roaring of the heat-hungry retorts a breeze as of hell fans me. This is my job; these are my conditions. (37)
Men there worked 12 hour shifts, one week on days and one week nights — on the transition day/night between the two they worked 24 hours shifts. There are a number of scattered descriptions of the grimness of this work, and the constant efforts of employers to force the men to work longer and harder for the same or less pay — through both improved technology and shifting employment policies.
All of it echoes the description of the gas works which made such an impression on Flora Tristan in her visit to London.
the system we lived under at that time, the poverty and hardships the workers had to endure…made us rebels…. I was only fifteen, working at the metal-rolling mills, when I swore that I would do everything in my power to help prevent other children going through the same hardships, misery, and suffering that I had to go through. (46)
He started educating himself, talking to his fellow workers, trying to organise resistance. There are incipient organisations and blacklists.
There is also, of course, not least the allure of London:
I had always wanted to go to London, and my desire to go to the biggest city in the world was stimulated by letters from an old workmate at the Saltley works, who was no working at the Old Kent Road Gas Works… I finally decided to go to London in November, 1881. With two friends I started out to walk the journey, filled with the hope that we would be able to obtain employment…(49-50)
There are some comments on Jews swindling people in Petticoat Lane, and the rest is laced with thoughtlessly unkind references to peoples of colour, along with embarrassed footnotes that such language was accepted then as it shouldn’t be now. Yet this is the power of whiteness, even amongst those with nothing.
Once established in work, he brought his family down from Birmingham, but his son died at 6 mos while another daughter was born. The work dried up and back they went to his wife’s parents home just outside Birmingham. Then back to London the following year with two Irish brothers by the name of Keegan. Got a job in Beckton with help of foreman, who had also been on strike with him at the Saltley works. He brought wife and children down again, and this time it was to stay.
He joined the Social Democratic Federation, and would become secretary of Canning Town branch — he met everyone who was anyone. On a speech by George Bernard Shaw, he writes:
His lecture , while very interesting, was couched in such language as to make it difficult for him meaning to be grasped by most of the audience. He spoke to us just as if he was talking to an audience of thousands of people in the Albert Hall. I remember his sharp, caustic criticisms and the keen flashes of wit, which, however, where mostly lost on the hearers.
The East End of London has never taken kindly to the “highbrows,” although the growth of education is gradually permitting the submerged workers of this crowded, over-worked and over-populated district to appreciate the finer things in life. (56)
His education came from speeches, from conversations, and from the circulation of books and pamphlets. His definition of Socialism is part of a story he tells of a confrontation with a foreman, and is copied from a pamphlet giving the contents of a speech by John Burns on the dock at the Old Bailey on 18th January, 1888, charged on charges of seditious conspiracy:
Socialism is a theory of society which advocates a more just, orderly, and harmonious arrangement of the social relations of mankind than that which prevails now
Substituting the principle of association for that of competition in every branch of production and distribution, Socialism proposes to abolish the system of wage slavery, and establish instead governmental, municipal cooperation, securing to every honest worker the full value of his labour, partly in personal remuneration, and partly in social and public benefits, such as education and recreation, sustenance and care in old age.
Socialism proposes that labour shall be a noble elevating duty, not an unhealthy slavish drudgery. (63)
He notes another book that helped him form his critique of society — J. Sketchley, A review of European Society, and an Exposition and Vindication of the Principles of Social Democracy. I’ve never heard of it.
And all the while he is trying to organise for improved conditions.
Out of evil comes good. The despair of the workers at the conditions they were compelled to put up with was causing a stirring in their souls–souls deadened by long hours of hard labour, rewarded with the smallest possible amount of money to provide sufficient food, clothing and shelter to enable then to continue their drudging toil. (61)
He describes the 1st attempt to form a union of gas workers and general laborours in 1884 by Jack Monk, but fear of victimisation was so great it had to remain secret and lasted only a few weeks. 1885 saw the 2nd attempt to form a society, headquartered at the “Sir John Lawrence” in Canning Town.
His own union formed at a public meeting on 31st March, 1889 at the Canning Town Public Hall, on the subject of new rules whereby men could be required to stay on after their shift on a Sunday. Thus was born the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland.
They asked for, and won, the eight hour day without going on strike.
By July 1889 they had over 60 branches, 44 in London. But it’s on to the big Dockers’ Strike of 1889 with barely a halt…
1889 was a big year, and at the end of it, it was accounts due and Thorne’s first report as head of the union. From it, I extract this gem:
In conclusion, I hope that every member, male and female, will do their utmost to make our union one of the strongest in England, and I am glad that we have the females with us, it being our duty to help our fellow-women, and raise them from the starving position in which they are at present placed. (102)
Clumsy in wording, but rather nice all the same. I can’t help but think this mention of women is all down to Eleanor Marx (Aveling), later on Thorne writes
Near to the Chancery Land lived Eleanor Marx-Aveling and Dr. Aveling. I knew them well. It was Eleanor that helped me more than any one else to improve my very bad handwriting, my reading and general knowledge. (117)
How wonderful of her.
Just in case you were thinking that all those victories were too easy and the bosses just handed over the eight hour day across the board, by December 1889 they had plotted their come back on a number of fronts, and gas workers had to go on strike again. They received donations of tea from a merchant and sold it on again, profits going to the strike fund — this expanded to become a store in Barking Rd, Canning Town near the union head office.
They started up a bakery — the first attempt failed, but the 2nd succeeded.
The profits from the bakery, although the bread is sold cheaper than at the ordinary bakeries, is used to subsidise our political efforts. Our nominees who are elected to the Town Council are paid the wages they lose while attending to their municipal duties. (111)
One of the biggest clashes was the strike at Wortley Gas Works in Leeds, a good reminder of the old strike days when the fight for our rights was a life and death one — and all of it illegal.
One of the local leaders, Tom Paylor, had heard that a number of blacklegs was to arrive at the New Wortley station at three o’clock in the morning. He chalked this information on the pavements in different parts of the city, and when the time arrived hundreds of strikers were in the vicinity.
The police were also in evidence in large numbers, but we had decided that no blackleg would go into the works without a fight, despite the great odds we were facing in challenging both the police and the blacklegs. (129)
Men and women massed along streets and a railway bridge blacklegs would have to pass under, armed with stones and wooden railway sleepers to throw down on police and scabs below — and they did. In a melee at the gates to the factory the crowd rushed the scabs, Thorne himself was knocked out cold.
Engles sent him a signed copy of Capital 1 and 2 after this. Bless. Thorne was at his 70th birthday party as a guest of the Avelings, and over the course of his days he met Jean Longuet, Marx’s grandson, William Morris, H.M. Hyndman and many others. He was elected to a majority Labour Council in West Ham, and then to Parliament.
He seems to have been a grand old man. While the book certainly gives you the sense that he was on the more conservative side of the Trade Union Movement of his time, and not forgetting the apparent racial limits to his views on the rights of man and his four wives, you could be pretty damn sure I think, that he’d always be on the right side of the barricades.
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