'It is my earnest hope that the war has taught us all its uselessness and that we shall learn the lesson of talking peace and of using peaceful methods to settle our international differences in future.'
Will Thorne was one of the leading Trade Union figures of the 19th and 20th centuries and established the largest union of its time, the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. He was a founding member of the Labour Party and achieved major reforms and improvements for workers in industrial Britain. He was elected as MP and Mayor for West Ham and served in the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Essex Regiment during the First World War.
Early political activity
In 1881 Will moved to London and formally became active in politics, joining the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the first organised socialist political party in Britain, led by H.M. Hyndman. Members were to include William Morris, George Lansbury, Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) and George Bernard Shaw.
Thorne took up a leading role in organising campaigns and propaganda in the West Ham area and was later to become the Secretary of the SDF.
Thorne's strategy was to organise large rallies in key locations around London, targeting the docks and factories. He was pivotal in organising two massive demonstrations at West India Docks (Sept. 1885) and Trafalgar Square (Feb. 1886).
Uniting the workers
Thorne was to fight his campaign for workers’ rights on two fronts both with the creation of a strong Union and setting his sights on Parliamentary representation for the working class. As he stated:
"Something could be done by Parliament I thought, but not as it was then constituted, with every interest except labour adequately represented."
The introduction of new technology and machinery in factories was to lead to even greater tensions on the shop floor leading to fewer workers being employed and a reduction in weekly wages.
It was very much a cross-roads for the workers and Thorne led and organised a mass meeting at Canning Town Hall. This resulted in the creation of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers on 31 March 1889. It was to become one of the biggest unions of its time in the world. Its slogan was "One Man, One Ticket, and every man with a Ticket."
Within six months Union numbers had swelled to over 20,000. Will Thorne was elected to the position of General Secretary and he was also aided by many others such as John Burns, who would go on to be a MP and the first Cabinet Minister from a working class background.
Political career and negotiator during the First World War
Will Thorne was elected as MP for West Ham South (1906) and he held the seat (later renamed Plaistow) until 1945. He had previously failed to win the seat in 1900 but was spurred on by memories of Keir Hardie's significant victory in the same seat in 1892:
"After his election I rode with Keir Hardie to the Houses of Parliament in a waggonette, followed by a band and a procession of his supporters. He wore a cloth cap, and his entrance to the chamber in his unconventional headgear was regarded by many old and dignified members as an impertinence and slight on the House."
Upon the outbreak of war, Thorne enlisted in the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Essex Regiment and was appointed a lieutenant-colonel. Aged 57, Thorne was not posted for front-line duties but was to play a role in the Shells Crisis of 1915. As the General Secretary of a powerful union, he was in regular contact with other union leaders who resented the far-reaching and significant restriction of workers' rights during the First World War. Thorne was to meet with Lord Kitchener several times at the War Office and in the House of Commons to discuss the Shells Crisis.
The Munitions of War Act (July 1915) was passed as a result of the lack of armaments and supplies reaching the front line. The Act required all private companies who supplied the military to fall under the control of the new Ministry of Munitions. The ministry had the power to control wages, hours and employment conditions. It was now an offence for a worker to leave his current job without the consent of his employer.
This understandably caused great unrest in industrial areas, most notably in Glasgow with the establishment of the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) led by Willie Gallacher and John Muir. The CWC sought to rally against the Act and despite David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson the Labour Party Leader, personally meeting both figures they were unwilling to relent. In 1916 both Gallacher and Muir were subsequently jailed for an article in The Worker criticising the war, an offence under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914. Both were later elected to Parliament, Muir standing for the Labour Party (Glasgow Maryhill) and Gallacher for the Communist Party (West Fife).
Visit to Russia
In 1917 Thorne was asked by the Coalition Government to visit Russia in order to outline British support for the Russian military effort and ultimately convince them to stay in the war against Germany. Thorne arrived in the midst of turmoil in the country. The February 1917 revolution at Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) had just occurred in which industrial workers went on strike over factory conditions and a lack of basic food provisions to feed their families. Lenin had also just published his April Theses outlining the directives for the workers' councils to take power
The journey to Russia was itself a dangerous voyage as German U-boats patrolled the North Sea, sinking numerous merchant and civilian ships. Upon Thorne arriving in Petrograd (accosted by Russian secret agents), he visited the Workers' and Soldiers' Council and then troops at the Petrograd military barracks who had mutinied and refused to fire on rioting crowds. This event ultimately led to the abdication and arrest of Tsar Nicholas II. Having travelled to Minsk he then returned to Petrograd and was to witness first hand Lenin stirring up the crowds with his oratory skills. The Bolshevik leader had just returned from exile in Switzerland and in October 1917 his party seized power in the capital.
Upon returning to London, Thorne was to receive the devastating news that his eldest son Will had been killed in battle at Ypres whilst fighting for the Essex Regiment. Despite such loss, Thorne was throughout this period behind the war effort and commented that "as soon as the war broke out I wanted to take my share in the work that had to be done." This position caused considerable tensions and disquiet amongst other leading socialist figures including Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden and Bertrand Russell. All three individuals were to play a leading role in the Leeds Convention of June 1917, which saw well over a thousand anti-war socialists and pacifists gather, many from the Independent Labour Party. They convened to lobby the Government for a negotiated peace settlement in order to prevent further slaughter at the front.
However, ultimately, Thorne's assessment at after the war was to be a damning one:
"The horrors of war, its futility and waste, were driven home to me both in my military life and everyday life. Though we won the war we are still paying very dearly for our victory. Poverty, unemployment and misery among large masses of people are still as rampant as ever, and if anything worse than before our victory."
Support for social change and workers' rights
From 1918 legislation was passed, leading to significant social and political changes. The Representation of the People Act 1918 allowed certain women over the age of 30 to vote. A separate Act allowed women over the age of 21 to stand as an MP. Nancy Astor was to become the first female MP to take her seat in 1919 but was not entirely welcome in the Commons chamber. This included games from figures such as William Joynson-Hicks (later Home Secretary) refusing to make space for Astor to sit in the chamber. Will Thorne along with other Labour colleagues ensured there was room on the benches for her.
Thorne was to continue his Union and political activity for the next 30 years and was prominent in raising issues ranging from child labour, unemployment benefits, Mussolini invading Abyssinia and to the rearmament of Germany under Hitler. As General Secretary of a large union, Thorne was often a representative at International Conferences, discussing and campaigning for better conditions for workers across the world.
Thorne died of a heart attack at his home in his constituency and home at 1 Lawrence Road, Plaistow, West Ham, on 2nd January 1946. He was buried in the East London Cemetery and survived by his fourth wife and 12 children.