The Constructive Militant
Will Thorne was born on 8th October 1857, the son of a brickyard labourer. At the age of 6 he began work for a rope and twine spinner. The death of his father in 1864 dramatically reduced the family income. Mrs. Thorne found emloyment sewing hooks and eyes on cards. Will earned 2s 6d a week for a 12 hour day with 1.5 hours allowed for his breakfast and dinner. It was in this, his earliest employment, that as he put it:
"I experienced by first strike. It was a brief one, over 6d a week, and occurred when the spinner I worked for at the Rope Walk wanted to reduce my wages to 2s a week. I refused to accept this reduction and went on strike. But that strike was never settled and I never returned."
The family was so desitute that there was no question of Will going to school, and as well as work he had to walk several miles each day to collect the 'Poor Relief' which usually meant loaves of bread.
At the age of 22, Will Thorne return to Birmingham to the Saltley gasworks. In 1879 he married his first wife, Harriet Hallam. Both Will and Harriet were illiterate and were unable to sign their names on the marriage certificate.
This did not deter him from pursuing his socialist ideals. In fact, by the time he had turned 18 he had come out on strike a total of five times.
Three years after his marriage, he and his family (two children) moved to London. He found work at the Beckton gasworks in East London.
There he found other like-minded workers and joined the Canning town branch of the social Democratic Federation (SDF). He was appointed the secretary of the branch and began attending national meetings of the organisation. It was through the SDF that Will met Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx's daughter.
She helped to teach him how to read and write and as his confidence grew he became one of the SDF best-known public speakers.
Spurred on by his outrage at the treatment of the gas workers, Will had tried several times to form a union. Each time though the workers succumbed to intimidation by the employer.
The Beckton gasworks introduced the "Iron Man" (click on the right hand menu for a picture of the "Iron Man"), a machine for loading the ovens. It often broke down and was heavier work; although the company expected the same level of production.
Not satisfied with this, the company then introduced a system requiring men to stay on shift on Sundays for 18 hours instead of 12. The work was seasonal and during the summer, with less demand for gas, many of the workers were laid off.
This was the last straw and on the 31st of March 1889, Will Thorne addressed a meeting of the Beckton Gas Workers at Canning Town Hall. (click on left hand menu for a full transcript of the inaugurating speech).
Following this speech, 800 men signed up to the new gasworkers union on an entrance fee of one shilling and a subscription of 2d a week.
The union's new committee decided to adopt a single item as it is demand to the employer: an 8 hour day, 6 day week. (click on right hand menu for more information about the dispute)
In 1894 Will was elected to the trades union Congress and became active in local politics, serving as town councillor, Alderman and Mayor for West Ham.
In 1906 he finally won the MP seat for West Ham, and in 1918 won the Plaistow seat which he retained until his retirement before the 1945 general election.
died on 2 January 1946 at the age of 89.