PortCities London

Will Thorne (1857-1946)
One of the first trade union activists

Known for

Will Thorne.
View full size imageWill Thorne. © NMM
Will Thorne remains a key figure in the history of British trade unionism.  He was one of the first union activists. He led the negotiations for an eight-hour day in the gas industry, helping to boost the power and the prominence of the Gasworkers Union and the safety of the workers.

His success encouraged railwaymen, textile workers, building workers, shipbuilding and metal workers, miners and boot and shoe operatives. They rallied to their own unions and demanded improvements in their working conditions and pay.

Port connection

The success of Thorne’s Gasworkers Union led to increasing demands from other workers, including the London dockers, who stopped work in August 1889. The strikers won after receiving considerable help from home and abroad. 

Interesting facts

Will Thorne could not sign his wedding certificate because he was illiterate. He moved to London and met Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, who taught him to read and write.

He named one of his sons after Karl Marx.

Will Thorne was one of the MPs chosen to visit Russia during the revolution of 1917. When he returned he had meetings with the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and George V.

Life story

1857Born in Birmingham on 8 October.
1863Worked as a rope and twine spinner.
1864His father died.
1875His mother married a local carpenter and he left home.
1879Married Harriet Hallam, daughter of one of his fellow workers at the Saltley Gas Works.
1882Moved to London with his wife and two children where he worked at the Beckton Gas Works and joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).
1880sBecame one of the SDF’s best public speakers.
1889Helped to establish the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers and defeated Ben Tillett in an election for the post of General Secretary of the Union.
1891-1910Member of West Ham Borough Council.
1894-1933Member of the Trade Union Congress Parliamentary Committee.
1906-1918Member of Parliament for West Ham (South).
1910Made Alderman of West Ham Borough.
1917Mayor of West Ham.
1918-1945Member of Parliament for Plaistow.
1946Died on 2 January.