Source: From My Life's Battles, Will Thorne, George Newnes, 1925;
HTML: for marxists.org in April, 2002.
BACK in London I was meeting all sorts and conditions of men. I remember meeting the present editor of the Daily Mail, Sir Thomas Marlowe, and Lord Dalziel, who has been connected with the ownership and management of several daily and weekly newspapers.
The first time I met these two gentlemen was at the "Democratic Club," in Chancery Lane, where they came in search of "copy." This was the home of the advanced school of economic and political thinkers of the time – the Radicals. Marlowe and Dalziel were what was known as "penny-a-liners," a term derived from the amount of compensation they used to receive from the newspapers to which they contributed as freelances. Many other people later to be well known in public life used to come to this club, among them the late Mr. Morrison Davidson, Cunninghame Graham, and all the Labour Leaders of the time.
Eventually the club was closed down and a new club started in Essex Street, off the Strand, where lesser and more peculiar people made rendezvous.
I doubt whether in those days either Marlowe or Dalziell ever expected to reach the great heights they have in politics and journalism, or to receive the fabulous salaries they do. Those days, those clubs, are both memories of the past.
Near to the Chancery Lane 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. One day they asked me to come along to their flat to meet the very young Jean Longuet, who later became a famous member of the French Senate and the able and devoted lieutenant of the great Jean Jaures. Longuet was the grandson of Karl Marx. I had first seen him when he was a baby, and often played with him and amused him, little realising that one day he would become a brilliant lawyer and a great workers' advocate, both in the French Parliament and in International working-class efforts.
It was during the big London dispute that I first met the Rev. William Morris. At that time he was the vicar of St. Anne's Church near Nine Elms Lane, where he used to deliver very democratic sermons, and often during the strike he spoke to the men at Vauxhall. Later he was elected a trustee of the union. For his courage and the expression of his love for humanity that shone through his writings and speeches he was unfrocked from the Church of England. This caused quite a stir amongst the strikers. I was at a meeting in Vauxhall when they first heard the news, and their annoyance was a tribute to the genuine service, both spiritual and material, that he had rendered, not alone to them, but to the workers generally. I believe it would have done the people good who were responsible for unfrocking him if they could have seen and heard the men. Morris used to be a great inspiration to the workers, especially when he lectured on art and industry. I often heard such lectures by him at Battersea, Victoria Park, and other places.
The late H. M. Hyndman was very active in these days, both as a writer and a speaker. He often spoke to the members of the Canning Town branch of the S.D.F. I was the chairman at one of the lectures that he gave on the subject of his book " England for All," and later he presented me with an autograph copy of the book. He had a happy way of stroking his long whiskers when he was talking, but this tonsorial adornment was not the only reason for him being regarded as the Father of Socialism. It was for his untiring work and the expounding and propagating socialistic and humanitarian ideas. He was always very optimistic in those days about the early consummation of the Social Revolution.
When Colonel John Ward became a member of the Battersea branch of the S.D.F. Hyndman paid special attention to him, as he believed he would become a big man in the Socialist movement. This was only one of Hyndman's minor mistakes. Jack Ward wrote some rather remarkable pamphlets in those days. I forget for the moment the titles, but I read them at the time. Ward, as well as being a member of the S.D.F., was also a member of the Battersea branch of my union, but he left both the union and the S.D.F. some years later. It always galls me to think that when a man belongs to an organisation in which he takes an active part that when he leaves it for no better reason than Ward did, that he should go out of his way to attack his late friends and their principles as he did. Ward could say nothing bad enough about the S.D.F., and, like John Burns, later on expressed himself in opposition to all the things that in former days he had been an adherent to. I sometimes think that such people only come into our movement for what personal aggrandisement they can get out of it. Hyndman was not of this type or calibre. He could have died a wealthy man, but he spent a life fortune in the Socialist movement, and very few people in this country have made the same financial sacrifice as he did during the forty or more years in which he took an active part in it.
While union work was making a great call upon my time I still found odd hours to give to the political and Socialist side, and in this way I accepted an invitation from the Canning Town branch of the S.D.F. to deliver a lecture to the members. The subject I chose was "Competition." The reason why I decided to speak upon this subject was my intimate association with the inhuman competition taking place in industry, and as I had endeavoured to minimise and smooth away the friction of man pitted against man for a few hours' work and a few pence in my agitation for the reduction of hours of gas workers and other general labourers, I thought the speech would be very appropriate. Will Harris, the man who had sent me a telegram on the Sunday before the big London dock strike, was my chairman. I was very nervous. For days before the lecture I thought and wondered whether the speech would be a success, but on taking the platform my nervousness disappeared and both my audience and myself were well satisfied, and a good collection was made.
The success of the gas workers and general labourers had set other classes of workers thinking, and early in 1890 a deputation of shop assistants from Jones' Tea Company in Poplar approached me, and asked if I could do anything for them to improve their wages and shorten their hours of labour. There was no "Shop Hours Regulations Act" at that time. I investigated their conditions, and after several meetings with the shop assistants I was in a position to take up their case. I wrote a letter to the manager of the firm at the head office, in Crisp Street, Poplar. I had no reply. So I wrote again, when the manager, in a rather annoyed frame of mind, wanted to know what business it was of mine to interfere with his assistants, and what did I know about the work? I admitted that I'd never packed tea, or cut up bacon, or made pats of butter, but I did know the hours of work were very long and the pay very small. After one or two interviews the manager made considerable improvements both in pay and in hours of the assistants. He soon found out that there was more profit in treating his staff well than otherwise, and he became a very good employer of labour. We became quite good friends, but he could never understand why a man in corduroys should take up the case of the black-coated workers instead of a man wearing a long coat and top hat. The manager and the assistants joined together and presented me with a fine Malacca walking stick as a token of appreciation of what I had done for them. From this time on I took more than a passing interest in the conditions of shop assistants, and my efforts and agitation were, I think, without boasting, a great help and a jumping-off ground for the organisation of the present Shop Assistants Union that to-day guards the interests of thousands of such workers.
These were only side lines, though; my own members needed more and more attention. There were new fields to conquer. The brickfields of Kent, Surrey and Essex claimed my attention, and I soon had them well organised within the union. The method of payment in those days was much different to what it is now. In some cases one man would undertake to do the work of moulding, drawing, setting, and burning the bricks by contract, and he would pay the men different rates. The men wheeling the bricks – fifty bricks on a barrow – received from ten to twelve shillings per day, and a pint of beer for each shilling. The payment for moulding bricks varied. The payment, however, was considered inadequate, and a demand was made for an increase in wages. The brickmasters refused to make any concessions. They sneered at the fact that the brick workers had joined the union, which they likened to a mushroom that had sprung up over night and which would die as quickly. The action of these employers precipitated a strike. Thousands of workers in the different fields came out. It was an expensive strike while it lasted, but we finally secured a good increase in wages amounting to about 4d. per thousand for the bricks made and handled. There were other strikes in the brickfields after this for a reduction of hours, the hours being from six in the morning to six at night, with a half-hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner; with two other spells, one at eleven o'clock and the other at four o'clock. These two spells, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, were known as "beer time." The men would drink two quarts of beer at each spell. The work necessitated such drinking, but my readers can see what an inroad was made in the wages at twelve shillings per day by the cost of this beverage. Happily this system does not exist to-day.
Beer played a prominent part in the industry in those days. In the gas works a man would come round the works with a barrel of beer. He was called the "Potty." He came round about eleven o'clock in the morning and about 3.30 in the afternoon selling beer to the men. This practice has also been done away with, and in most gas works oatmeal is supplied to the men during the hot weather.
Through all the early years I have described one main idea was firmly rooted in my mind. It was that by the reduction of hours that the conditions of the workers could best be improved. We had in several industries secured the eight-hour working day, but to secure it was not enough. I wanted it legalised.
My agitation was responsible for a delegate meeting being called in January, 1890, to consider the question of the legal eight-hour day. The conference declared in favour of the proposal, and authorised me to organise a demonstration to be held on Sunday, May 4th. I at once put myself in touch with Dr. Aveling, who was acting as secretary to the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, with a view to getting his assistance to organise a demonstration in Hyde Park. We decided to summon a delegate meeting. Invitations were sent to all labour organisations, trade unions and Radical clubs. Seventy-five delegates were present at the meeting, and opinion was unanimous in favour of demonstrating for the legal regulation of the working day. Certain details had to be arranged, and a further delegate meeting was called for Sunday, April 6th, at the Workmen's Club, Gye Street, Vauxhall. Rev. William Morris presided, and ninety-four organisations were represented. It was decided that Sunday, May 4th, would be the most suitable and practical date for the demonstration for all concerned. A committee was appointed, of which I was one of the secretaries, and from then until the demonstration we were kept busy with the many details that had to be arranged. A manifesto was drawn up and 100,000 copies were printed and circulated. During the preliminary meetings Dr. Aveling called our attention to the fact that a resolution similar to that which we were demanding had been passed at an International Conference held in Paris, July 14th to 29th, 1889. I had been in touch with the secretary of the International, who informed me that at the conference 400 delegates, representing twenty-two countries, had discussed the legal limitation of the working day, day work, night work, and the supervision of women and child labour. I also learnt that similar demonstrations for the legal limitation of hours had been held in the United States, under the auspices of the American Federation of Labour.
There were fifteen platforms in Hyde Park for the demonstration. They were occupied by representatives of all the older trade unions and the London Trades Council. The latter body, while in favour of the eight-hour day, objected to the phrase "by legal enactment." Members of Parliament were present, and John Burns and Michael Davitt were on two of the platforms.
This demonstration was one of the largest ever held in Hyde Park. From Marble Arch all the way to Achilles statue was a solid mass of people. It was estimated by the newspapers the following day that at least 250,000 people were present, and great excitement and enthusiasm prevailed when the following resolution, that was put from every platform simultaneously, was carried with cheers and shouting: –
" That this mass meeting recognises that the establishment of an International Working Day of Eight Hours for all workers is the most immediate step towards the ultimate emancipation of the workers, and urges upon the Governments of all countries the necessity of fixing a working day of Eight Hours by legislative enactment."
That was many years ago; but the workers have yet to win international legislation for the eight-hour day. It is pleasing to see that the recent work of the League of Nations brings the possibility of such legislation nearer.
The life of a trade union leader is full of shocks and surprises. One of these shocks was awaiting me when I went to my office one morning and found a very stern letter from the Registrar of Friendly Societies. The letter pointed out to me that I had infringed the law by not sending him the annual returns for the union. Various forms, showing detailed expenditure, must be filled in and sent from the union to the Registrar, and failing to do this makes a union and its general secretary liable to heavy penalties. After recovering from my shock, I at once started to work to knock the two half-yearly balance sheets into one in compliance with the regulations of the Registrar. This was no easy task. For about three weeks I struggled with my small knowledge of the art of figures, and when I finally finished the job I felt more fit for a lunatic asylum than to be a general secretary of a trade union. One of my great difficulties was in collating the branch balance sheet; none of the branch secretaries had brought forward their balance sheets from the previous year, and I had to send them back to the branch secretaries several times. After I thought I was finished I found that I was twopence half penny out in my balance. For one whole day I searched for this twopence halfpenny. At last I thought everything was in order and off went the documents to the Registrar. Another shock was awaiting me – within two days my report came back again from the Registrar covered over with red ink marks. There were dozens of them, and each one meant a mistake. I got to work again, and, after much more labour, sent them corrected and in order to the Registrar, who this time was satisfied with my arithmetic.
I felt like having a holiday after nearly a month of brain-racking work that I was not used to; but there was no holiday for me. The First Annual Conference, that was to be held at the Workmen's Club in Gye Street, Vauxhall, had to be prepared for. This meant more reports of income and expenditure, and a detailed account of the work of the union and its activities in strikes and lock-outs. There had been a great number of strikes and two lock-outs, and it was almost an impossibility to give a full and accurate report, but I did my best.
That very brave and intelligent woman, Mrs. Aveling, was the secretary to the Conference and made the work smoother for all concerned.
Delegates were present at the Conference from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and the chief business was to frame a new code of rules, the union's experience having shown us that many amendments were necessary to our first set of rules.
I apologised to the Conference for the lack of detail in my report, and explained to them that the treasurer, the assistant secretary and myself had been doing our best in the midst of most difficult circumstances to supply them with all the information they would require. The union was only a year old, but it had been in more strikes and struggles in that year than any other union in existence at the time. The threat of Mr. Livesey, made during the big London strike, to smash the union had failed, and the union was steadily going stronger, despite the fact that employers in every part of the country were harassing us. Where other unions were tolerated, we were being attacked. Our most active members were being victimised, but we were not downhearted.
I have in front of me as I write a photograph of the delegates of the First Annual Conference. There are few of them still alive, but they were all a brave, determined lot, and they laid well the foundations upon which the present greatness of the union has been built.
The new rules were drafted and accepted by the Conference. As a preamble to them I stated that trade unionism had done excellent work in the past, and that it was the hope of the workers for the future. It must recognise that there are only two classes, the working class and the possessing master class, and that these two classes have nothing in common.
I felt very proud as I stood before that Conference and told the delegates that the immediate objects of the union were to improve the material conditions of its members; the raising of their status from mere beasts of burden to human beings; to make brighter and happier the home of every worker; the saving of little children from the degrading, hard and bitter lot to which many of them were condemned; a more equitable division amongst all men and women of the tears and laughter, the joys and sorrows, and the labour and leisure of the world. I told the delegates that if they kept these aims clearly before them they would march steadily and irresistibly towards the emancipation of the working class.
There is no doubt that my advice was heeded in a practical way by everybody in the union. It made the organisation most democratic, and, above all, a fighting organisation; the only benefits we paid were strike and lock-out pay and legal protection. I did not believe in funeral benefits and in making the union a burial society. I believed that if we spent most of our union money on burying our members it would not be possible to improve the material conditions of the living. In this the union was unique, as being the only organisation not encumbered by all sorts of benevolent benefits.
After reporting to the Conference about the successful issue of a strike with the Norwich Gas Company, a Mr. Watkinson was elected president of the union, Mr. Byford was re-elected treasurer, I was confirmed in my position as general secretary, and the Rev. William Morris was elected as one of the trustees of the union. Delegates were also appointed to attend the next year's Trade Union Congress. I was, of course, one of the delegates. I was instructed to prepare a scheme for the federation of all trade unions, and the Conference closed with a vote of thanks to the Rev. William Morris for placing the venue of our Conference, without charge, at our disposal.
I shall never forget as long as I live my first visit to Swansea. As soon as I arrived at the station I was met by a very old man of the name of Webber. He worked in the sulphur and ammonia departments of the Swansea Gas Works, and had come to extend the hospitality of his humble home to me. He asked me if I had arranged to stay at the hotel, and I told him that the money allowed me for travelling expenses was not sufficient to stay at a coffee-house, let alone an hotel. The old man then asked me to go with him to his cottage. It was adjacent to the Swansea Gas Works. It was about 8.30 on a winter's night when we arrived at his place. I found the floors were made of stone slabs; there was hardly any furniture in the house, just a table and a few chairs, and the upstairs' rooms were simple and rugged. The old man provided me with food and tea, the best that he could afford, and made me comfortable. I contented myself with this simple and rough hospitality in what, I think, is the humblest cottage I have ever stayed in. I appreciated the kindness of these people, for I have never been, even in days of comparative affluence a man to indulge in five-course meals or the luxury of the best hotels. I look back on that organising visit to Swansea as one of the happy human memories in my earlier days of struggle.
On my return to London from this visit I was given an assistant secretary to help me with me work. His name was William Ward, a big-hearted Irishman, who had been working at the Greenwich Gas Works. He enabled me to travel about much more than I had in the past and to consolidate the many branches of the union that had been, and were being, formed in different parts of the country.
One of my first trips, after being given the help of an assistant secretary, was to Leeds, where I was concerned in the worst struggle in my career.
The Leeds Gas Committee, like other employers, thought the time had arrived to take back from the gas workers their new-won rights and concessions. They demanded that the gas workers should engage themselves for a period of four months and forego their right to strike within that period. They also wanted the stokers to do twenty-five per cent more work during their eight-hour shift than they had been doing.
The situation was becoming serious. My Executive Council was summoned to discuss the position. I took the view that the dispute was one of great importance to the future of the union, and I had no doubt but that the men would strike if the corporation insisted on pressing their demands. I also knew that they would want financial assistance from the union.
After our long series of strikes there was little money in the treasury, but the executive agreed with me and voted the last L300 that we had in the bank.
When I arrived in Leeds I found that the Gas Committee had, in addition to the demands I have already mentioned, decided to change the custom of discharging in the slack season the last men to be taken on in the busy season. They had given all the men in the retort houses their notices.
Great excitement prevailed amongst the men. I immediately called a mass meeting. Cunninghame Graham was one of the speakers, and it was decided that all the men should strike on the next day. The Gas Committee had prepared for trouble. They had organised men in different parts of the country to take the places of the strikers as soon as they came out.
That Sunday evening I met Tom Mann. We were in the neighbourhood of the gas works at the time and could hear carpenters at work preparing sleeping accommodation for the blacklegs inside the works.
I said to Tom Mann: " You'll see some excitement to-morrow, Tom, if they attempt to bring blacklegs in here."
The plant was known as the Wortley Gas Works, and on the Sunday night, when the shifts came off, the strike, began. We were prepared.
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.
The police, hearing of our intention, diverted the blacklegs to the Town Hall, with a view to avoiding a conflict. This manceuvre did not succeed. We sent a mass picket to watch the Town Hall, but other lots of blacklegs were arriving.
One lot that was being escorted to the works was attacked by the crowd. Sticks and stones were used, and the police and the blacklegs were badly handled. When they arrived at the works the strikers and their hundreds of sympathisers made another charge. Most of the blacklegs got inside the works, but not without many casualties amongst them and the police. After the charge the pavements were strewn with hats, caps and policemen's helmets.
During that day the excitement was at a high pitch. Fights took place in different parts of the town. Early in the afternoon a sensation was caused when the Mayor posted notices in various parts of the town. This was considered equivalent to the reading of the Riot Act, and soldiers were being held in readiness for any eventuality.
By five o'clock in the afternoon enormous crowds had gathered in the streets, and by six o'clock the main thoroughfares were almost impassable. By seven o'clock the position everywhere was worse. The blacklegs were still heavily guarded within the Town Hall, and police and soldiers were all about the town.
Just before eight o'clock the storm broke. The blacklegs, guarded by the police, started their march from the Town Hall to the works. Every approach to the works was guarded by thousands of people. A railway bridge that crossed one of the streets alongside the works was thick with men and women. They were armed with stones and large sleepers of wood that they intended throwing at the blacklegs as they passed beneath.
The police and the soldiers realised the danger of the situation, but were unable to cope with it. When the procession reached this position, soldiers, policemen, and blacklegs came under a barrage of heavy missiles. They were completely at the mercy of the crowd, and many casualties took place amongst them.
After about twenty minutes the entrance to the gas yard was reached, when thousands of people, shouting and hooting, pushed towards the entrance. The soldiers made a guard near the gates, but as soon as they were opened and the blacklegs made to enter, the crowd rushed in. I was with them.
We charged at the blacklegs, who, in their terror, made a rush for a wall, over which many of them escaped. The police counter-attacked. I received a terrible blow on the back of the neck and went down like a bullock. When I recovered consciousness and looked around me, I found that many of my colleagues had also been badly hit.
The blacklegs had had enough. When they got inside the works, their main care was not to make gas, but to out of the town as quickly as they possibly could!
We aided them in their escape, and thousands of people cheered them as they departed in various directions.
The ambulances, infirmaries, and hospitals were kept busy, and encounters continued to take place between strikers and their sympathisers on the one side and the police and the soldiers on the other.
I was approached by an inspector of the police, who threatened to arrest me if I did not clear out. I defied him, however, and declared my right to fight for the men. From then on, wherever I went, I was shadowed and watched by several policemen, and I was amongst a large number summoned for rioting.
The following day most of the blacklegs were provided with food and money and escorted to the railway station, where they left for their various homes.
The union paid the fares of many of them, and they were glad to get out of the town. Many that I spoke to swore that they would never be persuaded to take work again when a strike was on.
The Gas Committee soon found that they could not carry on the works, and after four days they gave way, paid off the few remaining blacklegs, and reinstated all the strikers.
All the summonses issued against myself and others were withdrawn as a result of public protest against the union-smashing efforts of the Gas Committee. Protests were made in the churches and chapels throughout the city, and public opinion was unanimous in condemning the employers for their methods on this occasion.
This was one of the greatest of victories both for the union and for the workers who so wholeheartedly supported the strikers. Shortly after I returned to London Frederick Engels sent me Karl Marx's " Capital," in two volumes, in which he inscribed these words: "To Will Thorne, the victor of the Leeds battle, with fraternal greetings from Frederick Engels." This gift I prize very highly, both as a remembrance of the dispute and in memory of the great collaborator with Karl Marx that gave it to me.