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Will Thorne: My Life’s Battles

20150715_201917 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.

will-thorneAnd 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.

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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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Victorian Gas Works

Gas lighting transformed London, it is hard to imagine now just how much. I think the only way to begin to understand it, as much as we can from this vantage point, is through literature.

1305530Flora Tristan’s London Journal is wonderfully evoctive of the beauty of gas lighting, the magical effect it had on London:

But it is especially at night that London should be seen: then, in the magic light of millions of gas-lamps, London is superb! Its broad streets stretch to infinity; its shops are resplendent with every masterpiece that human ingenuity can devise; its multitudes of men and women pass ceaselessly too and fro. To see all this for the first time is an intoxicating experience. Then again, in the daytime, the beautiful streets, the elegant squares, the austere iron gates which separate the family mansion from the common run of humanity, the vast expanse of gracious rolling parkland, the beauty of the trees, the number of superb carriages and magnificent horses which parade the streets — all this seems magical and blurs the judgment, so that no foreigner can fail to be entranced when he first enters the British capital. But I must warn you that the spell fades like a fantastic vision, a dream in the night; the foreigner soon recovers his senses and opens his eyes to the arid egotism and gross materialism which lurk behind that ideal world (17).

I’m not sure that something hasn’t been lost now, the texture of the light changed and the last remaining shadowy places illuminated with electricity. There are still a few streets where you can experience gas lighting, you can find them here. It’s something well loved and well studied, a short description of how and when it came to illuminate London’s streets can be found here, or more at length in Liza Picard‘s work on Victorian London. The way it transformed how people could walk through the city at night, especially women, is so self-evident yet often forgotten.

Gas_Light_&_Coke_CompanyAlso often forgotten, I think, is the labour and technology that made is possible. One of the most powerful passages of Tristan’s journal describes the gasworks at Horseferry Road. There is nothing at all left to show that a gas works once stood here but a plaque.  Tristan’s words give a vivid sense of the working conditions:

One of the largest gas-works is in Horseferry Road. Westminster; I have forgotten the name of the company. You can not visit it without a ticket of admission: In this palace of industry the abundance of machinery and iron is quite overwhelming; everything is made of iron — platforms. railings, staircases. floors, roofing etc.; plainly no expense has been spared to ensure that buildings and equipment alike are made of the most durable materials. I saw cast-iron vats with the dimensions of a four-storey house. I wanted to know how many thousand tons they hold, but the foreman with me was just as uncommunicative as the foreman at the brewery, and preserved an absolute silence.

We went into the big boiler-house: the row of furnaces on either side were burning brightly; the scene was not unlike the descriptions the poets of Antiquity have left us of Vulcan’s forges, save that the Cyclops were animated with divine activity and intelligence, whereas the black slaves of the English furnaces are sullen, silent and impassive. There were about twenty men present, going about their work in a slow, deliberate fashion. Those with nothing to do stood motionless, lacking the energy even to wipe away the sweat streaming down their bodies, Two or three turned their blank gaze towards me; the rest did not even raise their heads. The foreman told me that only the strongest men were selected as stokers; even so, they all developed chest diseases after seven or eight years of the work, and invariably died of consumption. That accounted for the misery and apathy depicted on every countenance and apparent in every movement the poor wretches made.

This language is so emblematic of the odd politics of her solidarity with, and yet low opinion of, the working classes. She is offhand about their early deaths, but it breaks my heart to think of it.

The work demanded of them is more than human strength can endure. They wear nothing but cotton drawers; when they leave the boiler-house they merely throw a coat over their shoulders.

Although the space between the two rows of furnaces must have been fifty or sixty feet, the floor was so hot that the heat penetrated my shoes immediately and made me lift up my feet as if I had stepped on live coals. I stood upon a large stone slab, but even this was hot, although it was well off the ground. I could not stay in this veritable hell; the heat was suffocating, the smell of gas was making me dizzy and my chest felt as if it would burst. The foreman took me to a gallery at the end of the boiler-house where I could see everything in relative comfort.

We made a complete tour of the establishment; I was lost in admiration for all the machines, for the meticulous care that marks every stage of the work; but in spite of all precautions there are frequent disasters in which men are injured and even killed. 0 God! Can progress be bought only at the cost of men’s lives?

She is not, and I could hardly expect her to be, interested in the geographies of light, that this is gas produced to light up the expensive shops of the West End at the cost of workingmen’s lives and environment:

The gas produced at this factory is taken by pipes to light the Oxford Street area as far as Regent Street.

The air is horribly tainted: at every instant you are assailed by poisonous fumes. I emerged from one building, hoping to find the air purer in the yard outside, but everywhere I went, the foul exhalations of gas and the stench of coal and tar pursued me.

Not only is this killing the men who work here, it surely must also be killing all those who live around it, albeit more slowly. Her lack of interest in how this is affecting the poor people and dock workers living in the area is in its own way a testament to what communities fighting for environmental justice have been able to achieve.

It also makes me wish that she were not writing from such a position of privilege, that she had trudged here from wherever she was staying, for surely then the effect of the fumes and the housing of the workers would have also figured in this description. As it was, Tristan was there only briefly and already felt dizzy and sick. Odd then, and oddly Victorian, that she focuses in on the dirt.

What is more, the entire premises are very dirty. The yard — with its pools of stagnant water and piles of rubbish — testifies to a total neglect of hygiene. It is true that the materials used to produce gas are of such a nature that it would require vigorous measures to keep the place clean, but two men would be sufficient for the task, and for a trifling increase in outlay, the entire establishment would be healthier.

Returning once more to the working conditions suffered:

Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866
Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866

I was on the point of suffocating and could not wait to escape from such an evil-smelling place when the foreman said, ‘Stay a moment longer, there’s something very interesting for you to see; the stokers are just about to remove the coke from the ovens.’

I returned to my perch in the gallery; the sight that met my eyes was one of the most appalling that I have ever seen.

The furnaces are above ground level. with a space below to catch the coke. The stokers, armed with long iron rakes, opened the ovens and raked out the coke, which fell in blazing torrents into the chamber below. Nothing could be more terrible or majestic than the sight of so many mouths all pouring forth flames, nothing more magical than the cavern suddenly illumined with living fire, descending like a waterfall from a rocky height, only to be swallowed in the abyss: nothing more terrifying than the stokers, their bodies streaming as if they had just emerged from the water, lit on both sides by the dreadful braziers that thrust out their fiery tongues as if to devour them. Oh, no! a more frightful spectacle it would be impossible to imagine!

South Metropolitan Gas Company's works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke.
South Metropolitan Gas Company’s works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke, wood engraving published Paris, 1891.

When the furnaces were half empty, men perched on vats in the four corners of the lower chamber threw water on the coke to extinguish it. The scene changed; there arose a dense hot whirlwind of black smoke which ascended majestically through the open skylight. Now the furnaces were visible only through this haze, which made the flames seem even redder and the fire more menacing; the stokers’ bodies turned from white to black, and the unfortunate wretches were swallowed up like demons in some infernal chaos. I was caught unawares by the smoke, and barely had time to make a hasty descent.

I awaited the end of the business, anxious to see what would become of the poor stokers. I was astounded that not one woman appeared. Dear God! I thought, have the men no mother, sister, wife or daughter waiting at the door as they emerge from that hell, to wash them in warm water, to wrap them in shirts of flannel; to give them something nourishing to drink; to greet them with friendly words that would give them heart and help them to endure their cruel lot? I was in a fever of anxiety; not one woman appeared. I demanded of the foreman where these men, soaked in sweat, would go to take their rest. ‘They’ll lie down in this shed.’ he replied, quite unconcerned, ‘and in a couple of hours they’ll go back to their stoking,’

I find this simultaneously horrific in what men were forced to suffer to earn a wage, and almost laughable in terms of her horror at the absence of women occupying such middle-class Victorian roles as mopping their husband’s brow and inspiring him with hope and bringing him nourishment. I imagine these wives, sisters and daughters were all both hungry and hard at work themselves keeping households together or taking in laundry, cleaning the homes of the wealthy, working in factories themselves.

But again, we return to another of the reasons men died so quickly in this work:

This shed, open on all sides to the wind, was really no more than a shelter from the rain, and inside it was as cold as ice. A sort of mattress lay in one corner, almost indistinguishable from the coal around it. I saw the stokers stretch out on their stony bed, with no covering but a greatcoat so stained with sweat and coal-dust that it was impossible to tell its original colour. ‘There,’ said the foreman, ‘that’s how these men get consumption; they don’t look after themselves, going straight from the heat into the cold like that.’ (72-75)

You like Tristan better when she says she left in a huff after that remark.

A few more things on gas — in A Match to Fire the Thames, there is a brief description of the workers organising for the first time at the Beckton Gas Works — owned by the same company — under the leadership of Will Thorne. They won an eight hour day (it is impossible to imagine working in these conditions at all, much less from 10 to 14 hours), with fewer retorts to fill and all for the same daily wage. Long live the union.

"Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)" by Willem van de Poll - Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)” by Willem van de Poll – Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The other is that in addition to the poisoning of air and ground, the construction of gas works was also a part of the steady destruction of gardens supplying the city, from Old and New London: Volume 4:

The works belonging to the Gas Light and Coke Company, which occupy a considerable space of ground between Peter Street and Horseferry Road, stand partly on the site of what was, at the beginning of the present century, the residence of a market-gardener, known as the “Bower” ale-house and tea-gardens—a name still perpetuated in that of the adjacent public-house—”The White Horse and Bower,” in the Horseferry Road. These gasworks (one of the three earliest stations established by the first gas company in the metropolis, which received its charter of incorporation in 1812) owe their origin to the enterprise of a Mr. Winsor, the same who, on the evening of the King’s birthday, in 1807, made a brilliant display of gas along the wall between the Mall and St. James’s Park. It may be worth while to note here that the general lighting of the metropolis with gas began on Christmas Day, 1814. A branch establishment in connection with these gas-works has since been erected further westward, close by Millbank Prison, and more recently a larger establishment has been opened at North Woolwich, where the works henceforth will mainly be concentrated, so that latterly very little business has been actually carried on here.

The later history of these gas works is also rather fascinating, and described on the Subterranea Brittanica site:

The ‘Rotundas’ consisted of three buildings, two of three storeys and one of two (originally five), all linked together and occupying a site in SW1 bounded by Great Peter Street to the north, Marsham Street to the east, Horseferry Road to the south and Monck Street to the west. The site had previously been occupied since c.1877 by the gas works of the Gas Light and Coke Company. The two gas holders were demolished in 1937 leaving two very large circular holes in the ground. During the blitz a large bomb fell on the gas works which blew four workmen into these holes, unfortunately only two survived.

A government contract was issued to construct various protected buildings in London, these included Montagu House in Whitehall for the War Office, Curzon House in Curzon Street for the Army, The Admiralty Citadel on Horseguards for the Navy and the Rotundas, all designed to withstand the impact of a 500lb bomb. With their 12 foot thick concrete roof the latter complex was equipped to house several thousand Government officials in complete safety from enemy attack for up to three months.

The Rotundas were built in the holes left by the gas holders, each of three storeys with one and a half floors above ground and the same below. They were identified as the North Rotunda at 59-67 Great Peter Street, the South Rotunda at 18/19 Monck Street. The complex was completed by the five storey Steel Frame Building, with one level below ground at 17 Monck Street. The upper three stories were later removed.

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