William Thorne, the son of a brickyard labourer, was born in Birmingham on 8th October, 1857. At the age of six Thorne began work for a rope and twine spinner. The death of his father in 1864 dramatically reduced the family income. Mrs. Thorne found employment sewing hooks and eyes on cards and William found work in the local brickyard.
Over the next few years Thorne did a variety of different jobs including a lath splitter, handyman and plumber's mate. However, by the age of sixteen Thorne was back working in the brickyards. In 1875 Thorne's mother remarried a local carpenter. Her new husband was an alcoholic and so Thorne decided to leave home and go on the "tramp".
After a period as a navvy Thorne returned to Birmingham and found work at the Saltley Gas Works. In 1879 the twenty-two year old Thorne married Harriet Hallam, the daughter of one of Thorne's fellow workers at Saltley. Both Will Thorne and his wife were illiterate and were unable to sign their names on the marriage certificate.
In 1882 Will and Harriet and their two children moved to London. Thorne found work at the Beckton Gasworks. Soon after arriving in the capital Thorne joined the Canning Town branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Thorne was appointed secretary of the branch and began attending national meetings of the organisation where he met H. M. Hyndman, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann, John Burns, Edward Aveling and Friedrich Engels.
One of the members of the SDF, Eleanor Marx, helped to teach Thorne how to read and write. Thorne's confidence in his abilities gradually grew and by the late 1880s he was one of the SDF's best known public speakers. At this time Thorne considered himself a communist and named one of his sons after Karl Marx.
In 1889 Thorne helped to establish the National Union of Gasworkers & General Labourers. He then defeated Ben Tillett in the election for the post of General Secretary of the union. Thorne led the successful negotiations for an eight hour day in the industry. As they previously did twelve hour shifts this was a great advert for union power and the Gasworkers' Union soon had over 20,000 members.
Will Thorne's success also inspired other unions to demand better pay and conditions. The most important of these was the London Dock Strike led by Ben Tillett in 1889. The dockers demanded four hours continuous work at a time and a minimum rate of sixpence an hour. The employers hoped to starve the dockers back to work but Thorne and other trade union activists such as John Burns, Eleanor Marx, James Keir Hardie and H. H. Champion, gave valuable support to the 10,000 men out on strike. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Labour Church raised money for the strikers and their families. Trade Unions in Australia sent over £30,000 to help the dockers to continue the struggle. After five weeks the employers accepted defeat and granted all the dockers' main demands.
Thorne was now seen as a dangerous man and attempts were made to weaken the Gasworkers' Union. South Metropolitan Gas Company introduced a profit sharing scheme for the workforce and during the strike in 1890 the Leeds Gas Company sacked union members. When the Gasworkers' Union forced the company to reinstate the workers, Friedrich Engels was so impressed with Thorne's leadership he gave him an autographed copy of Das Kapital.
In 1894 Thorne was elected to the Trades Union Congress Parliamentary Committee (a position he held until 1933). Thorne was also active in local politics and in West Ham served as a Town Councillor (1891-1910), Alderman (1910-46) and Mayor (1917-18).
Thorne helped Keir Hardie win the West Ham seat in the 1892 General Election. After Hardie was defeated in 1895 and moved to Merthyr Tydfil, Thorne became the Labour Party candidate in West Ham. Defeated in the 1900 General Election he finally won the right to represent West Ham in the House of Commons in the 1906 General Election.
Unlike many of his former colleagues in the Social Democratic Federation, Thorne supported Britain's involvement in the First World War. He joined the West Ham Volunteer Force with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. His eldest son also joined the army and was killed at Ypres in 1917.
In the 1918 General Election Thorne won the Plaistow seat for the Labour Party. He held this new seat until his retirement before the 1945 General Election. As Philip Snowden pointed out: "Will Thorne is not a Parliamentary debater. He has seldom made a set speech, but he is a very good sharp-shooter, and during al the twenty-nine years he has been in the House of Commons he has been prominent at question time. His supplementary questions are always penetrating, and invariably show his intimate knowledge of the matter at issue. He is blunt and rough in manner, but genial and good-natured, and he is respected for his sincerity and honesty by all parties."
Will Thorne died on 2nd January, 1946.
Let me tell you that you will never get any alteration in Sunday work, no alteration in any of your conditions or wages, unless you join together and form a strong trade union. Then you will be able to have a voice and say how long will work, and how much you will do for a day's work.
It is easy to break one stick, but when fifty sticks are together in one bundle it is a much more difficult job. The way you have been treated in your work for many years is a scandalous, brutal, and inhuman. I pledge my word that, if you will stand firm and don't waver, within six months we will claim and win the eight-hour day, a six-day week and the abolition of the present slave-driving methods in vogue not only at the Beckton Gas Works, but all over the country.
After the speeches were over, I called for volunteers to form an organizing committee, of which George Angle was appointed the secretary; then we started to take down the names of the men who wanted to join up. Eight hundred joined that morning. The entrance fee was 1s., and we had to borrow several pails to hold the coppers and other coins that were paid in.
It was proposed to petition the directors of the different companies in London for an advance of 1s. per day in the wages of all the workers. I opposed this; I wanted a reduction in the working hours. "Shorten the hours and prolong your lives," was my plea. I declared that the eight-hour day would not alone mean a reduction of four hours a day for the workers then employed, but that it meant a large number of unemployed would be absorbed, and so reduce the inhuman competition that was making men more like beasts than civilized persons.
Will Thorne is not a Parliamentary debater. He has seldom made a set speech, but he is a very good sharp-shooter, and during al the twenty-nine years he has been in the House of Commons he has been prominent at question time. His supplementary questions are always penetrating, and invariably show his intimate knowledge of the matter at issue. He is blunt and rough in manner, but genial and good-natured, and he is respected for his sincerity and honesty by all parties.