Thora Silverthorne

Thora Silverthorne

Thora Silverthorne, the daughter of George Richard Silverthorne, a miner at the Vivian & Six Bells Pit of Bargoed, was born at Abertillery, Wales, on the 25th November 1910.

George Richard Silverthorne was an active member of the South Wales Miners Federation (Miners Union) and a founder member of the Abertillery branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Thora joined the Young Communist League at the time of the 1926 General Strike. During this period she became a close friend of Arthur Horner, a leading figure in the South Wales Miners' Federation.

After the death of her mother, Silverthorne moved to England where she worked as a nanny for Somerville Hastings, who was the member of the House of Commons for Reading. Hastings was also the founder and president of the Socialist Medical Association and he encouraged her to train as a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.

Thora Silverthorne remained an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and became close friends with fellow member, Christopher Hill. She also worked as a volunteer nurse for the hunger marchers who passed through Oxford. She later recalled that “their feet were often in particularly bad state.”

While living in Reading Silverthorne was active in the local branch of the CPGB. Other members included Harry Jones, William Ball and Reginald Saxton. They had close contact with the town's Labour Party League of Youth, whose members included John Boulting, Roy Poole, Josh Francis and Rosamund Powell.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War it was decided to form a Spanish Medical Aid Committee. In his autobiography, All My Sins Remembered (1964), Peter Spencer, 2nd Viscount Churchill, explained what happened: "A group of us - three well-known medical men, a famous scientist, several trade unionists, and one communist - formed a committee for the purpose of collecting money for medical supplies to be sent to the Spanish Government forces."

Thora Silverthorne decided to volunteer her services to the SMAC. Her friends from the town, John Boulting, Roy Poole,Rosamund Powell and Reginald Saxton followed her example, whereas Josh Francis and William Ball also joined the International Brigades.

The First British Hospital was established by Kenneth Sinclair Loutit at Grañén near Huesca on the Aragon front. Other doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers at the hospital included Archie Cochrane, Penny Phelps, Rosaleen Ross, Aileen Palmer, Peter Spencer, Patience Darton, Annie Murray, Julian Bell, John Boulting, Roy Poole, Richard Rees, Nan Green, Lillian Urmston and Agnes Hodgson.

Archie Cochrane was fairly critical of the original team of doctors and nurses. He claimed things improved after the arrival of Alex Tudor-Hart and Reginald Saxton: "When the mobile team finally arrived in Albacete only four of its original members remained - Kenneth (Sinclair-Loutit), Thora (Silverthorne), Aileen (Palmer), and myself - a situation which I feel reflected the inadequacy of the original selection process. There were, of course, others from subsequent waves of volunteers. I was glad that Reggie Saxton and Keith Anderson were there. Recent arrivals included Dr Tudor Hart, who had some surgical experience, Joan Purser, a nurse, and Max Colin, a mechanic."

Thora Silverthorne with Dr Alex Tudor-Hart in a field operating theatre.
Thora Silverthorne with Dr Alex Tudor-Hart in a field operating theatre.

Kenneth Sinclair Loutit was also full of praise for her behaviour in Spain: "Thora was outstandingly competent. Her social ease and her care for her neighbour put her above fault... Thora was much braver than I because she was afraid. By some psychosomatic quirk I got used to the risks of war. Thora did not, but she would master her physical reactions and kept her head (thus helping others to do the same), even when the ground shook with bombing - as it did, one night I shall never forget, when we were bivouacked near Aranjuez."

Thora Silverthorne wrote to her family in March 1937: "We have become accustomed to air raids although they still worry me a great deal: I dread them. The planes were over last night, dropped bombs but did no damage. Considering the number of raids surprisingly little damage is done. The swine deliberately attempt to bomb hospitals - it's inhuman. The other day, an English nurse who works in a village some distance from here came along to stay the night with us for a change. She was very shocked. She'd had a nasty experience the day before. She was sitting talking to a comrade when a bomb was dropped quite near them. She was thrown off her chair and her companion was killed. Then she saw a bunch of kiddies killed by another bomb. Its really awful but I can assure you its absolutely true - the nurse told me all about it. Poor dear, she was badly shaken up."

Thora Silverthorne was one of the nurses who joined the the medical unit that was supporting the International Brigades. Over the next few months she served in Aragón. According to Michael Walker: "The International Brigadier, Michael Livesey, died in her - arms a memory she never forgot." Eventually she was "elected" matron at Granen Hospital that had been set-up to treat wounded members of the Thaelmann Battalion.

In November 1937 she wrote to her family about conditions in Spain: "We are very busy - the attack on Huesca has actually begun - and will be for some time I'm afraid. We've been working hard for the last few days and doing very good work. We've been doing major operations and working 14 hour days."

Thora Silverthorne began an affair with Kenneth Sinclair Loutit. "It was of course inevitable that I should fall in love with Thora; all-in-all we behaved responsibly. We were only a few kilometres from an active war front. Our daily work told us that bullets kill, when there are plenty around it alters the perspectives of emotional life. We both worked extremely hard, without leisure for any sweet dalliance... She had a clear bright eye with a wonderful freshness of attention, plus a quality of instinctive understanding of other peoples feelings, which made her social relationships successful. All this encased in Celtic good-looks made me a very privileged man."

On her return to England, Silverthorne became a sub-editor on Nursing Illustrated. In 1937 she helped establish the first union for nurses, the National Association of Nurses. She eventually became General Secretary of the organization.

Silverthorne married Kenneth Sinclair Loutit and the couple lived at 12 Great Ormond Street. He became a doctor in London and in 1938 helped establish Finsbury Health Centre. Unfortunately, the marriage was not a success and ended in divorce and she moved to High Wycombe.

After the Second World War she became Assistant Secretary of the Socialist Medical Association and played an important role in the development of the National Health Service.

In 1946 Thora married Nares Craig, an engineer from Clitheroe, Lancashire and a fellow member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Thora now became a full time union official for the Civil Service Clerical Association until her retirement in 1970.

Thora Silverthorne died on 17th January, 1999.

Thora Silverthorne speaks at the unveiling of the Reading Memorial in May 1990.
Thora Silverthorne speaks at the unveiling of the Reading Memorial in May 1990.

Primary Sources

(1) Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, Very Little Luggage (2009)

Thora Silverthorne, our Operating Theatre Chief Nurse, had been born into a large mining family in Abertillery. She was about my age. In the 1920s her father had been an early recruit to the Communist Party and had been active in that now vanished culture of the Welsh valleys. He had had a fine singing voice; his interests went much wider then politics. Thora had been bright at school and had been selected by her father's Union Lodge to be sent to Moscow with a scholarship to the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. She decided for herself that she wanted to be a nurse so she went instead to the Radcliffe Infirmary at Oxford. She had been steeped in three cultures: native Welsh Radical practice and thought, modern Medicine and, thirdly, that general awareness with its self-confident boldness, its refusal of unthinking convention, that in those days was the main result of residence in Oxford or Cambridge. She could just as well have ended up gracing a Master's Lodge as behind the Secretary General's desk of a major Trade Union. She would never have been a success as an apparatchik.

It was of course inevitable that I should fall in love with Thora; all-in-all we behaved responsibly. We were only a few kilometres from an active war front. Our daily work told us that bullets kill, when there are plenty around it alters the perspectives of emotional life. We both worked extremely hard, without leisure for any sweet dalliance. Thora was outstandingly competent. Her social ease and her care for her neighbour put her above fault. She had a clear bright eye with a wonderful freshness of attention, plus a quality of instinctive understanding of other peoples feelings, which made her social relationships successful. All this encased in Celtic good-looks made me a very privileged man...

My whole energies went in this new direction where they joined those of Thora. Being with her, as her partner at work and as her lover, was therefore a complete fulfillment of all I then felt and of all that I then was. It is only now, fifty eight years later, that I see in this state of mind a parallel with the commitment shown by the Children of the Souls and that whole generation of uncles at the Somme. There is no repining when you know that the place you are in is uniquely right for you. That was my position in 1936.

The two of us, Thora and myself, had comparable levels of maturity so far as life and love were concerned. Thora had infinitely greater political experience, but her good Welsh blood did not allow her to abandon her feelings and to be coldly logical. We were very different, but we met as equal human beings. As lovers and as comrades-in-arms we shared our all between each other. We made ourselves, and a lot of other people, happy. It was not Dubcek who invented Marxism with a human face; that was around in Wales before he was born.

Thora was much braver than I because she was afraid. By some psychosomatic quirk I got used to the risks of war. Thora did not, but she would master her physical reactions and kept her head (thus helping others to do the same), even when the ground shook with bombing - as it did, one night I shall never forget, when we were bivouacked near Aranjuez.

(2) Thora Silverthorne, letter to her family (9th March 1937)

Did you know that Comrade Ball of Reading (son of the chemist Dad was friendly with) was killed on this front! He'd behaved very well: the commandant praised him highly. Said he was due for promotion for his splendid behaviour. Please give my very sincere sympathy to Comrade Ball's father; tell him his son died with many other fine fellows but not in vain. The English comrades did much towards keeping our front: they set a splendid example and greatly raised the morale of the other battalions.

We have become accustomed to air raids although they still worry me a great deal: I dread them. The planes were over last night, dropped bombs but did no damage. Considering the number of raids surprisingly little damage is done. The swine deliberately attempt to bomb hospitals - it's inhuman. The other day, an English nurse who works in a village some distance from here came along to stay the night with us for a change. She was very shocked. She'd had a nasty experience the day before. She was sitting talking to a comrade when a bomb was dropped quite near them. She was thrown off her chair and her companion was killed. Then she saw a bunch of kiddies killed by another bomb. Its really awful but I can assure you its absolutely true - the nurse told me all about it. Poor dear, she was badly shaken up.

This war is just bloody but if possible has made me even more violently anti-fascist. Their methods, even for war, are horrible. I can imagine by this time Shon is almost on the point of coming out. Please don't let him: I just couldn't stand the strain of knowing he was in danger too ... God, I'd love to see you and talk to you. I miss you more and more. Do try to write more frequently. I don't know when I'll get home... We are in quite comfortable quarters and our food is reasonably good. Sometimes we have to work 20 hours and then slacken down. None of us mind, our morale is very high.

(3) The Reading Evening Gazette (August 1937)

A 25-year-old Reading girl, Miss Thora Silverthorne of "Carbis", Kendrick Road ... has been chosen as a member of the British Medical Aid unit which left London last night for the Spanish front... Under strict orders not to divulge the unit's movements, Miss Silverthorne however, confessed she was thrilled at the prospect of being able to assist the Spanish Government's forces.

(4) Thora Silverthorne, letter (25th November 1937)

We are very busy - the attack on Huesca has actually begun - and will be for some time I'm afraid. We've been working hard for the last few days and doing very good work. We've been doing major operations and working 14 hour days.

A nurse is just going back to England and taking this with her to post in London so it will get through in a few days. There's very little to write about. We live a very enclosed life; our wireless has been taken away: Papers from England don't come frequently and we are altogether cut off.

The news re Germany's and Italy's support for Franco, Russia's decisive move, are all very frightening. We are heading undoubtedly for world war. I hope I get home first!

(5) Archie Cochrane, One Man's Medicine (1989)

Everyone liked and admired Aileen Palmer, an Australian, for her friendliness, devotion, and hard work. Everyone trusted her, although she was a self-confessed party member. Another self-confessed party member was Thora Silverthorne, a highly skilled surgical theatre sister. Despite a hard streak, she was friendly and amusing. I also liked Ruth Prothero, a charming, migrant doctor from Vienna. I talked fluent German and she introduced me to some of her Swiss and German friends. Margot Miller, another Australian, was a journalist and party member. She was a robust, efficient hard worker and later became a well known writer of detective stories. I enjoyed her company. A fifth female member of the original party I never did get to know. She was a complete loner and soon separated from us.

(6) Michael Walker, Thora Silverthorne (20th June, 2006)

In 1935 Thora secured a Sister’s post at Hammersmith hospital and worked closely with Dr Charles Wortham Brook and his wife, also a nurse, Iris. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War she volunteerd to nurse, and was "elected" Matron at Granen hospital, caring for many anti-fascist German soldiers in the Thaelmann Centuria. The International Brigadier, Michael Livesey, died in her - arms a memory she never forgot. Later, she was herself drafted into the International Brigade.

On her return she married Dr Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, who she had met in Spain. They lived at 12 Great Ormond Street. Loutit was elected as a “unity front” Councillor prior to the War for Holborn, London.

Her involvement as sub editor of Nursing Illustrated led her to establish a nurses union (The National Nurses Association). This was a consciously progressive union for nurses in direct competition with the reactionary (Royal) College of Nursing. The RCN and hospital managers attacked her as “not being a registered nurse” or “paid by Moscow”, during the late 1930s. With the help of Communist Party nurses such as Nancy Blackburn (Zinkin), the Association ran a very high profile campaign to highlight the poor pay and conditions of nurses. The Association latter amalgamated with NUPE. Bryn Roberts, the General Secretary of that union was a native of Abertillery and a man whom Thora admired.

After the war she became a union official in the Civil Service Association. As Secretary of the Socialist Medical Association, she met Attlee and other Ministers to discuss the establishment of the NHS in 1948.

(7) Kenneth Sinclair Loutit, Very Little Luggage (2009)

In Spain the personal partnership of Thora and myself had found its practical expression in very simple terms. Then we had but few possessions; we could pack and move in five minutes; we were in perpetual bivouac; our days were filled with automatically interlocking duties, some reciprocal, some separate though our separate targets were, day by day, related. That the Spanish Medical Unit worked well, professionally and socially, was due to its interior discipline and its social atmosphere in the creation of which we both played a significant part. In Spain we had shared both the happiness of being in love and that of joint achievement.

In England, since our return, life was not so simple and its gifts were less manifest. A multiplicity of choices replaced the clear line of conduct with which we had been faced in Spain. As 1938 had been coming to an end, it had become progressively more evident that the Spanish Republic was militarily broken. By March of 1939 this became a fact to which I had been brought agonisingly close...

After our own War had started, we experienced a brief period of unity throughout the whole British Left; but soon the Nazi-Soviet pact brought communists to oppose any effort to defeat the very enemy we had all been fighting in Spain. The anti-fascist basis of the Popular Front was destroyed and with it the unity of the left which had previously been shared by everybody, from radical Conservatives like the Duchess of Athol, on through the Liberal and the Labour Parties and the whole spectrum of progressive opinion. The effect of the Nazi-Soviet pact on Thora, and those like her with old loyalties had been one of confusion and emotional disorientation. In Welsh valley terms it had been as though the Chapel Elders had gone to lodge in the whore-house. If Orwell, before it had actually happened, had invented the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he would have been accused of going too far.

The phoney war of 1939/40 had given us all a breathing space; I personally had been busy enough in France with the Poles and later getting Finsbury ready. Thora had given so much in Spain; since getting back she had come to realise that London under bombardment would be more than she could take. This had led us to hire a cottage on the other side of West Wycombe at Green End. The low rent was conditioned by our keeping on the gardener. He turned out to be a very young Roman Catholic conscientious objector who was always mud-encrusted when he came in to eat and who made outrageous eyes at Lionel Grunbaum whenever he came down to stay with us. Lionel's visits became more frequent.

I have not the heart to attempt a blow-by-blow account of the breakdown of that very brave partnership which Thora and I had shared until this time. For a few months we straddled our existence between Great Ormond Street and the country but, by the time of Dunkirk, Thora had settled into the Green End cottage. The rest of this story would be very different if either of us, or even better if both of us, had given even a quarter as much time to looking after our relationship, as we had been spending on matters external to our marriage. At this precise moment Thora found that she had an unplanned pregnancy. We decided, after preliminary hesitation, to go ahead with it. The prospect of a child was seen by us both more as a remedy for the weakening of our rapport than as the source of proper positive optimism. Of course there should not have been any hesitation at all but the wonderful reciprocity, the automatic consensus, which had ruled our lives in Spain, was failing to function in our more complex London situation. We had had no money problems in Spain, but we had plenty in London. In Spain we had had no housekeeping, no entertaining, our problems were minute; in London our problems were legion. We had no problem of sexual jealousy, our priorites were each for the other, but, imperceptibly at first, the tough fibre of our marriage was thinning out by the time our daughter was born.

As soon as the war started to be serious I had spells of night duty in Finsbury, and Thora stayed more and more at Green End. Once we got out of step, neither of us became any easier with the other. Blocked in London by the Blitz I spent much of my free time with a girl called Melissa who eventually became a Wren. Thora was very tolerant with me, neither of us realised what was happening until the point of no return had been reached. While her presence weakened my linkage with Thora, it did not itself constitute a new bonding, and we soon stopped seeing each other when I met someone whose impact became paramount. In the last years of Melissa's life we became good friends, and her story has been well told.