Parliament And World War One by Dick Barry. Will Thorne, The War, And The Working Class
The following Motion was made, and Question proposed, on 1 March 1915:
“That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £37,000,000, be granted to His Majesty, beyond the ordinary Grants of Parliament, towards defraying the Expenses which may be incurred during the year ending the 31st day of March, 1915, for all measures which may be taken for the Security of the Country; for the conduct of Naval and Military Operations; for assisting the Food Supply, and promoting the Continuance of Trade, Industry, Business, and Communications, whether by means of insurance or indemnity against risk, the financing of the purchase and resale of food-stuffs and materials, or otherwise; for Relief of Distress; and generally for all expenses arising out of the existence of a state of war.
Will Thorne was born in Birmingham on 8 October, 1857. As a young man he worked in a variety of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs. In 1882, Thorne and his wife and their two children moved to London where he found work at the Beckton Gasworks. Shortly after arriving in London he joined the Canning Town branch of the Social Democratic Federation. He was soon appointed branch secretary and began to attend national meetings of the organisation. Eleanor Marx, a key SDF member, taught Thorne to read and write. In 1889 he helped to establish the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers, becoming its General Secretary after an election in which he defeated Ben Tillett. In 1894 he was elected to the Trades Union Congress Parliamentary Committee, a position he held until 1933. He became active in local politics in West Ham, serving as Councillor, Alderman and Mayor. After Keir Hardie lost his West Ham seat, Thorne became the Labour Party candidate. He was defeated in the 1900 General Election but won the right to represent the constituency in 1906. Thorne supported Britain’s involvement in the First World War and joined the West Ham Volunteer Force with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. His eldest son joined the army and was killed at Ypres in 1917. In the 1918 General Election Thorne was elected as Labour MP for Plaistow, holding the seat until his retirement in 1945. He died on 2 January 1946.
Mr W. Thorne:
“I want to make reference to that part of the Prime Minister’s speech in which the right hon. Gentleman suggested that employers and workmen should try to settle their grievances without resorting to the unfortunate method of striking. So far as I am concerned I hold up both hands for the Vote the Government are now asking for, and if they come to us with a demand for still another Vote, they will have my support, because I have made up my mind that, whatever money the Government wants in order to carry the War to a successful issue shall be granted to them. On the other hand, so far as organised labour is concerned, I do not think that the government have any reason to complain at all. The union which I represent, before the War commenced, had a membership of about 140,000, and over 20,000 of the members have joined the colours; as a matter of fact, in some of our branches as many as 75 per cent. of the men have joined. Taking organised workers as a whole throughout the country, I do not think I am exaggerating when I state that over 200,000 workmen belonging to the different trade unions have already enlisted. On an average about 10 per cent. of the total membership have joined, and, therefore, I think, from a trade union standpoint, the Government has absolutely no cause of complaint at all.”
“But I hold there is a duty devolving on the Government as well as on the men. Personally I do not say the Government have done all they could do. They ought, in the first place, to put their own house in order. There are some thousands of employees who are working in the various Government Departments for very low wages who have had absolutely no increase whatever. There are many women working in the Post Office who have been taken on as auxiliaries to do certain work hitherto done by men, and they are doing it efficiently for about £1 per week less than was paid to the men who have joined the Colours. It seems to me that in cases like that the Government should have no hesitation at all in increasing the wages of those employees, in view of the rapid rise in the cost of food-stuffs—a rise which bears very heavily indeed upon the London population.”
“The Government can, I think, help us in many ways. My own union, for instance, or other organisations, may make representation to firms engaged in the manufacture of munitions of war. In one case such a firm has offered a very scanty advance. What are we to do? Are we to advise the men to accept it for the time being, and then, when we have advised a settlement, find the employers ignoring us altogether? I must say that, so far as my own union is concerned, we have not had the slightest difficulty with our members. At an early stage of the War we closed down every strike, and, in some cases, the men returned to work on conditions which were worse than those which obtained when they went out. I have another instance. At Stowmarket there are men working under most dangerous conditions. The munitions of war made in those works are of a most dangerous character, and I read of one explosion in which hundreds of men were blown up, the remains of some never being found. These men are working under these conditions at a rate of about 5d. or 51/2d. per hour. This week the firm has come along and offered them, 2s. in some cases and in other cases only1s., on the condition that they make a 541/2 hour week. If a man loses a single quarter of an hour during the week he is not to get the increase.”
“What are we to do under conditions like that? Are we to advise the men to accept them? Certainly after what the Prime Minister just said, we will advise them to do it for the time being, but I would suggest that the Government itself might see if it cannot bring pressure to bear upon this particular firm. I am informed it is not now a question of contracts. In many cases it is simply a question, ‘Present your bill and we will pay it.’ The Government have already agreed to make good a very large extent the concessions that have been made by various railway companies in different parts of the country, which means that men receiving less than 30s. are to get an advance of 3s., and those earning more than 30s. an advance of 2s. If the Government could persuade the employers of labour in all parts of the country to make a similar advance I should have no hesitation in saying that, for the remaining period of the War, unless food-stuffs go up further in price, the men to a very great extent would be satisfied.”
“There has been a great deal of talk in the newspapers and among train and tram passengers about the unpatriotic manner in which the men on the Clyde have viewed the situation. May I remind the Committee that not only on the Clyde, but the Tyne and throughout the North-East Coast, men have been working from sixty to ninety hours a week; that they have been subject to this physical strain for four or five weeks at a stretch, and that therefore it is impossible to keep good time all along? They are bound to lose time, and in these trades we find that, in consequence of the heavy strain, our members are liable to sickness. In consequence of increased sickness the cost has been greater. I know that at Grantham men have been working sixty, seventy, and even ninety hours a week. I say it is a physical impossibility for men to work under such conditions, and the country should understand the conditions under which the men have been working. At any rate, so far as the majority of workmen are concerned, I feel certain that they will take the advice of the Prime Minister, and also the advice which the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave in the speech which he delivered on Saturday last. I think if the labour leaders advise the men to refer all these matters to the Arbitration Committee an effort should be made to speed up their consideration so that early decisions will be given. There is nothing more irritating to men than to have to wait for decisions.”
“May I remind the House that this Committee is not giving satisfaction as regards its composition? I think there ought to be at least two Labour Members on the Committee. I admit that Sir G. Ask with is a good man and that he has done some good work in connection with labour disputes, but it is impossible for him to understand all the technicalities in connection with the different questions which will come up from time to time. There is not a single representative of organised labour on the Committee. Why should we not have at least two Members on the Committee? If men do not want to work, what powers have you at your command to make them do so? In my opinion you will have to satisfy the men that their claims will be properly considered. I believe that compulsory arbitration is coming along. Compulsory arbitration has been voted down by organised labour many times. I do not think you will get the men to accept compulsory arbitration.”
“I know we are living under military law. There are always spies at meetings, and if we advise men to come out on strike we will have to take the risk of being brought before a court martial. I would suggest that the Government should start by giving an advance of wages to those who have not had an advance, and in that way give a good example to employers who have not advanced wages. You may talk about pig-headed workmen, but it should be remembered that there are pig-headed employers as well. If employers would adopt reasonable terms, we will get the workmen to act more reasonably than some of them seem to do at present. The Government have power to put an end to the exploiting methods of shipowners, and I think they should put their power into operation. The men who are in the coal trade should not blame the workmen. I hope the Government will do their duty to the workmen, and endeavour to see that they get reasonable conditions as regards the hours of labour and wages.”