Pioneering Newham campaigner honoured at Old Town Hall

Will Thorne

Will Thorne - Credit: Newham Heritage & Archives

Will Thorne is what anyone would call a legendary figure in Newham’s history.

GMB 125th Anniversary - Cllr Desai with GMB President Mary Turner and Mayor Sir Robin Wales

GMB 125th Anniversary - Cllr Desai with GMB President Mary Turner and Mayor Sir Robin Wales - Credit: Andrew Wiard /

He served as a councillor, a mayor, an alderman and a Member of Parliament during his years of service between 1891 and 1945.

But he became better known for the crucial role he played in fighting for worker’s rights and creating a national union for gas workers and general labourers in the borough.

So, the fact that the council chamber at the Old Town Hall in Broadway, Stratford, has been renamed after such a pioneering campaigner comes as no surprise.

On December 1st, the Will Thorne Chamber was unveiled to mark the 125th anniversary of the GMB, the trade union he helped to create in Newham.

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Senior archivist at Newham Heritage & Archives, Richard Durack, said: “He was a legendary figure for Newham in all the work that he did as a politician but also with the GMB.”

Will Thorne was born in Birmingham on October 8, 1857. As a child, he endured considerable hardship, he was illeterate, and started working a number of different jobs from the age of six.

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He moved to Upton Park after marrying Harriet Hallam at 22 where he started work at the Beckton Gas Works.

During the 1880s, the company underwent several changes with the introduction of the “Iron Man” - a compressed air machine which automatically drew and recharged the furnaces - this reduced the number of employees but because of constant breakdowns, work became harder for the remainder.

The 18 hour weekend shifts were also introduced around the same time and it was this that really gave Will the push to stand and speak up for worker’s rights.

In 1889, he organised a mass meeting in Barking Road, where Canning Town Library now stands, and by 1899 he helped socialist activist, Eleanor Marx, establish the National Union of Gasworkers & General Labouruers.

Mr Durack added: “His work in the creation of the GMB was great. He became the general secretary and was successful in holding negotiations to reduce members working days from 12 to eight hours.”

After this, Will climbed from rank to rank, he entered local politics and sat as MP for the West Ham constituencies from 1906 t 1945.

In 1930, following years of campaigning, he was created Companion of the British Empire.

He died in 1946, aged 89.

Mayor Sir Robin Wales said: “It is fitting that we can honour Will, who contributed so much to supporting the rights of workers, in such a landmark year for the union he formed.”

President of the GMB, Mary Turner, added: “As in Will Thorne’s day, the union he and Eleanor Marx founded is growing locally and improving the lives of local people in working with the council.

“There is still lots to do and GMB will continue its work for GMB members in 2015.”

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