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Thora Silverthorne: Fighter, Healer, Leader (Part I)

Of all the local heroes who have passed through the city of Oxford, few saved ...

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20th CenturyClass & InequalityNeglected FiguresOxfordResearch & Opinion

Thora Silverthorne: Fighter, Healer, Leader (Part I)

Of all the local heroes who have passed through the city of Oxford, few saved ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyClass & InequalityNeglected FiguresOxfordResearch & Opinion

Of all the local heroes who have passed through the city of Oxford, few saved as many lives as Thora Silverthorne. In this article we cover one of Oxford’s most influential medical practitioners, whose contributions have sadly been largely overlooked and unrecognised.

Three pictures collated showing a portrait of a woman (centre) and the same woman in a nurse uniform at work (left and right).
Figure 1: Thora Silverthorne (centre) with photographs from her medical service during the Spanish Civil War (left & right). Note that some of the historical images in this article have been altered using an AI image upscaler to achieve a higher resolution. This was done to compensate for the poor quality of many of the surviving photographs.

Before we progress to learning about Thora’s incredible life, here is a list of her greatest achievements:

  1. Playing a key role in the founding of the NHS.
  2. Creating Britain’s first union for working-class nurses.
  3. Risking her life to help create the first foreign-built hospital on the republican side of the Spanish Civil War, a hospital in which she was later elected to manage.
  4. Giving medical aid to members of the National Unemployment Movement who marched through Oxford.
  5. Meeting many of 20th century Britain’s most iconic political figures, and being on friendly terms with Pablo Picasso, Nye Bevin, and Clement Attlee.
Black and white archive photo for an industrial town with visible chimneys and factories.
Figure 2: Thora Silverthorne’s childhood hometown, Abertillery, South Wales (circa 1905).

Thora’s early life

Born in the Welsh mining town of Abertillery in 1910, Thora Silverthorne belonged to a large working class family as one of eight children and would gain a scholarship to study at Abertillery Grammar School.[1] Thora’s father, like many working class miners, was an active trade unionist and an early recruit of the Communist Party of Great Britain.[2] Come the 1926 United Kingdom General Strike, Thora followed her father’s example and at the age of 16 she joined the youth wing of the Communist Party, known as the Young Communist League.[3] She also joined the Labour Party and served as a lifelong member of both organisations. As a teenager she deepened her involvement in political activism, chairing meetings led by communist activist Arthur Horner, a leader of the Welsh working class and future president of the National Union of Miners.[4]

After the death of her mother and her father being fired for his involvement with trade unions, Thora moved to the English city of Reading with her family where she made a living by selling copies of the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker. This newspaper is today known as the Morning Star and has gone on to become Britain’s largest and longest running socialist newspaper. Selling the paper was often a lifeline for British workers who had been fired from their jobs for standing up for the rights of their fellow workers.

Declassified British intelligence archives later revealed that Thora’s communist beliefs had led British spies to create a file on her activities, intercept her mail and wiretap her phone. In 1931 Thora left Reading to pursue her own goal of becoming a nurse, joining one of her sisters in moving to Oxford for medical training at the famous Radcliffe Infirmary.[5]

Welsh, German, & Spanish refugees, united in the city of Oxford

Before this article covers Thora Silverthorne’s adult life, it is important to understand the time period she lived in and the changes that Oxford went through during these years. Thora was far from the only Welsh person to call Oxford their home during the 1930s, as massive waves of Welsh workers moved into Oxford during this time hoping to find new employment in the city’s steel and car factories. They had been forced to leave their homes due to widespread poverty and unemployment in Wales, caused by several factors including Royal Navy ships switching from coal to oil and advancements in automation making many manual labourers redundant. The threat of starvation drove many of these desperate workers to make a dangerous journey to Oxford on foot, with some falling ill and dying before reaching the city. After arriving in Oxford, the Welsh were met with racism, discriminatory housing practices, slum-like living conditions, and low wages in their new factory employment.

However many of the unemployed workers moving to Oxford had been previously fired from their jobs in Wales for their trade union activities, thus bringing into the city many experienced and battle hardened left-wing activist leaders who quickly began to organise and resist their new oppressive conditions. Oxford during the 1930s Oxford also became a temporary home for many German academics (the most famous of whom was Albert Einstein) fleeing the Nazis, and Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s fascists. This large number of working class people and anti-fascists of multiple nationalities, social classes, and political beliefs, combined with the arrival of experienced trade unionists and an increasing industrial proletariat within Oxford’s rising mechanical industries, all created the conditions for a tsunami of socialist political activism in Oxford.

Arrival and training in Oxford

It was this world of Welsh workers, anti-fascist refugees, and rising socialist activism in Oxford that Thora found herself becoming involved in. After beginning her training at the Radcliffe Infirmary, she quickly became active in the October Club, the University of Oxford’s communist society.[6] During this time she befriended the famous Marxist historian and future master of Balliol College, Christopher Hill.[7] Her activism in Oxford and activities with the October Club led to people labelling her as “Red Silverthorne”. Among her key memories during her time in Oxford, Thora recalled taking medical supplies from the Radcliffe Camera to help wounded hunger marchers during a march of unemployed workers that travelled through the city.[8]

Though Thora’s time in Oxford was brief, the skills she learned there, coupled with the political influences of the city’s wave of socialist activism, would change the British medical field forever. Interestingly Thora was not the only anti-fascist to pass through Oxford who ended up having a lasting impact on medicine, as one of the aforementioned German Jewish refugees who fled to Oxford (Ernst Chain) played a key part in the isolation and concentration of penicillin.

Thora and the Spanish Civil War

In 1934, Thora left Oxford and briefly worked at a hospital in London. During this time she met Dr Charles Wortham Brook, the former secretary of the Cambridge University Socialist Society. Dr Brook also happened to be a key member of an organisation called the Spanish Medical Aid Committee (SMAC) which was established with the help of the Communist Party of Great Britain to deliver medical aid to Spain during the early onset of the Spanish Civil War. Disgusted by the rise of fascism across Europe and hoping to put the skills she learned in Oxford to practical use, Thora Silverthorne joined the SMAC and travelled with the first British medical mission to the republican side of the Spanish Civil War.[9] She was far from alone, being one of the approximately 2,500 volunteers from Britain and Ireland who fought against fascism in Spain. The majority of these were also recruited by the Communist Party of Great Britain, which facilitated their travel.

After arriving in Spain, Thora helped establish a hospital in the small town of Grañén in the Aragon region, a place which would become a centre of intense fighting which killed many of the British volunteers. Despite the horrific injuries she treated, the squalid conditions she endured, the lack of supplies, and the ever present danger of fascist aircraft which intentionally targeted medical facilities, Thora rose to the occasion and worked to save as many lives as she could. Her efforts were recognised by her peers, who then elected Thora to become the matron of the hospital.[10] During her continued work for the hospital, one harrowing experience that Thora never forgot was when British antifascist, Michael Livesea, died in her arms. She also recalled the day in which her hospital had to treat over 700 patients in five days during the Huesca offensive.[11] Thora’s lifesaving work in Spain was praised by her peers, and fondly remembered by the famous surgeon Archie Cochrane who developed a great respect for Thora’s skills. Despite putting on a brave face for colleagues and patients, the horrors of the war deeply disturbed Thora who was never able to become accustomed to the bloodshed.

Nonetheless, amidst the horrific realities of everyday life in a warzone, surrounded by death and slaughter, Thora met a fellow medical expert called Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, with whom she would fall in love and marry in 1937 while still serving as a nurse in Spain. The couple drove a camouflaged ambulance and served as pathfinders for medical staff in Spain, a role which put them in constant danger of being bombed by fascist aircraft.[12] Among her memories of serving in Spain, some very human anecdotes have left their mark on Thora’s surviving family. According to Thora Silverthorne’s daughter, many Spanish people had trouble pronouncing the “th” in Thora, so she was given the very masculine nickname of Toro meaning bull. To get around this issue, some Spanish speakers began calling her ‘Toro con leche’, meaning ‘bull with milk’.

After the medical unit of British volunteers was absorbed officially into the republican government, Thora made the journey home to Britain.[13] Although her time on the front lines was over, her life would soon be dominated by a new kind of battle: the struggle for nurses’ rights within the fledgling NHS.

This is the first of two articles telling the life story of Thora Silverthorne. Part II will follow in a week's time.

Written by Dan P.


References

[1] Bryan Boots, “Silverthorne, Thora (1910 – 1999), nurse and trade unionist,” March 15, 2021, https://biography.wales/article/s12-SILV-THO-1910 (accessed 14 August 2022).

[2] Chris Farman, Valery Rose, and Liz Woolley, No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, (Oxford: Oxford International Brigades Memorial Trust, 2015) 93.

[3] Simon Meddick, Liz Payne, Phil Katz, Red Lives: Communists and the Struggle for Socialism, (London: Manifesto Press, 2020) 184.

[4] Bryan Boots, “Silverthorne, Thora (1910 – 1999), nurse and trade unionist,” March 15, 2021,

https://biography.wales/article/s12-SILV-THO-1910 (accessed 14 August 2022).

[5] Chris Farman, Valery Rose, and Liz Woolley, No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, (Oxford: Oxford International Brigades Memorial Trust, 2015) 93-94.

[6] Simon Meddick, Liz Payne, Phil Katz, Red Lives: Communists and the Struggle for Socialism, (London: Manifesto Press, 2020) 184-185.

[7] Bryan Boots, “Silverthorne, Thora (1910 – 1999), nurse and trade unionist,” March 15, 2021, https://biography.wales/article/s12-SILV-THO-1910 (accessed 14 August 2022).

[8] Chris Farman, Valery Rose, and Liz Woolley, No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, (Oxford: Oxford International Brigades Memorial Trust, 2015) 94.

[9] Bryan Boots, “Silverthorne, Thora (1910 – 1999), nurse and trade unionist,” March 15, 2021, https://biography.wales/article/s12-SILV-THO-1910 (accessed 14 August 2022).

[10] Bryan Boots, “Silverthorne, Thora (1910 – 1999), nurse and trade unionist,” March 15, 2021, https://biography.wales/article/s12-SILV-THO-1910 (accessed 14 August 2022).

[11] Simon Meddick, Liz Payne, Phil Katz, Red Lives: Communists and the Struggle for Socialism, (London: Manifesto Press, 2020) 185.

[12] Jim Fyrth, The Signal was Spain: The Spanish Aid Movement in Britain, 1936-39, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2011) 66.