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

In the first part of our short series on the life of Thora Silverthorne, we ...

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20th CenturyClass & InequalityNeglected FiguresOxfordResearch & Opinion

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

In the first part of our short series on the life of Thora Silverthorne, we ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyClass & InequalityNeglected FiguresOxfordResearch & Opinion
In the first part of our short series on the life of Thora Silverthorne, we covered her migration from South Wales to Oxford, her training as a nurse and a political activist, and her experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Now, we pick up the story with Thora's return to the UK.
Image of a large stone building with bikes at the front, with enlaged detail of a commemoration plaque.
Figure 1: Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary where Thora Silverthorne received her medical training, and a modern plaque dedicated to the former staff. The infirmary was closed in 2007 and now houses humanities facilities for Oxford University. Photograph taken by author in 2022.

Creating Britain’s first union for working class nurses

Arriving back in Britain with her new husband Kenneth in 1937, Thora was inspired by her experiences in Spain to dedicate further energy to nursing and she became the sub-illustrator for Nursing Illustrated. However her marriage to Kenneth failed to last and the two separated. Despite the divorce, Kenneth continued to admire and respect her, praising Thora in his autobiography Very Little Luggage.[1]

Thora’s attention was not just focused on helping sick patients but also on her fellow nurses, as she was appalled by the abysmal conditions, long work hours, and low pay that her fellow nurses were made to endure. This inspired Thora Silverthorne to team up with activists from the Communist Party of Great Britain to begin plans for an organisation which would become Britain’s first ever union for working-class nurses, the National Nurses Association (sometimes called the Association of Nurses).

Although organisations of nurses already existed, they were seen as primarily existing to serve higher-ranking nurses whose wages were already adequate, while ignoring the working-class nurses with the heaviest workloads and the lowest salaries. In the hopes of winning better working conditions, Thora teamed up with fellow nurses belonging to the Communist Party, most notably the famous public health activist Nancy Zinkin, and together they created the National Nurses Association. This union was significant in British history for being the first ever trade union to specifically represent rank and file nurses.

One of the union’s early actions was to lead a march of 1,000 nurses to highlight the terrible conditions and low pay within their profession. In response to Thora and Nancy’s new nursing union, the Royal College of Nursing attacked Thora by falsely claiming that she was not a registered nurse and also attempted to destroy Thora’s reputation by spreading conspiracy theories that she had been paid by the Soviet Union.

The National Nurses Association was a successful step towards uniting British nurses. It eventually merged with another union, which in turn merged again to become Britain’s UNITE the Union, which is today the UK’s largest trade union.

Later life and role in the creation of the NHS

Thora continued to excel in the field of nursing and in 1942 she was appointed as the Organising Secretary (the first ever paid employee) of the Socialist Medical Association, an organisation which led a successful campaign within the Labour Party to promote a taxpayer-funded universal healthcare system. As a leading member of the Socialist Medical Association, she led a delegation to meet and discuss the creation of such a system with future prime minister Clement Attlee. During her time as the Organising Secretary, Thora also met Nye Bevan. The Socialist Medical Association’s campaign for nationalised healthcare in Britain was achieved in 1948 with the founding of the NHS. After playing a leading role in this campaign, Thora spent the rest of her life as a union official and continued serving as a member of both the Labour Party and the British communist movement, the latter of which chose her to greet Picasso upon one of his visits to the UK.

In 1946 Thora married fellow Communist Party activist Nares Craig and continued her work with trade unions until her retirement in 1970.[2] During the later years of her life, alongside her ongoing political activities, Thora also helped to promote the memory of the British volunteers who fought in Spain.

Legacy and importance

Thora Silverthorne passed away in 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was buried in London’s Marylebone cemetery. [3] At her funeral the attendees played a recorded copy of the Welsh national anthem as sung by American civil rights activist Paul Robeson, who during his life was a close friend of Welsh miners and British communists.

Since passing away Thora Silverthorne has been celebrated and praised by all who remember her. Thora’s legacy has been an especially high point of pride for many activists in Wales, who view Thora and her achievements as an extension of their national and working class identity. UNISON’s Welsh HQ dedicated an entire room to Thora Silverthorne, with UNISON’s Welsh regional secretary praising Thora’s service to British nurses, in 2022 a purple plaque was erected to commemorate Thora at the district museum in her hometown of Abertillery,[4] the Communist Party of Britain names her among their heroes, and both London’s Marx Memorial Library and local historians of Oxford’s history have praised her legacy. Thora also left behind a daughter who could not be prouder of what her mother had accomplished during her life.

Written by Dan P.

Note for researchers:
Of the existing biographical articles covering Thora Silverthorne’s life there are some minor inconsistencies. Some sources differ on when Thora’s mother died and at what date she joined the communist movement, and some sources refer to Thora as the Assistant Secretary rather than the Organising Secretary of the Socialist Medical Association, although there is a chance this could be referring to the same position.

References

[1] John Simkin, “Thora Silverthorne,” Spartacus Education, edited in November 2021, https://spartacus-educational.com/Wsilverthorne.htm (accessed August 14, 2022).

[2] John Simkin, “Thora Silverthorne,” Spartacus Education, edited in November 2021, https://spartacus-educational.com/Wsilverthorne.htm (accessed August 14, 2022).

[3] 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).

[4] UNISON, “Legendary union figure honoured with home town plaque,” May 10, 2022, https://cymru-wales.unison.org.uk/uncategorized/2022/05/legendary-union-figure-honoured-with-home-town-plaque/ (accessed 14 August 2022).