Tom Mann was acclaimed the greatest labour agitator and orator of his time.
By Alan Mann
When I first moved to Leeds some 32 years ago, I was asked by a few socialist friends if I was related to Tom Mann. They said something like he was cremated at Lawnswood Cemetery, and a memorial exists somewhere in there for him.
I thought nothing more about it until 2014. I was in the Light Cinema in Leeds watching a film called ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ where at a critical point in the story line they mentioned the Socialist agitator Tom Mann being expelled from Ireland.
So I thought to myself wouldn’t it be nice to see if I could find at the very least the memorial for him. After a few enquiries with the Leeds Trades Council, I was reliably informed that I could locate it by the main doors of the Columbarium. Job done!
Not quite. This year I attended the special exhibition put on by the Leeds Central Library, which commemorated the 80th Anniversary of the ending of the Spanish Civil War. On one of the exhibition banners there was an old photograph showing a group of young men who were part of the Tom Mann International Brigade.
Clearly, I need to exorcise Tom Mann who seems to be following me throughout my life. I may not be related to him but I do feel an affinity so he deserves this article in the Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery newsletter.
Tom Mann was born on 15 April 1856 in Grange Road, Longford, now a suburb of Coventry, the son of a clerk who worked at a colliery. He attended school from the ages of six to nine, then began work doing odd jobs on the colliery farm. A year later he became a trapper, a labour-intensive job that involved clearing blockages from the narrow airways in the mining shafts. In 1870, the colliery was forced to close and the family moved to Birmingham. Mann soon found work as an engineering apprentice. He attended public meetings addressed by Annie Besant and John Bright, and this began his political awareness. He completed his apprenticeship in 1877 and moved to London, however he was unable to find work as an engineer and took a series of unskilled jobs.
In 1879, Mann found work in an engineering shop. Here he was introduced to socialism by the foreman, and decided to improve his own education. His reading included the works of William Morris, Henry George and John Ruskin. In 1881 he joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and took part in his first strike. In 1884, he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in Battersea. Here he met John Burns and Henry Hyde Champion, who encouraged him to publish a pamphlet calling for the working day to be limited to eight hours. Mann formed an organisation, the Eight Hour League, which successfully pressured the Trades Union Congressto adopt the eight-hour day as a key goal.
Activist and Leader
After reading the Communist Manifesto in 1886, Mann became a communist. He now believed the main purpose of the labour movement should be to overthrow capitalism, rather than just to ameliorate the condition of workers under it. He moved to Newcastle in 1887 and organised the SDF in the north of England. He managed Keir Hardie‘s electoral campaign in Lanark before returning to London in 1888, where he worked in support of the Bryant and May match factory strike. With Burns and Champion, he began producing a journal, the Labour Elector, in 1888.
Along with Burns and Ben Tillett, Mann was one of the leading figures in the London dock strike of 1889. He was responsible for organising relief for the strikers and their families. With the support of other unions and various organisations, the strike was successful. Following the strike, Mann was elected President of the newly formed Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union, with Tillett as General Secretary. Tillett and Mann wrote a pamphlet called New Unionism, which advanced the utopian ideal of a co-operative commonwealth. Mann was also elected to the London Trades and Labour Council and as secretary of the National Reform Union, and was a member of the Royal Commission on Labour from 1891 to 1893. In 1894, he was a founding member of the Independent Labour Party and became the party Secretary in 1894. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the party in the 1895 General Election. In 1896 he was beaten in the election for Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. He helped create the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and was its first President. He was deported from several European countries for organising trade unions.
Australia and Liverpool In 1902, Mann emigrated to Australia, to see if that country’s broader electoral franchise would allow more “drastic modification of capitalism”. Settling in Melbourne, he was active in Australian trade unions and became an organiser for the Australian Labour Party. However, he grew disillusioned with the party, believing it was being corrupted by the nature of government and concerned only with winning elections. He felt that the federal Labour MPs were unable and unwilling to change society, and their prominence within the movement was stifling and over-shadowing organised labour. He resigned from the ALP and founded the Victorian Socialist Party.
Returning to Britain in 1910, Mann wrote The Way to Win, a pamphlet that argued that socialism could be achieved only through trade unionism and co-operation, and that parliamentary democracy was inherently corrupt. He founded the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, and worked as an organiser for Ben Tillett. He led the 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike. In 1912 he was convicted under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797 of publishing an article in The Syndicalist, as an ‘Open Letter to British Soldiers’, urging them to refuse to shoot at strikers (later reprinted as a leaflet, Don’t Shoot); his prison sentence was quashed after public pressure. He was opposed to Britain’s involvement in World War I on socialist and religious grounds and addressed pacifist rallies.
On 10 June 1913 he spoke at Wednesbury Market Place in support of strikers in the Great Black Country Trades Dispute, which lasted for two months and threatened government preparations for World War I. Mann returned to the area again on 3 July.
Veteran campaigner In 1919, he again ran for election as Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, this time successfully. He held the post until 1921, when he retired at the age of sixty-five. He welcomed the Russian October Revolution in 1917 and the Communist government, and called for soviets to be formed in the United Kingdom. In 1920, he was one of many members of the British Socialist Party, inspired by the Revolution, who formed the Communist Party of Great Britain. Mann was chairman of the British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions and its successor, the National Minority Movement, from their formation in 1921 until 1929.
Tom Mann continued to actively champion socialism, communism, and co-operation, until his death in 1941. He published further pamphlets and regularly addressed public meetings, in Britain and abroad. He was arrested for sedition, on several occasions. He continued to be a popular figure in the labour movement, attracting large audiences to rallies and benefits. During the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to fight on the
A unit of the International Brigade, the Tom Mann Centuria, was named in his honour. Tom Mann died on 13 March 1941.
His great grandson, Nicholas Bennett, was Conservative MP for Pembroke 1987–92 and a Welsh Office Minister 1990–92.