In his time, Ernest Thornton was the most prominent of all Dreadnought Boys. He was a national and international figure. He was both loved, and intensively loathed – he evoked strong feelings, which often decried his achievements. Viewed half a century later, it is possible to be more objective about Ernest Thornton.
Ernest Thornton was born on 13 March 1907 in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, to Lewis and Selina Thornton. His father, Lewis, was a tram driver for the Huddersfield Corporation’s municipal tram system. The 1911 census shows both parents present, and reveals that Ernest was the only surviving child, two others had already died. He was four years old when his mother left the family soon after.
Brought up by his father and educated at local board schools, Ernest Thornton started work at 14 years of age. He worked in factory jobs and on building sites, where his own experience stirred concerns about the pay and conditions of working people, and their relative powerlessness to change them. As a Huddersfield boy, he would have learnt about the industrial violence of the Luddites in the town 110 years earlier. His interest in radical politics was born!
By 1924 it was time for a change, and having been accepted for the Dreadnought Scheme, Ernest Thornton sailed for Australia in the Demosthenes. Arriving in Sydney on 12 June 1924, 17-year-old Thornton was sent to Scheyville Farm at Pitt Town west of Sydney. After three months’ training, he was given a country farm placement, but he was not impressed by his treatment and moved on south to Victoria. He found work on farms, road construction and a variety of other jobs. During these years his views became more militant, his attitude hardened by forced unemployment as the Depression hit. Ernie Thornton became more involved with the Unemployed Workers Movement.
For Thornton, 1931 was a pivotal year. In it, he formally joined the Communist Party of Australia, convinced of its promise and finding opportunity to use his powerful rhetoric. It was the beginning of his public crusade. In September police broke up his meeting in Bendigo, but in doing so boosted recruitment to the local UWM branch. In December Ernie Thornton stood as election candidate in the Federal seat of Yarra, opposing James Scullin, the then Labor Prime Minister. Thornton also emerged as a prolific contributor to the Worker’s Weekly published in Sydney. “We must lead and not follow.”, he called.
In 1932, Thornton stood for the State seat of Melbourne. With little chance of winning, the aim was to build voter support. However, in October, Ernie Thornton felt the impact of the CPA’s rigid discipline, when he was expelled from the Party. His “extreme egoism” was seen as the core of the problem by his District Committee. In January 1933, he was re-admitted to the Party by its Central Committee, the Worker’s Weekly publishing this news, along with Thornton’s 830 word mea culpa.
June 1934 saw Ernie Thornton (election photo above) again standing unsuccessfully against Scullin (now Federal Opposition Leader). More important personally, on 9 August Ernie married Lila Felstead, a divorced mother with two boys.
In the next few years, Thornton’s rise in political and trade union power continued – he became Secretary of the Victorian Communist Party, took his place on the Victorian Labor Council, representing the Federated Ironworkers Association (in spite of attempts to block it), and in 1936 became General Secretary of the FIA of Australia. In 1939 this position became a full-time appointment. He and the family moved up to Sydney, also in 1939.
Thornton, while busy with union growth, still found time to promote his strategies in pamphlets which he published (eg. Inquiry into the Steelworks - in 1942 and Stronger Trade Unions in 1943). In 1943, munitions workers were brought under the FIA umbrella. Ernest Thornton, at only 36 years of age, was now one of the most powerful men in Australia, with industrial control of both the nation’s steel and munitions industries – The Red Czar of Australia. At the Australian Council of Trade Unions Congress in 1945, the CPA controlled 90 out of 400 delegates, and Thornton was able to orchestrate the election of three communists to the ACTU Executive.
Ernest Thornton’s international profile grew in the late 1940s, with his involvement with the World Federation of Trade Unions. His first attempt as an Australian delegate was stymied by developments in the war, but in October 1945 he attended the Paris Congress and afterward visited the USSR. He returned in early 1946, with a more aggressive agenda. The Chifley Government was a particular target over the issues of wage pegging and economic restraint, and failure to develop an independent foreign policy.
Thornton had the first serious challenge to his industrial base when his hold on the FIA was tested in the 1946 FIA elections by a dissident (Trotskyist) group in the Balmain branch of the union, and by the Labor Party’s Industrial Group. He continued his overseas activities, attending a conference in Russia and the second WFTU Congress in Italy although, by 1949, ACTU support for this was drying up. Internal struggles in union branches around Australia were growing, opponents more and more determined.
These struggles culminated in the infamous 1949 FIA elections. The Thornton ticket had won, but the result was challenged by rival, Laurie Short, in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. After a long drawn out case, the Court found that the vote had been rigged with at least 1800 forged votes. A watershed moment in union politics and in Thornton’s life! Ernest Thornton did not wait around for the result, he resigned in 1950 and went to Peking (Beijing) as Australian Liaison Officer in the WFTU. The WFTU was now regarded as a direct arm of Soviet communism.
Thornton returned unexpectedly to Sydney in August 1953, and having organised a delegation of trade unionists for it, left six weeks later to attend the third Congress of the WFTU in Vienna. Back in Australia at the end of 1953, Ernest Thornton was jobless. He did get a job with Stephenson’s at Mascot on 15th February 1954, but it lasted one day. Under pressure from the new FIA leadership, he was sacked on the 16th with one week’s pay. Subsequently he took up full-time work with the CPA until 1967, when the party’s finances meant he had to find other work. Aged 60, Ernie Thornton qualified as a crane driver, and joining the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association, he became honorary president in Sydney.
Following a heart attack, Ernest Thornton died on 29 June 1969, leaving wife, Lila, and his two stepsons. He was 62 years old.
A fearless man? He was a Dreadnought!