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Mann, Thomas (Tom) (1856–1941)

by Graeme Osborne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Thomas Mann (1856-1941), by unknown photographer

Thomas Mann (1856-1941), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2626

Thomas (Tom) Mann (1856-1941), trade unionist and socialist, was born on 15 April 1856 at Foleshill, Warwickshire, England, son of Thomas Mann, bookkeeper, and his wife Mary Ann, née Grant. After three years schooling he began work at 10 in the claustrophobic underground passages of the Victoria Colliery. His only positive memories of childhood were of weekly church and Sunday-school attendance. In 1870 the family moved to Birmingham where he completed an engineering apprenticeship and embraced self-improvement, temperance and radicalism, while intensifying his religious commitment.

In 1877 Mann left Birmingham for London and, arriving during the 'great depression', experienced unemployment, poverty and loneliness. On 2 October 1879 he married Ellen Edwards. Finding regular work at his trade in the early 1880s, he began his career as a labour activist, his growing involvement with unionism, socialism and political action reflected in his membership of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (1881), the Social Democratic Federation (1885), and the Independent Labour Party of which he was secretary in 1894-97. He was an ardent eight-hours advocate, and his pamphlet, What a Compulsory Eight Hour Day Means to the Workers, was published by H. H. Champion in 1886. Mann's concern to unionize the unskilled led in 1889 to his achieving international prominence as a leader of the London dock strike.

During the next decade Tom Mann vacillated between unionism, Labour parliamentarianism (standing unsuccessfully three times), liberal reformism, Fabianism, S.D.F. socialism and religion. In 1893 he contemplated ordination to the Anglican priesthood. After the breakdown of his marriage and the failure of his Workers' Union to meet his high expectations, Mann sailed in December 1901 for New Zealand, where he worked as organizer for the New Zealand Socialist Party. In September 1902 he arrived in Australia to undertake a lecture tour, bringing with him Elsie Harker, singer and fellow socialist, who remained his lifelong companion.

Mann travelled widely throughout Australasia, demonstrating the oratorical powers and organizational skills for which he was famed in England. He visited New South Wales and South Australia in 1902, Tasmania in 1903 and 1906, Western Australia in 1904, Queensland in 1905 and New Zealand again in 1908. His greatest influence was in Victoria where in 1903-04 he worked as organizer for the Political Labor Council, helping to expand it from a small, beleaguered Melbourne-based party to a State-wide organization with significant parliamentary representation. But he failed to persuade it to adopt a socialist platform.

Impatient with parliamentary laborism, in March 1906 Mann founded and became secretary of the Victorian Socialist Party, a development anticipated in his pamphlet Socialism (1905). Funded in part by his wealthy friend J. P. Jones, it grew to a membership of 1500 by August and produced its own weekly, the Socialist, edited initially by Mann, who also threw himself into its educational, social and political activities. During the winter of 1906 the V.S.P. led agitation on unemployment and in November Mann and other members were imprisoned in a campaign for free speech.

Unable to gain acceptance for the V.S.P. by the broader labour movement, or to prevent factionalism in its own ranks over issues such as co-operation with the Labor Party, Mann turned to industrial activism, lecturing and writing on 'revolutionary unionism'. His activities culminated in participation as industrial organizer for the Broken Hill (New South Wales) Combined Unions Committee in the prolonged, bitterly fought dispute in 1908-09 between the miners and the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd. In January 1909 he was arrested on charges of sedition and unlawful assembly but was acquitted in April after trial in Albury. Unsatisfactory settlement of the dispute through arbitration and continuing contact with international socialism convinced Mann of the need for militant industrial action, a belief expounded in his pamphlets of 1909, The Way to Win and Industrial Unionism.

In December, perhaps disheartened by the parochialism of the Australian labour movement and its resistance to his industrial advocacy, Mann sailed with his family for Britain via South Africa, where he worked briefly for the Johannesburg miners. He arrived in London in May 1910 with a new sense of direction forged from his Australian experience. With the journalist Guy Bowman, he launched the Industrial Syndicalist, which urged concerted, direct industrial action, and resumed his role of organizer of strikes and union activities. He was elected general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1919 and of the Amalgamated Engineering Union in 1920. A member of the British Socialist Party from 1916, he became a founder-member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. In 1924-32 he chaired the National Minority Movement which sought workers' control of industry. He made four trips to Russia and also visited North America, China and Sweden. He died on 13 March 1941 at Grassington, Yorkshire.

Select Bibliography

  • Punch (Melbourne), 5 July 1906
  • Bulletin, 5 Jan 1905, 22 Jan 1920
  • Times (London), 14 Mar 1941
  • C. G. W. Osborne, Tom Mann: His Australasian Experience, 1902-1910 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972) and for bibliography.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graeme Osborne, 'Mann, Thomas (Tom) (1856–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mann-thomas-tom-7475/text13027, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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