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Thornton, Ernest (1907–1969)

by Robert Murray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Ernest Thornton (1907-1969), trade-union leader, was born on 13 March 1907 at Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, son of Lewis Thornton, tram driver, and his wife Selina, née Kerry. Ernie's mother, a domestic servant from Ireland, left when he was 2, and he was raised by his father. After taking factory and building jobs, he was brought to Sydney by the Dreadnought Trust. Arriving in the Demosthenes on 12 June 1924, he was sent to the Government Training Farm at Scheyville, near Windsor. He soon left to work in the construction industry and became a militant unionist. Unemployed in the Depression, he joined the communist-led Militant Minority Movement and, through it, the Communist Party of Australia. In a civil ceremony at 157 Collins Street, Melbourne, on 9 August 1934 he married Alice Mary ('Lila') Felstead, née Curtis, a divorcee with two sons.

Using rigid discipline and a national network of members, the C.P.A. campaigned to take over the trade-union movement as a base for revolution. Thornton led a drive to capture the Federated Ironworkers' Association of Australia, which covered steelworkers, tradesmen's assistants and other semi-skilled metal workers. Young, vigorous and confident in his cause (unlike some F.I.A. officials), he was elected as an organizer in the Melbourne office in 1935. Within a year he was part-time general secretary. From 1937 he was a member of the central committee of the C.P.A.

The recovery in industry in the late 1930s boosted union membership and funds. Thornton's post was made full time and he moved to the national office in Sydney in mid-1939. Despite the embarrassment of the Hitler-Stalin pact and Communist coolness during the early stages of World War II, Thornton and his 'red' colleagues cemented party control over the F.I.A. Communists held most of the paid jobs, and amalgamated the F.I.A. with unions covering wiremakers and munitions workers.

This success was due partly to the dynamism and ruthless militancy of Thornton and his team, but it also owed much to the erratically buoyant wartime economic conditions which persisted into the postwar years. Thornton published numerous propaganda pamphlets, including Stronger Trade Unions (1943). Working with its allies, the Communist Party was almost able to control the Australasian Council of Trade Unions congress in 1945. Like other communist leaders, Thornton proclaimed his allegiance to the Soviet Union and his ardent admiration of Josef Stalin. He frequently travelled to conferences overseas and in 1950 held three valid passports.

In 1946 Thornton's control of the F.I.A. was challenged by a dissident group in the Balmain branch on Sydney's waterfront and by the Australian Labor Party's Industrial Groups. Laurie Short, a Balmain dissident, led a well-organized 'grouper ticket' against Thornton at the 1949 F.I.A. elections. The returns showed that the 'Thornton ticket' had won, but Short challenged the ballot. Following a long, sensational inquiry in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, Judge E. A. Dunphy found that 'persons unknown' had rigged the ballot (with 1800 or more forged votes) and declared Short elected national secretary. Short's team won most F.I.A. positions in the ensuing national elections (1951 and 1952).

In 1950, however, Thornton had resigned to become Australasian representative at the liaison bureau of the World Federation of Trade Unions, in Peking (Beijing). The A.C.T.U. withdrew recognition of the W.F.T.U. and Thornton returned, jobless, to Australia three years later. The new F.I.A. leaders, fearing a comeback, refused to accept him in any F.I.A. industries. In 1957-67 he was a full-time employee of the Communist Party. With the decline in party finances, he returned, at the age of 60, to manual work, qualified as a crane driver, and became honorary Sydney president of the Federated Engine Drivers' and Firemen's Association of Australasia.

Energetic, fluent, domineering, dogmatic and at times a bully, Thornton was also intensely loyal, warm hearted and committed to the working-class cause. People either loved or hated him. He was of middle height and strongly built, and retained a trace of his Yorkshire accent. Steel-rimmed spectacles and a stubborn 'five-o'clock shadow' made him look more sinister than he was. Thornton remained a communist to the core, but increasingly took the less immoderate side in internal debates. Survived by his wife and two stepsons, he died of myocardial infarction on 29 June 1969 at his Lidcombe home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Sendy, Comrades Come Rally (Melb, 1978)
  • R. Murray and K. White, The Ironworkers (Syd, 1982)
  • S. Short, Laurie Short (Syd, 1992)
  • People (Sydney), 19 May 1954, p 16
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June 1969
  • Tribune (Sydney), 2 July 1969
  • ASIO file, A6119, items 397 and 398 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert Murray, 'Thornton, Ernest (1907–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thornton-ernest-11854/text21221, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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