Page 1: Biography
Thorn, Charles John
Carpenter, undertaker, trade unionist
This biography, written by Erik Olssen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Charles John Thorn, with his wife, Frances Edwards Perriam, and their four children, arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1875. Charles was 28 years old. One of his brothers had preceded him to the colony. Born on 14 July 1847 at Leigh in Essex, England, he was the son of Hannah Hawkes and her second husband, Richard Thorn, a bricklayer. Charles served his apprenticeship as a carpenter in Leigh. He was married at Lewisham, Kent, on 26 December 1865. In London he joined the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, one of the new model skilled trade unions, during the period in which it fashioned a new system of arbitration for settling industrial disputes in the building industry.
In New Zealand Thorn settled with his family in Dunedin, living at first in Mornington and then in Caversham. He rejoiced in the opportunities for achieving independence. He quickly established himself as a master builder and undertaker, having brought with him many recipes for embalming corpses (although he championed cremation). Both Charles and Frances Thorn played an active role in the Primitive Methodist congregation, and Charles also joined the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute and the Independent Order of Good Templars. Alcohol, he observed, was the principal barrier to self-improvement in the colony.
Unionism absorbed much of his surplus energy. He played a major role in the Dunedin branch of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, and in 1881 helped found the Otago Trades and Labour Council. Thorn was elected the first president. In 1882 he led a deputation to Christchurch, where he met with the recently formed Working Men's Political Association; he believed that working men needed representation in Parliament.
As president of the Otago Trades and Labour Council he convened and presided over the first congress of unionists from throughout the colony, which met in Dunedin in January 1885. The congress resolved to work for 'better organisation of the working classes' to advance their interests and secure 'proper representation'. In his opening speech Thorn also dealt with several issues, such as free public libraries and the eight-hour working day, on which he thought parliamentary candidates should be tested. On the Saturday some 600 unionists marched through the city to the Garrison Hall, where Thorn moved a resolution encouraging working men to form trade unions.
Thorn believed passionately in self-improvement, and thought that well-organised trade unions could assist working men to uplift themselves. But after going bankrupt in 1887 he played little part in the dramatic events which transformed the labour movement over the next few years. During the 1890s he concentrated on re-establishing his business, and with the new century he prospered. Now the father of 10 children (three more children had died in infancy), he devoted himself to community affairs, especially Caversham School and the ratepayers' association.
After Frances Thorn's death on 1 March 1913 he visited a stepbrother in Melbourne and called at several trades halls; at each one he was welcomed as one of the founders of the labour movement. He represented Caversham ward on the Dunedin City Council from 1915 to 1917 and 1919 to 1921. The Liberal–Labour government had more than fulfilled his dream of parliamentary representation for the working class, and in his later years he expended his energies on achieving a better supply of water for the city. He died at his home in Caversham on 10 March 1935.