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Story: Mann, Thomas

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Mann, Thomas


Trade unionist, socialist

This biography, written by Herbert Roth, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Thomas Mann was born in Foleshill, Warwickshire, England, on 15 April 1856, the son of Mary Ann Grant and her husband, Thomas Mann, a bookkeeper at the Victoria Colliery. His mother died when he was two. After a mere three years' schooling he worked underground in the colliery before serving an engineering apprenticeship in Birmingham. He married Ellen Edwards in London on 2 October 1879; the marriage was probably childless.

Mann joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Social Democratic Federation; in 1889 he achieved international prominence as a leader of the London dock strike. In 1891 Mann was appointed to the Royal Commission on Labour. He was secretary of the Independent Labour party from 1894 to 1897, unsuccessfully contested parliamentary elections, and helped to found the International Federation of Ship, Dock and River Workers in 1896. In 1899 he took over a London pub, which became a meeting place for political refugees and radicals.

At this time Mann read a series of enthusiastic articles on New Zealand in the Clarion, an English socialist journal. He also read Newest England by the American H. D. Lloyd, a very uncritical account of a visit to New Zealand, and he later met Lloyd in London. Mann also met E. M. Smith, the radical MHR for Taranaki, who had gone to London to raise capital for the exploitation of the Taranaki iron sands and who told Mann of the expected iron boom in New Zealand. All these influences, together with the breakdown of his marriage, led Mann to emigrate to New Zealand: 'It will be an advantage to me hereafter', he told friends, 'to have taken part in social experiments and see them working at close quarters.' In January 1902 he arrived in Wellington on the Ruapehu with his companion, Elsie Harker, and their two infant sons.

Mann was soon addressing union meetings and public gatherings; according to a reporter he combined 'the qualities of whirlwind and volcano…. 'What vitality and force! He oozed the energy of being.' The New Zealand Socialist Party, founded a year earlier, appointed Mann as organiser and he toured the country on its behalf. He held crowded – at times enthusiastic – meetings and reported his impressions in an article in the London journal Nineteenth Century and After. His main interest was in the working of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894. Mann noted the first signs of disappointment by workers. He expressed himself in favour of compulsory arbitration as opposed to strikes and lockouts. The author also noted a growing feeling that employers would defend the act if workers took action for its repeal.

The Socialist Party could not afford a full-time organiser, and in September 1902 Mann left for Melbourne where he was offered the post of organiser for the Political Labour Council of Victoria. He later became secretary of the Victorian Socialist Party and in 1907 took part in a conference to form the Socialist Federation of Australasia (SFA). While in Australia Mann was associated with people later to become prominent in the New Zealand labour movement: Harry Scott Bennett, Bob Ross, Harry Holland, Bob Semple, Paddy Webb and Mick Savage.

The New Zealand Socialist Party was making good progress. It applied to join the SFA, and in April 1908 proposed to hold its first national congress. Mann decided to pay the country a second visit. After attending the congress he again toured New Zealand, lecturing and starting new party branches. A hostile critic made fun of his 'waxed moustache, immaculately cut frock coat with silk lapels, patent leather boots, latest altitude of collar, gold watch chain and sleeve links and his beautiful white hands', but Mann had good audiences. He was in Blackball during the miners' strike, and in Wellington he marched in a demonstration during a bakers' strike. After three months, however, he returned to Australia, where he took part in the bitter Broken Hill dispute.

Mann returned to England in 1910. His experiences in Australia and New Zealand had made him a revolutionary socialist. He led a seamen's strike in 1911, and a strike that paralysed Liverpool for several weeks. In 1912 he was gaoled for publishing, in the Syndicalist, an article urging soldiers not to aid the civil authorities in time of riot. He lectured in Canada, the United States and South Africa in 1913–14, and was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. Wherever there was a fight he was in it; he served two prison sentences in England and was deported from, or imprisoned in, France, Germany, Australia, Canada and northern Ireland.

Although he spent barely a year in New Zealand, Tom Mann's influence on the labour movement here was immense. He educated a whole generation of radicals, and perhaps influenced some Australian socialists to cross the Tasman. He died at Grassington, Yorkshire, on 13 March 1941. His last words to Elsie Harker were, 'The young people will have a lot to go through, but they will succeed in the end.'

How to cite this page:

Herbert Roth. 'Mann, Thomas', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m41/mann-thomas (accessed 22 June 2024)