Story: Thorn, Margaret

Page 1: Biography

Thorn, Margaret

1897–1969

Bookkeeper, political activist, welfare worker

This biography, written by Elsie Locke, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Margaret Anderson was born in Manchester, England, on 11 February 1897, one of twelve children of James Anderson, a master bricklayer, and his wife, Margaret Blanshard. Her primary schooling in the outlying village of Crab was supplemented by informal education in her extended family, where music, good literature and challenging books on social questions were discussed. The realities of working-class life made her a lifelong rebel against poverty and injustice, especially as they affected women.

In 1912, when she was 15, Margaret arrived in New Zealand with her parents, three younger sisters and a brother. For a start the family ran the cookhouse at the Maunganui timber mill, 10 miles into the Tararua Range behind Waikanae. They moved to Palmerston North in the year of the 1913 waterfront and general strikes. There, her father worked at his trade; Margaret was employed as a waitress while attending lectures on economics at the WEA and lessons on bookkeeping at a commercial college. She joined the Social Democratic Party along with her father, later becoming its local secretary.

Here she became friendly with James Thorn, a journalist, who contested the Palmerston electorate unsuccessfully in the 1914 elections. Margaret shared his anti-war convictions, and when at the close of 1916 Jim Thorn was imprisoned in Auckland for ‘seditious utterances’, she supported him with judiciously informative letters. After his release they were married on 8 December 1917 in Wellington, where Margaret’s family now lived. She was 20, he 35. They were to have three children.

Jim Thorn ignored his call to report for military service, as did several thousand other men who had no hope of recognition as conscientious objectors, given the narrow criteria prevailing. He clandestinely edited the country page of the Maoriland Worker while Margaret remained at her bookkeeping job. Defaulters were still hunted after the war ended, and Jim stayed in hiding. The Thorns were able to live normally only after an amnesty was declared on 11 November 1920.

Meanwhile, Margaret’s mother had died in the post-war influenza epidemic. Hard times persisted through the 1920s. Jim continued to write for the Maoriland Worker and in 1921 became its editor. For a time his sister Doris worked together with Margaret to compile a column for women and children. Margaret had relinquished paid employment but was secretary to the Miramar branch of the New Zealand Labour Party. Their income was small and they survived by strict economies and their gardening skills.

The 1930s depression followed. As unemployment worsened, Margaret was stirred to action by the plight of women who did not receive even the meagre relief provided for men. With other Labour women she formed the Wellington Unemployed Women Workers’ Association and became its organising secretary. She was a voluntary child welfare officer and was drawn onto the Mayoress’s Relief Committee. Everywhere she fought strongly against any attempts to exploit or harass women.

The Labour landslide in the 1935 elections brought a dramatic turnaround. The Thorns moved to Thames, where Jim had been elected MP. During his frequent absences Margaret handled the electorate business efficiently, but also in effect became a social worker, especially for problems concerning women.

In 1946 Jim Thorn lost his place in Parliament, but was soon appointed high commissioner to Canada. Here Margaret performed her role of diplomat’s wife with her accustomed blend of dignity and frankness; she patiently attended ‘those endless silly tea parties’ and used her leisure to develop her talents in watercolour painting. They returned home in 1949 to face an unhappy time with Jim’s health beginning to fail. He died in 1956. Margaret was overwhelmed by grief; she believed that ‘the love of one man and one woman is the most beautiful thing on earth’. Their marriage never faltered because neither personality overwhelmed the other. She was always her own woman, unwavering in her socialist beliefs, ready to have ‘a ding-dong go’ if she felt a principle was being sacrificed to expediency.

Eventually, Margaret Thorn bought a house in Christchurch, created another garden, and made new friends. She collected many signatures door-to-door on the major petition of 1963 for a nuclear-free southern hemisphere before her doctor ordered her to stop. She also voiced her opposition to the war in Vietnam. Then she returned to Wellington and wrote her memoirs, ‘Stick out, keep left’, published posthumously in 1997. A proponent of family planning, she sent a strong message on the subject to Norman Kirk, parliamentary leader of the Labour Party, in 1967. Her experiences of ‘misery among women’, particularly in her childhood and in the depression, prompted her to advocate state-subsidised or -funded birth control and a woman’s right to abortion in exigent circumstances. She wrote that ‘If it were the last thing I did I would be glad to fire a parting shot into this awful death in life of unwanted pregnancies in women’s lives'. She died at the home of her daughter in Dannevirke on 10 February 1969, survived by one other daughter and a son.

How to cite this page:

Elsie Locke. 'Thorn, Margaret', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4t16/thorn-margaret (accessed 21 August 2019)