A LEIGH TRADE UNIONIST IN NEW ZEALAND
Charles John Thorn was born on 14 July 1847 in Leigh the son of Hannah Hawkes and her second husband, Richard Thorn, a bricklayer.
The family lived in Old Leigh High Street.
Charles took up the trade of a carpenter in Leigh and in 1865 married on Boxing Day at St Mary's Church, Lewisham to Francis Edwards Perriam.
At the time of his marriage he was living at Brockley Rise, Lewisham and had become a trade unionist in joining the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, at a time which was seeing the introduction of arbitration as a way of settling industrial disputes in the building industry.
Two of Charles' older step brothers, had emigrated to Australia (both bricklayers) and Charles followed them 'down under' to New Zealand where with Francis and their 4 children they settled in Dunedin.
Charles quickly became established as a master builder and undertaker, and both he and Frances played an active role in the Primitive Methodist congregation. Charles also joined the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute and the Independent Order of Good Templars.
Unionism took up much of his time and 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 and was elected as its first president.
Charles believed that the working man needed representation in Parliament and in 1882 he led a deputation to Christchurch, where he met with the recently formed Working Men's Political Association.
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 Charles spoke about free public libraries and an eight-hour working day. About 600 unionists marched through the city to the Garrison Hall, where Charles moved a resolution encouraging working men to form trade unions.
Charles 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 by the turn of the century he was a prosperous man and father of 10, devoting himself to community affairs, especially Caversham School and the ratepayers' association.
After Frances' death on 1 March 1913 Charles visited one of his stepbrothers in Melbourne and called at several trades halls; being welcomed at each 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.
At the age of 76 Charles travelled to Canada with the stated purpose of ‘seeing the Dominion’.
He died at his home in Caversham on 10 March 1935.
The information in this article is taken from Erik Olssen. 'Thorn, Charles John', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. With the permission of Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 12-Mar-2014
The photgraph is reproduced by kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: PAColl-6585-23