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Thring Lillian (Harris)

Lillian Thring

Lillian Mary Harris was born on the 8th December 1887, in the now obsolete Pancras registration district of London, covering places such as Camden Town, Grays Inn, Kentish Town, Regents Park, Somers Town, and so on. The eldest of seven children, her father was Ben Harris, a marine store keeper and Elizabeth Tasker.

Lillian became an active member of the suffragette movement at the time when she was working as a shop assistant in Selfridges in London.  She would go on to become a leading Communist in the first `Labourist' years of the Communist Party.

She moved to Australia in December 1911, where she gained a reputation for oratory and met Cyril Guy Thring, born on 10th February 1888, who may have attended Jesus College (either Oxford or Cambridge). They moved together to Sudan in 1913, where he had obtained a position as a post official. They married on 12th July 1913 in Khartoum, as she was pregnant with her son, Cyril Junior, but moved back to Britain in 1915, where she joined Sylvia Pankhurst's organisation. Lillian's husband died at the relatively young age of 29 on 8th March 1917.

By 1918, Lillian had joined the North London Herald League and was active in the 'Hands off Russia' campaign. In 1920, she became a foundation member of the Islington Branch of the Communist Party.  Lillian met Arthur Miller at this time and they had a daughter born in 1921.

The National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (NUWCM, later simply NUWM) was formed on April 15th 1921 at the International Socialist Club, Hoxton, and Lillian played a significant role in its first two years. The key slogan of “Work or Maintenance” was linked with an agenda for action centred on non-violent protest and demonstrations, highly publicised stunts, and serious representation of individual claimants. The NUWM also produced a fortnightly paper, called 'Out of Work', with a readership of some 50,000, which Lillian played a role in editing.

Mainly, she was the formal publisher of "Out of Work" from 1921 to 1923, a legal necessity that provided someone to go to jail if sued. Up to Issue No 9, June 4th 1921, "Out of Work", was a weekly but thereafter seems to have adopted variable frequency until Issue No. 17. At this point, Lillian was removed as publisher. (A J W Holt took over and the paper was now being published more regularly and was ostentatiously dubbed the organ of the National Administrative Council of the Unemployed, implying some collective control. It sold for 1d every fortnight and the last copy of “Out of Work” seems to have been the 2nd March 1923.)

Before then, during the summer of 1921, Lillian was being referred to as 'Red Rosa', in the press, an allusion to Rosa Luxembourg, whose assassination by German far-rightists a couple of years before had been heavily covered by the media. One breathless account had Lillian as the “mystery women with hypnotic eyes that was behind the unemployment agitation”. In fact, of course, Wal Hannington was the acknowledged leader of the NUWCM but Lillian was always good press!

During an unemployed demo in October 1921, she was arrested and bound over in the sum of £5 to keep the peace. Then, in December 1921, Lillian was arrested again and charged for an article which had been printed in 'Out of Work' that allegedly attempted to cause disaffection amongst police officers in an effort to `induce them to withhold their services’, that is to say, go on strike. She was fined £10, given 21 days in which to pay (maybe five weeks pay for an moderately well paid worker); some say she refused to pay this fine and in consequence spent time working the debt off in Holloway. Edward Froude, who had printed the paper, was bound over in the sum of £50. (Binding over is a precautionary measure to be adopted when there are reasonable grounds to anticipate some present or future danger; a sum of money is deemed to be at risk by the offender if a repeat offence occurs.)

A small group of NUMW activists, including Lillian, occupied a piano factory in St Pancras to persuade the workers to refuse to work overtime and to force the management to give them a wage increase.

By August 1922, Lillian was living on Huntingdon Street, Caledonian Road, Barnsbury, in Islington, and was working as a “marine store dealer”. A police raid on this address found two German machine guns, or at least the parts to them. This lead to Lillian’s arrest for unlawful possession of arms; whilst she was being held in custody, the headquarters of the Finsbury unemployed was renamed 'Thring Hall' in her honour. She was tried along with Thomas (Terrance) Redman, aged 30, an engineer of Spa Hill, Upper Norwood, Croydon but finally found not guilty at the High Court on 5th September 1922.

From August 1922, seeking to gain support for Communist Party affiliation to Labour, Communists no longer contested elections where they would be in opposition to Labour. By the October 1922 general election she had become a sub-agent for Shapurj Saklatvala (see separate entry) in Battersea North.  Saklatvala won the seat, as one of two Communists receiving the official endorsement of the Labour Party, and he was accepted into the Labour Party's parliamentary group. The next general election, in November 1923, saw Saklatvala unanimously adopted as the nominee of the Battersea Labour Party but he was defeated amidst a lot of controversy.

Perhaps the struggle over this was critical for Lillian; but something now changed, as far as her previously brazen support for the NUWM and the Communist Party was concerned and she left the Communist Party. By 1924 she was supporting Labour in a by-election in the Abbey division of Westminster and was active in the ILP.

In 1925 Lillian married Robert Harvey and a daughter followed in 1929. In the year of her marriage, she moved to Battersea and during the 1926 General Strike was a member of the Battersea Council for Action. In this period, she adopted the name of Harvey but also used Thurston and Martin as aliases, for what purpose is as yet unclear. By 1927, Lillian and her husband Robert were living in Sonderburg Road, Islington and she had now become involved in the Women's Co-operative Guild.

In the 1930s, Lillian was active in anti-fascist politics in London as well as organising women shop workers into a union.

She left Robert Harvey in 1935 for George Tasker, an ILPer.

Unlike Communists, the ILP opposed the Second World War on pacifist or anti-capitalist grounds and Lillian supported this position. She is supposed to have aided deserters and this led to estrangement with her son Cyril, who was involved with British Intelligence (he seems to have worked as an engineer later.

She supported the peace time squatters’ movement and became the secretary of the Rochford branch of the National Agricultural Worker's Union. In later life she was an ILP councillor but finally joined the Labour Party in 1950.

Lillian died on 13 March 1964 in Rochford.

Sources include RILU documents - John Mahon Working papers - CPGB archives