John Horner was born on November 5th 1911, the youngest son of a navvy who was often out of work and away from home; the family lived in Walthamstow. John was a clever schoolboy and won a scholarship to George Monoux grammar school, after which he became a trainee buyer at Harrods. The politics of the General Strike impelled Horner into radical socialism and, in 1927, he joined the merchant navy.
His experiences during a general strike in Argentina in 1930 had a particular effect on him because he witnessed at first hand, and later wrote about, a remarkable display of international solidarity from his crew. This was in sympathy with striking Argentinean workers on the River Plate. Horner’s ship was delivering iron rails and cement, hundreds of miles up the River Parana for the Central Argentinean Railway Company and the crew declined to unload their vessel until the strike was settled.
By 1932, he had passed his second mate’s certificate but now found himself out of work. After some months of unemployment, John Horner joined the London Fire Brigade. In those days, fire fighting activity was haphazardly organised and, in London, the service was almost entirely staffed by ex-seafarers, at both officer and rank-and-file level. Discipline was arbitrary and harsh, hours of work were long and conditions very poor.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was then not only very small, it was largely ineffective. A young new guard swept into the union, radicalising it and, by 1939, taking over the 3,500 members. Horner agreed to stand as a protest candidate against the sitting general secretary of the union but serious obstacles were placed in his way. After at first being flatly denied the right to stand for the post he won the election and thus became its General Secretary. The onset of the Second World War transformed the role of the fire brigades and the FBU in the process. Horner recognised the importance of integrating the Auxiliary Fire Service into the union.
Within a single year, FBU membership exploded; by the end of 1940, it was 66,000. The solicitor, W H Thompson, became a close friend of Horner and assisted him in coping with the complex legalities that beset the fire service. The FBU launched a `fireman’s charter’, which demanded a national minimum wage, full sick pay and maximum hours. From late 1941, there were huge numbers of women in the fire service who poured into the union.
The end of the war saw a massive diminution of the fire service and FBU membership dropped to 12,000 but a new and vital union was now in place for a much more professional body of workers. Horner joined the Communist Party after the war and the FBU was very much part of the left progressive forces on issues such as the Korean War, West German rearmament and nuclear disarmament. He and other senior FBU officials left the Communist Party for the Labour Party in 1956 but, on basic domestic policy Horner maintained much the same stance as the Party. Horner seconded Frank Cousins’ moving of the unilateralist motion at the 1960 Labour Party conference.
Horner retired as FBU General Secretary in 1964 and that year was elected Labour MP for Oldbury and Halesowen, remaining in the Commons until 1970 and died aged 85 on February 11th 1997.
Source: Guardian February 17th 1997