Born in 1889 in Whitstable, Tanner’s father was the sports manager at Alexandra Palace, so the family moved to London where the young Jack grew up. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to an engineering firm in Southwark but the life so irked him that he joined the Merchant Navy and toured the world in the process.
On his return, he worked as a fitter and a turner and, although much influenced by the anarchist ideas of Kropotkin, became interested in syndicalism.
During the First World War, he was employed at the Royal Aircraft factory in Farnborough.
He was nicknamed “Handsome Jack”, a tag that carried with him into later life. He is reputed to have had a “restless and adventurous youth”. Whatever that may have implied, Tanner was one of many young engineering workers who became inspired by the Russian revolution to join the Communist Party in its earliest days.
In 1920 he attended the Second Comintern Congress in |Moscow, seemingly getting there, and attending, under his own steam. On his return, having met Lenin, Tanner joined the Communist Party but this did not, however, last very long. It is a matter of uncertainty how long his formal membership lasted but it is clear that a certain ambivalence was involved.
He eventually found work with the Evening Standard and this led to a role within his union that led him to be in contact with a wide range of members. By 1930, Tanner had become the AEU’s London District Organiser, keeping something of a reputation as being pretty left-wing.
Yet he and the Party had long parted company. Nonetheless, Tanner was not altogether hostile for a long time. From 1939 and all during the Second World War, as President of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, his union and the Party were as one on the need for Joint Production Committees, recognition and established procedures.
Becoming “responsible” and “statesmanlike” in the post-war period, Tanner was nonetheless often accused by more rabidly right-wing elements of not cracking down hard enough on the left in his union. Although, interestingly, after his retirement in 1954 he became director of IRIS (“Industrial Research and Information Services”), which was essentially a body devoted to publicising and working against Communist influence in unions.
Tanner died aged 75 in 1965
Source: The Times 4 March 1965
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