Born Francis Thornycroft in 1926 near Worthing, he was the last of the five children of Oliver and Dorothy Thornycroft. His father was from the Thornycroft engineering family and was a senior engineer at the Admiralty. His mother was a political activist, having been a member of the Labour Party from its earliest days. In fact, there was a long history of involvement in left wing politics. Bill’s grandmother, Lizzie Rose, and mother, Dorothy Rose, later Thornycroft, were both at the First Fabian Summer School at George Bernard Shaw’s house in Wales. Dorothy went on to be a Labour Councillor all her life, and to have five children, all of whom were, or at least started off, Communist or Labour. They all supported the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War – Christopher fought in it and the others did fundraising and managed children’s homes for the refugee children from Bilbao. They later supported refugees from Hitler too. Bill was still vehemently anti-capitalist to the end.
His parents were both rather dauntingly competent and fearless – they did scary things like mountaineering, and expected the little boy Francis to do the same, which he didn’t want to. However, comfort was to be had from the family’s beloved nanny, Mary Lambley, known as Noopy, who called him Fruzzles and who, according to my mother – his sister Olivia – spoiled him rotten. His grandmother too: when he was very young she used to take him to “unsuitable films”, unbeknown to his mother! She, however, instilled in him a strong desire to fight the unfairness of things: “Mother made sure we knew we were lucky and drew my attention to the queue at the Labour Exchange. She also brought home a boy of about 10 who could not go to school because he had no shoes, and I was supposed to play with him while shoes were found for him”.
By the time he was a teenager, at least two of his elder siblings had joined the Communist Party, and Francis would later join them. By then he was calling himself Bill because he thought the name Francis was too posh. His elder brother Chris fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and his mother and his sisters Priscilla and Kate were very much involved in helping refugees – first from Spain and then from the rest of Europe as the Second World War developed.
In 1940 when Bill was fourteen, the family moved to Petersfield in Hampshire, and Bill left Worthing High School for Boys and went to the progressive private school Bedales. There, his school reports describe him as courteous, good at practical tasks, at History, German, Art and English literature, but poor at maths and science, and generally slow to develop. He was also described as insufficiently “manly”: Bill had suffered from long periods of ill health, was not sporty, was physically uncoordinated – and he had known from age eight that he was gay.
He left Bedales at age 17 in 1943 to go to London, where he joined the Home Guard, manning an Anti-Aircraft battery while he studied at Chelsea College of Aeronautical and Automobile Engineering. In 1946, he joined his elder brother Chris (see separate entry) working for D Napier and Son, a London aeronautical engineering firm in Acton. The following year, Chris was sacked for being a Communist, and the same fate befell Bill three years later. Other jobs followed, at Elliot Brothers, and at Westinghouse, but he was sacked again, from both, for being a Communist. This was the McCarthy era.
In the 1950s, he travelled the country selling magazines for the Communist Party, and also worked for the Communist tour company Progressive Tours, where he made some lifelong friendships. He then ran a greengrocer’s shop with his boyfriend Fred Greengrass, a gentle and quietly spoken Londoner. Uncle Bill and Uncle Fred used to visit us and sometimes came on holiday with us to Cornwall or Pembrokeshire. They came in a wonderfully exotic-looking Citroen with running boards – called Maigret because the TV detective Maigret had one the same.
Bill told us later that he never thought he had been much of an uncle to us because he didn’t celebrate our birthdays and he hated Christmas, and when they visited us it was Fred, not Bill, who would give us half a crown to buy sweets with. But we never noticed any of that – they came as a pair and they were warm and fun and we all loved their visits.
At this time, Bill worked as an electrician, and a bequest from his grandmother enabled him to buy a house, and of course he chose to buy one in a working-class area. But it WAS the only house in Broxholm Road with a full-length garden with rear vehicular access, and thus it was that he was the only person we knew who happened to have an antique dustcart in his back garden. To us children of course, this was perfectly normal.
Bill stayed at Broxholm Road for the rest of his life and eventually the second great love of his life, Dennis Odd, moved in there with him. The house became a real source of refuge – with a sympathetic ear, a bed and a lot of practical help – to a whole succession of people in various kinds of need. Bill’s apple pie was a frequent treat for visitors, and the handmade pastry was always delicious, although slightly grey because his hands were blackened by working on old buses. Bill got a huge amount of pleasure from restoring and driving his beloved old buses,and was a highly committed volunteer at the Amberley industrial heritage museum. He also volunteered at the museum of mechanical music at Brentford, and enjoyed demonstrating the exhibits to the visitors. I imagine he must have been popular with museum visitors, as he was rather good at explaining things, and his slow and laconic speaking style combined delightfully an ever-present sense of the absurd. He knew his stuff, did things properly, and was keen to pass on his enthusiasms.
Bill never ceased to be a political activist. In the 1970s, he had been arrested on the picket line at the Grunwick photo processing lab, defending the employment rights of the largely Asian, female, workforce, and told us that the night he spent in the cells was a very frightening experience. Bill, the little boy who thought he wasn’t as macho as his mountaineering father wanted him to be, was willing to put himself through that, for the rights of others. We, his family, begged him to hide his Gay badges when using public transport late at night, for fear of being beaten up by drunken yobs, but he wouldn’t. In his eighties Bill was still tirelessly helping to organise, and even participating in, marches and demos in support of Gay Rights and the Stop the War campaign, stumbling up people’s front steps to deliver leaflets, taping illegal posters to lamp posts, and gathering signatures on petitions, in the full knowledge that the government would take no notice. He even organised a mock funeral for a tree in a local street, to object to Lambeth Borough Council’s decision to cut it down.
Bill had many nephews and nieces, scattered across the globe, in Britain, Germany, and the USA. One of them, wrote this of her uncle: “For my whole childhood Bill embodied another way of seeing things, a guiding star to stand up for what one truly believed in, and to stand up for others. We have been lucky to have him, and I hope he understood how much we loved and respected him, even from so far away”.
Eulogy for Bill Thornycroft by his niece Anna Cordon