J. H. Thomas

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James Henry Thomas
James Henry Thomas circa 1920.jpg
Thomas circa 1920
Secretary of State for the Colonies
In office
22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
MonarchGeorge V
Prime MinisterRamsay MacDonald
Preceded byThe Duke of Devonshire
Succeeded byLeo Amery
In office
25 August 1931 – 5 November 1931
MonarchGeorge V
Prime MinisterRamsay MacDonald
Preceded byThe Lord Passfield
Succeeded bySir Philip Cunliffe-Lister
In office
22 November 1935 – 22 May 1936
MonarchGeorge V
Edward VIII
Prime MinisterStanley Baldwin
Preceded byMalcolm MacDonald
Succeeded byWilliam Ormsby-Gore
Personal details
Born(1874-10-03)3 October 1874
Newport, Monmouthshire
Died21 January 1949(1949-01-21) (aged 74)
Political partyLabour
National Labour
Alma materNone

James Henry Thomas (3 October 1874 – 21 January 1949), sometimes known as Jimmy Thomas, was a British trade unionist and Labour (later National Labour) politician. He was involved in a political scandal involving budget leaks.

Early career and trade union activities[edit]

Thomas was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, the son of a young unmarried mother. He was raised by his grandmother and began work at twelve years of age, soon starting a career as a railway worker. He became an official of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants and in 1913 helped to organise its merger with two smaller trade unions on the railways to form the National Union of Railwaymen (now part of the RMT). Thomas was elected NUR general secretary in 1916,[1] a post he held until 1931.

Thomas was general secretary during the successful national rail strike of 1919 that was jointly called by the NUR and ASLEF against proposed wage reductions. In 1921 Thomas played a leading role in the Black Friday crisis, in which rail and transport unions failed to come to the aid of the mineworkers, who were facing wage reductions. Before the 1926 General Strike the TUC asked Thomas to negotiate with Stanley Baldwin's Conservative Government, but the talks were unsuccessful and the strike went ahead.

Political career[edit]

Thomas began his political career as a Labour Party local councillor for Swindon. He was elected to Parliament in 1910 as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Derby, replacing Richard Bell. He was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies in the incoming Labour government of 1924 under Ramsay MacDonald. In the second Labour government of 1929 Thomas was made Lord Privy Seal with special responsibility for employment. He became Secretary of State for the Dominions in 1930 and retained that position in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government (1931–1935). As a result of joining the National Government he was expelled from the Labour Party and the NUR. For the first few months of the National Government in 1931 he also served as Colonial Secretary once more. One of the problems he had to cope with was the Australian cricket bodyline affair, which he said was one of the most difficult he faced.

Thomas served as Secretary of State for the Colonies once more from 1935 until May 1936, when he was forced to resign from politics. It was revealed that he had been entertained by stock exchange speculators and had dropped heavy hints as to tax changes planned in the budget. For example, while playing golf, he shouted "Tee up!", which was taken as a suggestion that the duties on tea were to rise.

Personal life[edit]

Thomas was made a Freeman of Newport in 1924. In May 2011 a casket given to him to celebrate the occasion was purchased at auction for Newport Museum.[2]

Despite his humble origins he had a reputation for mixing well with all levels of society. Among the Labour ministers he was a favourite with George V[1] It was from laughing at a bawdy joke Thomas told the king that the latter split a post-operative wound from lung abscess surgery, delaying his recovery to near the 1929 General Election.[3] Winston Churchill is said to have been in tears during Thomas' resignation speech as Colonial Secretary;[citation needed] and King Edward VIII recalled Thomas saying, as he returned his seals of office to the king, 'Thank God your old Dad never got to hear of this'.[4] Thomas was known as a natty dresser, and was caricatured by the cartoonist David Low as "Lord Dress Suit".[5]

After leaving parliament, Thomas served as company chairman of the British Amalgamated Transport Ltd.


He died in London, aged seventy-four, in 1949. After cremation at Golders Green Crematorium, his ashes were buried at Swindon.[1] His son Leslie Thomas became a Conservative Member of Parliament.

Literary reference[edit]

Thomas is mentioned in Have His Carcase, a 1932 detective novel by Dorothy L. Sayers. Thomas' custom of wearing a dress suit is cited as an apparent certainty that could fail unlike the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which appears to govern the case in a metaphorical way.

In the 1975 BBC television production of Sayers' 1931 novel Five Red Herrings, Thomas is mentioned in a snatch of background dialogue. A Scottish railway porter bursts out in an angry tirade: "You call this a Socialist Government? Things are harder than ever for a working man, and as for Jimmy Thomas, he has sold himself, lock, stock and barrel, to the capitalists!"

He is referred to in the comic song of 1932 by Norman Long, "On the Day that Chelsea went and won the Cup". In a dream setting out the outlandish and impossible things that might happen on such an unusual day, the line is used "and De Valera put a statue of Jim Thomas on his lawn, on the day that Chelsea went and won the cup".

He is mentioned in "No Mean City" by A. McArthur and H. Kingsley Long, "Now he insisted on reading extracts from a speech by J. H. Thomas, declaring, moreover, that the railwaymen had never had abler leader" (page 89).


  1. ^ a b c Williamson, Philip (2004). "Thomas, James Henry". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 54. Oxford University Press. pp. 342–3. ISBN 0-19-861404-7.
  2. ^ Historic casket returns to Newport
  3. ^ Matthew, H. C. G. (2004). "George V". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 21. Oxford University Press. p. 875. ISBN 0-19-861371-7.
  4. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/edward_viii/12923.shtml (39 minutes in)
  5. ^ Thorpe, Andrew (1990). "J. H. Thomas and the Rise of Labour in Derby, 1880–1945". Midland History. University of Birmingham. 15: 121. hdl:10036/17534.

Further reading[edit]

  • Blaxland, Gregory. J. H. Thomas: A Life for Unity (1964).

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Richard Bell
Sir Thomas Roe
Member of Parliament for Derby
January 19101936
With: Sir Thomas Roe to 1916
Sir William Job Collins 1916–1918
Albert Green 1918–1922
Charles Henry Roberts 1922–1923
William Robert Raynes 1923–1924
Sir Richard Luce 1924–1929
William Robert Raynes 1929–1931
William Allan Reid from 1931
Succeeded by
William Allan Reid
Philip Noel-Baker
Trade union offices
Preceded by
J. E. Williams
Assistant Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants
Succeeded by
Position abolished
Preceded by
New position
Assistant General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants
With: Samuel Chorlton
Walter Hudson
Thomas Lowth
Succeeded by
Samuel Chorlton
Walter Hudson
Thomas Lowth
Preceded by
J. E. Williams
General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen
Succeeded by
Charlie Cramp
Preceded by
G. H. Stuart-Bunning
President of the Trades Union Congress
Succeeded by
Edward L. Poulton
Preceded by
W. A. Appleton
President of the International Federation of Trade Unions
1920 – 1924
Succeeded by
A. A. Purcell
Preceded by
Jack Jones and J. W. Ogden
Trades Union Congress representative to the American Federation of Labour
With: James Walker
Succeeded by
Edward L. Poulton and Herbert Smith
Political offices
Preceded by
The Duke of Devonshire
Secretary of State for the Colonies
Succeeded by
Leo Amery
Preceded by
The Marquess of Salisbury
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by
Vernon Hartshorn
Preceded by
The Lord Passfield
Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs
Succeeded by
Malcolm MacDonald
Preceded by
The Lord Passfield
Secretary of State for the Colonies
Succeeded by
Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister
Preceded by
Malcolm MacDonald
Secretary of State for the Colonies
Succeeded by
Hon. William Ormsby-Gore