Finally a fitting tribute to Wigan man who made political history

The final resting place of a pioneering Wigan politician who was the first to take a stand for women’s suffrage has been transformed thanks to a local historian.

Friday, 24th May 2019, 11:15 am
Updated Friday, 24th May 2019, 12:15 pm
Thorley Smith's relative Barbara Klein, event organiser and local historian Tom Walsh, Thorleys great nephew Peter Klein, Sue Klein and editor of the Wigan Observer Janet Wilson with the new headstone

The new gravestone for Thorley Smith, who racked up a string of political firsts in the borough during his career, was unveiled at Wigan Cemetery.

Other news: Fury at months of water leaks on Wigan streetThe grave was previously in a horrendous state and historian Tom Walsh decided something had to be done to raise awareness of such an important local figure and to give him a fitting memorial.

That campaign, which was supported by the Wigan Observer, finally came to its successful end almost a year after a plaque to Thorley Smith was unveiled at the town hall.

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The new headstone was unveiled at a service led by the Rev Eileen Taulty

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Thorley is best known as the first candidate anywhere in the country to stand on a women’s suffrage platform, which he did in Wigan in the 1906 general election, but he was also the first working man to be elected to Wigan Council and a leading trade unionist who was made an alderman in recognition of his public service.

His bid to get into parliament sent shockwaves through the local political establishment as he came second, pushing the Liberals into third place.

His wife Annie was also a notable political figure as one of the first women to sit in the council chamber.

A delighted Mr Walsh said: “This is a wonderful day. This will become a place of pilgrimage for future generations.

“He was a remarkable man. The local Labour Party wouldn’t support his candidature so he stood on a women’s suffrage platform and shortly before the election Keir Hardie, the Labour Party founder, sent a letter to the Wigan Observer supporting him.

“Thorley Smith was named among the most influential 100 people in the fight for women’s suffrage, one of only two men to be included in the list.

“I am grateful to everybody involved, especially the archives and the Wigan Observer. Without the paper none of this would have happened at all.”

Wigan Observer editor Janet Wilson had the honour of pulling back the cloth to reveal the new gravestone, which has been created by R Banks and Son.

Funeral director Brian Halliwell said it was “an honour and a privilege” to work on the stone, especially as Thorley Smith himself trained as a stonemason and worked as an undertaker during his life.

Local historian and archives volunteer Yvonne Eckersley explained the significance of Thorley Smith’s achievements.

She said: “Thorley Smith’s legacy is that he extended the boundaries of politics in the whole of Britain.

“I first came across him when researching the women of the Wigan Weavers’ Association and I was astounded I had never heard of his achievements.

“He lived through an important time in Wigan and in national politics.

“He rose through the union ranks and was politically ambitious for himself and for the working people of Wigan.

“He married Annie, who was as committed to the betterment of Wigan working people as he was.

“When the general election was called Thorley stepped up. It was a hard campaign run on a shoestring.

“They couldn’t afford to hire halls so held outside meetings in midwinter.”

Among those watching the ceremony with pride were Peter Kleinm, the great-nephew of Thorley’s wife Annie, his wife Susan and their daughter Barbara.

Barbara said: “It has been really interesting finding out about Thorley and it’s really touching that all this has been done. I got a bit tearful, actually. It’s brilliant to have the family link to him.

“We’re all quite independent women in our family so we’re very glad women’s suffrage was his cause. I want to find out more now.”

Peter added: “We didn’t even know about him before the plaque unveiling last year. Tom has done a grand job.”

The new memorial shows the alderman was laid in the family grave of relative Betty Eaton, with his wife Annie also being laid to rest there following her death.

Following the unveiling the stone was dedicated by Rev Eileen Taulty, retired vicar at St Mark’s Church in Newtown.

Other people with a passion for the past, including Wigan Council’s archives manager Alex Miller and Sheila Ramsdale, who chairs the Wigan Heritage and Mining Monument (Whamm) group, were also at the cemetery to see the new memorial revealed.

The plaque unveiling in Wigan town centre last year coincided with the 100th anniversary of some women getting the right to vote for the first time.