Tom Mann, the son of the clerk at the local colliery, was born in Foleshill, near Coventry, on 15th April, 1856. Tom started school at six but left at nine to work at a farm. The following year he became a trapper at the Victoria Colliery. A series of underground explosions closed the colliery and in 1870 the family moved to Birmingham and Tom started a seven-year engineering apprenticeship.
Tom was a religious boy and on a Sunday he would sample different church services. He considered joining the Nonconformist and Quaker groups before becoming a teacher at the local Anglican Sunday School. Tom also attended a large number of political meetings and heard people such as John Bright, George Holyoake, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant speak in Birmingham.
After Tom Mann finished his apprenticeship in 1877 he moved to London. Unable to find work in his trade, Mann did a variety of different menial jobs before being employed in an engineering shop in 1879. Mann's foreman, Sam Mainwaring, was a socialist and introduced him to the ideas of William Morris. Mann became interested in improving his education over the next few years spent his leisure time reading writers such as John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and Henry George.
In 1881 Mann joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and soon afterwards participated in his first strike. He also became a member of the Fabian Society and the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) that had just been established by John Burns.
Mann was a strong advocate of the eight-hour day, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Federation, Henry Hyde Champion, suggested that he should write a pamphlet on the subject. The pamphlet, What a Compulsory Eight-Hour Day Means to the Workers, was published in June, 1886, and helped to persuade a large number of people to support this measure. Mann formed the Eight Hour League and this group was influential in convincing the trade union movement to adopt the statutory eight-hour day as one of its core policies.
Mann read The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1886. Mann was converted and after this date he openly admitted to being a communist. He now saw the main purpose of trade union activity was to try and bring about the overthrow of the capitalist system.
In 1887 Tom Mann moved to Newcastle where he became the SDF's northern organizer. While in the area he helped form the North of England Socialist Federation. He also acted as the manager of the campaign to get Keir Hardie elected as MP for Mid-Lanarkshire. After this he returned to London and worked as an investigative journalist for the Labour Elector, a journal edited by Henry Hyde Champion.
When the London Dock Strike started in August 1889, Ben Tillett asked Mann to manage the distribution of relief tickets to his union members. Tillett's union was demanding four hours continuous work at a time and a minimum rate of sixpence an hour. During the dispute Mann emerged with Tillett and John Burns as one of the three main leaders of the strike.
The employers hoped to starve the dockers back to work but other trade union activists such as Will Thorne, Eleanor Marx, James Keir Hardie and Henry Hyde Champion, gave valuable support to the 10,000 men now out on strike. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Labour Church raised money for the strikers and their families. Trade Unions in Australia sent over £30,000 to help the dockers to continue the struggle. After five weeks the employers accepted defeat and granted all the dockers' main demands.
After the successful strike, the dockers formed a new General Labourers' Union. Ben Tillett was elected General Secretary and Tom Mann became the union's first President. In London alone, 20,000 men joined this new union. Tillett and Mann wrote a pamphlet together called the New Unionism, where they outlined their socialist views and explained how their ideal was a "cooperative commonwealth".
Mann was now one of England's leading trade unionists. He was elected to the London Trades Council, became secretary of the National Reform Union, and a member of the Royal Commission on Labour (1891-93). He remained a strong supporter of Christian Socialism and in 1893 considered the possibility of becoming an Anglican minister.
In 1894 Mann was elected as secretary of the new Independent Labour Party (ILP). He stood three times for Parliament as a ILP candidate. He was defeated in the 1895 General Election at Colne Valley and at a by-election in North Aberdeen in the following year, he came within 500 votes of victory. A third attempt at a by-election in Halifax in 1897 also ended in failure.
Mann remained an active trade unionist and in 1897 he helped form the Workers Union and although growth was initially slow, it and eventually merged with others to became the Transport & General Workers Union.
In December, 1901, Mann emigrated to Melbourne in Australia. He was active in both trade unionism and politics. He became an organizer for the Australian Labour Party and in 1910 formed the Socialist Party of Australia. He was arrested twice and charged with sedition but in both cases was acquitted.
Mann returned to England in 1910 and his old friend Ben Tillett, employed him as an organizer for his Dockers Union. Mann also wrote a pamphlet, The Way to Win, where he argued that socialism would be achieved through trade union activity rather than by parliamentary elections. He established the Industrial Syndicalist Education League and edited The Industrial Syndicalist.
Tom Mann led the 1911 transport workers strike in Liverpool, and although it lasted for seventy-two days, the employers eventually accepted the union's demands. During the strike Mann published a leaflet written by a railwayman, Fred Crowsley, urging soldiers not to fire upon striking workers. After the strike was over Mann was arrested and charged with sedition. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment but only served seven weeks before public pressure secured his release.
Like many socialists, Mann was opposed to Britain's involvement in the First World War. He joined the British Socialist Party, an organisation hostile to the war and in 1917 supported the Russian Revolution and suggested the creation of soviets in Britain.
Tom Mann was elected to the post as Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union in 1919 but two years later was forced to resign as he had reached sixty-five, the compulsory retirement age.
On 31st July, 1920, a group of revolutionary socialists attended a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel in London. The men and women were members of various political groups including the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), Prohibition and Reform Party (PRP) and the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF).
It was agreed to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Early members included Tom Mann, Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, Rose Cohen, John R. Campbell, Bob Stewart, Shapurji Saklatvala, Sylvia Pankhurst and Robin Page Arnot.
Mann continued to travel the world advocating socialism and published pamphlets such as Russia in 1921, where he supported the measures being taken by the Russian communist government. In 1923 he published his autobiography, Tom Mann's Memoirs.
Mann, now in his late seventies, continued to upset the authorities with his speeches and pamphlets. After a speech he made in Belfast in October 1932 criticizing cuts in poor relief, he was sent to prison under the terms of the 1817 Seditious Meetings Act. Two years later he was put on trial in Cardiff for sedition but was acquitted.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Mann became a member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, an organization that had been set-up by the Socialist Medical Association and other progressive groups. Other members included Lord Faringdon, Arthur Greenwood, Ben Tillett, Harry Pollitt, Hugh O'Donnell, Mary Redfern Davies and Isobel Brown.
In August 1936 Harry Pollitt arranged for Tom Wintringham to go to Spain to represent the Communist Party of Great Britain during the Civil War. While in Barcelona he developed the idea of a volunteer international legion to fight on the side of the Republican Army. He wrote: "You have to treat the building of an army as a political problem, a question of propaganda, of ideas soaking in." Pollitt agreed and it was decided to call it the Tom Mann Centuria and it was one of the first of the International Brigades that fought in the war.
Tom Mann died in Leeds on 13th March, 1941.