Soapbox Speakers

Jim Thornburn, of the Socialist Party of Great Britain

JIM THORBURN (James Alexander Thorburn  1924-2015) was a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). He spoke in Hyde Park, London, where the Party had become an institution. He spoke all over the UK, including Glasgow’s Mall and Birmingham’s Bull Pit.

Jim was a coppersmith (Ship’s Plumber), a trade he learnt in Glasgow’s booming shipyards. He emigrated to New Zealand in the 1950’s. In 1955 he planned to work his way back to the U.K, and his first stop was Sydney, Australia.

He arrived in Sydney on a Wednesday, and on the first Sunday headed for the Domain Speakers’ Corner. Jim was attracted to Frank Barnes’ Rationalist Platform. Jim was a Rationalist himself, but persisted in questioning Barnes on matters of politics. In desperation, Frank Barnes allowed him to speak from his platform. Generally this tactic puts people off speaking, but not Jim. It took Frank Barnes a while before he finally claimed his platform back. Jim thanked him for the use of the platform and they parted friends.

When he got down from the platform, a man came up to him immediately and asked him if he were a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The Party had a reputation for producing great speakers.

The next week, Jim and a New Zealand friend, Doug Brown,  went down to the Domain again. When they got there, three elderly men approached them. They had been members of the SPGB in England. One of them had made a folding platform for him.

Jim began to speak from the viewpoint of the SPGB. He continued to speak from his platform on a wide range subjects, always from the stand point of a socialist, until 1965. He was the last of the SPGB to speak on the Sydney Domain.

Jim abandoned his plans to move back to the UK. He had fallen in love with Sydney, its harbour, its fine weather, and with a lass called Hilda.

According to a letter from Dave Jones: “Jim ran the Pocket Bookshop from 1959 to 1979 with his wife, Hilda. His knowledge of history and philosophy – not to mention politics – meant he was able to recommend other titles even if the one requested was not in stock. Many students and scholars became loyal customers and would enjoy their conversations with Jim in the basement at Pitt Street or later in King Street, Sydney. Jim’s Scottish voice could be heard in many an erudite discourse.
 His stance against censorship meant he continued to sell the banned novel Portnoy’s Complaint and this led to a number of summons, yet the bold Jim personally took a copy along to the relevant state minister and debated the issue on numerous television interviews and, you know, banning a book is always good for sales!”

On retiring, Jim became President of Sydney U3A ( University of the Third Age), actively lecturing and reading history, especially Pacific history. He passed way in January 2015.

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