Colonel Sir Neil Thorne (Class of 1950)

Colonel Sir Neil Gordon Thorne, OBE TD DL (Class of 1950) served as a Conservative MP for Ilford South from 1979 to 1992. Sir Neil came to CLS as a pupil during World War II when the evacuated school was based at Marlborough College in Wiltshire. Sir Neil trained as a chartered surveyor before going into the Army for his National Service - he continued to serve in the Territorial Army and, later, as a Special Constable, alongside building a successful property business. Having begun his career as a local councillor (in 1963), he went on to serve on the Greater London Council (1967-73). Later, as an MP, Sir Neil guided through a record 22 Private Members Bills in the Parliament of 1983-87 including major infrastructure projects such as the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee Line extension. Sir Neil also established the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, through which MPs have work experience in the forces in order to aid their understanding of military issues.

Mrs Thatcher came to help out in your campaign to be an MP in 1979. What was she like?

My connection with Margaret Thatcher went back a bit before that. I was a member of the Greater London Council in charge of planning and transportation in central London. As my election agent said in 1973 I would be unlikely to fnd a Parliamentary seat to fight at the 1974 general election so would I like to serve as a personal assistant to a cabinet minister in the Ted Heath government. He came back some weeks later to ask if I would mind working for a woman? I said I would be delighted if she would have me. So, I met Mrs Thatcher. She was the first woman who had ever bought me a meal. In those days, men were always expected to pay.

I was specialising at the time in valuing property for oil companies – and her husband Denis was a director of an oil company, so we had that in common and we got on very well.

I used to pick her up in the morning and drive her to Finchley. At the end of the day, we would go back to her house in Chelsea and as she went in the front door she would turn from Secretary of State into a housewife! And so, Denis and I would sit in the lounge waiting for our food to be prepared – she would go straight into the kitchen to cook dinner!

Having known her for years before she became PM, did you have an expectation you might be given a Ministerial post?

Yes, I would normally have been automatically offered the opportunity, but I wasn’t. She said it was my fault because I never asked. I thought that suggestion was very odd. My wife thought Mrs Thatcher chose Yes men for promotion. And I’ve never been a Yes man. I’ve always expressed my own considered views to be of any help in a discussion.

For instance, I knew she was in favour of bringing in what would be called the Poll tax – a local tax on individuals rather than on the value of their property. I explained to her why it wouldn’t work as she hoped but she deferred to her advisers who knew nothing about rating – instead of listening to me, when, as a chartered surveyor, I knew quite a lot about how rating works.

That failing subsequently led to her downfall.

Then, when she was voted out [by her own MPs] in 1990, they asked her how she thought she had lost and she said it was Neil Thorne’s fault! [laughs uproariously] What a silly thing to say. She said, ‘I should have given him a job but because I didn’t, he went to work for [Thatcher’s arch rival] Michael Heseltine.’ Which I hadn’t as I did not share his left-wing political views.

 She was confusing me with Michael Mates another MP. But she ‘forgave’ me in the end when we were both invited every year to the Founders Days at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.

As an MP, what was the balance between constituency casework and Westminster intrigue – and did you enjoy the mix?

It was fine because I treated my constituents as clients and I got a reputation for getting things done. I would send off my constituents’ concerns to Ministers and when their Civil Servants came back to me from the department they soon discovered I would take issue with them if I did not think the answer was satisfactory so invariably they would try and give me a more helpful answer to my constituents problem. Seven years after I lost my seat I was still getting people asking me to help them.

I helped one lady before I was an MP who came to say at my Advice Bureau ‘I’ve come along to thank you because I thought it was wrong not to do so. She had previously asked the sitting MP for help but he had failed where I had succeeded. But she still said she could not vote for me as she was a Life Long Labour supporter. I never asked anyone to vote for me as a condition for my help.

As a back-bencher you became known for pushing through some very significant Private Members Bills. How did that happen?

The Member of Parliament who usually dealt with private bills for the railway industry came in for a lot of criticism when he blamed disruption on the railway to expressing the view that the wrong kind of snow had fallen on the line. I was therefore asked to take on the Bill to connect the DLR from Tower Gateway to Bank. It wasn’t easy as the City of London Corporation wanted the line to go to Cannon Street not Bank because they feared that if it went to Bank it would have an adverse effect on finance in the City. I fought them and won and the City were very upset.

How did you win support?

I wrote to MPs, asking them to support my bill and then again to thank them for their support. Government bills need to be supported by 40 MPs whereas Private Members Bills you need to get the support of 90 members. It wasn’t easy: because the debates would start at 10.30pm and could run through to 4am the following morning. It seems astounding that these sort of infrastructure projects weren’t official Government bills, but I took 22 bills through in four years which was a record.

Having been successful with the first Bill three weeks later another Bill landed on my desk so I asked London Transport who it was for, as they had not thanked me for my previous efforts so they threw a party for me and my wife at a London Club to which they had invited all their managers who arrived in their chauffeur driven Racing Green Jaguars but they did not think to provide any transport for me. The weather that evening was atrocious so we were unable to find a taxi which made me and my wife late. If I had looked after their Bill like they looked after us it certainly would not have become an Act of Parliament.

I later took all the Bills through from then on for the Docklands Light Railway, for the Paddington to Heathrow Expressway and the Jubilee Line Extension. As a chartered surveyor, I had a background which was helpful.

To make the Parliamentary Armed Forces Scheme work, you had to put your own money in – did any other MPs ever fund their own initiatives?!

The answer to that is, ‘Not as far as I am aware’! I went to the Minister, Roger Freeman, and I said I wanted to start a scheme as no one else would take it on. He reluctantly agreed but said no money would be provided by the Tax Payer so I would have to get Sponsorship. I hate asking anyone for money but the Plessey company who were founded in my constituency every two or three years would suffer a strike caused by one trades union who claimed that they would get the workers at least 6p an hour more if they joined their union but the other 14 shop stewards would try and fight them off. The Chairman of the Company would then ask for my help and gave me the use of his Board Room with beer and sandwiches to try and settle the matter as the staff who were mainly my constituents were losing their pay. So I thought he owed me a favour. He agreed to give me £1,500 a year towards my new scheme and to ask his Chairman friends to support me so BAE and Vickers also agreed to give me similar amounts.

However, I needed another £15,000 for a secretary and I had to pay that out of my own pocket. The Revenue would not help as they said it was not a business so I managed to persuade the Fees Office that they would pay a secretary directly from my parliamentary salary so I was not taxed twice.

The Minister also made a proviso that Members could only do attachments in their own constituency. I found a Conservative MP who had an airfield in his and another Conservative who had a shipyard in his. The Labour Party then provided me with Frank Cook MP who was their defence committee whip. He refused to accept this restriction and no one has ever reminded me of my promise.

I wanted MPs to be aware of what life was like in the military. Very soon after I got it all agreed, I was asked if I could accommodate the Royal Marines as well – but again out of my own pocket.

When Labour came into power in 1997 George Robertson, the Labour Secretary of State, asked me to carry on running the AFPS – and, in fact, to expand it from eight to twenty five participants a year. I therefore went back to the sponsors and they promptly agreed to give me a total of £90k. Why they couldn’t have done that ten years previously I don’t know! In the meantime, I had invited the Chairman and CEO of Sponsor companies to attend my functions where they found sitting next to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Service Chiefs to be of great advantage in selling their products.

Did you find your own National Service an enriching experience?

My background as a chartered surveyor really helped me – I knew about the creation of maps. The Coldstream Guards were testing our training for Certificate B when I was an officer cadet at University and their full colonel said I was the best young officer cadet at field craft that he had met and would like to join the Guards? That at the time it would have required me to pay a levy of £1,500 a year into Officers’ Mess funds – and I wondered if I really wanted to pay what was then a fortune and end up doing all the hard work, while the other young officers watched. I decided not to but to be an Air OP Gunner instead.

The whole experience had so many unpredictable moments. I was a few years older than the other gun position officers because I had been to university first, so I had a bit of an edge over my colleagues and was given more responsibility.

Having won the war, we were entitled to defend ourselves against any counterattack. This meant that when we went out on fire and movement exercises we could deploy in any farm without warning. Any irate farmer could be given a paper which had the contact number of the Joint Service Liaison Officer who was a British Civil Servant. If we had caused any damage in knocking down his trees, his barns, his crops or in any other way the GSLO would assess the damage and give a note to the farmer who would then claim compensation which was paid by the German Tax Payer.

This became quite a contentious issue in Germany so the famous German Chancellor Herr Adenauer ended up coming to speak to the then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan about it. He said that as the war has been over for over 35 years, could this now change? The order to sort it out then came down the line from the Prime Minister via the Secretary State for War, the British Ambassador in Bonn, the Major General Royal Artillery to my own commanding officer who was his Nuclear Advisor. However, the CO went off most years eventing with our Adjutant as his rider leaving this responsibility to his second in command.

But on the Sunday night before a week of meetings I was sent for to be told the 2 IC had pneumonia and could not possibly do it so I would have to do it in his place.

There I was, 24 years old, taking on this big diplomatic situation: the German farmers had put together a huge delegation of 5000 farmers representing 50,000 – who would be coming in, 500 at a time, to hear what we had to propose. So, on the Monday morning, I was to meet 500 German farmers at the local town hall – then another 500 in the afternoon and 1000 lined up every day for the rest of the week. They couldn’t send me to do this as a National Service 2nd Lieutenant, so they had to give me a special rank so as not to upset the German Farmers, I was, therefore, to be called a Staff Captain.

Despite being very agitated, the farmers all seem to have an unusual respect for me and my claimed rank. They equated me with their idea of a Staff Captain in the German army – who was likely to be someone very keen, who might be good enough to transfer to the Gestapo. So they were very polite to me and I was very polite back to them!

When I got back to my unit, no one commented. I just fell back into my normal rank. But if it had gone wrong some very difficult questions would have been asked as to why someone so junior was trusted with the Prime Minister's instructions. When I was on the Defence Committee in the 1980s I went back to Germany and saw that the solution I had negotiated was still in place covering all Royal Artillery training areas between the Rhine and the Helmsted Border with East Germany.

How did you come to be at CLS?

Our house in Ilford was very near the Plessey factory which the Germans were trying to knock out, so it was a dangerous place to be. During World War I, my mother’s younger brother had been killed and she was sent out to work to help pay for her other brother to go to private school. Having worked to pay for him to go to private school, she decided she would pay for me to go also. The boy over the road, whose father was a bank manager, was going to a private school and his mother had told mine she wouldn’t be able to afford it! So, as you can imagine, that drove my mother on so she took on two jobs in order to pay my school fees.

I was then sent to the school early to get me away from the bombing. The school had been evacuated from London to Marlborough [a public school in Wiltshire]. The headmaster of CLS was at this time the president of the Public Schools Head Masters Association and he had a good friend who was the Master of Marlborough College. CLS obviously wanted to get out of London and Marlborough were under pressure to give up their buildings to the Air Ministry – so the two heads worked out that if there were two schools at Marlborough it would be in both their best interests to join together and prevent the Ministry taking the Marlborough College buildings over.

Due to shortage of staff, 3rd and 2nd Juniors had been combined and I was held back and I was made the form representative. We had 14 boys in the form and I found I was responsible for discipline. Our very popular form master had a heart attack and as there was nobody to replace him and in those days a heart attack put you out of action for 6 – 9 months, so age nine the discipline of 14 boys of a similar age became my responsibility!

We would be given set work to do but there was no master to supervise us. It was left to me therefore to ensure everyone did their work. I was nine!

So your mum paid for the school and you had to run the class – what was she paying for?!

Exactly! That was what I thought! But I managed to keep discipline for two and a half years. Then when we were 12 we were told we were old enough to choose our own form representative. As I expected I was replaced and sat at the back and watched absolute chaos ensue so much so that three boys went to the form-master after three months and asked if they could have a recount. Although they had chosen someone for the year it was clearly not working, so they then elected me as they realised some discipline is better than none. It was a much easier job for me to do after that.

The headmaster had two sons who were both pilots in the RAF both of whom were killed in action. I felt very sorry for him. He decided he wanted his nephew a Greek scholar to become captain of the house I was in – I knew my colleagues wished me to become house captain, but I could not really stand against the Head Masters wishes.

Did City and Marlborough share lessons and teachers?

No, we were kept entirely separate. We would attend our first lesson and then go for breakfast – and while we were in the first lesson the Marlborough boys were at breakfast. We had lunch at different times. We didn’t share masters. We were kept separate.

Who were some inspiring teachers you remember?

After things settled down there was a man named Bond who had been a Lt Col in the Army during the War. I always remember him: he had booked a season ticket for his train journey into London. The clerk was getting it all ready and Mr Bond said, “First Class” and he ended up paying well over the odds and getting a First Class ticket! [laughs uproariously] But he was a very good master and so was Biff Vokins.

Did you play sport?

I was a cross-country runner. I had big lungs. Much to my surprise, without any preparation at all I won the Junior Cross Country title at school – I still have a replica miniature of the silver cup they gave me. The next year in the seniors, I came third even though I was much younger than most of the boys in the race.

When did the school come back to London?

Around 1944. The school came back to London but then, because the Doodlebugs [V1 flying bombs] were still coming over, followed by V2 Rockets we were all sent home on a 16-week holiday.

What are some personal qualities that have helped you be successful in so many different spheres?

Within our family, I was treated as an adult from the age of about seven. I was taken into my parents’ confidence. My mother had me very late: as a woman, you had to give up work when you had children in those days, so she was about 40 when she had me and too late to have any other children. She made sure I had the grounding I needed, the experiences that made it possible for me to flourish.

What were your favourite subjects at school?

I finished up in Economics 6 – I used to like music, maybe because harmony is quite mathematical, besides maths I also enjoyed History, Geography and English Literature and my experiences in the compulsory Combined Cadet Force, where I became a Sergeant PT instructor. I was in the choir. We sang at the Church of the Annunciation at Marble Arch.

Something memorable there was that the well-known author Baroness Orczy, who had written the Scarlet Pimpernel, was in the regular congregation.

Did the school give you a good education, do you think, despite the Wartime challenges?

It gave me a good start in life. I felt it had taught me how to lead people. I had a very good grounding – which was not purely academic. I don’t think education is just about exam results, it should give pupils a much wider experience of how to fit into our nation and make their contribution to the welfare of society, in order to set up young people for life.

 

Photos: 

Top: Sir Neil at home in January 2024.

Second: Sir Neil as a child – age 9 – 1st day starting at City of London School.

Third: Sir Neil – Lt Col Commanding London OTC with the Royal Honorary Colonel the late Queen Mother.

Bottom: Sir Neil with Service Chiefs in 2011/12 – Graduation Dinner in the Speakers House
Left to right:
Air Chief Marshal  Sir Stephen Dalton GCB – Chief of the Air Staff,
General Sir Peter Wall GCB – Chief of General Staff,
Sir Neil Thorne – Chairman of Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme,
General Sir David Richards GCB  - Chief of Defence Staff,
Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope  GCB – 1st Sea Lord.