Plaque to honour ‘courageous’ Welsh nursing pioneer to be unveiled in Abertillery

A prestigious Purple Plaque is to be unveiled for a “pioneering and courageous” nurse and a champion of her profession who grew up in Abertillery and went on to become one of the first British nurses to volunteer to help the wounded in the Spanish Civil War. 

The plaque for Thora Silverthorne, to be unveiled outside Abertillery Museum, Blaenau Gwent, on Friday, May 13, will be the ninth unveiled under the Purple Plaques scheme. The scheme was the brainchild of Senedd Members Julie Morgan and Jane Hutt in 2017 and it aims to mark the often unsung achievements of women from Wales and to help tell their inspiring stories to the next generation. 
Thora Silverthorne was the daughter of a miner who spent her early life in Abertillery. Her father, an NUM official, was sacked after the General Strike of 1926 forcing the family to leave Wales as he sought new work. Her family are proud of their roots and they are “absolutely thrilled” to be able to attend the unveiling in Thora’s home town.

Thora's daughter, Lucy Craig, said:

“I’m so excited – and proud – that my mother is being honoured with a Purple Plaque in Abertillery.  She was born in the town and lived there for the first 17 years of her life – years in which the culture and values of Wales had a profound impact on her. Her lifelong socialist beliefs were honed not just by her very politically aware family, but by that wider community.”

Sue Essex, chair of Purple Plaques Wales, said:

“After training as a nurse at the Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, Thora courageously volunteered to go to Spain with other British medics – this was despite speaking no Spanish and never having left Britain before. During her time as a matron in Spain she assisted with operations in bombed out buildings and sometimes without even basic medical supplies like anaesthetics.

“Not only this, but on her return to the UK, Thora went on to found the first truly grassroots union for nurses, the Association of Nurses, which was only the second nurses’ organisation in Britain. It later merged to become part of UNISON.

“I would like to thank Blaenau Gwent Council and UNISON for their help in making possible this plaque to mark Thora’s achievements.”

Thora also had a hand in history as a founder member of the Socialist Medical Association – she led a delegation to meet then Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan during the formation of the NHS.

The plaque has been kindly funded by Thora's family and is being made by potter Julia Land from Chepstow. It will be accompanied by a History Points QR code to help visitors to the museum learn about her life. 

The Welsh Government Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, who will be attending the unveiling ceremony, said:

“History has largely ignored the achievements of women, both here in Wales and around the globe. The Purple Plaques project is a simple but important way to start to put this right.

“Thora's family are rightly proud of her achievements. She was clearly focused on social justice for those wounded in the war and for her fellow nurses who she felt needed better representation in their profession. I'm sure she got her pioneering spirit and social conscience from her upbringing as the daughter of a Welsh miner.”
Julie Morgan, Member of the Senedd for Cardiff North, who first had the idea for Purple Plaques, said:

“When we started the Purple Plaques scheme we wanted to make sure that women who had done inspirational things in their lives were remembered – so often you’ll see statues and plaques for men, but women’s achievements often go unmarked. Thora Silverthorne's decision to join the men who went to the Spanish Civil War to help the wounded was courageous and she selflessly put herself in harm's way to help. Just as impressively, she came back and founded a union to help her fellow nurses work towards better terms and conditions. She’s a great role model for the women of today.”

Blaenau Gwent council said:

“We’re delighted to support this celebration of the remarkable life of Thora Silverthorne from Abertillery, right here in Blaenau Gwent. The Purple Plaque scheme is a fantastic opportunity to recognise the often unrecognised achievements of women from across Wales.
“Thora was and clearly still is an outstanding role model for our children and young people and this is a great way to make sure her legacy is forever remembered.”

Richard Hughes, Chief Executive, Awen Cultural Trust, said:

“Awen Cultural Trust is so pleased to be involved in recognising Thora Silverthorne’s accomplishments. To have the Purple Plaque displayed right outside The Metropole, in the heart of Abertillery, is a fantastic way to ensure her remarkable achievements will be remembered by the community, visitors and future generations.”