Obituary: Thora Craig

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THORA CRAIG'S long life was dedicated to the relief of suffering and the promotion of principles that pre-date many of today's more selfish imperatives. It was a life that changed the nursing profession to a remarkable degree.

She was born in 1910, the daughter of George Silverthorne, a South Wales miner and a founder member of the British Communist Party. Her faith in the virtues of co-operation and comradeship remained rooted in the values of the coalfield.

She trained as a State Registered Nurse and in 1936 joined the International Brigade in Spain. She pioneered new ways of treating battlefield wounds, often working in dangerous circumstances. The cour-age of the republican forces inevitably led to heavy casualties. Hundreds a day were treated and Craig's comrades in uniform voted to promote her their matron. Ever after she was an honoured guest at veterans' reunions, unveiling memorials.

The culture of the College of Nursing - the forerunner of the Royal College of Nursing - precluded membership of a trade union. Appalled at the way nurses were being coerced into working longer hours for less pay, with a handful of colleagues Craig set up the Association of Nurses, the first trade union for hospital staff, in 1938. Small in number but unconventionally outspoken, the association was subjected to fierce criticism in the professional press.

But nurses recognised the strength of Thora Craig's arguments for better pay and conditions - and hence improved patient care - and took to the streets wearing masks to hide their identity from hospital administrators. They signed up in droves and Craig later led her association into the National Union of Public Employees, now subsumed into Unison. As Secretary of the Socialist Medical Association she was a leader of a delegation that met Clement Attlee to discuss the establishment of the National Health Service by the 1945 Labour government.

Thora enjoyed a long and happy marriage to Nares Craig, a radical architect and fellow Communist. Their efforts to support those in trouble were unremitting. In 1968 their daughter Lucy was one of the Guildford Art School students sitting in to protest at the quality of education being offered by Surrey County Council, then dominated by City men and retired senior army officers. Thora and Nares threw their considerable intellectual and practical weight behind the students and the seven lecturers sacked for supporting them; three years later the lecturers won reinstatement.

Craig's experiences in the Spanish Civil War maintained an influence throughout her life. One sunny autumn day in 1992 when she was in Cardiff for the unveiling of a simple memorial to the men of the International Brigade, she told me: "As soon as I arrived in Spain I was told that red crosses were never displayed on hospital tents because the wounded and those tending them were a favourite target of Franco's war planes." At the Lord Mayor's reception that followed the unveiling, "The Internationale" was sung. It was sung again at Thora Craig's funeral.

Thora Craig, nurse: born Abertillery, Monmouthshire 25 November 1910: married 1946 Nares Craig (one son, two daughters): died London 17 January 1999.