President: Michael Foot
Vice President: Tony Benn
Chairman: Chad Goodwin
Secretary: Robert Morrell, M.B.E., FL.S.
43, Eugene Gardens
In the early part of the 1960s Joseph Lewis of the Thomas Paine Foundation in the United States offered the gift of a statue of Thomas Paine to the town of Thetford, where Paine had been born on January 29, 1737.
The proposed gift caused a controversy in the town where a small but vociferous group led by a local councillor opposed acceptance. The controversy spilled over into the national media as the debate continued. Many people became involved and as a result some of those interested in Paine and astonished by the ignorance of his life and work exhibited by all too many of those against the gift made contact with each other and the idea took shape to establish a society dedicated to Paine.
This was a time when there was very little literature on Paine outside some restricted academic circles, while even encyclopaedias all too often displayed a bias against him in their coverage. Supporters of Paine who had made contact with each other concluded there was a need for a society dedicated to Thomas Paine to help set the record about him straight.
It was never the intention to adulate Paine, like other influential figures in social, political and religious history he made mistakes, drew erroneous conclusions and at times behaved in a manner many might find objectionable. But set against whatever faults he had was his contribution to freedom, the free play of ideas, his ceaseless campaigns for political and social reform, including the advancement of a programme of reform that would have removed, had it, or parts of it been adopted, the spectre of poverty and suffering from so many of his fellow men and women.
Recognition of the need for a society led to a meeting being called in London, the decision being taken to hold it there rather than in Thetford, the centre of the controversy, was arrived at because interest in the proposal was national and as the cost of organisation was being met by a handful of interested individuals the offer of free use of the library at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square by the South Place Ethical Society for a meeting was too good to be missed. Conway Hall, it so happens, is named after the author of one of the most important biographies of Paine to have been written.
The library was crowded for the meeting which ended with a vote being taken to found the Thomas Paine Society, with Michael Foot being elected as President and Christopher Brunel as Chairman. Among the vice-presidents also eLected was the artist and writer, Herbert Cutner, Joseph Lewis, Colonel Richard Gimbel, the distinguished American Paine collector and aeronautical historian, the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the Labour member of the House of Lords, Lord Sorensen, who was also a Nonconformist minister The first committee of the society included the historians E. P. Thompson and Richard Cobb. The meeting elected Robert Morrell as society secretary.
It was decided that the society should seek to appeal to as many people as possible rather than lay stress on academic activities, although these were to be encouraged. The first concern was the need to counter the hostile publicity Paine's opponents had generated. The society thus sought to use its very limited funds to produce literature and the first issue of our Bulletin appeared in Autumn 1964, though it only had four pages of text. It has continued to appear with reasonable regularity since.
From the outset the Thomas Paine Society co-operated with other organisations, held meetings and exhibitions, the first such being at Lewes in Sussex where the society also held a meeting and dinner, being given a civic welcome. Exhibitions have also been held in Nottingham, Leicester, London and more recently in Wales and Scotland.
The aim of the society has always been, in the words of its objective, "To promote the recognition of Paine's contribution to the cause of freedom, and to spread a knowledge of his works and activities with a view to encouraging the growth of a similar spirit of constructive criticism in every aspect of public life".
From time to time the society has made gifts of books to libraries in what is called the 'Third World' and also in the past to university libraries in East Bloc countries which had experienced problems in buying books on Paine due to currency restrictions. Following the death of Ambrose Barker, TPS member Miss Ella Twynam, who had inherited his valuable Paine collection, asked the society for advice on gifting it as a memorial to him to a public institution. As a result we arranged for it to go to Thetford Library, the formal hand-over being made by TP Vice President, Herbert Cutner. The society also lent on permanent loan its own library, primarily books lent to it by its secretary.
The society has recently sponsored a series of lectures in Lewes and made an award to the Working Class Movement library in Salford to repair and renovate books in the late Christopher Brunel's Paine collection presented to it by his daughters.
The society has organised dinners and is represented in Thetford at the annual Thomas Paine Day in June, when a floral tribute is laid at the Paine statue, and officially took part in a Paine celebration at the United Nations in New York.
We extend a warm invitation to you to participate in our work by joining the society.
Related material on this site:
The Most Valuable Englishman Ever - Michael Roll's article about Thomas Paine (1736-1809)
This outstanding tribute to Thomas Paine - "The Most Valuable Englishman Ever" - is taken from Arthur Findlay's suppressed history of humanity, "The Curse of Ignorance".
Thomas Paine links