James Thomas was born in Newport in 1874 and brought up by his grand-mother who took in washing from the crews on the ships in the docks.
At twelve he began work as an errand boy. In 1892 he became a railway fireman in a local colliery. Jimmy joined the Associated Society of Railway Servants Union and became an activist.
He moved to Swindon, then a centre for the railways. He became a popular figure amongst the local workforce and was elected the first Labour councillor for the town.
He became an officer of the union and moved to Cardiff then in 1911 to Derby where he was elected Labour MP. Thomas retained his job with the union and was a leader of the rail strike of 1911. He helped form the National Union of Railwaymen and was elected General Secretary in 1917.
Thomas led the national strike of 1919. The rail unions complained the government was exploiting a war-time agreement to cut pay due to falling inflation. As General Secretary, Thomas promised that it would be a ‘model strike’ without violence, although there were reports of incidents and the Riot Act was read in Glasgow. The government backed down after one of the most successful strikes organised by the rail unions.
After the 1924 General Election Thomas became Secretary of State for the Colonies. He had little faith in the 1926 General Strike and the mine workers’ union accused him of betrayal for failing to show them enough support.
The charge of treachery grew when he joined Ramsey MacDonald’s National Government that imposed cuts in unemployment pay. The Labour Party expelled him.
Jimmy Thomas was forced to resign in 1936 when his son was accused of leaking Budget secrets to a man who had paid Thomas £15,000. He claimed the cash was an advance for a proposed autobiography but the story seemed implausible and his political career was over.
Throughout his turbulent career he enjoyed the loyalty of the Swindon rail workers and when he died in 1948 his body was brought back to the town for his funeral at Radnor Street. Workers lined the streets of Swindon to honour him.
His son Leslie Thomas became the Conservative MP for Canterbury.