Athol Thorne was born in Springs, South Africa on 15th October 1921. His family soon moved to Durban where he attended school and university. His parents were not affluent and there were times when there was no money. Athol’s family was not political, they were religious and it was the Christian moral values he learnt at home and the science he learnt at university that gave rise to his materialist life philosophy. He was attracted to Marxism at 19 years and he became a member of a liberal study group in 1940. The group was left-wing and multi-racial, mostly Indians, many of them made up of communist party members who constituted the left wing or nationalist Block of the Natal Indian Congress . The group developed into a student group of the party around 1947.
In 1942 Athol graduated as a civil engineer from Natal University College. He worked for the South African Railways in Port Elizabeth, Beaufort West, East London, Queenstown and Bloemfontein. Mid-1945 he returned to Durban and soon afterward he was transferred to Cape Town and in 1948 he started working for the City of Cape Town.
When Athol returned to Durban in 1945 he became active in the Durban the Friends of the Soviet Union and the left wing Guardian newspaper. There was a lot of internal Communist Party work done. There were many party group meetings and activities attached to supporting the Soviet Union. Their main political work was to support the Soviet Union’s efforts during the war when they wanted to open a second front. D-Day came and the war in Europe ended, then DJ-day came and the war in Japan ended. However support for the Soviet Union through the Friends of the Soviet Union continued for a while. “The euphoria of the war years was over. People were drifting away. The Nationalist’s victory came as a great disappointment. We knew what to expect from them. There was a lot of falling off especially after the Nationalists came to power.” Interview with Sylvia Neame (1987).
Athol joined the Communist Party of South African in 1947. In 1950 he left for London to pursue his career. There he became an official of the South African Students Organization and a member of the British Communist Party. During this time he worked on the Peace Petition but most of his activity was South African oriented and was involved in selling copies of The Worker. Athol met his future wife, Colette (Bubbles) Robins, in London. They were married in 1952. Bubbles, as she was known became a member of the Modern Youth Society.
In 1953, on his return from London, Athol was recruited into the underground reconstituted South African Communist Party which had been declared illegal in 1950. He became a member of the Cape Town District Committee. In the early stage Athol worked on the rebuilding of the Communist Party and alongside that became the Western Cape regional secretary of the white Congress of the Democrats which with the formation was part of the ANC led Congress Alliance. He was active in the organizing for the Congress of the People in the Western Cape.
In May of 1954 Athol was listed as a member of South African Communist Party and on 28th September 1955 Athol was banned from participated in all political activities.
On the 8th of April 1960, 10 days after Sharpeville, the banning of the ANC, PAC and other organisations, and the declaration of state of emergency, Athol was arrested with hundreds of political activists. They spent the initial weeks in Roeland Street jail. As described by Bernard Gosschalk, in a letter to Colette Thorne “we 14 white men occupied two cells on the ground floor of a long two-storey block, cells without water, washbasins or toilet. A bucket in each cell was the only convenience. Unlike other prisoners, we were allowed to wear our own clothes and our heads were not shaven. We had no idea how long we were going to be accommodated in this Victorian and out of date penitentiary. Prison and the army have one thing in common: no one tells you anything and rumour is the order of the day. Outside the long narrow block of cells, about 12 feet wide, was an equally long exercise yard. Running down the centre was a row of cast-iron columns which supported the first floor walkway which gave access to those cells. At the end of this yard were a couple of primitive toilets, steel wash troughs, cold water only, and wooden tables for serving our food. This was open air living with a vengeance.” They all signed a petition on 1 May asking to be brought to trial without delay, or be released immediately. By the 6th May Athol and others were transferred to Worcester jail. They were released in July, without being charged.
Athol continued working for the Council of the Cape Town City Council, and was appointed Deputy-City Engineer in 1983. He continued to serve until his retirement 1986.
Interrogation notes written by A Thorne on the day of his interrogation (2.2.1966)|Interview done with Sylvia Neame (1987)|Letters from Bernard Gosschalk