Ben Tillet and the Rise of the Labour Movement in Britain

By Gray, Ben | History Review, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Ben Tillet and the Rise of the Labour Movement in Britain

Gray, Ben, History Review

Ben Gray analyses the career and estimates the importance of the trade union leader who organised the Great Dockers' Strike of 1889.

In the closing years of the 19th century, British society changed irrevocably. Britain's industrial monopoly disappeared in the face of stiff US and German competition, and Britain's naval prowess was challenged by the expansionism of its emerging rivals. But probably the most serious challenge to the laissez-faire attitudes which had dominated the century was the growth of a Labour Movement which, in Eric Hobsbawm's words, `was to challenge the very foundations of the capitalist system'. The neglected masses who sustained British industry finally had a powerful voice of their own, their suffering having come to be abhorred by a coalition of progressive intellectuals and ambitious working-class radicals. Among the latter group was Ben Tillett (1860-1943), a working-class autodidact, shrewd, provocative, occasionally impulsive and hot-headed and an agitator endowed with breathtaking oratorical powers.

At the docks today, amid widespread modernisation, Tillett's achievements survive in increased standards of equality and social justice (unimaginable before Tillett's union activities). He may have been a relatively unknown figure, but he made a priceless contribution to the fight for improved conditions for the unskilled. The purpose of this essay is to estimate precisely what importance can be attached to his efforts during the rise of the `New Unionism' in the 1880s and 1890s and to analyse his role after that period. What was Tillett's part in the planning and execution of the Great Dock Strike of 1889, and what effect did that strike have on the course of British industrial history?

Socialist commitment

Tillett had a turbulent childhood: born in Bristol in 1860 to a drunken lecherous father and a mother who died in his infancy, he went to work in the neighbouring brickyard while disillusioned by life at home only to be subsequently despatched into the navy by his father. Later he joined the mercantile marine after a series of life-threatening illnesses. Having gone ashore, he settled in London's East End at the docks, where conditions appalled him. His Memories and Reflections, published in 1931, contains a poignant description of his first experience of the `cage', the enclosure in which a `struggling mass' of workers `fought tigerishly ... using their last remnants of strength to get work for an hour for a few pence'. His increasing sense of injustice evolved into a commitment to the Labour Movement's ideas and led him into the Trade Union world, where he soon became an enthusiastic exponent of organising the unskilled. He had become involved in union organising when he listened to an `ineffective denunciation of the employers' at a meeting of a nascent trade union and felt `compulsion laid upon him to butt in'.

A major argument against assigning any importance to Tillett's efforts is that he was only converted to socialism at a late stage. Though his early experiences had endowed him with a sense of workers' degradation, he was a staunch supporter of Liberal Party doctrines -- the embodiment of the `Liberal Working Man' -- until long after his introduction to Union organising. His disillusionment with the Liberal order and transformation into one of the Labour Movement's most radical agitators was gradual. It only came after disappointments such as the disaster at Tilbury Docks, when Tillett's first attempt at strike-organising was undermined by an influx of blackleg labour and the apathy of the Liberal and `Old' Unionist Establishments, who scoffed at efforts to organise the unskilled. His growing dislike of the Liberal Establishment mirrored changes in the opinions of others like him, including the otherwise different Keir Hardie.

It could therefore be argued (as his biographer, Jonathan Schneer, often has) that he did nothing to forge the ideology underlying his career but simply exploited favourable circumstances to establish himself as a prominent figure.

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