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Ben Tillett, 1860-1943

born Easton, Bristol, UK, 1860

A Short Biography compiled by Bill Guilding - August 2000

"I was puny little fellow
a circus boy with limbs and [He left home aged 9 and joined a circus]
body racked with unnatural contortion, [Also with asthma, insomnia, and a stammer]
a tired penniless little tramp [An illiterate truant]
a homeless little waif [He first ran away form home at 6 years old]
a sailor [His father put him in the navy aged 13]
a docker [He founded the first dockers union aged 27]
an agitator
a fanatical evangelist of Labour
a prisoner in the dock of the Old Bailey [Accused of inciting violence at a Bristol An Alderman of London County Council demonstration]
A Member of Parliament
The President of the Trades Union Congress"

from Tillett's autobiography 'Memories and Reflections"


Tillett's Early Years

Tillett in his 20's

The Great London Dock Strike, 1889

The Bristol Labour Uprisings of 1889

Tillett's "Regrettable Rhetoric", Bristol 1892

Tillett's Arrest after the Cavalry Charge of Christmas Lantern Demonstrators

Tillett the Union Leader

Tillett the MP

Tillett's Secret 2nd Family

Tillett's Death


Tillett's Early Years

Ben Tillett was born into poverty at 8 John Street, Bristol in the shadow of the Easton Coal Pit. [Where John Street stood there is now a small park alongside Bannerman Road near 'The Pit Pony' public house. On September 1st, 2000 a Living Easton Time-Sign to Ben was unveiled by Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union].

He was the eighth and last child of Benjamin Tillett, labourer, and his wife, Elizabeth (nee Lane).

Ben's early years were "days of hardship and revolt" and "acute unhappiness". His mother died when he was one year old, and he had a succession of unsatisfactory carers: stepmothers, seven elder siblings, and an irresponsible father who worked as a cart polisher and in a comb factory. Ben's elder brothers worked in the South Wales coalfields. "Hunger, continuous scolding and punishment were my lot, until one day I determined to run away from home". He ran away twice before the age of 7. He worked in a nearby brickyard for 1/6d (seven and a half pence) a week until, at the age of 9, he left again and joined a travelling circus where he learnt to be an acrobat.

"My sister snatched me from the sawdust" (the circus ring) and sent him to National School in Stafford, but that did not last long. It "revolted " him, and so he revolted. After a beating one day, he knocked his teacher unconscious, ran home and was expelled. His brief schooling had taught him some shoe-making skills but no literacy to speak of; he learnt how to read and write later in the navy. After his expulsion, he returned to the circus where he could indulge his taste for theatricality, which lasted throughout his adult public life.

The next intervention into Ben's lifestyle came from his father, who disapproved of his preoccupation with theatre, and took Ben to the navy recruiting station in Bristol and had him enlisted at the age of 13.

In the navy, conditions were unhealthy and dehumanising for the youngsters on board. It was the boys' efforts to overcome their failure to compete in the daily fight for scraps of meat which, according to Tillett, taught him that underdogs could succeed if they combined and organised. Ben's pay was 6d (two and a half pence) a week. In 1876, after three years in the navy, he ruptured himself and was invalided out.

Tillett in his 20s

In the late 1870's Tillett joined the merchant marine in the timber trade. He sailed from Bristol and, later, London in full-rigged sailing ships on the Atlantic Trade to the USA and the West Indies. A few years later he married Jane Tompkins (d. 1936) and lived in a small rented room in Bethnal Green, London. Ben worked as a shoemaker and then as a tea-cooper in London Docks. Ben attended evening classes to educate himself, attended a local Congregational Church and became a Christian Socialist. He joined the Temperance Society and the Tea Operatives & General Labourers Association (T.O.G.L.A.) He spoke often at their meetings to help overcome his speech impediment.

In 1887, at the age of 27, he was elected General Secretary of the T.O.G.L.A, and in 1888 he led a strike at Tilbury Dock, which failed. After that, by encouraging unskilled workers of other trades to join, Tillett created the larger Dock Wharf, Riverside and General Workers Union. It was this organisation which started what came to be known as the Great London Dock Strike.

The Great London Dock Strike, 1889

In those days there were no proper jobs for dock labourers, only casual work for as long as it took to unload a ship. It was like a "cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other underfoot, and where like beasts they fight for the chance of a day's work."

The London Dock strikers demanded a minimum of four hours continuous work at a time, a minimum rate of sixpence an hour, and union recognition. The employers hoped to starve the dockers back to work, but the strikers received unprecedented moral, practical and financial support from other fledgling unions, the general public and religious organisations such as the Salvation Army. There was also diplomatic support from Cardinal Manning whom Tillett came to know through the temperance movement and regarded as "the dockers' friend from the first". As other trade unions came out in sympathy, the numbers on strike swelled from the original 6,000 to over 150,000 - an unprecedented scale of industrial action at that time. Trade Unions in Australia sent 30,000 to help the strikers and their families. Now the strike was being led and organised by Ben Tillett alongside the engineering workers' leader Tom Mann and John Burns, the transport workers' leader.

The strike paralysed the busiest port in the world for five weeks, until eventually the employers granted the dockers' main demands.

The strike was a historic milestone, not because of the improvements in working conditions - they were very slight; the dockers' demands had been very modest indeed - but because of the new scale of solidarity among poor people, and the proof of its effectiveness. With the success of the strike, workers throughout the country, particularly the 'unskilled', gained a new confidence to organise themselves and carry out collective action if necessary. It inspired a massive growth in trade union membership and negotiating power. Employment conditions and labour relations in Britain could never be ignored again.

During the strike, with Tillett's fervour and empassioned speeches, he lost his speech impediment, and went on to become one of the labour movement's most acclaimed orators.

The Bristol Labour Uprisings of 1889

The Great London Dock Strike inspired workers elsewhere in the country to combine and make a stand on employment rights and conditions. What happened in Bristol?

In 1889 the coal-stokers at Bristol's three gas works asked for a reduction in their 65 hour week and an increase on their 30/- a week (51/2d an hour) wage. They joined Will Thorne's Gas Worker's Union, and went on strike. The employers brought in blackleg workers, and there were some violent scuffles between them and pickets. At about the same time 1,500 women workers at Bristol's enormous Barton Hill Cotton Works had a similar dispute and stayed on strike for a month parading each day throughout the city and to the churches of the well-to-do on Sundays, to raise survival funds and public support.

In October 1889 Ben Tillett and two other London union leaders, Tom Mann and Will Thorne, were invited to Bristol for help and advice concerning these two strikes. The Bristol Trades Council organised a gathering of 15,000 people to meet the arrival of the three at Temple Meads Station, and then they all marched to a rally on Durdham Down in a procession in which the Barton Hill "cotton girls" were given the leading position, as they were by now well-practised well-ordered marchers.

The rally on Durdham Down was addressed by the visitors from London. Tillett, still in his twenties, delivered a speech that impressed the crowd. He said they were "now taking part in one of the most important steps the labourer had taken", and urged them not to lose their resolve nor their heads.

Later that day, at a meeting in the Castle Street Coffee Palace, Tillett and his London colleagues, with their recent experiences in the London dock dispute still fresh, advised the locals how to form and run a strike committee, and how it might coordinate so may disparate unorganised workers into taking constructive action. Committee officers were elected there and then, and the committee met almost daily for the next month.

The Barton Hill Cotton Worker's Strike lasted a very "wearisome" month, but the organisers managed to enlist the support of the dockers who refused to handle Barton Hill cotton, as did the dockers of Liverpool. Eventually the employers conceded to most of the workers' demands. The strike had been organised by Miriam Daniell and Helena Born. They had both left their well-heeled homes and lifestyles to devote themselves to fighting poverty and to the labour movement, moving to St Phillips to live among Bristol's poorest, across the canal from the cotton works.

That winter a huge proportion of Bristol workers went on strike, dislocating Bristol's commerce for four months. They included the Galvanised Iron Workers, the Gas Workers, Dockers, Stay Makers, Cotton Operative, Brush Makers, Hatters, Oil and Colour Workers, Pipe Makers, Coal Carriers, Scavengers (refuse workers), Box Makers, Cigar Makers, Tramwaymen, Hauliers, Blue Factory Workers, Animal Charcoal Workers and 10,000 shoemakers.

Tillett's "Regrettable Rhetoric", Bristol 1892

On Tillett's public speaking, his biographer Jonathan Schneer commented:

"Given time for reflection, Tillett's advice was almost always moderate. In the heat of battle, however, his pugnacious instincts were likely to led to rhetorical flourishes which he came to regret. The Bristol affair illuminates this peculiar pattern."

In November 1892 timber merchants in the Bristol docks started employing casual non-unionised labourers. This was seen by members of the Tillett's dockers' union as the thin end of the wedge and a return to old employment conditions. The unionised dockers walked out and harassed the gangs of men bought in from Cardiff to replace them. There were violent scuffles with truncheon wielding police protecting the agent who was bringing in the blacklegs. Local union officials felt in need of help from Head Office, so Tillett came down to Bristol again.

When he first addressed the Bristol dockworkers at Narrow Quay he called for a restrained approach. He said that if the strikers wanted support from other dockers across the country and to have any chance of getting to a negotiating table, they would have to obedient to their officials and show themselves " worthy of that sympathy by simple, sober and prudent conduct." In a later speech he advised them that "instead of holding a demonstration next Sunday" they should go to church "and pray that God might strike the employers with a human touch . . . to banish the selfishness, the blindness and the greed that could not see the labourers' suffering."

But tensions grew and spread to Sander's Confectionery Works in Redcliffe ("the sweet girls") and to Pochin's alum works, whose workers took action over union recognition. There followed a number of public demonstrations and Tillett began to realise that his calming overtures were not working.

On December 18th in the Horsefair there was a public gathering, (deemed illegal after an arrangement made by Bristol's mayor with the Home Office). Tillett spoke to the meeting and became "very excited", his rhetoric became much more militant, which led , a few weeks later, to his arrest for inciting the street violence that erupted soon afterwards.

"If it came to a fight," he cried, " they could fight too, with fists or clubs, and if it came to guns they could pick them up also.' Then he got the hundreds of people present to repeat an oath after him: "If the necessity demands, I will protect my home, my interests, my wages, by means of violent or pacific measures." He explained that he meant group action organised by responsible leadership, and that disturbances created by individuals brought about adverse publicity for the labour movements.

At this meeting it was decided to hold a Christmas fund-raising procession through the centre of Bristol by the light of portable Chinese lanterns. But Tillett returned to London after the meeting and did not attend the Christmas demonstration.

Tillett's Arrest after the Cavalry Charge of Christmas Lantern Demonstrators

The Christmas lantern procession took place on the evening of 23rd December 1892 attracting hundreds of Christmas shoppers. There was a crowd of about 20,000 people in the Horsehair. A brass band played "Rule Brittania", speeches were delivered urging calm and orderly conduct in spite of, or because of, the presence nearby of Dragoon Guards and Hussars called in from Aldershot. The City Council and the police were expecting a possible breach of the permit-restrictions they had imposed on the route of the procession and on the use of lanterns, and were determined to enforce them.

One or two ring-leaders were arrested after the speeches, and the the police line which blocked the route over Bristol Bridge was broken through by angry demonstrators. It was then that the cavalry were called into action to break up the event and drive everyone home. They charged shoppers and workers alike, chasing them through the streets, 57 civilians, many suffering head injuries from the cavalry's sabres and batons, and 51 police were injured.

Tillett and the demonstration's organisers were later charged with sedition: inciting the violence of what became known as "Black Friday". The demonstrators and organisers who were tried in Bristol were convicted and imprisoned, by courts whose magistrates included a high proportion of employers and other people with prejudicial interests. These included Charles Wills, who had ridden with the military and had ordered the cavalry charge. And the City Council voted out a proposal to hold a public enquiry into the event.

Tillett, because of his access to London lawyers, was able to have his case heard in London at the Old Bailey. After a trial which brought nationwide publicity for the attacks on the Bristol demonstration and for the labour movement, Tillett was acquitted and received a hero's welcome when he visited Bristol again. Labour demonstrations in the city continued in a confident and peaceful manner with police co-operation until the dockers and "sweet girls" disputes were resolved - not forgetting the concurrent Bristol miner's dispute.

Tillett the Union Leader

Ben Tillett has been called the founding father of the Trade Union Movement, and the Great London Dock Strike of 1889 was seen as its first major manifestation and its springboard. Tillett became the country's first full-time salaried union officer, and he was a key figure in bringing about the enormous changes in employment practices and the standard of living of working people that took place during the early twentieth century.

Out of the dockers' union (the D.W.R.G.W.U.) which Tillett created in 1888/9, grew the General Labourers' Union, representing 20,000 workers in London alone. Tillett was made General Secretary and Tom Mann President, and together they wrote an influential pamphlet called the "New Unionism".

In 1910 Tillett helped set up the National Transport Workers' Federation (NTWF), an organisation of 250,000 workers, and became their leader. In 1911 they won a nationwide strike, but they were defeated the following year by the new Port of London Authority. It was during the period of this strike that Ben became one of the co-founders of the national trade union newspaper "The Daily Herald" which in fact started life as a strike-sheet..

Tillett's base of power was still in the Bristol region. In 1914 the Bristol Channel and South wales areas had 109 out of the total 235 branches of the Dockers' Union. Prior to the First World War Ben visited Bristol frequently and, along with his wife, was a member of the Bristol Socialist Society.

By the 1920s he was moving away from being a trade union activist preferring the life of a social figure and Member of Parliament. This allowed Ernest Bevin to come to the fore in the NTWF. It was Bevin who was the driving force to amalgamate all the Transport Unions into the Transport & General Workers Union. Tillett had the ambition to become the President of this new amalgamation but was defeated by Bevin's preferred candidate. T

illett was a member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress from 1921-31.

In 1928, as an elder statesman of the labour movement, he was made President of the Trades Union Congress before retiring in 1931.

Tillett the MP

With the support of Bradford Trades Council, Tillett stood in the 1892 General Election as the candidate for the new Independent Labour Party in West Bradford, and lost to the long-established mainstream Liberal Party by just 500 votes. Ben contested Eccles in 1906.

Although he was one of the founders of the Labour Party, he did not get on with Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, its two main leaders. Because Tillett criticised the party leadership he never gained high office in the Labour Party. In 1909 he left the Labour Party to join the Social Democratic Party. He contested the seat of Swansea Town in January, 1910 and in November 1917 he won the North Salford by-election as an Independent (Pro-War Labour) candidate, and again in the December General Election the following year.

Tillett supported aerial bombing of German civilian sites during the First World War, and believed that pacifists should be severely punished. As a member of the Socialist National Defence Committee he travelled throughout Britain helping to recruit large numbers of industrial workers into the armed forces. The strong anti-German sentiments of those times meant that he was popular with the public, but not with his Labour Party, Independent Labour Party or British Socialist Party colleagues.

Tillett lost his parliamentry seat in October 1924 but was returned for the same constituency from May 1929 - October1931 after which time he did not stand again.

During the 1930's he was a member of the New Welcome Lodge (of the Freemasons) but it is not known when he joined Freemasonry.

Tillett's Secret 2nd Family

Although Ben Tillett lived with his wife and the mother of his nine children in Bethnal Green, he was also having an illicit affair with an Australian opera singer who bore him four children.

He married in 1882 when he was 22, and he met his mistress, singer Eva Newton, on a union excursion to Australia in 1898 (which he also visited in 1908). They had very different backgrounds, she being from a wealthy Sydney elite, but he was fascinated by the theatre and by people with different life-styles. She became pregnant in 1899 and came back with Tillett to London. Their affair seems to have lasted thirty years of more, and their four children were sworn to secrecy about their father's identity.

Only two of Tillett's wife's nine children survived into adulthood, and it is not known whether she or these children knew about his mistress and her children.

Presumably after breaking up with Eva, Tillett had a second mistress in the 1930's whom he married after his wife's death in 1937.

Tillett's Death

Tillett died in Manor House Hospital, London on 27th January 1943. Ernest Bevin delivered the funeral address at Golders Green Crematorium. A service was later held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, attended by fifteen hundred people.