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Ben Tillett and the Rise of the Labour Movement in Britain

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?

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