Ben Tillett: Christian, socialist, unionist

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the death of the English Dockers Union leader, Ben Tillett (11 September 1860 – 27 January 1943), whose example inspired young Cardijn on his visit to London in the summer of 1911.

On of the points that most impressed him was Tillett’s emphasis on “self-help” and education for workers, point that would both become features of the formation offered by the future YCW.

On his return to Brussels, Cardijn wrote a long article for the Belgian magazine, La Revue Sociale Catholique, in which he extolled the work being done by Tillett and his comrades:

I must confess that it was with some emotion that I called at No.425, Mile End Road, the General Secretariat of the D.W.R. and G.W.U.. Mr. Appleton, the Secretary of the General Trades Union Federation, to whom I had spoken about this interview, feared that I might be shown the door: Ben Tillett was no friend of Roman collars. A young lady opened the door. ” Is Mr. Tillett in ?. “No, he’s away at the moment.” And as I stood hesitating at the half-open door a man came down the stairs to us, drawn by the foreign accent. “What can we do for you, sir?”. “Mr Appleton sent me here to speak to Mr. Tillett.” ” Come up, please” he said, leading the way.

Could this be him, a well-built man with a working-class accent and a rough small moustache? No, I found out later that it was Mr. Harry Orbell, Ben Tillett’s old and loyal companion. He showed me into a small room where a girl was leafing through a big ledger. In the next room, larger and more crowded, several men and women employees were busy with usual secretarial work. The telephone was in continual use bringing news of the world of workers, at that time in real uproar. Mr. Tillett was absent but I just had to return in two hours; this pleasant man would arrange a meeting for me.

I was on time; he had not yet returned but would not be long; he had promised to see me. I was given the “Morning Post” to pass the time. Suddenly the bell rang, quick steps made the stairs creak, and a shortish man came in and held out both hands. “Hello, sorry to have kept you waiting”. He made me resume my chair, exchanged his woollen coat for a light white jacket, sat in front of the typewriter and stared at me….

Was I having an illusion? No, no, it was indeed Napoleon’s face, oval, deep, full and severe, the face of a leader of soldiers, the face which at that moment was to be seen in every London street on great coloured placards advertising a popular play ” A Royal Divorce”. And the longer I watched, the more I observed his attitudes, his gestures, his look, the stronger grew the persistent and indelible comparison.

He asked me challengingly for my name, my profession, the reason for my stay in London, and ended the examination with the words, “The Catholic Church is a clever church. The Church of England would never send its priests to study worker organisations.”

The ice was broken, we had become friends. I put question after question, he gave me answer after answer; he looked out for me all the documentation about the movement to which he had dedicated his life and was leading with astonishing mastery.

Finally he sent me away ( he had so much work to get through, the story of the strike to finish ) setting another meeting for 11.0 on Friday, then :” You’re Belgian, aren’t you? I don’t like Belgium – I was put in the cells in Antwerp – no, I don’t like Belgium!” with a grimace, a gesture of spitting out something distasteful….. and again the picture came to mind of the capricious brutal tyrant. I looked at him…”

One last question, sir. “Are you English?” “I am Irish and I have French blood in my veins. But I have always lived in England. ” I understood then that extraordinary mix of the extravagant enthusiasm of the French with the jovial bonhomie of the Irish and the unconquerable tenacity of the English. I answered, “Just as I thought. You are not at all like an Englishman”

He smiled, and I thought I could guess the reason – “Would you allow me to say who I think you resemble ?” “Certainly.” “No flattery, but you have Napoleon’s face.” He smiled, charmed by this remark which must often have flattered him, and shook hands; ” Goodbye till Friday”.

I have just finished reading the short history of the Dockers’ Union, its style so breathless and agitated that Ben Tillett seems to have written it with his body rather than with his hand. The exuberant enthusiast, the impassioned lover who serenades his mistress, the sighted mystic who pushes at the door of his dreams and aspirations for the future, the revolutionary who with a bloody joy throws himself into agitation and, if necessary, into slaughter.

In it you hear bursts of joy and sobs of suffering. He speaks of the “Sweet Little Cherub”, who inspires him like a poet and delights him like a saint, opening in his heart inexhaustible springs of emotion, idealism and enthusiasm. Hardly has he glimpsed his vocation when it becomes a charm that fascinates, a force that transports him above himself, a sort of religion that sanctifies him.

When he appeals to the workers, he prays like the Poverello of Assisi, exhorts like a fiery Savanarola, or issues orders like an Italian condottiere. His enthusiastic words conjure up a delighted throng of speaking images, realistic like those of Meunier, far-seeing like those of Laermans.

He covers the entire gamut of popular tricks – picturesque comparisons, biting mockery, satirical absurdity. But first and foremost he wants to appear as an idealist and is proud to repeat “They call me a dreamer! But people are glad to be around such men to get their ideas; only men and women with imagination know how to live life to the full “.


Stefan Gigacz


Joseph Cardijn, Worker Organisation in England (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Reflection chosen by Stefan Gigacz


BBC Hulton Picture Library

Read more

Ben Tillett (Wikipedia)

Ben Tillett (Spartacus Education)

Benjamin Tillett, British Labour Leader (Britannica)

London Dock Strike 1889 (Wikipedia)

Stefan Gigacz, Was Cardijn a Christian Socialist? (Cardijn Research)