Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 17 Dec 2019

Ben Tillett: books and the man

In my more pompous moments I like to think of myself as being engaged in what I’d call a gradual, ‘archaeological’ exploration of the long term relationship with books enjoyed by those from a working class heritage. The fact that much of this past has been ‘forgotten’ or airbrushed out of history gives the quest more of a frisson when it inevitably throws up remarkable stories for me as I dig more deeply.

Ben Tillett will be a name well known by students of labour movement history as an influential figure in the development of both the trade unions and the wider Socialist movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As one of the leaders of the dockers he mobilised the famous London dock strike of 1889 and was a main-mover in the creation of the General Labour Union and the later emergence of the forerunner of the Transport and General Workers.

He was originally a member of the Independent Labour Party but at the end of World War One (which he supported enthusiastically) he became a member of the Labour Party and was elected as member for North Salford. He wanted the job of General Secretary of the newly established Transport and General Workers but because of his perceived drift to the right, he got little support for his candidacy. He died in 1943 at the age of 83 but not before he had the chance to support the Republican cause in Spain by sitting on the Spanish Medical Aid Committee.

So much is pretty common knowledge. What I didn’t know was that Tillett was fierce autodidact with a love for books that was at the heart of his whole philosophy towards life and politics. Tellingly, he wrote:

“As a docker I had tried to save money, and starved to buy books.”

In his 1931 autobiography, Memoirs and Reflections, he talks extensively about how he discovered a love of reading – not just for pleasure but as a way out of ignorance. Self-improvement was a burning issue for him and it wasn’t long before he began to speculate on what his life might have been like if things had fallen out differently for him:

“Before I could enter upon that stage of my career there were arrears of education to make up. I had much to learn, as well as something to forget.”

He could, he speculated, have been a professional writer if he had been born “under a luckier star, with fuller opportunities than I enjoyed in the way of leisure, and a more intensive cultivation of my native qualities”.

Tillett’s particular love was for the Greek and Roman Classics and it was a dedication that clung on to despite what seemed to be the most daunting odds:

“I was struggling to learn Latin, and was even trying to study Greek, lending my head and aching body to the task after my day’s work on the dock-side, or in the tea warehouse where I was employed — work which meant carrying tons on my back up and down flights of stairs.”

For Tillett, books were a gateway to a bigger, wider horizon and he is in many ways the perfect example of the democratising influence that books can bring into people’s lives. The need to have books as part of a life education – as a tool that helps equalise power and knowledge – is a central part of the working class story. Tillett describes perfectly how he was shut out from education by virtue of his class and how this burning injustice was offset to some degree by his access to books and his dedication to learning from them. But the sense of having been unfairly denied education was something that never left him and his views on this could stand as the strapline for a whole generation of working class autodidacts:

“If  I have one grouch against the world rather than another, the lack of opportunity for acquiring education in my earlier days is that one big grouch.”

The growth of free lending libraries (often organised and provided by trade unions)  allowed workers like Tillett to self-educate and was a critical factor in enabling those from a working class background to shape their own lives. This is a message from the past to the present that we need to listen to as the current public library service is being slowly strangled to death.

Terry Potter

December 2019