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Ben Tillet: Classics on the Docks


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

tillet02Experience exhaustion with Ben Tillett, prominent Trade Union leader who struggled desperately to self-educate himself in Classics while working full-time as a docker.

A native of Bristol, he was labouring in a brickyard by the age of eight, followed by work as a fisherman, cobbler, and sailor.  He moved to London and in 1887 formed the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, later renamed the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union, while working at Tilbury docks.  He became famous as a union leader in the London Dock Strike of 1889, and as a co-founder in 1910 of the National Transport Workers’ Federation, later the TGWU.

tillet04Tillett became aware of the need to get some education when the harshness of life in the East End persuaded him to become an agitator and (as he put it himself) a “fanatical evangelist of Labour”. But he felt ill equipped. As he recalled in his Memoirs and Reflections (1931), “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 began reading systematically and soon discovered his own talent as a wordsmith:  he could have been a professional writer, he wrote, 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”.

But one paragraph of his memoirs stands out for its stark presentation of the sheer exhaustion induced by dock work. “As a docker I had tried to save money, and starved to buy books. 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.” And he returns to the theme of his missing education much later in the volume: “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.”


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