Ben Tillett, the son of a labourer, was born in Bristol in 1860. His mother died when he was a child and a succession of step-mothers treated him very badly. He ran away from home as a child and found work as an acrobat in a circus.
Tillett also worked as a shoemaker but at the age of thirteen he joined the Royal Navy. In 1876 he was wounded and invalided out of the service.
Tillet moved to London after after marrying Jane Tompkins he settled down in Bethnal Green. He found a job as a shoemaker but after he was made redundant he found work in the London Docks. He eventually became a teacooper at the Monument Tea Warehouse.
It was during this period he became a Christian Socialist. He attended the local Congregational Church and joined the Temperance Society. Tillet attended evening classes and despite a speech impediment, developed an ambition to become a barrister. Tillet joined the Tea Operatives & General Labourers' Association. Tillett was very vocal at meetings and in 1887 he was elected to the post of General Secretary.
The following year Tillett led a strike at Tilbury Dock. The workers were defeated and Tillett became so depressed that he considered leaving the union. He campaigned for the post as General Secretary of the Gasworkers' Union but he was defeated by Will Thorne.
In 1889 Tillet's union members became involved in the London Dock Strike. The dockers demanded four hours continuous work at a time and a minimum rate of sixpence an hour. Tillet soon emerged with Tom Mann and John Burns as one of the three main leaders of the strike. During the strike Tillett lost his speech impediment and was acknowledged as one of the labour movement's greatest orators.
The employers hoped to starve the dockers back to work but other trade union activists such as Will Thorne, Eleanor Marx, James Keir Hardie and H. H. Champion, gave valuable support to the 10,000 men now out on strike. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Labour Church raised money for the strikers and their families. Trade Unions in Australia sent over £30,000 to help the dockers to continue the struggle. After five weeks the employers accepted defeat and granted all the dockers' main demands.
After the successful strike, the dockers formed a new General Labourers' Union. Tillett was elected General Secretary and Tom Mann became the union's first President. In London alone, 20,000 men joined this new union. Tillett and Mann wrote a pamphlet together called the New Unionism, where they outlined their socialist views and explained how their ideal was a "cooperative commonwealth".
Tillett was now one of England's leading socialists. He was a member of the Fabian Society and was one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. In the 1892 General Election he was the the ILP's candidate in Bradford and only lost to the Liberal Party candidate by 500 votes.
Tillet was one of the founders of the Labour Party but did not get on with its two main leaders, James Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. In 1908 he attacked the leadership in his pamphlet Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure? and soon afterwards left to join the Social Democratic Party.
In September 1910 Tillett helped to establish the National Transport Workers' Federation, an organisation of 250,000 workers. He became the leader of the union and in 1911 it won a national strike. However, the following year, Tillett's union suffered a defeat at the hands of the Port of London Authority. It was during this strike that Tillet joined with George Lansbury and Will Dyson to form the trade union newspaper, the Daily Herald.
Unlike many socialist, Ben Tillett fully supported Britain's involvement in the First World War. His enthusiasm for aerial bombardment of German civilian centres and his views that pacifists should be severely punished, made him unpopular with many people in the labour movement. Tillett travelled throughout Britain and helped to recruit a large number of industrial workers into the armed forces.
In 1917 Ben Tillett stood as an Independent candidate in a by-election at North Salford. During the campaign he attacked the Labour Party for its internationalist views. With the strong anti-German feeling at the time, Tillett had little difficulty winning the seat.
In the 1918 General Election Tillett stood as the Labour Party candidate in North Salford. However, his views were now very conservative and was unable to obtain a senior position in the parliamentary party. Tillett wanted to become General Secretary of the new Transport and General Workers Union but he had little support and he decided not to stand for the post.
Tillett retired from the House of Commons in 1931. Except for an attempt to organize a boxer's union in 1932, he ceased to be active in the labour movement.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Tillett became a member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, an organization that had been set-up by the Socialist Medical Association and other progressive groups. Other members included Lord Faringdon, Arthur Greenwood, Tom Mann, Harry Pollitt, Hugh O'Donnell, Mary Redfern Davies and Isobel Brown.
Ben Tillett died on 27th January, 1943.