May 2016 – Ben Tillett’s whistle, 1936

Ben Tillett's whistle, 1936 Donated to the museum in 2015, a whistle once belonging to Ben Tillett is May’s Object of the Month.

Ben Tillett was a British trade unionist, socialist and politician.  He was born in Bristol in 1860 and after moving to London gained a prominent role in the trade union movement during the London Dock Strike of 1889.  As General Secretary of the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association, Tillett emerged as one of the finest orators and leaders during this time.  The strike resulted in victory for the dockers and a change in British industrial relations, notably the formation of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union of which Tillett

Tillett speaking as leader of the 1911 Dock Strike was elected General Secretary.  In contrast to the more traditional trade unions, this ‘fighting organisation’ lowered dues so that any dock worker could afford to join and paid strike benefits to its members, although unemployment, funeral or sick benefits were not paid.  Before the 1889 strike, membership was around 300 to 800 men, after more than 18,000 men joined.

Tillett and Tom Mann wrote a pamphlet together called ‘New Unionism’ and described these new unions and their desire for a ‘co-operative commonwealth’.  In 1922, Tillett’s union was the largest union to join with others to become the Transport and General Workers’ Union.  Tillett became International and Political Secretary, a title he held until 1931.

Ben Tillett, year unknownA socialist, Tillett was one of the founding members of the Labour Party.  Following a split with the party after disagreements with leaders Keir Hardie and Ramsey MacDonald, he re-joined during World War I and was the Labour Party MP for Salford North from 1917 to 1924 and again from 1929 to 1931.

This whistle was gifted to Tillett in 1936; it is inscribed with his initials ‘B.T’ and the date, ’11.9.36′.  It is unclear why Tillett received the whistle and from whom, but the inscription reveals that it was on his 76th birthday, so presumably it was a birthday present.

Tillett died in 1943 and is widely considered to have played a very important part in the history of British labour and the working class movement as a whole.

The whistle was recently donated to the museum so is not currently on display, however you can make an appointment to view it by emailing exhibitions@phm.org.uk.