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Harry was born Henry Joseph Orbell at 55 Lessada Street, Bethnal Green on 4th November 1860. The 1861 census shows him as the son of Ambrose and Elizabeth and the youngest of the eight Orbell children living there at the time; four girls, four boys: Elizabeth (20), Rebecca (15), Eliza (12), Ambrose (9), Samuel (7), Mary Ann (5), Robert (3) and Henry (5 months). He also had a brother George who was two years younger than he. His mother and father married at St Mary, Haggerston, a church that is about a mile and a half north of Whitechapel, his father's birthplace. At the time of his own marriage, Ambrose, Harry's father was a straw bonnet presser, but by 1861 Ambrose was a warehouseman in a candle factory. Harry's mother Elizabeth made straw bonnets and later she made dolls.
Harry became a skilled cabinetmaker, specializing in making writing desks. However, owing to unemployment he was forced to seek work at the docks. He worked at a tea warehouse, repairing tea chests. Ben Tillett attended a meeting called to discuss the proposed reduction in wages at a tea warehouse in Cutler Street. At this meeting, held in 1887, the Tea Operatives' and General Labourers' Association was founded and in Tillet's memoirs he stated:
The men who had taken the initiative in calling this meeting were my workmates, one or two of them my best friends: Fleming, the brawny giant, Harry Orbell, who became first president of our Union ...
Tillett became the new Union's secretary and one of a committee of twelve. Although Tillett was a charismatic leader he was not an administrator and in this respect he was lucky to have had Harry to assist him from the start of his union career. Harry, a devoutly religious man was respected by everybody for his forthrightness and incorruptibility. Harry was something of a lay preacher and a member of a religious organization in the Great Assembly Hall on the Mile End Road. This was the Tower Hamlets Mission, founded by Frederick Charrington in 1870. Charrington had renounced his inheritance in the family brewery, worth at least £1million, and was subsequently able to raise sufficient funds to build the mission. In 1888 Charrington allowed the use of the Great Assembly Hall for the Match Girls' strike meetings.
During five weeks of the summer of 1889 the dockers went on strike and carried nearly all waterfront workers with them. At the peak of the strike 100,000 workers paraded through the streets of the City. It was the largest unskilled strike of the 19th Century. At Tilbury they managed, remarkably, to keep the strike breakers out. This success was largely down to Harry's leadership there.
Tillett appointed Harry as organizer of the Tilbury section of the strike. Tillett said of Harry that he was always cheerful, even in a bad temper and:
He stood by me in the darkest hour of our struggle to form a Union, and was loyal to our cause to the sacrifice of his home and the necessaries of life. Victimized, impoverished, and unemployed, he believed intensely in the principles of Trade Unionism, and was willing to go anywhere and do anything.
At Tilbury they were isolated from the others by twenty miles of railway. They missed out on the processions and meetings that sustained their fellow strikers. False statements were made that disturbed the men there. They felt isolated and worried that they would be forgotten when the strike was settled.
Harry kept up the spirits of the strikers with his own cheerfulness and good humour. In the five weeks of the strike he scotched rumours and lies intended to ruin the men's morale. He thought of ways to make the strike more effective and managed to beat attempts of the Dock Companies to import blackleg labour.
Harry had some of his own men masquerade as blacklegs and thereby received full information about what was going on. He arranged travelling pickets who leafleted the blacklegs as they travelled to Tilbury by train. Detachments of men, once they found out that they had been hired by the companies under false pretences, finished their contracts and returned home at their own expense. Harry's straightforwardness was a source of inspiration and although he was away from the bigger movement he played an important part in the eventual outcome of the strike.
The Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourer's Union of GB and Ireland was formed and Tillett was elected general secretary and Tom Mann chosen as its first president. As a fighting organization it paid strike benefits to its members, but not unemployment, sickness or funeral benefits. Dues were low: entrance fee of half-a-crown, weekly dues of 2d and a quarterly assessment of 4d. Power was central, as opposed to the autonomy of the original waterside union. The governing body was constituted of representative working men on the basis of proportional representation. The leading figures were Tillett, Mann and the two national organizers - Harry Orbell and Tom McCarthy.
When the London dispute was over Tillett toured the provinces - Hull, Gloucester, Bristol, Sharpness, Southampton, Ipswich, Liverpool and Harwich. Tom McCarthy and Harry covered the ones that he missed. By the end of November 1889 the union had enrolled 30,000 workers with branches in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Bristol, Ipswich and Harwich. Harry established the Rotterdam and Amsterdam Branches. Sixty-three new branches were formed in the first three months of 1890.
Harry and Tom McCarthy were responsible for breathing life into the branches. Without them the union would have failed miserably. They were hopelessly overworked. Harry remained the union's organizer until his death at Christchurch on 27th March 1914. By then he was also on the executive of the Labour Party and a member of the Port of London Authority.
His funeral was an extraordinary occasion that was attended by the leading figures of the labour movement. It took place at Bow Cemetery, now called Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Many hundreds of people following to the graveside the remains of one who had worked long and earnestly on behalf of the dockers. Early that afternoon, large numbers of people collected along the line of the route from where Harry had lived in Ridgdale Street, Fairfield Road, Bow, to the cemetery and in the vicinity of the house were waiting the bearers of about fifty banners representing numerous trade unions, trade councils and socialist societies. At 3pm, and in a shower of rain, the procession commenced via Bow Road, Burdett Road and Bridge Street. The band of the dockers' union and the banner of the branch to which Mr Orbell belonged; Whitechapel, heading the procession. The hearse came immediately behind and the amalgamated musicians union bringing up the rear. In the procession walked Rt Hon John Burns MP, Mr J R McDonald MP, Mr J Keir Hardie MP, Mr Harry Gosling LCC, Cr George Lansby and the officials of the Dockers' Union.
Mrs Orbell and the chief mourners were in closed carriages and the wreaths which were very beautiful were borne to the cemetery on two landaus. The wreath from the executive of the Dockers Union had a message: 'Dear Harry Orbell, fighter, and friend of the world's underfolk, we wish you a dear goodbye but we know your soul will still go marching on to help in the work of the future.' Floral tributes numbered about seventy.
The service was held at the cemetery chapel, Rev. Sydney Smith of the Congregational Chapel in Burdett Road officiating both there and at the graveside. After the coffin was lowered Mr Ben Tillett spoke a few words alluding to the sorrow with which they parted from their comrade after his thirty years of endeavour on their behalf. The speaker could not proceed further from emotion exclaiming, in broken tones, "I cannot say any more."
The Red Flag was sung and three cheers for the social revolution for which he gave his life were called for. They were vigorously given and this concluded the ceremony.
The funeral was reported in the following day's Times thus:
A procession consisting of hundreds of Trades Unionists marched from his house to the cemetery, and the streets were crowded with spectators. Those present included Mr Burns, Mr Ramsay MacDonald, Mr Kier Hardie, Mr Arthur Henderson MP, Mr Wardle MP, Mr Hodge MP, Mr Parker MP, Mr C Duncan MP and Mr Barnes MP. Mr Ben Tillett gave an address at the graveside and "the Red Flag" was afterwards sung. Proposing a vote of condolence with Mr Orbell's family at yesterday's meeting of the PLA, Lord Devonport paid a tribute to his kindly nature and good temper.