28th December 1880 to 28th August 1943
Hilton was a professor of industrial relations at the University of Cambridge, having previously worked with the Ministry of Labour. He became widely known as a broadcaster and later as a newspaper columnist.
Hilton was born in Bolton, Lancashire on 28 December 1880. He was educated at Bolton Grammar School, but left school at fourteen to work in a bicycle repair shop. In 1896 he began an apprenticeship as a mill mechanic, while attending evening classes at Bolton Technical School. Completing his apprenticeship he took a job with a loom manufacturer in Bury, Lancashire. Within two weeks he had been promoted to foreman, and within a few years was managing two mills for the same firm. In 1902 he married a cotton mill worker, Ellen Chadbond.
Illness led Hilton to give up work in the mills, and he instead took up a career as writer and speaker. He lectured for the Free Trade Union in Brighton in from 1908-12. In 1912 he moved to London where he became secretary to the Garton Foundation, which had been established to spread the ideas of Norman Angell, the anti-war campaigner and author of The Great Illusion. He remained with the Foundation through the First World War. Following the war, the Foundation was commissioned by the government to undertake studies of trade associations and industrial structures, work which brought Hilton into contact with figures such as Ernest Bevin and Sidney Webb.
In 1919 Hilton was appointed director of statistics at the Ministry of Labour, where for the next twelve years he did highly important work on unemployment statistics. Hilton collected both qualitative and quantitative data, attempting to present the unemployed not just as numbers but as human beings each with their own story to tell. His work was widely admired, and he was invited to join the International Institute of Statistics and the Royal Statistical Society, becoming a council member of the latter. He also developed links with the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.
In 1932 Hilton was appointed as the first Montagu Burton professor of industrial relations at Cambridge. He did not fit in well at Cambridge; his fellow economists regarded him as an upstart, while Hilton in turn criticised them for being too fascinated with numbers and uninterested in the social and human side of economics. He was much more interested in practicalities, and in working people themselves. In 1933 he gave a series of talks for the BBC on industrial relations. This was followed by another series, This and That, this time consisting of talks for the unemployed. Several series of This and That followed, in which Hilton gave advice on a wide range of issues to do with work, money and contracts.
In 1936 Hilton was invited to write an advice column for the New Chronicle, which he wrote until 1939. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War Hilton was recruited to the Ministry of Information, where he became director of home publicity. He continued his broadcasts with a new series entitled John Hilton Talking, and in 1942 became director of the advice bureau of News of the World. This bureau was soon receiving several thousand letters a week. At the height of his popularity Hilton suffered a stroke, possibly brought on by overwork, and died in Cambridge on 28 August 1943.
Hilton’s best-known work was of course his broadcasts, the lectures for some of which were collected and published. Industrial Relations, published in 1931, is a fairly simple textbook encapsulating what was known about the subject at the time, for use in Hilton’s lecture courses at Cambridge. One of the most interesting of his works is Are Trade Unions Obstructive? a report compiled by Hilton and others including Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and the economist James J. Mallon. The emphatic answer to the question in the title is ‘no’, and Hilton and his colleagues offer many well-documented instances where employers regard the unions as a positive force and a genuine partner in industry. Trades unions are here to stay, they point out, and provided both employers and unions enter into the relationship with a positive spirit, this partnership can be highly beneficial to both workers and the owners of capital.
Hilton’s paper at the Rowntree conferences coincides with his first talks for the BBC. He has, he tells, spent the previous summer on a tour of British industry, speaking with both workers and employers, to get an impression of the current state of British industry. He has noticed, he says, a sea-change in industry, or more specifically, in the attitudes of those who own and manage capital:
In any company of industrialists there are today fewer than there used to be, or so it seems to me, of people who boast of the fortunes they are making or would like to make out of their businesses; and more who take pride in the excellence of the organisation that is the work of their hands and minds. …the fortune-hunter is losing his audience; and the man who is known to have created a fine and admirable organisation is gaining ever more of the approbation that used to be given to the man who ‘made money’ out of industrial squalor.
In the midst of the general gloom of the 1930s depression, Hilton strikes an upbeat note. He has, he says, seen many examples of firms doing things well, improving their organisations, investing in new machinery and technology, making themselves more efficient and more effective. The depression could even be said to have had a positive impact, a stimulus towards these economies: ‘we have stood adversity pretty well, and even turned it to account.’
The one area where Hilton is more downbeat is the ever-expanding use of technology. He admits that the worst cases of exploitation and poverty he has seen are among people who are ‘working by hand’, that is, in menial labour. Those who work with machines are by and large better paid and more contented. But Hilton, like many others in his day, was concerned about the impact that machine working is having on people’s lives. There is a danger that machines can ultimately rob work of meaning, and workplaces will become dehumanised. He reminds his audience that businesses are ultimately organisations made up of people, and function best when workers are happy and work willingly.
Industrial Relations, 1931.
(with J.J. Mallon, S. Mayor, B.S. Rowntree, Sir A. Salter, F.D. Stuart and V.M.S. Heigham) Are Trade Unions Obstructive?, 1935.
Why I Go In For the Pools, 1936.
Hilton, M., ‘Hilton, John’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nixon, E., John Hilton: The Story of His Life, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1946.
Review, ‘Are Trade Unions Obstructive?’ The Spectator, 1 March 1935.
‘A tour of British industry’, 23 September 1933, Balliol College