PortCities London

Many hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980

The call-on

A seasonal trade

South West India Dock.
View full size imageSouth West India Dock. © NMM

By the mid-19th century, much of the trade of the Port of London was seasonal - sugar from the West Indies, timber from the north, tea and spices from the Far East.

 It was also difficult to predict when ships would arrive since bad weather could delay a fleet by weeks. The number of ships arriving during a period of four successive weeks in 1861 at the West India Dock was 42, 131, 209 and 85. On some days there were a large number of ships in the docks, on others very few.

Casual work

Landing frozen meat from Sydney in the South West India Dock, Millwall, London, on board the Catania.
View full size imageLanding frozen meat from Sydney in the South West India Dock, Millwall. © NMM
It was an era before mechanization and ship loading and discharging was highly labour intensive. There was very little advance notice that a ship was arriving. This meant that demand for men varied from day to day, even from hour to hour. The dock companies only took on labourers when trade picked up and they needed them.