PortCities London

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

Wages and working conditions

Different wage rates

Sampling barrels at London Docks.
View full size imageSampling barrels at London Docks. © NMM

The wages earned in the port varied greatly and depended on whether or not a man was employed on a casual basis or had a skilled occupation.

Lightermen, stevedores and warehouse officials, for example, were better paid than the dockers.

Dockers at work unloading a cargo of tea.
View full size imageDockers at work unloading a cargo of tea. © NMM
When the docks first opened in the early 19th century, wages and salaries were fairly good by the standard of the time. The West India Dock Company paid its permanent labourers 3s. 6d. (17.5p) a day. Its top man, the dockmaster, received £630 a year.

Dockers working a cargo of frozen meat at the Royal Docks.
View full size imageDockers working a cargo of frozen meat at the Royal Docks. © NMM
As the 19th century progressed conditions and wages deteriorated. Competition between the docks had led the companies to force down wages to 4d. (1.75p) an hour. The influx of cheap labour from Ireland, the provinces and the Continent aided this process.

By the 1880s the pay of the casual docker was about 5d. (2p) an hour. This was at a time when building labourers earned 6d. (2.5p) an hour. The situation was better for permanent employees who, according to The Times in August 1889, could receive from 20s. (£1) to 30s. (£1.50) a week.

Unsocial hours

Paying off men at Butler's Wharf.
View full size imagePaying off men at Butler's Wharf. © NMM
It is difficult to say precisely how long the casual dockers worked because hours were not fixed and ships were loaded and unloaded during the night as well as in the daytime. The call-on took place generally at 7.45 am and 12.45 pm.

But there were call-ons at other times and men might be given work for one or two hours only, according to need. On other occasions, the men might have to work a very long shift if a ship had to be loaded or unloaded as quickly as possible.

Poor conditions

Man resting at Surrey Commercial Docks.
View full size imageA docker takes a well-earned break at the Surrey Commercial Docks. © NMM
A docker's work was always hard, and there were few amenities such as toilets. The weather could add greatly to this hardship, as much of the work was in the open and there were few places for the dockers to go inside. Working in cold and wet conditions also contributed to the high accident rate in the docks.

Colonel R. B. Oram, who worked for the Port of London Authority (PLA) between 1912-56 observed some of the hardships:

Unloading hides and skins from the Strathnaver (1931) at Tilbury Docks.
View full size imageUnloading hides and skins from the Strathnaver (1931) at Tilbury. © NMM
‘Dismissals for breach of discipline were instantaneous and there was no appeal. No attempt was made to understand the point of view of men labouring with few or no amenities, in the vilest of weather, on monotonous and often ill-paid jobs without hope of bettering their conditions. In the 1930s some latrines for labourers in the older docks had not been advanced beyond a pole suspended over a trough’.

Dangerous work

Loading cement bags on to barge from the P&O cargo liner Coromandel (1949) at King George V Dock
View full size imageLoading cement on to a barge at King George V Dock. © NMM

Dock work was tiring, dirty and dangerous. There were many unpleasant materials that had to be dealt with.

Cargoes such as iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement and guano could injure or cause illness. The accident rate was very high.

London docker's case hook.
View full size imageLondon docker's case hook. © NMM

One former docker, Bill Abbott, recalled:

‘I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally - bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar’.

Stevedores loading crates into the hold of the Tabaristan (1969).
View full size imageStevedores loading crates into the hold of the Tabaristan (1969). © NMM

Cargos could fall out of slings or nets, or produce could shift in the hold of ships and barges, causing injury or death. Cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks all added to the many dangers in the docks.

Watermen and lightermen were sometimes drowned while warehousemen could be injured by falling casks, chests and crates.

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