PortCities London

Labour unrest in the port after 1889

The National Dock Labour Scheme and labour relations after 1945

A new register

Dock gang at the King George V Dock.
View full size imageDockers at the King George V Dock, c. 1957. © NMM

Despite the defeat of 1926, the dockers’ trade union eventually recovered. In 1947 the National Dock Labour Scheme (NDLS) started a Register in order to 'de-casualize' work.

The Register was based on Bevin’s wartime registration scheme for dockworkers. The NDLS became responsible for the registration, allocation, payment, training and medical care of dockworkers.

A modified version of the ‘call-on’ did, however, remain. A National Dock Labour Board was also set up consisting of 50% union and 50% employer representatives. It gave the unions substantial control over recruitment and dismissals.

Disputes continue

Striking seamen from the National Union Seamen.
View full size imageStriking sailors from the National Union of Seamen. © NMM

Labour relations remained bad throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Major strikes over wages and working arrangements threatened to bring the port to a standstill.

The disputes may have speeded up the decline of the port, but the end of the docks was ultimately caused by:

  • failure to invest in new infrastructure and equipment
  • competition from foreign ports
  • growth in container ships that required deep-water berths closer to the Thames estuary.

A declining trade

Video File George Thurgar - Recollections of changes in the Port of London.
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As the docks and wharves went out of business, the number of dockworkers declined. In 1960 there were more than 23,000 men on the Dock Register. By 1971 only 16,500 registered dockers remained. Their numbers were cut by the creation of a severance scheme.

In the attached video file, George Thurgar remembers the closure of the docks and explains why he took voluntary severance.

End of the NDLS

The NDLS was eventually abolished in April 1989. The then Employment Secretary, Norman Fowler, told MPs the scheme had become 'a total anachronism' that stood in the way of a modern and efficient ports industry. The dockers came out on strike in July, but by then it was too late.

Video File Dick Desmond - Abiding memory.
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The end of the NDLS re-introduced casual and cheap labour into Britain’s ports. But by this time most of the Port of London’s workforce had long disappeared.

In the attached video, Dick Desmond, a retired docker, recalls the strike and the aftermath of the abolition of the NDLS. 

Unavoidable closure

Jack Dash.
View full size imageJack Dash. © NMM
The death of the docks was unavoidable, according to the union militant Jack Dash. 'Being realistic, that had to happen, and the battle was to ensure workers got a share of progress and change'.

Jack denies any suggestion that the militancy of the dockers during the 1960s brought about the closure of the docks. 'Yes, I've been accused of shutting the docks, but in fact none of the docks closed until after I had left the industry. It was changes in trade that made them close'.

Newham Docklands Recorder, 18 August 1988.

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