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.

Dockers presenting themselves for work.
View full size imageDockers presenting themselves for work. © NMM

Only a few men were employed full time by the dock companies. In the 1850s about 100 full-time officers and 120 labourers were recorded as working at St Katharine Dock. The majority of workers at St Katharine, and elsewhere, were casual labourers taken on for the day. Sometimes the dockers would only be taken on for a few hours.

Coal whippers discharging a collier.
View full size imageCoal whippers discharging a collier. © NMM
Twice a day there was a 'call-on' at each of the docks when labour was hired for short periods. Only the lucky few would be selected. The rest would be sent home without reward. The employers wanted to have a large number of men available for work, but they did not want to pay them when there was no work.

Ben Tillet experiences the ‘call-on’

Ben Tillett of the Dockers Union
View full size imageBen Tillett of the Dockers Union. © NMM
Ben Tillet of the dockers’ union described the ‘call-on’: ‘We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattlemarket, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day's work’.

Ben Tillet, A Brief History of the Dockers Union (1910).

Much of the dock work in the Port of London was casual until the final phase of 'decasualization' in 1967, when all dockers finally became full-time workers. 

Video File The hungry brothers (this clip is 48 seconds long - 2.5MB)
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The system generated much anger and resentment among the riverside community. In the attached video file a member of the Docklands deaf community recalls how the members of her family were forced to experience the ‘call-on’.

Henry Mayhew's view

Engaging dock labourers at the West India Docks
View full size imageEngaging dock labourers at the West India Docks © NMM
The 'call-on' was witnessed by Henry Mayhew much earlier in 1861:
'Presently you know, by the stream pouring through the gates and the rush towards particular spots, that the “calling foremen” have made their appearance. Then begins the scuffling and scrambling forth of countless hands high in the air, to catch the eye of him whose voice may give them work'.

Unloading frozen meat from the Clan MacDougall in the Port of London.
View full size imageUnloading frozen meat from the Clan MacDougall. © NMM

'As the foreman calls from a book the names, some men jump on the backs of others, so as to lift themselves high above the rest, and attract the notice of him who hires them. All are shouting. Some cry aloud his surname, some his Christian name, others call out their own names, to remind him that they are there…'

'Indeed, it is a sight to sadden the most callous, to see thousands of men struggling for only one day's hire, the scuffle being made the fiercer by the knowledge that hundreds out of the number there assembled must be left to idle the day out in want’.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 1861.

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