Many hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980
A seasonal trade
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.
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.
Ben Tillet experiences the ‘call-on’
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.
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
'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'.
'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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