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

Introduction
The call-on
Dock labourers
Deal Porters
Stevedores
Lightermen
Coopers, truckers and warehousemen
Transport workers
Wages and working conditions
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Stevedores

Loading ships

Stevedores loading general cargo in a tween deck hold of the Tabaristan (1969).
View full size imageStevedores loading general cargo in a tween deck hold of the Tabaristan (1969). © NMM
The men who loaded the ships were the stevedores. The term stevedore comes from the Spanish ‘estivador’, meaning to stow a cargo. Loading a ship demanded special skills. Cargo had to be placed carefully in the hold to make sure that the ship did not become unbalanced and capsize. Also, it had to be loaded in the right order for when the ship unloaded at different ports.

A skilled trade

Loading general cargo on the Coromandel (1949) at King George V Dock.
View full size imageLoading general cargo on the Coromandel (1949) at King George V Dock. © NMM

The stevedore was one of the most skilled dockers and was regarded as superior to the shore worker.

For this he was rewarded with higher pay, particularly as he often had to work under pressure in difficult and dangerous conditions.

Stevedores loading cargo in a tween deck hold of the Tabaristan (1969) at the Royal Docks.
View full size imageStevedores loading cargo in a tween deck hold of the Tabaristan (1969) at the Royal Docks. © NMM

Although the work of the stevedores required particular skills, there were other reasons why this group regarded itself as special.

London was different from other major ports in that the dock companies (and later the PLA) directly employed most of the workers.

A sugar cargo arranged in the hold of the Chantala (1950) at the Royal Albert Dock.
View full size imageA sugar cargo arranged in the hold of the Chantala (1950) at the Royal Albert Dock. © NMM

However, the loading of ships was regarded as too important to be left to the dock companies, and in London the stevedores were hired directly by ship-owners or their agents.

The stevedores were thus the only dockworkers not employed by the dock companies.

 

The aristocrats of the dockers?

Stevedore driving a fork-lift truck in a tween deck hold of the Tabaristan (1969).
View full size imageStevedore driving a fork-lift truck in a tween deck hold of the Tabaristan (1969). © NMM
Together with their higher earnings and more regular work, this reinforced their sense of being the aristocracy of the dockworkers. A gang of stevedores would normally be led by a Master Stevedore who would make sure that goods were correctly loaded and unloaded as quickly as possible.


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Glossary
Cargo
Dock
Port of London Authority (PLA)
Stevedore

Find out more
StoriesThe Great Dock Strike of 1889
The labour movement's first great victory
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StoriesThe 20th-century port
The changing fortunes of Docklands and the port
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StoriesLabour unrest in the port after 1889
Industrial relations in the Port of London were strained throughout the 20th century
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Related Resources
Related Images12 Images
Related Video1 Video
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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