Many hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980
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.
|Stevedores loading general cargo in a tween deck hold of the Tabaristan (1969). © NMM|
A skilled trade
|Loading 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. © 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. © 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?
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.
|Stevedore driving a fork-lift truck in a tween deck hold of the Tabaristan (1969). © NMM|