PortCities London

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

Coopers, truckers and warehousemen


Hall's Cooperage on Mortlake Road E16.
View full size imageA cooper mending a barrel. © NMM

Another group of skilled men were the coopers who repaired and renewed barrels, casks and chests that were damaged during the loading and unloading of ships.

Dock coopers also assisted the vaultkeepers and customs officers in their work. 

Moving and sorting goods

Unloading tea ships in the East India Docks
View full size imageTrucking tea chests at the East India Docks. © NMM

Truckers moved the goods from the quayside to the warehouse or a transit shed. This was the least skilled job in the docks, and given to the lowest casuals.

However, it was not particularly hard work, and was sometimes done by boys. In this picture the dockers are trucking tea at the East India Docks.

Breaking bulk on board a tea ship.
View full size imageOpening tea chests. © NMM

Other men were employed as 'port markers' and painted on export goods the name of the port to which the goods were going.

The 'bedder outs' separated cargo on the floor of the sheds while the 'box knockers’ opened cases for customs officials and re-nailed them afterwards.

In this image, men can be seen opening tea chests on board a vessel.

Treading in tea at Butler's Wharf
View full size imageTreading in tea at Butler's Wharf. © NMM
Warehousemen were engaged in moving goods around the huge dockside storage facilities. They would tip a cask, sack or bale on to a truck and run it into a warehouse or down into a vault. They would also pack export goods and commodities for onward transportation.

Quality control

Sampling wine casks at London Docks.
View full size imageSampling wine casks at London Docks. © NMM
Not all warehouse workers were employed in sorting or transporting goods. Others were skilled men who dealt with a huge range of commodities from all over the world and provided details about the quality, condition and weight of various products.

Unloading a sugar cargo at the West India Docks.
View full size imageUnloading and checking a sugar cargo at the West India Docks. © NMM

They enjoyed a high status within the port, were employed full-time and worked regular hours for the dock companies and the PLA.

Their judgement made sure that goods like brandy, tea, sugar and wine were suitably graded in price for the open market.

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