Many hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980
|Wages and working conditions|
Different wage rates
The wages earned in the port varied greatly and depended on whether or not a man was employed on a casual basis or had a skilled occupation.
Lightermen, stevedores and warehouse officials, for example, were better paid than the dockers.
By the 1880s the pay of the casual docker was about 5d. (2p) an hour. This was at a time when building labourers earned 6d. (2.5p) an hour. The situation was better for permanent employees who, according to The Times in August 1889, could receive from 20s. (£1) to 30s. (£1.50) a week.
But there were call-ons at other times and men might be given work for one or two hours only, according to need. On other occasions, the men might have to work a very long shift if a ship had to be loaded or unloaded as quickly as possible.
Colonel R. B. Oram, who worked for the Port of London Authority (PLA) between 1912-56 observed some of the hardships:
Dock work was tiring, dirty and dangerous. There were many unpleasant materials that had to be dealt with.
Cargoes such as iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement and guano could injure or cause illness. The accident rate was very high.
One former docker, Bill Abbott, recalled:
‘I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally – bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar’.
Cargos could fall out of slings or nets, or produce could shift in the hold of ships and barges, causing injury or death. Cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks all added to the many dangers in the docks.
Watermen and lightermen were sometimes drowned while warehousemen could be injured by falling casks, chests and crates.
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