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

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

A trade open to all

Unloading a collier.
View full size imageDockers unloading a collier, 1808. © NMM

Dock work drew people from many different backgrounds. In the early days of the docks, the men would have been recruited from the porters who worked on the riverside quays. Later on, men from all over Britain and Ireland arrived in London seeking work.

As a large part of the work was unskilled, requiring brute strength to fetch and carry goods, it was open to anyone seeking employment. Sometimes people worked in the docks for a short period at particular times of the year or if their own trade was in depression.

Mayhew's Wapping visit

Old dock hands.
View full size imageOld dock hands. © NMM

Henry Mayhew visited the London Docks at Wapping in 1849 and described the variety of men seeking work there:
‘He who wishes to behold one of the most extraordinary and least known scenes of this metropolis should wend his way to the London Dock gates at half-past seven in the morning. There he will see congregated within the principal entrance masses of men of all grades, looks, and kinds.'

Unemployed men gather outside the West India Docks.
View full size imageUnemployed men gather outside the West India Docks. © NMM
'There are decayed and bankrupt master butchers, master bakers, publicans, grocers, old sailors, Polish refugees, broken-down gentlemen, discharged lawyers' clerks, suspended Government clerks, pensioners, servants, thieves - indeed, everyone who wants a loaf and is willing to work for it. The London Dock is one of the few places in the metropolis where men can get employment without either character or recommendation’.

Henry Mayhew, ‘Labour and the Poor’ in the Morning Chronicle, October 1849.

A close-knit community

Dock gang at the King George V Dock.
View full size imageDock gang at the King George V Dock, c. 1957. © NMM
Dockers often formed themselves into gangs for loading and unloading ships. Gangs varied in size according to the job, but usually they were made up of 11 to 13 men. Where possible they tried to keep these gangs together on a regular basis as their safety often depended on other members of the gang, especially when handling cargoes in confined spaces or in difficult conditions.

Discharging frozen mutton and lamb from Australia on the Clan Macdougall.
View full size imageDischarging frozen mutton and lamb from Australia on the Clan Macdougall. © NMM
People preferred to work with members of their family or with friends that they could trust. This created a close-knit community of workers with strong bonds of loyalty and solidarity. There were many well-established families in the docks. Usually, the oldest member would be in charge of the gang.

Break-bulk cargoes

Pallets of oranges from the P&O cargo ship Strathbrora (1967) at King George V Dock.
View full size imagePallets of oranges from the Strathbrora (1967) at King George V Dock. © NMM
Until the 1970s most cargo in London was ‘break bulk’, carried in small units such as sacks, barrels or pallets (a portable wooden platform used for storing or moving cargo).

London docker's case hook.
View full size imageLondon docker's case hook. © NMM
Most ships spent half of their life being loaded and unloaded in ports. Large numbers of dockers were needed to work at dockside or to operate cranes. Each docker had a hook that he used to pick up items, while the cargo was hung under the crane by means of hooks, slings or nets.

Frozen meat from New Zealand being discharged at the Royal Albert Dock, 1949.
View full size imageFrozen meat from New Zealand being discharged at the Royal Albert Dock, 1949. © NMM
Once a cargo had been unloaded from a ship and placed onto the quayside it would be moved to a warehouse by relatively unskilled dock labourers. However, the actual process of loading and unloading cargo from ship to shore was carried out by gangs, with one or two men to each hatch. A hatch gang would be divided into hold men and deck men.

The gang system

Deck gang discharging Chittagong tea from the Clan Munroe (1918).
View full size imageDeck gang discharging Chittagong tea from the Clan Munroe (1918). © NMM
Although many dock labourers were employed directly by the dock and shipping companies much of the work of the gangs was organized through contractors. These were often men who had been foremen in the docks for many years. They would arrange for a ship to be unloaded at a fixed price per ton.

Unloading cases of New Zealand apples at the Royal Docks.
View full size imageUnloading cases of New Zealand apples at the Royal Docks. © NMM
The contractors would go to 'gangers' who would choose two gangs of men. The first would work on the ship while another gang carried out tasks on the quayside such as trucking goods, warehousing and weighing. Sorting and weighing were carried out under the supervision of the foreman, and did not involve specialist workers.

An unpopular system

Landing oranges at Fresh Wharf, London Bridge, for Christmas.
View full size imageLanding oranges at Fresh Wharf, London Bridge. © NMM

The gang system was very unpopular amongst the dockers. An article in The Times of 29 August 1889 explained why:
'The complaint of the men is, first, that they are compelled to bribe, treat, or fawn upon the [gangers] who have the selection of the workers. Secondly, and this is the gist, excessive amount of work is got out of them in return for a disproportionately low scale of pay.'

Dock labourers at the East India Docks.
View full size imageDock labourers at the East India Docks, 1889. © NMM
'It is true that the hourly wage paid by the gangers is no lower than formerly. But for this wage the men complain that they are overdriven. It is the ganger's interest to employ as few hands as possible for a given piece of work, and yet to get the work done as quickly as if it were adequately manned.' 

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