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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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Deal Porters

Carrying timber

Deal porters unloading a lighter.
View full size imageDeal porters unloading a lighter. © NMM

The work of the casual dock labourer relied on raw strength. Whether lifting, carrying or pushing, the work was physically demanding but involved little skill. Some dockers, often the men with permanent employment, did however specialize in particular jobs that required certain skills.

Bew's Deal porters, Rotherhithe pensinsular.
View full size imageSculpture commemorating the deal porters at the Surrey Docks. © NMM


The deal porters were one such group. These were men who carried timber planks that had been unloaded from a ship to special piles where the wood was stored.

Deal porters at the Surrey Docks.
View full size imageDeal porters at the Surrey Docks. © NMM
Deal porters were the main workers at the Surrey Commercial Docks. They were amongst the fittest and most skilled of dockworkers, jealously guarding their jobs, which were passed down from father to son.


A. G. Linney's view

Discharging deals and timber products at Russia Dock
View full size imageDischarging deals and timber products at Russia Dock. © NMM
A. G. Linney visited the Surrey Docks in the 1930s and watched the deal porters at work. ‘They wear leather “backing” hats with a protecting flap which covers the neck, and the skill with which they balance a load of several lengthy planks on their lower neck and walk with their load often a considerable distance to the storage piles is astonishing.'

Wood unloaded from the Pacific Reliance (1951).
View full size imageWood unloaded from the Pacific Reliance (1951) awaiting removal at the Surrey Docks, c. 1952. © NMM
'The more astonishing as they often have to travel along an avenue between piles, at a height of ten or twelve feet from the ground, where there is but a single plank-width for their feet to rest upon….Backward and forward for eight hours a day these men plod at their arduous task, and have rightly earned the reputation of being the steadiest of dock workers’.

A. G. Linney, Peepshow of the Port of London, (Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd., London). 

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Casual labour

Find out more
StoriesThe Great Dock Strike of 1889
The labour movement's first great victory
StoriesThe 20th-century port
The changing fortunes of Docklands and the port
StoriesLabour unrest in the port after 1889
Industrial relations in the Port of London were strained throughout the 20th century
Related Resources
Related Images 12 Images
Related Video 1 Video
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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