It is Wednesday, 23rd April 2008 and we are on board an ATR42-500 passenger aircraft speeding down the runway at the City Airport. It is 10 o’clock in the morning and a misty sort of nondescript day. The runway lies between two mile-long stretches of enclosed water that were once the Royal London Docks.

We are on our way to Hamburg. There are a lot of ‘firsts’ associated with this flight. It is the first time we have flown from City Airport; it is the first time we have flown in this type of plane which is a European built twin engine propeller -driven aircraft, each engine having a six bladed propeller; another ‘first’. But for me the most memorable aspect is that I used to work at these docks fifty five years ago, and the scenes then were so utterly different from those we are seeing today

To trust the memory after all those years would be tempting fortune but, because I can delve back into my diary, the memory of those scenes is not lost. The recording from my diary follows.

‘Where B most aspired to assert himself was at his work and there was precious little opportunity for this at the Blue Star Line’s accounts department checking captains’ expenses and chandlers’ accounts. But, not being one to wait for the world to come to him, he wrote a letter to the Management, virtually recommending himself for a better job and preferably overseas. This letter was to have speedy results, removing him from the account’s department and projecting him into joining a small, select group of management trainees being formed at that time. This was after a short interview with Mr Ronald Vesty at the hallowed top floor of the building in West Smithfield, who gave it as his opinion that he could see that B was a ‘useful chap.’ Reporting this to his newly married wife later, she misunderstood ‘useful chap’ for ‘youthful chap,’ much to his chagrin.

As a management trainee life changed radically for B and his working routine. A programme of training for the four young men in the group was made up by the Company Secretary, and this was to give them a wide and useful knowledge of how the business worked. There were periods for them to spend in different departments, working and learning at the main offices and at the London docks. The first place that B was sent with another trainee called Jim Payne was the Superintendent’s office at the Royal London Docks. The three Royal docks lay at a distance of less than five miles east of the heart of the City of London and forty miles from the sea to the east. They were built inside a great loop of the winding river Thames as it leaves London on its way to the sea. Each dock is about a mile long and together they form the largest area of artificially enclosed water in the world and, with the surrounding quays, wharves and warehouses, comprised an area as great as the City of London itself. They were the last London docks to be built; the Victoria dock opened for shipping in 1855, the Albert Dock in 1880 and the King George V Dock in 1921. Together they provided eleven miles of berthing accommodation.

There are tidal docks and wet docks. A tidal dock is one open to the river or sea, so that the water level rises and falls with the tide; usually any variation in tidal levels of twelve feet or more in a dock makes it necessary to have some regulation of the constantly changing water levels; docks with such regulations are called wet docks. Because the tides in this part of the river rise and fall by twenty feet, it was necessary to use locks to control entry to the Royal Docks from the river. The disadvantage of this system is that ships can only enter and leave at high tide. The layout of the three docks was such that there were interlinking communications between them, the Albert Dock lay to the north and alongside the King George V Dock; each had their separate entrances/exits through locks on their eastern ends. Ships entering the northermost Albert Dock passed through the lock and into a holding basin of water and then waited for a swing bridge to open so they could enter the main dock for berthing (the top of the swing bridge acted as a roadway for vehicles when it was closed), Ships coming into the King George V Dock – the southermost one – passed through a separate lock and through another swing bridge which was part of the same road as the other swing bridge – the Woolwich Manor Way – and then directly into the main dock. There was a link between the two docks immediately beyond the two swing bridges. The newest of the three Royals, the King George V Dock was a little under a mile long and had a dry dock at its western extremity. The Albert Dock was a mile and a quarter long and had two dry docks at its southern side; it was joined with the Victoria Dock at its western end and where another swing bridge allowed ships to move between the docks; when this occurred the flow of traffic on the Connaught Road was interrupted as well as the trains on the railway line that ran alongside the road.

The Victoria Dock was exactly one mile in length. Along either side of the lengths of all the three docks were the quaysides upon which were located the cranes used for loading and discharging cargoes. These cranes were on wheels that ran on rails for mobility. The great ocean-going vessels would come in from Gallions Reach on the river and be directed to their berthing places at a particular berthing quay in a particular dock. The established shipping lines tended to have their fixed berths. The loading or discharging of cargo could be carried out from either side of the ships; on the land side using railway wagons, and on the water side using barges or lighters. Cranes could be used for either of these operations; also each ship had its lifting tackle, derricks that could be used instead of cranes, or in combination with them. There were also special cargoes such as frozen or chilled products, precious materials or transit cargo, all of which had to have individual and special treatment, and many cargoes were destined for the bonded warehouses built within the complex.

B found a new and impressive world in these great London docks with the swirl of activity in getting the ships discharged and loaded again, and turned around for yet another voyage. He never seemed to tire standing at some vantage point, looking down the line of the huge steamers alongside their berths, or being led up or manoeuvring to berth or leave, framed with the forest of towering cranes working to delicately fill or empty each hold. Ships from every continent, with crews speaking different languages, mingling with the tough local dockers, were an intrinsic part of the docklands.

The essence of docks, in general, is the speed in which the ships can be turned round; the proximity to a main centre of usage, such as industrial centres, cities, mines and with adequate transport facilities for taking cargoes to and from these centres. An infrastructure is required that includes the ready availability of labour  and a system had operated in British docks, pre-war, whereby the labourer was almost totally casualised; an early morning selection was carried out by the port administrative representatives, of dockers who presented themselves as being available for work. Those selected would be hired for the day or part of a day. The Labour government of 1945 had swept this archaic system away and introduced new employment conditions, much fairer for the dockers. For some years this functioned well for as long as the docks were able to work to full capacity and there was regular work guaranteed. The factories in Britain too were working to full capacity in order to supply the demands of a world seeking to lift itself up from the devastation of the earlier war years. The goods from the factories were sent to the docks by road or rail transport and stored in warehouses or open yards waiting for ships to arrive from overseas. These ships brought raw materials for the factories, meat, vegetables, fruit and other foodstuffs for the population so that, as the incoming cargoes were discharged, space was freed in the ships’ holds for the loading of the manufactured goods. All of this gave full employment in the country and what seemed like boom conditions at the docks.

But as always there lies a hidden worm in all the best scenario ointments; one of these worms was that all this gearing up of the peacetime industrial capacity was done in a hurry to meet world market demands, as well as to pre-empt foreign competitors, so the old, pre-war, often near obsolete equipment was used, being patched up to keep it going. This worked well for some years and then came the day of reckoning when foreign competition, which had invested in new plant and equipment, began to undercut the British dominance in price and often with higher quality and improved delivery dates. The next and subsequent worm  was when employers attempted to combat this threat from the competition to their profit margins; being unable to do this as they had before the war by the clear exploitation of labour, they did what the competitors had done and invested in new equipment. But to switch from a labour intensive business to a machine driven one as a crash project means a lot of human suffering when jobs are lost and pay packets dry up.

Conveyer belts were installed to bring out certain cargoes, fork lift trucks started to be used and one fork lift with its driver could do the work of a great number of dockers. When the machines started doing the back-breaking work that previously had been done by using men as coolies, it was now difficult to get rid of the dockers who, at one time had been instantly available and as equally instantly dischargeable. This resulted in growing obstinate and obdurate attitudes on both sides of the work divide. The dockers’ union now had the bit between their teeth after witnessing decades of abuse of their members. The employers begrudged having to pay men to be idle and were unwilling to pay large redundancies to get rid of the labour, as this would eat into their profits, and it was not at all certain that the dockers would have accepted redundancy offers, even if the employers were to accept this way out of the problem. So, for the first time in British industrial history the power of organised labour looked as though it could stand its ground against the once omnipotent power of the owners in the capitalist system.

By the early fifties decade a continual state of near open warfare had developed between capital and labour which resulted in go-slows, restrictive practices and sometimes all out strikes by the labour force and a heavy-handed, arbitrary response, sometime leading to lock-outs, by the employers. At the time this was happening a new style of transporting cargoes, called containerisation, was being experimented with. There were attempts to use these in the London docks but, in the climate of mutual mistrust, these were ‘blacked’ by the unions with the result that more and more trade would be diverted to other ports, often Continental ones.’

The dockland image changes to the present day one. A new mode of transport overlays the old with shining steel and glass structures replacing the Victorian brick and ironwork; City businessmen and women replace their docker forebears by a distance of two generations. The technological developments that have taken place in half a century cause one to question whether similar progressive strides could be maintained into the next half century. B feels privileged in having lived to witness the immense changes and even in having been a part of them.

But the present beckons; the plane is now airborne and we are Hamburg bound.

APRIL 2008