Tales of London's Docklands

Free Tales of London's Docklands by Henry T Bradford

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Authors: Henry T Bradford
from 8 a.m. till midnight) or an ‘all night’ (that is, from 8 a.m. one day till 8 a.m. the next), if the vessel was a liner, due to sail on a schedule and required to depart at a certain time. As far as sugar jobs were concerned, the overtime rate on piecework was paid at just above the day rate between 5 to 7 p.m. This meant there was very little financial incentive for men to work overtime on sugar loading or discharging ships, other than to get back into the Dock Labour Board compound in the hope of getting a more financially rewarding job.
    On some occasions, employers invoked the ‘you shall work overtime if required to do so’ rule, a rule contained in post-war working agreements that had been drawn up between the port employers and officials of trade unions representing registered dock workers – the unions agreed without consulting the membership on this issue. The rule was contained in a clause introduced into dock working practices and conditions during the Second World War. It had been put in place, together with a continuity rule, in order to get ships discharged or loaded more quickly and made ready for protection by the Royal Navy when they joined a convoy. But when used in peacetime, it was a flagrant abuse of the liberty of man and totally disregarded dock workers’ rights to choose whether they wished to work overtime (more especially after having been press-ganged into the job in the first instance). It was heavy-handed impertinence on the employers’ part, an abuse of employment power that caused a great deal of resentment and bad blood between ship owners, managers and dock workers, especially as the remedy to the problem lay in the ship owners’ hands.
    However, this is not to say that some ship’s gangs did not earn reasonable wages discharging sugar. Regular stevedore and docker gangs, working afloat off the Woolwich buoys, discharged several hundred tons of sugar each day between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., working over-side under a ship’s derricks. In addition, thousands of tons of sugar were discharged with the use of grab-cranes at Samuel Williams’s riverside wharf at Dagenham docks, Essex. The ‘down-holders’ had to clear loose sugar from behind stringer boards with shovels, an operation any docker would have called ‘a doodle of a job’ – stringer boards are wooden boards attached to a ship’s ribs to protect the steel plates from cargo damage.
    When hessian-bagged sugar was loaded aboard vessels moored to Tilbury Riverside cargo jetty, barges and lighters were brought inside, between the jetty and the shore, occupying the relatively calm water on the land side of the cargo jetty while they were being discharged. The shoreline protruded into the river behind and below the New Lock Entrance. The tidal river water was, therefore, kept away from the immediate areas between the Riverside cargo jetty and the rock-faced sea wall, and this created a tranquil, smooth, shallow basin where barges were worked without the bargehands becoming seasick, as they would if they were working in barges secured to a ship on the river side of the jetty, which was constantly being buffeted by waves made by a fast-running tide and the bow-waves of ships making way up or down the river.
    The method of loading ships from barges moored inside Tilbury cargo jetty entailed using two cranes attached to the jetty. The shoreside crane lifted sets of sugar from the barge onto the top of the cargo jetty. The riverside crane took the sets off the jetty to be lowered into a ship’s hold, where a stowage gang would then back the sugar (that is, carry the 2-hundredweight sacks on their backs) to the allotted stowage. On the occasion of this tale, the sugar was being stowed in number 2 upper ’tween deck, at the after end of the hatch. The ship’s gang, except Doc, had been allocated to the vessel from the Dock Labour Board compound. Doc was the odd man out,

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