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Observations of Dock life

Thomas Burke in 1919 wrote of the London Docks at Wapping.

A little town by itself. Every commodity that is brought into England has its warehouse here, and every job that men can do has its ‘shop’ here. There are the carpenter’s shop, the turner’s shop, the wheelwright’s shop, the blacksmith’s shop, the chain-maker’s shop. There are the dried-fruit warehouse, the pulse and bean warehouse, the tea warehouse, the sugar warehouse, the grain warehouse, the wool warehouse, the spice warehouse, the ivory and hides warehouse, the drug warehouse, the tobacco warehouse, and the chilled meat warehouse. It is the stomach of London.

Joseph Conrad in 1919 wrote of the river

Close to high tide, the river came alive. Big ships, which had been moored or anchored, moved off. Pilots were taken on board. Lines were thrown to tugs. The large ships were slowly towed upstream towards the dock entrances. Barges and launches, skiffs and lighters crossed from one side of the river to the other; they were rowed, sailed, steered and powered towards their destination. The tide did most of the work. The Port of London Authority’s dredgers worked away keeping the deep ship channels clear. Those ships not entering dock, passed by, on upstream, seeking out particular wharf or jetty to discharge their cargo and possibly take on a new load. There were small costal vessels and short sea traders (those which operated on near European and costal routes) who made regular weekly visits to the port, many coming right up to the wharves just by London Bridge. Cranes, some fixed to the walls of the wharves, others standing on the jetties, lifted out the boxes, crates and barrels from the holds. Inside the holds of the ships, dockers hurried with the slinging together of the cargo. Each load was hoisted high up into the air, pulled into one of the wharves’ loopholes or doorways, or lowered down onto the quay, where a further army of dockers were on hand with their trolleys and carts to take it away for storage. On the side of the ship, a fleet of lighters might be tied up, with cargo being loaded or discharged by means of the ship’s rig.



H.V Morton in 1925 wrote of London Bridge

I noticed, with an authentic thrill, that against the grim wharves men were doing interesting things in ships. No matter how trivial the act – the hauling of rope, the turning of a winch, the painting of a hull – it becomes somehow vital and significant to anyone on dry land. Sometimes little, important jets of steam rose from a cargo boat, marvellously suggesting departure and the imminence of great adventure; enviable free men whose boots had never trod an office stair popped their heads out of hatchways and lumbered up on deck; a string of linked barges, dingy, low in the water, went behind an impertinent tug, which nosed the tide sideways, pulling and puffing. On the hindmost barge a man was frying bacon in a jet-black pan…

The London Docks

If there is anything more wonderful in London than dawn coming up over the tangled shipping of the docks I would like to know of it. First a silvery light in the air, a chilly greyness, then a flush in the east, and, with startling suddenness, every mast, every funnel, every leaning crane is silhouetted jet-black against the pearl-coloured sky. Gradually the docks awaken. Men walk along the wharf side, doors are opened. In the depths of the little ships men rise and become busy with ropes; there is, for some, a smell of frying bacon; on tall ships, mast lights grow pale in the dawn light, men in swinging cradles yawn and start painting a ship’s hull, and from far off comes the ring of the first hammer of the new day. As the light grows, one’s sense of smell improves. This is strange. The air is now full of a pungent smell of hemp and tow and tar, and even distant docks, seem to contribute their part as the dawn wind blows.

A.G. Linney in 1930 wrote of the London Dock

Each individual dock has an atmosphere and special individuality of its own, and there is the widest variation between impressions received in little, old-fashioned St Katherine, in huge and rather lonesome Surrey, or in impressive and business-like king George. Naturally the nature of the traffic reaching each dock and the character of the craft seen differ also, though rather less obviously to where the lower docks are concerned.

The West India Dock

A brooding, spirituous peace hangs over the great vaults of the Rum Quay in the Import Dock; a sort of cathedral gloom holds in the sheds where the hard-woods of Central America, India and Africa are stored; despite the coming of the beet, sugar arrives in no small quantities, and the sight of sugar bags drying is, near the Import Dock, as familiar as that of Monday’s washing in the back garden. Seasonal arrivals here are dried fruit and fresh fruit.

Tilbury Docks

Quite a sight of the port which has the distinction all of its own in that of either the new P&O ‘Strathnaver’ or ‘Stathairn’ passing through the Entrance Lock into the stream and taking the ebb for the sea. These remarkably fine vessels, the stars of the P&O fleet, with their towering white hulls and buff funnels, do bring to one’s mind, ‘The Liner she’s a lady’. Going upstream one Whit Sunday morning in glorious sunshine, as we pulled a little towards Tilbury Cargo Jetty, I rubbed my eyes and stared hard at the deck of a large motor-ship by the Jetty. Gangs were at work discharging, as it happened, and calmly standing near the open hatches were a couple of young elephants taking an extensive breakfast off a pile of greenstuff. The ship had come from the Far East and was, I understood, taking the elephants across to Hamburg possible for Hagenbeck’s splendid zoo there.

Paul Cohen-Portheim in 1935 wrote

The Docks struggle on both riverbanks but do not adjoin each other and each is enclosed by warehouses, locked and hidden. If you go to the Victoria and Albert Dock, with the new King George V Dock adjoining, you will find them a huge port in themselves, perhaps the most modern in the world, and you will discover the great liners of many routes and Companies, with the largest vessels at the outpost of Tilbury downriver.