Standing on the Stones
When I first saw these photos, I was struck by their similarities.
They were taken in the same place. Both photos depict men hanging around, some in flat caps in one photo, all in flat caps in the other.
The men are standing at the main entrance to the West India Docks Gate No. 1 at the southern end of West India Dock Rd.
The warehouse in the old photo today houses the Museum of London Docklands. The statue is of Robert Milligan, one of the founders of the West India Docks, a man made rich by his Caribbean sugar plantations – worked by slaves (credit to the museum for giving due attention to this).
Milligan’s statue was later moved to the other side of the warehouse, where the Docklands museum entrance is also located.
Clearly, the top two photos were taken at different times, but I was surprised to discover that they are separated by 60 years! The first was taken in c1900, and the second in 1962. I was aware that most dockers – apart from those with specific skills or experience – were casual workers who gathered at dock entrances hoping for a “call-on” to get a day’s work, or even just a few hours’ work. But I did not realize that this was still being practiced in the 1960s.
Some called the hanging around for work, “on the stones”.
We used to call it ‘The Stones’, when we were looking for work at East India Docks and West India Docks outside Charlie Browns [common name for the Railway Tavern pub in Limehouse] – Ronald Harvey
They still made it 3/4d, so we said there was no alternative but to talk it over with the men on the stones [the other dockers] – Conn Clancy
Whatever the name, it was a degrading system. Men gathered at dock entrances, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day, and when the calling foreman appeared there would be a frenzied and sometimes violent scramble to catch his attention to try and get a “ticket” to work.
The Times in 1889:
You can imagine for a moment from 1,500 to 2,000 men crowded together, the front men forced up against the chain: the back men are climbing over the heads of those in front, and the contractor behind the chain is picking out the men, generally his own favourites.
I myself have had eight or ten men upon my shoulders and my head, and I have been hurt several times in a struggle for employment like that.” “Unless a man is very strong,’ says another witness, “there is a great possibility of his clothes being torn off his back.”
Ben Tillett, in his 1910 memoirs “A Brief History of the Dockers Union” described it as follows:
The call-on generated much anger among the dockers. We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day’s work.
The call-on system relied on there being more dockers than there was work, so that the dock companies always had enough labour for the peaks, and did not have to pay wages when there were less ships to be handled. This kept wages low (in the 19th century, dockers earned less than half that of agricultural labourers), encouraged cronyism and corruption, and it meant that many dockers frequently went without work (were ‘left on the stones’). There was acute poverty among dockers’ families.
It was Tillett who first organized the dockers, leading to the Great Dock Strike in 1889. The strike, which lasted 5 weeks, was over the issue of casual working (they demanded a minimum of 4 hours per day) and for a minimum wage of 6 pence an hour (the ‘dockers’ tanner’). Their plight won a considerable amount of public support, and they won their latter demand. There is a Dockers Tanner Rd off West Ferry Rd which commemorates this event.
This was a very significant victory, and not only for the dockers. Never before had workers organised on such a massive scale and been successful. This was the catalyst for further unionisation in the country. Trade union membership grew from 750,000 in 1888 to over 2 million by 1899.
However, despite this significant victory, the call-on continued.
Dining shacks and mobile dining-rooms were available long before the strike, but this was less a humanitarian gesture than a discouragement to men who had the habit of visiting the very many pubs close to the dock gates. After the strike, there was an immediate erection of labourers’ shelters throughout the docks. These had been promised decades before, but it took the strike to make the dock companies take action. Other docks, off the Island, also saw the building of ‘muster sheds’ – a dry place for men waiting for a call-on.
It was 1947 before dock workers received some kind of job security with the establishment of the National Dock Labour (Board) scheme. This scheme provided for local dock boards (made up of dock employers and employees) who were responsible for keeping a register of employers and workers, paying wages and attendance money, controlling the hiring of labour, and responsibility for discipline. It provided another significant improvement for dockers, with higher pay rates and more regular work. For many, this meant permanent work, and for others, a minimum amount even if they were not called-on.
‘Bomping on’ was when there was no work so you had to report to your local NDLB office to get your registration book stamped twice a day hence bomper proof of attendance. For that you got nine shillings a day .but if you got a days work then that was all you got !! .Not bad eh, and that was in the 1960s. – Terry Sullivan
My dad used to do that… he called it bomping on.. hard times! – Denise Young
Permanent employment for all dockers took place only from 1967, 160 years after the opening of the West India Docks, 100 years after the opening of the Millwall Docks, and 15 years before the closure of both.