The Call-On

Standing on the Stones

When I first saw these photos, I was struck by their similarities.

1962 call on

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 Statue

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.


Waiting for the race to the chain.

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.

Striking dockers, West India Dock customs house

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.

Muster shed in the Royal Docks, 1962

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.

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10 Responses to The Call-On

  1. Another great article,

  2. ron lee says:

    it was the same with ship repair boilermakers stood outside H/W G/S/w etc.

  3. Yvonne Gilbert says:

    It was very admirable for the dock workers to do this but they were not the first to be successful with strike action. The match girls and women in the factory in Bow were. 1400 walked out on the first day of the strike in July 1888 and soon after all work at the factory stopped. Bryant and May eventually gave in to demands and more and the match girls returned to work.

    • lemons says:

      Thanks for the comment Yvonne. I was aware of earlier struggles, and I even thought of Bryant and May, and I was trying to be careful with my words. It was the *scale* of the docker’s protest that I hoped to highlight. More than 100,000 went on strike across multiple locations. Anyway, it’s not a numbers game – Bryant & May or the docks – it took a lot of effort and bravery from all of them.

  4. Pingback: A Match to Fire the Thames | Andrea Gibbons

  5. Maskell says:

    Really enjoyed reading this article, currently researching working practices on the dock in the 1960s and this has given me a lot to work with so thank you!
    I was wondering though whether you could tell me the dates/sources of the following quotes used in your article:
    ‘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
    Many Thanks.

  6. Harry Nobby Sprackling says:

    Hallo. There is a lot of memories for me in your photos as I was a stevedore from 1960-1965 and tried to get work “on the stones” opposite the George Pub every morning at 7.45am when we were “called off” ….may have been different for the dockers but we were called off… not called on.

    For any readers who do not know the difference between a docker or a stevedore is that a docker unloads the ship and a stevedore loads the ships. (the idea being to ensure that the right cargo comes out at the right port and the ship would not roll over) Good idea in theory but after a barrel or rum got “dropped” from the crane who cares. Too pissed to worry.

    If I did not have my father to educate me I would have gone very hungry..If you took the foreman to the pub and bought the drinks or go to Chinatown in Limehouse for “dog and noodles” there was a much greater chance to work that day…In the 1960s there was no dogs or cats in Limehouse they all ended up in the stew in Chinatown.

    My father and myself are in the photo taken at the George and whilst it is a good photo it does not show all the whisky and rum being consumed and dodgy deals made in the front bar of the George… which usually started by 6.45am.

    Sometimes men were wanted to work 24hours, to get a ship loaded and out to sea, which were highly sought after and the foreman always had his hand out to be filled with silver or any other favours

    The quickest way to go hungry “on the stones” was to have a row or bad words with any of the foreman and you could forget working for the next month. This was one thing I was good at as I never believed at any time these blokes could “walk on water” as this was the impression that they tried to give. The one thing that the stones did produce in large quantities iis the most dedicated and professional arse-kissers in English History.

    Without doubt it was the most degrading work experience I have ever been involved in and it was still going strong when I left the docks in 1965.

    Harry Nobby Sprackling


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