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'A Karachi stowage': dockers and the sea in twentieth-century Britain
Jim Phillips, University of Glasgow
Britain's waterfront communities and workers broadly resemble Fernand Braudel's celebrated analysis of the sea, which emphasised the imperceptibly changing environment as a central historical contingency. (1) In Britain's ports the long history –
la longue durée, in Braudel's words – of the sea was certainly important although class, along with gender and race, were additionally significant historical ingredients. Looking at the dockers can also help us, borrowing Sarah Palmer's definition of the purpose of maritime history, 'to see the sea'. (2) Dockers were often said to be insular in their attitudes, but tended to 'see the sea' as a bridge, to other workers and societies, rather than a protective barrier between peoples.
The sea undoubtedly shaped the class and industrial politics of waterfront communities. (3) Uncertainties of tide and weather contributed to the uneven flow of traffic through ports and helped structure the casual nature of employment there. Dockers had no fixed employer or place of employment until 1967, and until the Second World War were hired each morning or afternoon for individual jobs, so could be released by employers after only a few hours. The Dock Labour Scheme, introduced in the 1940s, ensured that workers were retained for the duration of each job and guaranteed a basic weekly minimum, but work – and jobs were needed to take earnings above bare subsistence – was still allocated casually.
This casualism bred a pattern of adversarial industrial relations that developed over generations, as waterfront fathers passed on to their sons not only an occupation but also distrust – and sometimes contemptuous loathing – of employers. Industrial tension was recurrently evident, with dockers the most 'strike-prone' of all British workers other than coal miners in the 1940s and 1950s. The Scheme was amended to accommodate more permanent forms of employment in 1967, attaching workers to particular employers, and then abolished in 1989, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government viewing its provisions on income and employment security as 'anachronistic'. Meanwhile the application of new technologies had been accelerating from the late 1960s, notably containerised cargo handling, which diminished the industry's labour requirements: from more than 100,000 in the 1920s and 80,000 in the 1940s to just a few thousand in the 1990s. Labour intensity and the physical endeavour of dock labour had helped to shape the strongly masculine identities of dockers, reinforced by the dangerous nature of their occupation. In the deregulated late twentieth century, accidents, including fatalities, remained a significant hazard, prolonging the sense that the waterfront was on the margins of economic civilisation, and consolidating the workforce's class identity and opposition to the employers.
It was sometimes argued – chiefly by critics of dockers, often during major strikes – that the position of waterfront communities on the physical margins of Britain developed insular attitudes among the people who worked in them. Government ministers, business leaders and journalists queued up from the 1940s onwards to bemoan the absence of 'responsibility' among dockers, whose allegedly inefficient working practices and propensity to strike jeopardised post-Second World War recovery and increased the agony of Britain's subsequent relative economic decline. Dockers were also criticised for their various alleged social prejudices, including racism, most visibly expressed by the support of a few hundred London dockers – only a fragment, it should be noted, of the 20,000 men who worked in the port – for Enoch Powell when the Tory MP was sacked from the Opposition front-bench by Edward Heath for his anti-black immigration 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968. (4)
Yet dockers also exhibited competing tendencies, shaped by their proximity to the sea along with their developed sense of class identity. Many were deeply conscious of their position not so much on the margins of Britain but at the heart of a global network of human endeavour and exchange. This was bound up in the solidarity of workers across the sea. After the First World War the British government assisted those 'White' Russian and Polish forces that sought through military means to dislodge the revolutionary Bolshevik administration established in 1917. In May 1920, as the anti-Bolshevik Polish troops entered Kiev, London dockers – keen to defend what they saw in Russia as an advance for workers internationally – famously refused to load the
Jolly George with supplies marked 'OHMS Munitions for Poland'. (5) More than 70 years later, from 1995 to 1998 some 500 sacked Liverpool dockers sustained a prolonged if ultimately unsuccessful campaign for their reinstatement through an international network, drawing support from waterfront workers in North America, Australia, Asia and Africa. (6) These were high profile instances of the dockers' international solidarity.
More routinely, British dockers were acutely aware of the global reach of their actions. Many emphasised the importance of the safe stowage of cargoes, both to crews on board and the dockers unloading them at the voyage's end. The value of the 'Karachi stowage' was sometimes noted, layering bags half way across the top of each other. This involved more work but made the cargo more stable. In this way dockers demonstrated a sense of seeing the sea as a danger to be negotiated, but also as a bridge between peoples characterised by cultural and political differences – a
Karachi stowage – but profoundly united by their common humanity.
1. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1992).
2. Sarah Palmer, Seeing the Sea: the Maritime Dimension in History (2000).
3. For an extended discussion of this material, with full referencing,
see Jim Phillips, 'Class and Industrial Relations in Britain: the "long"
mid-century and the case of port transport,
Century British History, 16.1 (2005), 52–73.
4. Fred Lindop, 'Racism and the working class: strikes in support of Enoch Powell', Labour History Review, 66.1 (2001), 79–100.
5. Ken Coates and Tony Topham, The Making of the Labour Movement (Nottingham, 1994), p. 745–8.
6. Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy,
Solidarity on the Waterfront (Liverpool, 1996).