Voices of Leith Dockers by Ian MacDougall – George Baxter and Bobby Rodger

The Great Crane and Leith Docks - extracted from Sunshine Forever on Leith, see earlier blog entry for details.

 George Baxter begins his account by talking about the terrible wounds with which his father returned from WWI, his contracting TB and dying, so 12 year old George had to leave school and took up work with a barber. However, as he hated that job, he found himself work at the docks to support his mother and her family of ten. He then tells us more detail about his family and their way of life, of his mum working as a midwife, because she was a married woman so had the knowledge and experience to help with child births (again reflective of some of the memories shared in John Stewart’s books). He describes the cramped conditions, especially when they had to give his ailing father a bed to himself, collecting water from a standpipe, how he would get free coal and vegetables and his school days.

George then goes into more detail about his work at the barber’s shop and being fired for asking for a rise after working for three years. He then explains how he got started in dock working by reading that  four squads were required to start at two in the morning for Coast Lines, so he managed to get taken on and made a good impression. He describes the ups and downs of hunting for work, how he became a “black booker” so he could be a docker with the security from the union which that conferred.

He, too talks of war experiences, firstly being trained as a spotter and then being called up to the Royal Artillery, training in India, helping evacuate women and children from Singapore and the terrible sights he saw in Calcutta during the 1943 famine. George, too, talks about the changes in conditions over time, the characters and the accidents. He talks of the role of the gaffers, of the physicality of some of the disputes about how jobs were carried out and of his need to work after he was made redundant leading to him finishing his working life at Shrubhill depot as did another 12 dockers he recommended to the manager. He almost exactly repeats the sentiments of Jock McDougal when he says at the end of his recollections:

“Oh, ah’ve no regrets aboot bein’ a docker. Oh, no,no,no. The dockers were a great crowd, they were. Oh, ah enjoyed ma life in the dock. It wisnae always easy but ah enjoyed it.”

Bobby Rodger starts by explaining that his parents did not want him to work down the docks and then tells us some of his family history, including his links with Burntisland through his father and with Leith through his mother. He describes their house, including a recognition that in having a flush toilet and bath in Assembly Street, they were better off than many others in Leith. He talks of his time at the Links School, Bonnington Road Secondary School and being in the Boys’ Reserve and Boys’ Brigade and his ambition to be a seaman, but not managing to get into the Merchant Navy when he left school at 14 just after the General Strike of 1926.

Bobby goes on to tell us about his completing a commercial course to learn typewriting, bookkeeping, arithmetic, English and shorthand and then taking up a temporary job in a chartered accountant’s office. After this he went on to work for Mitchell Brothers’ warehouse but was paid off when he reached 18 as the adult stamp was 10d or a shilling more and employers were not keen on paying that if they could avoid it. For fourteen months he sought employment, including trying to get jobs at Hawthorn’s, Menzies’, Ramage and Ferguson’s, Cran and Somerville’s and Robb’s but to no avail. Finally he found employment at Dickson’s in Bristo, again working in a warehouse but for a poor wage so he went to the docks, despite his parents misgivings and worked towards getting registered, finally becoming a Crisis Docker when recruitment went up in 1936-7. However, it took him a long time to become known and so to get regular work and he gives a very detailed account of the trials and tribulations of turning up for work and hoping to be selected, and of the crush amongst others all in the same situation.

Bobby also talks of the dangers and of how dependent you were on your mate to keep an eye out for you with the huge cranes working over you. He too disliked working with sulphur cargoes, and with cotton seed which he recalls as being very dirty work. In 1939 he got a job as a plater’s helper at Robb’s which was a reserved occupation, so when they were bringing in more dockers in 1940 he had great trouble getting back to working on the docks (which he didn’t like because “some o’ it wis dirtier than dock work”) but his black book status convinced the powers that be he was a legitimate docker.

He describes his experiences of being bombed out and the difficulties of getting set up again in Royal Park Terrace which meant a long cycle run to work, often getting soaked on the journey. Again we are treated to some stories about characters who worked on the docks and to information about religious, political and freemasonry influences at the time. He then describes some of the accidents which happened during his time at the docks in detail and the range of people working on the docks and with the Leith Dock Commission. He describes how pay and conditions improved after the war with holidays coming in during 1940-41, a week’s paid leave being unheard of before then. In 1960, through being able to say that his grandfather had been a porter, he was taken on as a porter, returning to work as a docker in 1966 for the last 10 years of his working life when conditions changed and porters jobs disappeared.

His final summary incudes his saying “Bein’ a docker ah think wis one o’ the greatest labouring’ jobs there was”.

There are other posts reviewing this book at:

Voices of Leith Dockers – Part One


Voices of Leith Dockers – Tommy Morton


Voices of Leith Dockers – Eddie Trotter


Voices of Leith Dockers – Tom Hart Part One


Voices of Leith Dockers – Tom Hart Part Two


Voices of Leith Dockers – Tom Ferguson Part one


Voices of Leith Dockers – Tom Ferguson Part two


Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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8 Responses to Voices of Leith Dockers by Ian MacDougall – George Baxter and Bobby Rodger

  1. Pingback: “Voices of Leith Dockers” by Ian MacDougall – Part One | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  2. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers by Ian MacDougall – Part Three – Tommy Morton | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  3. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers by Ian MacDougall – Book Review – Eddie Trotter | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  4. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers – Ian MacDougall – Tom Hart part one | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  5. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers – Ian MacDougall – Tom Hart part one | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  6. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers – book review – Tom Hart part two | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  7. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers – a book review – Tom Ferguson part one | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  8. Pingback: Ian MacDougall’s “Voices of Leith Dockers”, review, Tom Ferguson Part Two | Henry Robb's Shipyard

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