Tommy Morton begins by saying he is not really a docker!
He tells the story that Ernest Bevin, then Minister of Labour and National Service was written to by a lad working in the docks asking why Leith was lying empty (after the vast majority of Leith dockers had been conscripted) when the English ports could not cope with all the goods there, is supposed to have said “Where the hell’s Leith”.
However, as a result of the increase in dockers, Tommy began working as a docker in 1943. He too gives us a detailed description of his family and family life at the time including his memories of the air raids in 1915. He attended Newtongrange School for six months until his family returned to Leith when he transferred to North Fort Street School and about his helping his older brother on his milk run and later going on to be a van boy delivering bread etc from a horse drawn van and in afterwards as an egg importer’s warehouseman.
During his time there he was diagnosed with TB, so was sent to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Comely Bank to convalesce and gradually, as he improved, helped with little jobs around the hospital until he was well enough to be discharged to find his employer had kept his position open for him to return to, and he continued to work there until WWII broke out.
Meantime he took a job working in a cold storage warehouse, which was, inevitably a hard, cold job and joined the Home Guard. He was paid off for questioning the working conditions and then went to work for Keizer, a big plywood firm as a labourer at which point he was called up but was sent home again because he had had TB.
Thereafter he was offered a job as a cashier but did not feel he had the skills to manage that, so took labouring jobs and went on to work for J.R. Carmichael, the carrier as a checker when the lorries were being loaded, but after 18 months he was fed up with this so went to the buroo in 1943 and it was from there that he was sent down to the docks to join the influx of new dock workers as a “grade 4” about which Tommy gleefully pronounces “Ye see, ah’m not really a docker at a’, ken.”
He describes the work as a different world and very hard work, with a steep learning curve to learn to stow cargoes properly, and some interesting observations about the rooky dockers getting it wrong. Of course, Tommy also talks of the scrum to get work and to try and be taken on by the good gaffers and to work with others who were on the level, not the “buggers that ye wouldnae like tae work wi’”referring to the ones “pinchin’, guisin’, anythin’ rather than work”. He also talks of working for any firm who had work left, but gradually getting known and picked out, saying that being tall helped him to stand out as well.
His least favourite cargoes were cement, big timber, the inevitable sulphur, and esparto grass. Tommy describes some of the dangers, including a German ship being cleared out and a worker finding a gun and accidentally shooting another docker’s arm, rendering it unuseable.
The old dockers came back from the war and Tommy eventually found work with the gas department for a couple of years before returning to the docks to work a further 23 years there until his retirement in 1972. Of course, that length of service means that he has plenty tales of the characters who worked with him, the changing conditions of work.
One particular story which Tommy tells has me intrigued. He says that the shipping firms Currie and Gibson held Leith back by not allowing the sill in the entrance to the docks to be removed so that only small ships could get in. He also tells a tale that Harland and Wolff wanted to buy Ramage and Ferguson’s yard and the Dock Commission offered them a nine year lease but that they refused this saying it would take that amount of time to get it in order so they wanted a 99 year lease. As most readers will know, Harland and Wolff went to Belfast, and Robb’s took over the Ramage and Ferguson yard.
Tommy concludes that “ah have no regerts about becomin’ a docker. As ah say, if ye didnae fancy it ah didnae go back the next day” This seems to be a common theme!
There are other posts reviewing this book at:
Voices of Leith Dockers – Part One
Voices of Leith Dockers – George Baxter and Bobby Rodger
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
PS: The lack of recent postings has been due to my being unable to access the internet for a couple of weeks. However, I promise to try to make up for the dearth over coming weeks.
Please add comments to further inform, correct my misunderstandings and suggest new topics or avenues to explore, I would rather write about what interests my readership than just rant on about my own pet ponies!