Voices of Leith Dockers by Ian MacDougall – Part Three – Tommy Morton

Leith Dockers tug of war team. Click to see full size on http://www.edinphoto.org.uk site and to read more about them!

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.

Royal Victoria Hospital, click picture to link to http://www.edinphoto.org.uk to see full size and read more details about the hospital

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!

About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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14 Responses to Voices of Leith Dockers by Ian MacDougall – Part Three – Tommy Morton

  1. John Stevenson says:

    Enjoyed Tommy’s reminisences !!!
    “…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”.”

    Would offer my version of two items

    Harland & Wolff

    This from the Archives of the company held at the University of Glasgow (GUAS).

    In 1912, the company acquired a shipyard at Govan in Glasgow, Scotland. It bought the London & Glasgow Engineering & Iron Shipbuilding Co’s Middleton and Govan New shipyards in Govan and Mackie & Thomson’s Govan Old yard. The three neighbouring yards were amalgamated and redeveloped to provide a total of seven building berths, a fitting-out basin and extensive workshops.

    There is no mention in any correspondence of H & W making an offer to lease the R&F yard at Leith nor is there mention in Leith Dock Commission Archives ( NAS GD 229 )

    From LDC archive
    June 1918
    ” The owner’s and main shareholders of Ramage & Ferguson , via Mr Ferguson, have informed us that there has been interest shown by Mr Henry Robb in acquiring the lease of the shipyard.
    As there is,nor has there been, any other interested party we would be well advised to meet with Mr Robb at the earliest. ”

    At this time the sharehplders of R & F were
    Company Secretary , Ellerman Lines
    ELLERMAN LINES 498 shares

    The Directors were

    Re “not allowing the sill in the entrance to the docks to be removed ”

    This was a story that was on the go for years of which there is no evidence it was correct
    Again from LDC Srchives (NAS GD229)

    “The Commision ha tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions , over many years, to obtain Government funding to eradicate this problem.”

    It was only when the new lock gate system was built in the late 1960’s that the “offending” rocks were removed .

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

  3. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers by Ian MacDougall – George Baxter and Bobby Rodger | Henry Robb's Shipyard

  4. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers by Ian MacDougall – Book Review – Eddie Trotter | 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

  9. Elena Baillie says:

    Hi, Ruth! Congratulations on your beautiful webpage. I’m very interested in the subject of the Leith yards because my father’s great-grandfather was Richard Ramage, founder of Ramage and Ferguson, Ltd., with John Ferguson in 1877, the yard that was taken over by your great-grandfather Henry Robb in 1918. Very happy to have found your website.

    • Ruth Macadam says:

      Hi Elena,
      How great to hear from you. I suspect you may have a great deal to add to the story. Welcome!

      • Elena Baillie says:

        Ruth, I wish I could add to the story, but the truth is I know very little… Hopefully some elderly members in the family who live in Argentina could tell me something… By the way, I just sent a picture I found online to my brother in Thailand (where he’s going to build himself a Proa) of The Kalizma, a 165 foot Edwardian motor yacht that was bullt in the yard in 1906 and is still sailing somewhere in Thailand… She was previously called Minona, Cortynia and Odysseia, and was used in both World Wars. Restored in 2006. Hope we can find out where she is exactly…

  10. Edward Ebden says:

    Hello Ruth! What a wonderful site full of accounts of shipyard life. I have a personal interest in the yard when it was run by Richard Ramage and John Ferguson. There are coincidences in life. My wife’s great-great uncle, Ulsterman, John McWhir commanded the iron sailing bark The Highland Forest, under whose command the author Joseph Conrad sailed as First Mate on a passage from Amsterdam to Indonesia. I went to a little school called ‘Torrens’ many years ago, at a little Kentish village called Harbledown, on the north side of Canterbury. The house had been once owned by Conrad’s widow. The dormitory I slept in was called ‘Forest’ named after the very same ship ‘The Highland Forest’
    The Highland Forest was one of four Glaswegian owned iron windjammers launched at Ramage & Ferguson’s yard in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In launching order: The Highland Chief (which ran aground on her maiden voyage off France), The Highland Glen ( which later became the Nuanu, running from Boston,U.S.A out to Hawaii and back around Cape Horn in the Hawaiian sugar trade before the building of the Panama canal), The Highland Forest which eventually was wrecked off the Australian coast in 1901 and finally the ill-fated Highland Home: the largest of the four vessels. She was being towed for repair by a steam tug from Fleetwood in Lancashire to Milford Haven in 1895. The weather turned for the worse into a total gale, the steel hawser which was being used to tow the boat snapped leaving the boat to capsize. John McWhir was on board, with his wife and son, and they and some nineteen crew, mostly from Fleetwood but with some Scandinavian sailors, drowned. I have all the names.
    I don’t know if Elena Baillie has the answer but I would like to know who John Ferguson was. I suspect he was the John Ferguson (c1823-1887) mentioned in Graces Guide, who had worked for Barclay Curle & Co. on the Clyde and was a noted builder of steam yachts, which was something Ramage and Ferguson excelled at.
    I believe that John Ferguson’s two sons, Robert and John White Ferguson were apprenticed at the yard at about the turn of the century. John as Lt. John White Ferguson DCM. Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Hood Battalion “Johnnie” was to be killed in the Dardenelles in 1915. An online memorial to him (he was an ace cricketer before at Westminster school) says that he was the younger son of John Ferguson of Ramage and Ferguson and that his mother was Catharine Rachel Pickersgill. https://wartimememoriesproject.com/greatwar/view.php?uid=222938

    • Ruth Macadam says:

      Wow, Edward, thank you for this fascinating plethora of information, lovely to have you contributing to the sharing of the history of the diverse goings on related to Robbs. ruth

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