Eddie began work on the docks in 1955 and comments that there were men working well into their seventies as there were no restrictions requiring retirement in those days. He himself was born in Leith in January 1935 which makes him a few months older than my own father. His father had been a docker before him, having left school at 14 years of age. His grandfather was also a docker. He joined the Australian army during World War One and was killed at Gallipoli.
He describes his going to Leith Academy which was fee-paying in those days as making him stand out from his friends as “a bit posh” because of his uniform but that his didn’t make him feel cut off from the other boys in Buchanan Street, where they lived during his childhood. The decision to send Eddie to Leith Academy was his mum’s as she had attended school there, but his father was fully supportive of the idea. He then describes his family’s involvement in various community groups and their churchgoing habits as well as his sister’s meeting of her husband who became a Church of Scotland minister on Iona.
Eddie’s first employment was with Joseph Leighton the printer’s in George Street in Edinburgh. He hoped for an apprenticeship, but when none was forthcoming he took up an apprenticeship with a furniture company called Dayanite Bed Settees in Beaverbank Place. However, the time-served workers didn’t have the time to support the apprentices and, feeling he was not making any progress, Eddie left to join the Scots Guards. He describes the harsh conditions and strict limitations as well as some of the various experiences he had from trooping the colour to serving in Dusseldorf.
Once he had served his three years, Eddie finally sought work at the docks. Like the other contributors to the book he disliked the need to “force your attention on tae a gaffer” to get noticed and ensure more regular employment and the stampede at 7.45am when business began to get to the popular stevedores. When he started as a docker there were three docks, Edinburgh Dock, Albert Dock and Imperial Dock and a few years later they developed the western harbour and it’s deep water facilities. He also describes the expansion due to the Rank Hovis McDougall mill opening.
He then gives a detailed description of some of the main companies and what sorts of cargoes they would have for the men to work on. Inevitably the ubiquitous sulphur gets discussed, and the strike of 1956 which successfully achieved higher payment for dealing with this dangerous cargo. Eddie also points out that any cargo can be dangerous if it’s “goin’ over your head day in day oot”! He himself was struck by a cask of butter which fell off a board which dislodged a disc in his back and put him out of work for 3-4 weeks, and of course there was no sick pay in those days. He also tells of a man being crushed to death by a reel of newsprint.
The policy of giving priority to dockers’ families for work and Eddie reckons that all those who worked there at the time when he did were related in some way to another docker. Registration was managed by the union branch committee who interviewed men and checked their credentials. He states that it was a similar picture right across the country and as he was an active trade unionist, he has a great deal of information to offer on such matters. Consequently, this is certainly the most politically oriented of all the accounts in the book.
Eddie describes the good relationship between the dockers and seamen who came into Leith and points out that quite a few of the dockers of his time were ex-seamen themselves, particularly the men who drove the winches on board ships who were often ex-merchant seamen. We hear about the various religious and political groups and of the embargo on Communist Party members being elected to the T&G, but many of those holding office on the branch committee being members nonetheless as the members were more interested in whether they were good trade unionists than their political affiliations. His detailed explanation of the workings and machinations between unions are fascinating, and as he was active in the union, Eddie has plenty of experiences to share. He also describes the changes brought in through Lord Devlin’s reforms including the issue of overalls, boots etc and the introduction of severance schemes and a retiral age of 65.
Just like the shipbuilding business, employment thinned in the 80s for dockers, with only one stevedore at Leith Docks, and a cut to some 25-30 men in 1989 with the rest receiving severance pay of £35,000 provided they had worked there for 15 or more years. Eddie details the negotiations and concerns of the time as well as briefly describing how things have changed in the intervening years.
I think my picture of the almost deserted view from “Ocean Terminal” reflects an element of this.
As with the others he says he enjoyed his time in the docks and has no regrets about working here. He particularly commends the job for “the laughs” and that “ye were oot in the fresh air”.
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 – Tommy Morton
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