Voices of Leith Dockers – book review – Tom Hart part two

So, to continue … We left Tom just at the point where he got an opening into working the docks after having given up whaling for family reasons.

His opening comment about his new job is that he was in his element working there. He talks of every day being a different task, loading and discharging different cargoes. He points out that it was hard work, but if you were prepared to work hard you would, as the others have pointed out in previous chapters, get known by the gaffers as a grafter and be more likely to be chosen for the day’s work. As he is only 5’4” it was hard to get noticed, so in the rammy to get chosen, he would often jump on the back of one of the bigger, taller men to get noticed and to try to get his book into the hands of one of the foremen. Once he was known, he managed to regularly get work on the cement boat which was always available, so Tom made a point of working for the cement boat foreman even when the dock was full as then he could be sure of work when there were fewer boats in.

Working the  cement boats was better pay as it was dirty, heavy work with hundred weight bags to shift. They would hook 15 onto a canvas sling and it would be pulled up by the steam crane. Tom himself became a crane driver later on. He talks of the harsh effects of working cement, particularly in summer: “sweat wis pourin’ oot ye and the dry and your nostrils a’ cakin’ up, sweatin’, and then your skin wis dryin’ up as well. Your fingertips, the blood wid come right through them. But ah wis quite lucky, ah didnae suffer frae dermatitis.”

Amongst the cargoes he mentions butter, apples, flour, asbestos, grain and the notorious esparto grass, and he tells of one man who fell on it and lost an eye as a result. Tom, too, worked the timber and describes what hard work that was in the early days, making up the bundles of different types in slings.

Tom compares the working conditions from the early days in his time as a docker with those by the time he retired. At first there was no protective clothing, thermals, or gloves (which were considered ‘cissy’) and basic unsanitary toilets, washing down your face with the cranesman’s hose and putting your good clothes in a bag whilst you wore your old dungarees etc to work the cement. Now you can buy docker’s gloves for around a pound a pair …

"Docker gloves - For heavy duty handling work"

The most important tools of the trade during the times before it became more mechanised in the 1970s were various types of hand hooks for manipulating the cargoes and Tom describes some of these later in his account.

By the time Tom left in 1989 there were proper amenities, showers, your own lockers and safety equipment were all provided. He also describes how the reforms under Lord Devlin’s Bill meant that the 200 dockers were all paid a regular wage and rotated idle time if there was not enough work for everyone on a given day. The advent of the pension scheme in January 1961 was also welcomed by Tom who was one of the founders, and he points out what a difference this made to his generation compared to his fathers’ who had nothing to fall back on when they stopped working. When they were short of workers in Grangemouth which also came under Forth Ports Authority, they would send spare workers across for the day. Tom also worked in Burntisland, Methil and Kirkcaldy and recalls being sent to work with jute cargoes in Dundee which he describes as being dusty, heavy, and similar to working the dreaded esparto grass. But advances also have their price. As dock-working became more mechanised, and particularly when containerisation came in, there became fewer and fewer jobs as sheer numbers of manual workers to move cargoes became a thing of the past.

There were three deaths during Tom’s time a docker. His own family suffered a tragedy when his wife’s brother in law fell into a hold and went into a coma, dying seven years later. Tom himself fractured his heel and was out of work for about eight weeks when cargo fell down a hold. He considers Leith dock work was safer than in Grangemouth because there was more attention to taking care not to tighten the hooks up before the dockers’ hands were out the way, so there were fewer accidents to people’s fingers.

The dangers of sulphur and sparks igniting it are documented here too. Tom also describes how asbestos was brought in from Canada on top of grain cargoes in bags some of which would burst, and some of which might be helped along to bursting with the odd kick from a docker as salvaging a damaged cargo paid better. As Tom points out, nobody was aware of the dangers of asbestos. There was apparently a great deal of bartering about wages whenever jobs turned out to be different from the original work the men had been taken on for.

My own grandfather told a tale, which I suspect may be apocryphal, but perhaps readers may be able to put me right, that a gang of dockers asked for a bonus in the form of “embarrassment money” when they discovered they were to unload toilets from a ship. Whether true or not, it makes a good tale!

Anyway, back to matters factual!

Tom talks of the dockers’ code, never to grass on one another, so the odd few vegetables from loose cargoes and various other items might be pilphered. He describes the “Onion Johnnies” renting premises in Leith to use as shops or stores and going round on their bikes selling them. He points out that, far from the general stereotype, many of them had broad Scottish accents and were settled in Scotland. Another matter of pride for the dockers was loading cargoes well and ensuring they would not roll at sea. As well as packing the cargo tight up to about 3 feet from the top of the hold, they would then fill bags with wheat and stow them in the top as “stiffeners” to keep the cargo still. He tells of the stupidity of one skipper who would not listen to the advice given to him about loading tram rails onto his ship which subsequently sank with all hands.

In 1979 Tom became a foreman and got a free (gold) card for being 35 years in the TGWU. He kept his membership of the National Union of Seamen as well, and used that to go on a whaling trip in 1959 when work was hard to get, but still made sure he kept up his dockers union membership so that he could return to docking. It is his comment about that year that links him more direcly to Robb’s, as he talks of Salvesen’s converting ex-naval corvettes into catchers, one of which was the Lotus3, renamed Southern Lotus to accord with the other ships in their fleet.

Tom talks at some length about the changes which took place in 1989 when they cut the number of dockers down to 30 and began the move to use agencies instead of having a regular workforce available. Naturally he found this worrying, having worked in the trade for so long and developed such experience, he could see how inexperience and lack of knowledge could lead to dangers, and cites the fact that a worker was killed shortly after this practice began.

In summary Tom says “the docks wis a good life. The camaraderie … wis really good… Ah loved the docks… It wis family ye see. Ye got whole generations. Well the likes o’ Tom Ferguson’s2 dad wis a docker, and Tom’s brother wis a docker. Eddie Trotter’s3 dad wis a docker, ma fither wis a docker…And that’s what we actually miss more, the comradeship – pals an’ a’ that. It’s a way o’ life that’s gone.”


  1. See earlier post about HMS Phlox/Lotus : https://henryrobb.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/hms-phloxlotus-k130-ship-number-317 )

2.   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 – Eddie Trotter


Voices of Leith Dockers – Tom Hart Part One


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 – book review – Tom Hart part two

  1. As always, my content is being carefully scrutinised by friends and family – thank goodness as it all helps to keep things right! Herewith a correction from an email from my parents:

    Dear Ruth
    Mum says it was Australian dockers who demanded embarrassment money.

    Perhaps others know more about this … is it apocryphal as I first believed or is there more to it ….

  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 – Part Three – Tommy Morton | Henry Robb's Shipyard

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

  6. Pingback: Voices of Leith Dockers – Ian MacDougall – Tom Hart part one | 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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