Voices of Leith Dockers – a book review – Tom Ferguson part one

Sulphur in a hold

Tom opens by talking of ways of currying favour with the foremen. One man used to bring a parcel of fish for his foreman, others would take them down the pub, so were known as “joug fillers” and the foremen didn’t have to fork out a penny for drink all night.

Tom’s grandfather, Henry Ferguson was a foreman docker and served during World War I, to the best of Tom’s knowledge he fought at the Somme. His grandfather on his mother’s side had been a docker too. He repeats the story, told by many, of Edinburgh Dock being so full of sailing ships at the turn of the 20th century that you could walk from side to side over the ships. He was told this by his grandmother who, as a child, delivered manifests to the ships for her father who worked for a shipping firm. He tells of her having beautiful handwriting and the tragedy of her getting her hand caught in a machine when she was working in the roperie but managing to get the movement back in her fingers despite the doctor’s concern that she might not.

Tom was born in 1937 and lived in Yardheads just off Junction street until he was 19. He describes their tenement as “posh” because they had their own toilet. His first school was St Mary’s Star of the Sea because his mother, being of Irish origin, was Catholic. He joined the 18th Leith Life Boys and points out that kids in the street joined organisations as a matter of course. He passed his qualifying exam and got a place at Holy Cross Academy in Ferry Road but, with no particular ambition and finding subjects such as Latin and French irrelevant, began truanting. When he was eventually hauled up in front of the head master with his parents, his dad made it clear in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t stop “ah’d be gettin’ a good hidin’” and that did the trick!

On leaving school his father was determined that Tom should not work on the docks because he was born with a tumour in his eye so had been blind in that eye from birth. His cousin found him a job as an apprentice radio mechanic with Coastal Radio in McDonald Road where, amongst other things,  they made receiver transmitters and power units for fishing boats and lifeboats and Marconi echo-sounding machines and transformers for the Royal Navy. Although he was reasonably content there and enjoyed his introductory year working in the stores and his year upstairs working on soldering tasks, the repetitive, production line type work and being confined indoors were not to his liking.

In 1955 Tom received a letter saying his application to the docks had come up and began work on 6th February. He enjoyed working with his father and various cousins and uncles who were also dockers. Two years later he got the cherished white book status. His father helped him to get in the way of finding work that would suit him, starting him off with shed-work which was not so well paid but would get him into the way of working. He tells of the “Hell Ship which was the Currie Line, as it was always loaded with a mixed cargo, so “ye couldnae get a sort o’ run at the one thing. You were stoppin’ and startin’ this and goin’ back tae that.”

The New Scottish Office on the site of the Old Dock

He recalls the Old Dock, which was two docks too shallow for the newer ships, being filled in during the 50s and 60s and points out that the new Scottish Office now stands where they and the cement store were. Inevitably he mentions the good pay for cement work, and that it was dirty, dusty and left you filthy. He found working on the scrap boat, another unpopular dirty cargo was good because the work would last for long periods of time, sometimes up to a month. He describes the need to take care when pulling out bits of the cargo as it could all slide about and be very dangerous and of course, there was no protective clothing. From Leith the scrap went by train to Ravenscraig to be made into steel.

Tom also disliked the sulphur cargoes, telling a tale of one chap whose shoes got burned when some caught fire. He adds a point not made by the others (which may have happened after they left, of course) that latterly the sulphur cargoes came in a crystalised form which was less volatile. He relates his experience of the sulpur strike in the late ‘50s when Scottish Agricultural Industries (SAI) brought in the first of the many dangerous cargoes and the men went out to support their claims for a different rate for this new cargo. As we know, their rates and conditions improved and they went back to work. The picture at the top of this post comes from a site which explains how to deal with dangerous cargoes safely – a far cry from even just 50 years ago!

Copyright: RuthPatterson 2010

http://www.stowmasters.com/cleaning.htm – site from which sulphur cargo picture was obtained.

http://www.esru.strath.ac.uk/Courseware/Case-study/scottish_office/scottish_office.htm  site from which Scottish Office picture was obtained.

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 Hart Part Two


Voices of Leith Dockers – Tom Ferguson Part two


About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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8 Responses to Voices of Leith Dockers – a book review – Tom Ferguson part one

  1. Bill Patterson says:

    We are pretty sure that the late Chief Constable of Lothians and Borders Police, Willie Merrilees, lost parts of fingers in the ropery when working in the docks before his police career. He was an amazing man of great kindness who undertook much charity work for children. In his police capacity he caught a spy in Waverley Station and also dealt very successfully with gang warfare between two East Lothian gangs of Teddy Boys. He was relatively small and might not have been accepted for police service but for the lack of recruits in war time.
    Bill Patterson

  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 – book review – Tom Hart part two | 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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