Custom House & Docks 1936



Now that the Victoria Dock is finally closed and about to be converted into a housing estate, or whatever the planners have in mind for it, there must be the occasional docker or local resident who like to think of it as it was in its heyday, fifty years ago. Memories are long in the docks - one of the favourite pastimes used to be setting one another little quizzes to test the memory of "what it was like in the old days", or suddenly asking, out of the blue, "do you remember so and so?" Many were the arguments and fierce the brain racking as friends vied with each other to recall the days gone by.

So, come into a time-warp with me back to the year 1936 and take a brief stroll round the Custom House area.

The tram - a 99 or 10 from the Greengate - will deposit us at the terminus in Connaught Road, hard by Morgan's Coffee Stall. The tram lines along Prince Regent Lane are laid in stone setts and woe betide a careless cyclist who, on a wet day, fails to cross them at a near right angle, for his front wheel will slip into the slot of the rail and he and his bike will finish up on the muddy road in less time than it takes to think about it. The same fate awaits the unwary rider in the dock, for there are railways crossing the cobbled road every few yards, or so it seems. As the tram turns into Connaught Road from Prince Regent Lane, we get our first view of the "Vic" as it is affectionately called.

In front of us is the Hydraulic Pumping Station and just over to the left the funnels of a Blue Star Line ship can be seen over the top of the shed.

With its square tower, with the long unglazed windows, this has the appearance of an Italianate church. From its rather low chimney, with the odd-shaped top, a constant stream of smoke from its Lancashire boilers pours over the top of Gregory's establishment - pawnbroker and sea outfitter - on the corner and doubtless blackens the curtains in the bedroom windows of the little houses at the junction of the Victoria Dock Road and Connaught Road. The pumping works, which supplies hydraulic power to operate the lock gate, swing bridges, cranes and hoists in the dock, has an even more important function as far as the locals are concerned, for it is equipped with an extremely powerful steam whistle, which sounds every working morning for a full five minutes between 7.25 and 7.30. Of course, all the local factories are so equipped and their whistles sound at various times between seven and eight o'clock, but most of them just emit a brief call. This one really does not mean anyone to miss its message! People set their clocks by it. Just on the outside of the dock fence, the trains from Stratford to North Woolwich start their dive into the tunnel which runs beneath the dock cutting.These little trains, pulled by the little "coffee-pot" 060 tank engines, are far from being up to the standard of luxury of the Orient Express!

The elderly carriages are open from one end to the other above the level of the backs of the wooden seats. Among their passengers, on occasion, are the card-sharpers who will have the hard-earned pay of those newly paid off seamen who are foolish enough to respond to their invitation to "find the lady". However, there is sometimes one particular lady who takes very little finding - she will come along and introduce herself to anyone wishing to avail himself of her services.

We jump off the tram, which will turn round on the crossover points and return to Stratford, walk on past Morgan's - known all over the world, but just a converted railway carriage - cross over the line of the "Beckton Express" and follow the road round, past the huge Board of Trade office, where all the ships' crews sign on at the start of each voyage and sign off at the end of each one.

On past the "Connaught" pub, with its antique convenience, and over the level crossing at Connaught Road Station. This line, which joins the main line at Custom House Station, gives a good quick service between Gallions, some three miles down the river, and Fenchurch Street. Immediately in front along the road is yet another level crossing, this time one belonging to the PLA railway, which runs from the far end of the Royal Albert Dock and eventually links up with the LNER system in the huge marshalling yard at Custom House. The powerful tank engines, their chimneys throwing an enormous column of steam and smoke, are capable of pulling enormous loads. This stretch of road is a real hazard to those going to work in the docks.

The station level crossing has a footbridge and the other two have little side gates, which are not locked until the train is almost on top of the crossing and in all these cases the energetic cyclist can carry his bike either over the bridge or, holding its head high, can pass through the gates. However, even when these three hazards have been safely negotiated, there is the supreme one in front - the swing bridge. However, these will not hinder us on our walk. Once past the second level crossing, we turn right by the tobacconists' kiosks - also Morgan's - and go along the approach road, passing the green corrugated iron building of the Shipping Federation and the brick bungalow of the National Union of Seamen and then enter the Royal Victoria Dock by the "Engineer's Gate".

Looking across to the left, is the chilled meat berth at "A" Berth. This is the home of the Blue Star boats - those fine twin funnellers AVILA STAR, together with her sisters ANDALUCIA, ALMEDA and ARANDORA, not to mention the single funnelled AVELONA STAR. Besides these fine passenger liners the cargo liners STUART STAR, AFRICA STAR, RODNEY STAR and the exceptionally fast looking SULTAN STAR regularly call here. This latter ship is said by some to have been designed with the object of being converted into an armed merchant cruiser in the event of war and it is easy to believe this when looking at her.

This Berth is almost unique in its handling arrangements for chilled meat. The chilled beef is discharged from the ship onto electric bogies, called "doodlebugs". If we had the gift of clairvoyance, the name would have a very sinister ring, but to us it simply designates a harmless little battery-driven truck. From these trucks, it is lifted up onto an overhead conveyor system, on which it travels to either railway trucks or road vehicles. Each piece is individually labelled with the address of a shop in the Vestey distribution chain, so it goes straight from ship to shop in less than twenty-four hours. In the corner is a butcher's shop, where the large quarters of beef can be cut up into more easily handled prime cuts for smaller shops.

The sturdy dockers swing the huge quarters of beef, which weigh between one hundred and twenty and two hundred pounds, up shoulder high on the chains which suspend them from the conveyor and place them onto the shoulders of the "backer" who will then walk the length of the vehicle to be loaded and with a jerk of his shoulder muscles, deposit it in exactly the right place in the truck. No job for weaklings, this! When they are loaded, the trailers are shunted by little Foden steam tractors, green for the Union Cartage Company and brown for Cornell & Co. The end of the berth nearest to the bridge is occupied by the orange storage shed and the charging shed for the "doodlebugs". Until a couple of years ago, this site was that of the Great Western Railway Waterside depot.

We carry on along the dock in a westerly direction and then the thing that distinguishes the "Vic" from most other docks can be seen. The jetties, instead of being in a straight line, are in fact arranged in right angles to the base line quay and stick out like the teeth of a rake. The base line is lined with old brick warehouses, while the jetties, some stone and some with wooden decking, have either corrugated iron or brick-built sheds on them. The two largest have deep vaults underneath them. How beautiful the wooden planking of the smaller jetties smells in the warm sunshine - a grand aroma of tarry wood. The huge "M" tobacco warehouse almost has its feet in the water, being separated from the dock by a quay barely ten feet wide. The two largest jetties are the home of the Japanese "Maru" boats - the HAKONE MARY and her sisters SUWA MARU and HARUNA MARU to mention but three of a huge fleet of smart liners. How clean and smart they are! Popular talk has it that they are manned by Japanese Naval ratings in civilian uniforms and the general appearance of the ships certainly lends veracity to the idea.

There are not many "regular" users of the Royal Victoria Dock - mostly "one off" callers or overflow jobs from the other docks in the group, although there are one or two lines which have their home there. Further along, at one of the smaller jetties, the Royal Mail ships CULEBRA and LOMBARDY may be seen.

The last berth in the dock on this northern side is "Z" Shed, which is built on similar lines to our first one at "A" Berth. The famous "Highland" boats, very business-like looking with their squat twin funnels share this shed with the equally distinctive looking Houlder Line ships, which bear a white Maltese cross on their dark red and black funnels. Such famous names as BARONESA, DUQUESA, UPWEY GRANGE and DUNSTER GRANGE are to be seen here, discharging chilled beef from South America.

Carrying on past "Z" Shed, we come to the end of the dock at Tidal Basin and walking under the new viaduct which carries the recently built Silvertown Way over the dock entrance, we can see the original entrance lock, built in 1855. Up until about a year ago, there was a swing bridge over the cutting. This was very low on the water and if there was a high wind, pedestrians using the little footbridge on the riverward side of the swing bridge would get their feet wetted by the dock water which splashed up onto it.

This corner of West Silvertown is almost cut off from public transport. To go to Canning Town or beyond means a longish walk along the new road or the Victoria Dock Road, for, apart from the train from Tidal Basin Station to Canning Town, there is no public conveyance and for anyone living further south than the dock, even the station is some distance away. Here again, for pedestrians and even more so for road traffic, there is the hazard of the "White Gates" level crossing, which always seems to be closed to the road at the busiest times.

We turn back, and retrace our steps, this time looking across the dock to the south side. The first three sheds are the most modern in the dock, being two-floored brick buildings. The quay also has "high-flyer" electric cranes - the only area so equipped in the whole dock. The buff-funnelled ships of the P.S.N. Line from such romantic sounding ports as Valparaiso and Santiago de Chille call here. Beyond this is a large complex of flour mills. The tall chimneys of these mills pour an endless streamer of thick black smoke across the dock. One might almost think that their stokers have some means of communicating with each other, for as the smoke from one stack dies down a little, that from the next in the line starts up again with renewed vigour, to ensure that there is hardly a second in the day that does not receive its full quota of smoke! However, smoke and soot mean activity and prosperity and there are few complaints about air pollution. At the "dolphins" in front of the mills, tramp steamers from all over the world discharge their grain into the giant silos of the mills. Besides the steamers, which are here all the year round, in the summertime the great sailing ships which have completed the grain race from Australia berth here. Such beautiful and famous ships as the HERZOGIN CECILIE, MOZART and MAGDALENE VINNEN - alas, with never a British one among them - have called here in the last few seasons. As well as the shore side discharge, the ships are usually surrounded by floating grain elevators, unloading the golden cargo into barges. These huge elevators, each with two funnels, one pouring smoke from the boilers and the other emitting a cloud of grain dust, make a peculiar hollow puffing noise as they work like giant vacuum cleaners sucking the grain up from the ship's hold and sending it in a never-ending stream through their chutes into the waiting craft, where it is trimmed into pyramids by the waiting "toe rags" as the PLA grain porters are known.

The grain elevators have their counterparts in the coaling machines, which closely resemble them and which are used to replenish the bunkers of the many coal-burning steamers. At least three quarters of the world's merchant ships burn coal and there is no shortage of work for the bunkering contractors. Quite often, a fireman or donkeyman, sweat rag lashed firmly round his neck, may be seen taking the air on the quay, or perhaps strolling across the long footbridge over the railway at Custom House station, on his way to slake his thirst in the "Steps" or one of the other hostelries in the vicinity. Looking down to the left as he crosses the bridge, he would see the "King's Pipe" - a large incinerator in which the waste tobacco from the complex of tobacco bonded warehouses is destroyed under the watchful eye of the Customs authority. The "Pipe" often emits an aroma redolent of the finest Havana cigars. The odd point about this raw tobacco is that while in the warehouse it is virtually valueless. It is only when the duty has been paid and it is removed for manufacture that it is a valuable commodity.

The long footbridge at the station crosses one of the largest marshalling yards in the kingdom. This is the place where the PLA railway system meets the national network. All day and night, the busy little shunting engines push and pull the trucks into position to make up long goods trains. The air is filled with the puffing of locomotives and the unmistakable clang of buffers on buffers, which passes on down the whole length of the train as the next trucks are shunted on and as the shunters, each armed with a long pole with a hook at the end - something like a boathook or "hitcher" as it is called in the dock - run alongside the moving trucks, using the pole to apply a brake here or to hitch up a coupling there.

We come at last to "A" Berth again, the end of our walk. On the opposite side of the dock is a huge green mound and between this and the side of the complex of flour mills is the entrance to the Graving Dock, a large sheet of water, the further side of which is occupied by a timber yard and wharf. This basin is called "the Pontoon Dock" by older people in the area, and many years ago was the site of an elaborate device for raising ships up onto pontoons, something like a modern floating dock, for repairs to be carried out to their underwater portions. Although the apparatus has long since vanished, the name and half a dozen narrow inlets at each end of the dock, which served to accommodate these pontoons, still survive.

We have noticed the absence of cranes - indeed of any mechanical aids, except a few electric bogies. All the cargo is discharged by steam winches and derricks and the characteristic sound of the steam winch is one which gives the docks their own background noise. The winch pants slowly up to the top of the heave and one wonders if it will ever reach the top of the lift, when suddenly, the derrick is swung overside and the mad rattle of the connecting rods fills the air as the hoist or "set" goes down to be landed either on the quay or into a barge. The winch, relieved of its burden, once again clatters at full steam as the empty hook is swung inboard and back down the hold.

What of the men who work here? Apart from the few permanent employed of a couple of stevedoring companies or the PLA, all are sturdily independent freelances. One point we notice is that they all seem to be past their youth. Or is it that, in 1936, we were young? No, that is not really the answer.

Since the "Registration" ticket was introduced, the holder of a "ticket" had it for the rest of his life and the register is opened but rarely to admit new men. However, when all the registered men are at work, anyone may come into the docks and there are many "non-ers" who make quite a good living in such a precarious way. Memories are long among the dockers and some time during the day someone is sure to mention the year "1912" - the year of the great dock strike. The stevedores stick doggedly to their old traditions and talk of their "Society" as they call their Union. The dockers, with possibly equally long tradition do most of the work in the Victoria Dock as, apart from the ships bringing bagged sugar, most of the ships are here for discharging and the stevedore is more interested in loading ships than unloading them. The barges are of course manned by lightermen - an old established trade in London and one which requires a long apprenticeship. The other section and one which possibly has the most "characters" is that of the tally clerks. This branch was not originally one to be greatly sought after among members of the clerical fraternity and so came to be the preserve of people with a "past". In its ranks were to be found ship's officers who were more handy with a corkscrew than a sextant, accountants who had had difficulty with mathematics and the professional punters, who were apt to disappear during the flat racing season, to try their luck on the racecourses. In among these characters - most of whom had a fund of interesting anecdotes to tell - were of course the serious man who had become a tally clerk because it was not a bad job anyway. All ranks had one thing in common, however. They were their own men and not beholden to anyone, for at the end of the day's work, they receive their wages and go their separate ways, with no obligation on the part of the employer to re-engage them on the morrow, nor any on their part to return to him anyway. In practice, of course, most of them follow a regular line. There are no paid holidays and no sick pay in the docks, but at least, as long as you have a registration, you must find work some time or other.

There are no welfare facilities of any kind in the docks - nowhere to buy a cup of tea, nowhere to sit down. The sanitary arrangements are somewhat primitive, to say the least and the only place to slake one's thirst is at the occasional cold water tap, which in winter is invariably frozen, as it will almost certainly be on an outside wall. In view of this, a familiar sight is that of one member of a gang of men carrying about a dozen empty beer bottles or milk bottles tied together into a sort of bunch on a long piece of twine. He will take these outside the dock to one of the many coffee shops in the vicinity, to be filled with tea for two pence and this, together with the occasional bacon sandwich, will be the only refreshment available until dinner time. Incidentally, there is no official tea break and the tea or sandwich will be taken while the fortunate diner is at his regular station. In spite of the rather harsh conditions though, this is a living work community and morale is high. The spirit of friendship is superb - but then most of the fellows who work here have grown up together in the little streets of Custom House or Tidal Basin, gone to school together, perhaps been away at sea in the same ship and now work together here. Tally clerks apart, for they tend to come from rather diverse backgrounds, the labour force is a large family - in fact in many cases literally a family concern, for fathers, sons, uncles and brothers follow one another into the companionship of the "hook". The various ranks in the hierarchy may be distinguished by their headgear. The ordinary docker or stevedore usually wears a cloth cap, the shipworker or quay foreman a trilby or perhaps a bowler and the labour master or superintendent a bowler. Strangely enough, few are members of the hatless brigade. Similarly, the men tend to inhabit the area around the dock, while the foremen live a little further out - East Ham perhaps or Forest Gate, while the highest ranking people live in Ilford or New Barking. However, the little communities are starting to move about a bit and Dagenham has its quota, while, with the special cheap workmen's ticket on the railway, some are venturing as far afield as Southend or Pitsea.

As the tea boy for the gang goes out of the dock and along the road outside, he may well run across a little party of Lascars, as the Indian seamen are called. These fellows will invariably be walking along at a sedate pace in single file and one of them may well be carrying a battered second-hand sewing machine, while another may be pushing an equally decrepit bicycle, for these objects are highly prized at home and will be sold to supplement the man's pay-off money. The local children say that the custom arose from the fact that at home the Indians had to walk in single file along the narrow jungle paths, but it is unlikely that any of the members of these ships' crews ever followed such a path.

At the end of the stroll through the Dock, I sit on a bollard in the warm sun. I must have dropped off to sleep, for I see in a dream the dock, after a couple more years of easy-going prosperity, seems to be the centre of a holocaust. There is destruction, everywhere, the ships sail on a voyage from which they never return, the little streets where the dockers lived are broken and the communities scattered. I awake with a start.

Someone passing by says, "What's up, mate? You look as if you had seen a ghost." I reply, "I had a dream, but it was so ridiculous as not to be worth mentioning."

If only I had known that it would all come to pass.

(Originally from local studies notes No 49, published by Newham library service)

Footnote: We wonder what Mr Hammond would think of Excel Exhibition Centre at The Royal Victoria Dock, and London City Airport at the Royal Albert Dock.