I think I may have mentioned that I like docks, large expanses of water, cavernous sheds and warehouses, enormous machines carrying, lifting, pushing and pulling – and of course the focus of all this activity – the loading and un loading of big ships by a multitude of figures so small against everything else. Well it was in the 1950s.

I was born in 1955 in London’s docklands, near enough to the Woolwich Ferry to be carried regularly across the river as my parents went about their everyday business. From the ferry you could see across huge dock gates to the dirty, weather-beaten freighters with single funnels that lined the quays under towering cranes. In another country one set of my grandparents lived on Kilvey Hill, overlooking, to one side the entrance to Swansea Docks and on the other, High Street Station. In between ran the River Tawe and the railway marshalling yards. I like railways too ………..

One of my favourite museums is the ‘Museum of London Docklands’ set in a reprieved quayside warehouse on the West India dock. It focusses on the post second world war period when the docks were in their heyday immediately prior to containerisation – when vast numbers of men worked with powerful but basic equipment to unload, clear, clean and reload the ships that connected ports, countries, economies and people across the world.

The museum has an excellent displays of the equipment used, models of ships, cranes, dock railways and pictures – of small figures, with sacks, boxes, chains and hooks set against the backdrop of large dark angular shapes. The best bit is the black and white videos of cranes swinging large bundles of cargo slung in chain cradles across the sky, either from deep holds or in to them. The crane drivers can’t see the bottom of the holds from their perch high in the frame of the crane, so have to rely on hand signals from the dockers on the decks to position their loads in precisely the right place. Given that everyone is wearing ordinary clothes with flat caps rather than safety helmets and the evident precariousness of the loads, this blend of co-operation and skill was clearly vital for everyone’s wellbeing. I assume that dockering was a hard, dangerous business – just like all the heavy industries and it fostered a tough togetherness and a political consciousness – a class consciousness.

In search of more local docks I drove the van to Hull, City of Culture 2017 on a damp misty day in January. Visibility was poor – I couldn’t see the opposite bank of the Humber, which is perhaps why I found myself focussing on the sheer enormity of the black mud that the low tide had revealed. The harbour lock gates were shut tight, a thin slither of water tickling through and then meandering through glistening valleys of mud to the open water. I wondered how deep the mud was, it looked like it could swallow you up – like Bill Sykes in the Rotherhithe Creek. Later, at dusk, I came across a man taking photos of the reflections of lit buildings in the thin cover of water between the black banks of mud. We agreed it was beautiful – ‘absolutely stunning’ as he put it.

Whilst it was still light(ish) I had walked into the town, following the line of the old docks (now a marina) into Victoria Square, where a substantial statue of the old queen was literally overshadowed by a single wind turbine blade that soared and twisted from the paving stones in one corner of the square to its fine tip high above the road that runs along the opposite side. This is what I had come to see, tipped off by a snippet on Radio 4 whilst washing up, and I was not disappointed! It was huge, much, much bigger than they look from the ground – or the shore and such a clean, graceful shape. They must take a lot of natural energy to get moving and must be so well balanced and geared to convert a decent proportion of it into our energy. The square was busy with people, couples, parents with young children, older kids on their way home from school, most seemingly there to look at the blade, touch it, have their photos taken under it. Bravo Hull! ‘the renewable city of culture’.

As I wandered round, taking a few photos myself I became aware of a large civic looking building along one side of the square – The Maritime Museum. There was an hour before it closed…….

I had choices: A history of whaling, Fishing fleets and techniques, The docks and dockers ……..

The first thing I saw was an old TV screen with 2 upright chairs in front of it. On the screen was black and white footage * of a general cargo vessel called Bravo laid against a quay of cranes and lines of railway trucks backed by warehouses….. you get the picture. Dockers were climbing down the iron rungs of an (unprotected) ladder deep into one of her holds. Pathe type music quietens to allow the narrator to comment ‘Now they will be taking their jackets off and rolling up their sleeves’, which obligingly they do, ‘the hard work is about to start.’

I sit down and watch.

We are introduced to Jim the foreman whose responsibility it is to get the Bravo loaded, safely and on time. I didn’t know what his name was but I had an Uncle Jim who was a foreman on South Dock, the timber dock, in Swansea. Jim is dressed similarly to his men, boots, trousers, shirt, jacket and flat cap – but he is wearing a tie. Jim will have picked his gang that morning at the dock gates and we can assume that he has his regulars, those he can rely on plus a few to make the numbers up. He directs the clean-up of the almost empty hold from the deck, but it is obvious that his gang know what they are doing and he breaks off to greet who I imagine is the Third Officer of the Bravo – whose job is, through Jim, to ensure that loading proceeds smoothly, on time and results is a properly balanced ship.

There is not much direct dialogue in the film but the two men set out the nature and scale of the task before them.

‘Morning Jim, we’ve got a good start at it.’

‘Yes sir, the lads will soon be stowing the stuff below’

‘Good to hear it, we sail tomorrow evening.’

‘We’ve got two days so we should be fine.’

‘I need to tell you about a passenger we have, a Belgian farmer, he’s bought an earth excavator he wants shipping across, should arrive on a low loader tomorrow.’

‘How big is that?’

‘Big – 8 tons’

‘OK we’ll leave the central part of hold 2 for that, but it needs to be here in the morning so we can pack other stuff around it once it’s in.’

‘Will do – oh yes, he’s also looking to buy a prize bull over here, that’ll have to go somewhere.’

Jim looks at the ship’s officer, he doesn’t say anything but you can sense his brain going into overdrive behind his steady eyes.

The film cuts to the loading of hold 1. The narrator explains that the Bravo carries mixed cargo and a small number of passengers on a fairly regular run back and fore across the North Sea. The cargo therefore comes in all shapes and sizes, sacks and boxes, hard and heavy, soft and fragile. It all has to be packed carefully and securely in the hold so that the space is filled efficiently, nothing gets broken and nothing moves in a way that might destabilise the ship at sea. It’s a bit like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle where all the bits are big and awkward to manage.

We watch the loading process. Dockers on the quay wrap up bundles in chains attached to the C hook of the crane and the crane driver delicately moves his levers to lift, swing and then lower the loads towards the waiting arms of the four dockers in the hold. Another docker on the deck (the ‘runner’), through miniscule hand movements, guides the crane driver and the team in the hold grab the bundle and through brute force manoeuvre it to where they want it. Then chains are uncoupled slid out from underneath the bundle and then pulled up and out of the hold ready for the next load. One slip, miscalculation or poorly positioned chain and serious injury or worse awaits the men in the hold – who now manhandle the cargo into position. This looks like very hard work to me and they have to work fast – there is another load about to descend from the sky.

Occasionally Jim gets involved over where things should go, but by and large the gang get on with it, working with an obvious effectiveness and co-ordination. They have done this before, many times. They trust each other – they have to.

A short lunch break is held on the deck where the men eat their sandwiches, made by their wives and mothers early that morning and drink tea from thermos flasks. Jim takes the opportunity to explain about the excavator and the bull, which will require a wooden stall built for it. There is no moaning, not even of a good natured sort which tells you that these men, dockers not actors, know they are being filmed and don’t want to get it wrong. Jim sets off to talk to the crane driver about the unusual cargo.

We don’t hear the ensuing discussion amongst the men as they finish their snap.

‘Don’t they have excavators in Belgium?’

‘Not since the Nazis destroyed everything’

‘Where do they get the money from?’

‘It’s the Americans, they’re giving all of them countries lots of money.’

‘Yes while we get nowt and have been saddled with a huge debt for winning the war’

‘At least they’re spending the money on our excavators.’

‘And our bulls!’

Loading proceeds through the afternoon, cut by images of an obviously foreign looking gentleman at a cattle market eyeing up the bulls. We guess who he is and this is confirmed when he boards the ship later that afternoon to talk with the Third Officer. He is excited (identifying himself as the only actor in the film) and with the benefit of extensive hand gestures explains that he has bought a bull and that it will arrive tomorrow afternoon. The Third Officer seems more concerned about the excavator but is assured that it will be there in the morning. The contrast between the expansive Belgian farmer and the formal ship’s officer, never mind the stolid dockers still working in the hold is pronounced – but it is not an unfriendly portrayal of the former. He is after all a passenger and a customer and his enthusiasm, even through the medium of grainy black and white film is infectious. I am immediately rooting for him – and his bull!

As light fades work on the ship comes to a stop and the dockers, their jackets back on, make their way out through the gates, to their homes, the pub, a match? Jim goes to the office where he reconciles a stack of paper with a clerk. This looks a harder task than the loading itself.

There is good news for Jim the following morning. As dockers stream through the gates and onto their ships a massive Scammell tractor unit noses slowly onto the quay pulling a low loader with the excavator on it. This is nothing like a modern JCB, bright yellow, multi-purpose and hydraulically powered. It is a huge shabby metal box containing the driver’s controls, engine, drum and motor set on top of large caterpillar tracks. Its detached boom has been lashed alongside it and its huge scoop bucket wedged against the cab. It looks more like a crane than an excavator, and indeed it is a product of Rodleys of Leeds, well known for their cable operated cranes. This is really ‘fly by wire’ and the machine looks capable of digging out a reasonably sized lake.

How are they going to get this on board? Well fortunately there are cable pulleys protruding from the roof of the cab which are ideal for fixing heavy duty strops to, so all the crane driver has to do is drop his chain onto the roof where a docker has scrambled up in order to push the C hook through them. The chain tightens as the slack is taken up and the docker waves before scrambling back down. The crane now demonstrates its power by smoothly lifting the cab unit into the air and swaying it over the hold. The driver is shown again at his levers, this time with a look of furious concentration as he peers through the smoke from a fag between his lips. Jim is on hand as the docker with the all important hands helps to guide this huge, heavy box through a hatch which is only slightly bigger than the cab. Twice Jim intervenes and the crane is pulled back upwards before being lowered so very slowly down to the full team in the hold. They don’t seem to make any attempt to manoeuvre it, just hang on to the descending caterpillar tracks in an attempt to stop it twisting. Slowly the tracks come to rest on the floor of the hold and the chain to the crane slackens again. The relief, even on old black and white celluloid with a loud Pathe type soundtrack, is palpable. Everyone is smiling.

‘Let’s get the boom and bucket in and then we can pack around them’ orders Jim and the work continues.

We are now told that it is 1 o’clock and see Jim staring down into hold 3 where two dockers are finishing a wooden stall. The rest are sitting around smoking, their state of inactivity quite shocking in the context of the footing that has preceded this which has shown nothing but purposeful activity. The Third Officer approaches.

‘Got a problem Jim?’

‘What’s to do sir? You need to be cleared and signed off as loaded by 4pm if you are to sail at 6 and there’s no sign of the bull. We can’t delay loading the rest of the stuff much longer.’

‘OK Jim I’ll inform the Captain’

The film now cuts to a very formal office, the Dockmaster’s office in fact, and a group of men sitting round a table. There is the Dockmaster in a smart suit, Jim in his working clothes (and straightened tie!), a small man in a scruffy suit (the ship’s agent), the captain of the Bravo, looking splendid in full uniform and the Belgian farmer who is undeniably agitated.

‘I’m sorry sir’ the Dockmaster is saying, ‘ but we can’t delay departure until tomorrow, a P&O ship is due in tonight and needs the Bravo’s berth.’

‘But they tell me my bull is on his way .. please can’t you wait? He is a prize bull and will be the  centrepiece of my farm. I can’t leave him here, who knows what might happen ….. to him’ he adds a little belatedly.

 ‘How much leeway is there? asks the Captain.

‘The lock gates close at 9pm tonight and the P&0 ship is due in at 8pm. We can’t cut that finer as she’s a big ship and the tide will be ebbing fast at that point.’

‘What is the latest we can stay?’ the Belgian opens his hands in supplication.

‘7.30 latest.’

‘Loading will have to be finished by 6.30, so we will have to re-start, with or without the bull at 4.30’  Jim states the situation clearly.

‘I will inform the other passengers that there may be a slight delay to our departure’ sighs the captain.

The scene closes.

What we don’t see is Jim leaning forward and asking ‘That alright with you agent?’ He is looking out for his men and the overtime payments that they will expect.

The agent sighs in response, his mind on that looming bottom line and how he is going to explain this to the owners. It was only last week he had a strip torn off for agreeing to delay a ship by one hour!

‘Can’t the bull go on a later ship?’

He senses his error immediately. The whole table turns as one to stare at him and the Belgian farmer begins his pleas again …..

What we do see are the dozen or so passengers, men and women (the only women shown in the film) ascending the gangway. They are all smartly dressed and chatting happily. They are happier still in the next shot – they are in the passenger saloon, being brought drinks by the steward.

Outside on the decks the men continue to sit and smoke. Jim stands above the hold and looks at his watch.

One of the younger dockers sits miserably on his own. He is due to see his girl tonight at the flicks and his mind has been on this all day. When does he put his arm around her? Too soon and he risks a rebuff, too late and he will miss her soft lips and certainly the chance to slide his arm underneath her jacket and round her waist. He hasn’t a mobile to phone and explain the situation. He can’t even ask to go and find a pay phone, her folks haven’t got a phone. She will go to the cinema and stand outside waiting for him, on her own.

Then he spots another gang of dockers moving along the quay. They have finished early so they’ll be unhappy too, but for the opposite reason. He calls out to his mate ‘could you go by Jenny’s for me and tell her I’m working late? I’ll pop round tomorrow to explain’

His mate grins up at him as the others catcall and whistle. The young docker reddens, but he is relieved, he knows he can trust his mate.

A couple of the men are quite happy to be working late, they need the money ….. they always need the money. Nobody in the gang understands why they always need the money, they don’t drink, live comfortable existences in cosy Corporation Houses and their children have their own families. ‘God sake!’ they’d say as they were leaving at the end of a long tiring day, ‘ haven’t you had enough of this place?’ as the other two started on some voluntary overtime, cleaning out a hopper or manhandling a broken down truck out of the way so tomorrow could start promptly.

Most of the men have mixed feelings. It’s good to sit around now being paid for now’t and the overtime pay will come in handy but I’m going to be late in again tonight. The missus will have put the dinner in the oven on a plate and the kids will be tired and difficult. ‘I said I’d help our young’un with that model of a ship he’s making.’

Back in the saloon things are going swimmingly. The steward is fully occupied and the body language of the passengers is noticeably more relaxed but the conversation more animated. There is laughter and some expansive gestures – yes it’s the Belgian farmer seemingly intent on appealing to their better instincts. The (light jazz) music quietens.

‘So I have asked the ship to wait for my bull, it means a delay of a couple of hours, I hope you don’t mind.’

We don’t hear the responses but it is obvious from the continued laughter and a couple of back slaps that nobody minds at all, as long as that steward keeps doing his bit. There’ll be some thick heads in the morning!

Jim looks at his watch again.

‘Four O’clock’

Nobody responds, or moves.

The film cuts away at this point to the Belgian farmer, standing on an upper deck, staring at the dock gates as if willing the lorry with his prize bull to materialise within them. It is a shock to see this patently jovial man looking so downcast. His arms, usually a whirr of expressive activity are held rigid against the rail.

What we miss is Jim carrying on speaking.

‘Four O’clock … I think we should start preparing to move the cargo.’

They all line up next to Jim along one side of the open hatch.

‘We need to move some bulky stuff into the gap’

‘Those huge bales, they’ll do and they’re not too far away.

‘They’re bloody heavy those are, it was a pain to get ‘em where they are now!’

‘Shall I break up the stall Jim?

Jim hesitates. He knows that re setting the cargo would be a whole lot easier without the wooden construction, but ……..

‘No we’ll push the bales into and around it.’

‘Bloody hell Jim’

Without waiting for Jim’s nod the men clamber back down into the hold. It’s only quarter past four but Jim knows when to give them their head, he has made their work, against an unforgiving clock, that much more difficult.

The Third Officer arrives at 4.30 on the dot, sees the men already straining at huge shapes and smiles. ‘Good man Jim, this is going to be really tight.’

But back to the film, which is still focussed on our Belgian farmer – a man now well and truly in ‘the dismals.’ But suddenly hope becomes alive again in his face and he turns abruptly and disappears back into the ship.

The men are well on now, three huge bales have been grunted, sweated and sworn into the stall and another has been placed along one of its sides. Jim glances at his watch again ‘Five to’ he mutters ‘nearly there.’ He knows that once the dock gates are shut at 5 he won’t have to worry any more about the arrival of the bull.

Now the Belgian farmer appears at his side, excitement and relief pouring from his speech and gestures. They walk to the ship’s rail. Crawling along the quay is an old spluttering lorry with the squeal of a badly slipping clutch. On its back is a wooden pen arrangement.

‘My bull!’

Jim actually finds it in him somewhere to smile.

Away from our ears the language inside the lorry cab is appalling. This has not been a good day. First the bull wouldn’t go up the ramp at the back of the lorry and when it did the lorry wouldn’t start. They spent a long time trying to get it to start before admitting that they would have to use the old lorry. Then the bull wouldn’t come back down the ramp and once it had made it absolutely clear that it wasn’t going up another one.

The old (pre war) lorry barely had the power to carry the bull along and it swayed from side to side alarmingly in time with the frequent kicking of its load. Good job the East Ridding is flat, but even the slight inclines had taken their toll of the clutch and now the bugger was limping along the quay towards a ship with a gang of dockers looking down from the rail. The driver is under no illusions as the nature of the welcome he is about receive and the stockman sitting next to him is terrified of what’s going to be expected of him.

Back on the ship Jim suddenly realises he hasn’t spoken to the crane driver and moves to catch him as he reaches the bottom of his ladder. There is a short conversation and a resigned looking figure starts back up the rungs.

Jim re-joins his gang at the ship’s rail. They are staring at the bull in silence, which is giving its surroundings a good kicking. The Third Officer approaches.

‘What do you think Jim?’

‘It’s very late sir’

‘I know, but we’re all running up costs now and the bull is here.’

Jim turns to his gang ‘We’ll be working to a finish, let’s get going.’

They wander back to the edge of the hatch.

‘I suppose you want us to put all those bloody bales back where we found them?’

Jim smiled, ‘It could be worse, we could be rebuilding that pen.’

There are some chuckles, you have to assume that by and large they like and trust Jim, we have seen that they work well for him and that he looks out for them – but we mustn’t forget the morning hiring ritual. They rely on Jim to be in work and now’s not the time ….

Back down into the hold they go, whilst the film is now showing a jubilant Belgian farmer who has climbed up on to the flat bed of the lorry and is trying, with some success it has to be said, to calm the bull down. He hears voices and looks up to see his saloon companions lined on the upper deck to see the entertainment. The steward has clearly continued to put in stirling work.

Jim now waves to the crane driver and the boom, chain and C hook swing over the lorry. Two rather apprehensive dockers clamber over its back attaching the chains that will lift the bull in its pen up into the sky and then lower it into the chasm of the hold. Everybody involved in this operation is suddenly transfixed by the thought that this is very possibly not a good idea. As the chains tighten and the load is lifted the somewhat inebriated audience on the upper deck treat the event as a spectacle ……

 Thankfully the bull stops kicking at this point

‘Who is going down in that hold with it?’

‘I’ll go down’ the Belgian farmer has appeared at Jim’s side.

At last, at least three quarters of the way through the film, health and safety makes an appearance.

‘Sorry Sir I can’t allow you to do that.’

‘But my bull is so precious and he may harm himself’

‘Sorry sir, I will go down into the hold with the stockman and two of my men’.

The stockman, who has reluctantly been led up onto the ship, groans. That kicking has been going on behind his head for virtually the whole of the lorry’s journey and now they expect him to go down there and lead the brute from the pen into the larger makeshift stall that has been constructed for it.

‘Who is coming with us?’

Two dockers stand and follow Jim over the side of the hatch cover and down those rungs. Above them the stockman simply refuses saying he’s scared of heights. Before anyone can stop him the Belgian farmer is clambering down. Jim stares at him, did one eyebrow move just a little bit?’

Above the bull, still mercifully quiet, is being lowered down to them. The dockers grab the bottom corners of its pen and manoeuvre it so that the animal’s head is facing the stall whose door is about a yard away.

‘OK he’s your bloody bull, how are we going to do this?’

‘When I’ve got the lead through the ring in his nose one of you opens the gate and I will walk him into the stall, turn him round and then walk back out, leaving him in there. Please close the gate immediately behind me.’

The two dockers exchange glances and for the only time in the whole film the narrator gives them a voice – well not actually a voice, more the articulation of the thought behind the glance ‘better you than me mate!’

Securing the lead to the ring in the nose of a bull that has had a very long day and is violently tossing his head is not easy but the Belgian farmer manages it and in a few seconds it is all over. The bull is in the pen, the gate is shut and no one has been harmed. The ring of figures watching from the deck break into spontaneous applause and the bull, realising his lost opportunity, manages to get his head under the iron feeding trough and tosses it up and across the hold. Fortunately no one is standing where it comes to rest.

You would think that the film would think better of returning to the passenger saloon, but that’s where we go next and see the Belgian farmer reappear to be greeted as a hero. The steward is called ……

Meanwhile and unseen the dockers are working frantically to stow the last of the cargo, even Jim is giving a hand. They are just pulling the hatch covers back across when the Third Officer reappears.

‘6.30 Jim well done, we just need to check the draft fore and aft.’

We don’t see the dockers leaving the ship and walking out through the dock gates. Some are hurrying home to a late tea whilst a couple have decided that they would be better off fortified before they arrive home and head for the pub.

The film shows the ship’s bridge where the captain and his officers are supervising the departure. The engine room telegraph rings, we see warps being loosened and drawn upwards into the ship. A tug whistles and then the ship is moving. As it passes out through the lock gates Jim is standing, watching. The narrator goes on about a job well done without a mention of the skill and hard work of the dockers and the music swells again as the Bravo steams resolutely out to sea.

‘Excuse me sir!’

I start and turn round to see an attendant.

‘We are closing, I am sorry but I must switch this off’

‘That’s OK,’ I say, ‘it’s just finishing’ but am frustrated that I can’t see the credits.

Walking back across a dark and largely deserted harbour side I think about Jim making his way home. He is tired and would like to join some of the lads in the pub but he won’t. He hasn’t drunk with the men for over 20 years – since he was made a foreman and anyway his missus is waiting for him. Usually she is very understanding about the unpredictable nature of his work – but tonight she might not be.

With some trepidation he pushes open the back door into the scullery.

‘Jim! Where the hell have you been? You knew our Alice was wanting to discuss her wedding plans with Roy and his folks. They left about half an hour ago.’

Jim sighs, he knows it’s hopeless but he has a go anyway ‘Sorry Else, we had a bit of a problem loading the Bravo’.

His wife pulls a face of resignation and sits down at the table, ‘OK what happened – and mind, don’t give me no bull!’


* The film was a British Transport Film – ‘Berth 24 1950’ and I had happened upon it about halfway through. If I had seen it from the start I would have known that my Belgian farmer was in fact a Swede and that the Bravo was bound for the Baltic. Moreover I wouldn’t have had to guess the foreman’s name – it was in fact ‘George’, but by the time I had caught up with it on you tube it was too late, my first draft had been completed … and why let the facts get in the way………… ?

I consciously took a rather fast and loose approach in my interpretation of the film in order to develop a bit more of a plot and access some of the things and dialogues that were not shown. However I was amazed to find how far I had drifted from the original – some scenes which I thought I had merely embellished hadn’t been shown at all!

So I have to give my apologies to the film makers, the dockers and indeed the bull. I hope none of them have been represented in a disrespectful way.