They handled cargoes from the greatest empire the world had ever known. Now an exhibition is being planned to celebrate 200 years of Mersey dockers. David Charters reports
THE BRANCHES of trees in distant lands hung heavy with fruit, ready for the picking, and in sheds along the waterfronts merchants in brilliant clothes sprinkled pungent spices into drums.
Fabrics, exotic perfumes and molasses came in. Tools, heavy machines and sweat went out. Cranes groaned. Ropes strained. Cigarettes were rolled. Mugs of tea were drained. Brows were mopped on shirt sleeves.
Fathers and sons humped sacks along the quays.
And the segs on the fingers of the passing generations united Liverpool to Asia, America, Europe, Africa and Australasia.
So, in any history of the city, the dockers should be celebrated. Their ale-houses and their tall stories, the nicknames and the humour, their politics, a sense of street justice, strong family bonds, natural cunning and a refusal to bow to authority placed them at the heart of the port.
It was obvious the loading and unloading of ships would make other people prosperous, but the dockers also came to define the working-class culture of Liverpool, crystallising the spirit of a time and place.
Now an audio-visual exhibition is being planned to chart 200 years of dockers on the Mersey, the crucial period in which Liverpool grew from a town of moderate prosperity and much promise to the second city of the British Empire.
"They gave so much to Liverpool," says Peter Fisher, whose family have been dock workers since his great grandfather came to Liverpool early in the 19th century. "The exhibition will tell the essential story of the port and the people who made it great."
It is to be held in the 14-storey Tobacco Warehouse in Vauxhall, the world's largest brick building. "I will help with this exhibition in any way I can," says Frank Tough, sight supervisor at the warehouse.
Already a website (www. scottiepress.org) has been set up, so former dockers and their families can contribute memories, ideas and photographs and films to the exhibition which is planned to run through 2007, the 800th anniversary of King John g ranting Liverpool its Royal Charter, and the following Capital of Culture year.
Ron Formby, of the Vauxhall Neighbourhood Council, is one of the organisers. He believes the exhibition will be part of the Tourism in Vauxhall projects. "It is important this area's history should be fully recognised as part of Liverpool's culture." he says.
But the tradition of handling cargoes on the Mersey goes back far more than 200 years.
Cast your mind back to a chilly morning long before the first Liver Bird had hatched. A troop of friars, with cowls raised over their heads to protect their ears from the wind's keen cut, watch a rowing boat glide into view through the mist on the river.
And then the sandalled feet of the leader slap the mud on his approach to the lapping water.
But then one of the oarsmen tosses a rope at his hands. The friar catches it and hauls the boat ashore. "Pass 'em up," he calls down to the oarsmen. Soon his friends form a line and they begin lifting hams, cheeses and ale from the boat on to the dry bank.
The Benedictines at Birkenhead Priory became the first dockers on the Mersey, handling the merchandise traded between the small settlements on either side of the river.
They began ferrying merchants and their increasingly large cargoes, including livestock, across the Mersey, after Hamon de Massey, Baron of Dunham, Cheshire, established the priory in 1150.
Liverpool's early trading was mostly with Ireland. Small boats rested on the mud when the tide went out. They would be unloaded before it came in again. But larger ships could be damaged when they ran aground. Instead, they anchored in the river and fleets of smaller craft carried the cargoes to and from them.
However, by the 1660s, ships were travelling to North America to trade in sugar, tobacco, cloth, pottery and other goods.
The need was for them to come into port.
The solution was docks, walled-in areas where the level of water could be maintained.
The world's first commercial enclosed wet basin was built in 1715 by Thomas Steers in what is now Canning Place. In 1826 it was filled in and it is now the site of the Custom House. (This is the one being exposed for The Paradise Street Develop)
Docks would soon proliferate on both sides of the river. Among these were Canning (1737-1972), Salthouse (1773-1952), Georges (1771-1899) and Dukes (1773-1972), Kings (1785-1972) and Coburg (1796-1972).
But the Liverpool which became world famous was Victorian, not becoming a city until 1880. The great docks of that era include the Albert, Alexandra, Brocklebank, Brunswick, Canada, Clarence, Herculaneum, Hornby, Huskisson, Langton, Princes, Sandon, Stanley, Trafalgar, Victoria, Wapping, Waterloo, as well as the Morpeth, Egerton, Wallasey, Alfred, Great Float, Vittoria and Bidston docks on the opposite bank.
Most dockers were Catholics whose ancestors had fled to Liverpool during the Irish potato famine and settled around Scotland Road. But people of many nations and backgrounds formed the community.
Life was tough. There were strikes and lock-outs, which bonded the men. In 1947, the National Dock Labour Scheme introduced a register which began "decasualisation", but everything was to change after the successful strike in 1967, which guaranteed the working hours of dockers.
After that there was a considerable improvement in their working conditions. Until then the men had been attached to the National Dock Board under a scheme, which meant accepting work when it was there, a system that was open to abuse. Work was usually issued on a daily or weekly basis, daily obviously being "more casual". In London during the 1940s almost half the dockers were dailies while in Liverpool it was 75%.
The "welt" was another controversial practice. Gangs would divide a job between themselves. Some worked while others rested, using the Unemployment Insurance Act in which three idle days in six qualified a man for benefit.
The Mersey's rapid rise and fall meant that overtime would be paid to complete a job quickly, so the outgoing ship could catch the tide. With such chopping and changing, dockers did not develop a sense of loyalty to their employers. Even the unions found it harder to organise on the Mersey than elsewhere. But the dockers were loyal to each other.
Their culture was ended by the strike of 1995 which broke out at the Seaforth Container Basin when 325 dockers were sacked for not crossing the picket line of striking workers from a stevedoring company. The men from the Transport and General Workers Union held out for 850 days, winning support from socialists here and overseas.
The men demanded they should be reinstated while the offers of redundancy pay rose steadily. In the end most men accepted pay-outs of up to £28,000.
At its height in the 1950s, about 25,000 dockers, worked on the Mersey. There are now 400, with 5,000 people in other jobs in the Port of Liverpool and an estimated 30,000 in occupations dependent on it. Of the 400, 150 work in the Seaforth container terminal. Last year the port handled a record 32.8 million tonnes of cargo, as opposed to some nine million in 1984.
The old days will never return, but the men who lined the quaysides to make this the second city of the British Empire have their place in our history, forever.
Dockers set a great example
THROUGH research, Peter Fisher has been able to trace his paternal line back to Joseph (1812-1878), Peter (1852-1895), Joseph (1878- 1951) and John (1918-2001), who had five children with his wife, Catherine Dougherty, of whom Peter was the youngest.
He was brought up in Great Homer Street, Liverpool, and educated at St Anthony's School in Vauxhall and then St Kevin's, Kirkby.
Peter worked on the docks from the early 1970s to 1990, by which time he had a BSc in Social Sciences and economics from the Open University.
In 1989, Margaret Thatcher's government abolished the National Dock Labour Board. The chill wind of a new era blew in.
The late Eddie Loyden, when MP for Garston, said the docks and their surrounding areas provided a working class way of life that could only be understood by those who were part of it.
Now Peter, 55, a former Knowsley councillor, lives in Kirkby. He is a management consultant and Liverpool magistrate.
"The docks provided me with a good wage, variety of work and a camaraderie that I will never experience again," says the married father of two grown-up children.
"The dockers' loyalty and solidarity for other workers also helped to uplift pay right across all work sectors.
"When I was young, Great Homer Street was awash with fresh food from the markets. I remember walking up the street and smelling things being cooked.
"It's a distant way of life now, but if only we could have carry it through to today, the Chancellor would not have to give millions to Sure Start and citizenship because the core of society was already there. My dad never swore. He taught me manners. He was always well dressed. He never owed a penny in his life to anybody. He was a gentleman. My dad and all the dockers set a great example."