After the 1820s it was the port’s labourers who had largely borne the brunt of the intense competition between the many docks and wharves. In a system called the ‘call-on’ thousands of men waited outside the dock gates each day in the hope of being chosen for a few hours work, for which they were paid a low hourly-rate. When work was slack they could wait for days in all weathers without employment. Even when chosen, many were so weak from malnutrition they could work for only a short time. The call-on became a way of life for generations of families and entire neighborhoods. Dock work was also dangerous, with regular injuries and death without compensation for the men or their families.
Britain became increasingly industrialised during the 19th century and there were various attempts by workers to take action to improve their conditions. In August 1889 an incident at the West India Docks prompted workers to walk out while unloading a ship. A strike committee was formed and the dispute quickly spread as dockers in other parts of the port joined in sympathy. It lasted a month, almost closing the entire port, from the City down to Tilbury. Once unions came into being, industrial action became a regular feature of the docks and wharves throughout the following century.
Sources include: John Pudney ‘London’s Docks’; Fiona Rule ‘London’s Docklands’; Christopher West ‘The Story of St.Katharine’s’; Jerry White ‘London in the 19th Century’; Liza Picard ‘Victorian London’; Arthur Bryant ‘Liquid History’; Ian Friel ‘Marine History of Britain & Ireland’; John Richardson ‘The Annals of London’.