Many of the jobs created in London’s docks during the 19th century were badly paid. Others were seasonal or casual, which meant that people were only paid when work was available. As a result, the dockers and their families lived in poverty.
The casual nature of much of their work meant that the dockers did not receive a regular income. There was no income at all during periods of unemployment unless they could find alternative work. Sometimes the poor were forced to turn to crime, others begged to make ends meet, while many more ended up in the workhouse.
Families relying on an income from casual work could only afford basic accommodation. Builders knew that they would never be able to charge the poor high rents. Sometimes houses were divided in half to accommodate two families. This often meant that one family had to make do without an easily accessible supply of drinking water. A series of riots, including the 1887 ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration against unemployment, sparked fears of social unrest. These concerns were further fuelled by sensational press reports about life in the East London slums. Issues such as crime, unemployment and poverty were now very much on the political agenda.
The wages earned in the port varied greatly and depended on whether or not a man was employed on a casual basis or had a skilled occupation.
Lightermen and warehouse officials, for example, were better paid than the dockers. When the docks first opened in the early 19th century, wages and salaries were fairly good by the standard of the time. The West India Dock Company paid its permanent labourers 3s. 6d. (17.5p) a day. Its top man, the dockmaster, received £630 a year.
By the 1880s the pay of the casual docker was about 5d. (2p) an hour. This was at a time when building labourers earned 6d. (2.5p) an hour. The situation was better for permanent employees who, according to The Times in August 1889, could receive from 20s. (£1) to 30s. (£1.50) a week.
Working as a docker was a dangerous profession. Cargos could fall out of slings or nets, or produce could shift in the hold of ships and barges, causing injury or death. Cranes, winches, and platform trucks all added to the many dangers in the docks.
Watermen and lightermen sometimes drowned while warehousemen could be injured by falling casks, chests and crates. Dock work was tiring, dirty and dangerous. There were many unpleasant materials that had to be dealt with. Cargoes such as iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement and guano could injure or cause illness. The accident rate was very high.