Colin Ross, Docker
Colin Ross has always been drawn to the river, though now it is the River Crouch at Hullbridge in Essex where he lives in retirement, rather than the Thames where once he and three generations of men in his family before him worked as dockers at the Royal London Dock. With his sharp bird-like features, deeply lined face, strong jaw and shock of white hair, Colin is an imposing figure with natural dignity and an open sociable manner. Above all, you sense a generosity of spirit. It is an heroic attribute in one who fought the long battles that Colin did – battles which proved to be unwinnable – to keep the docks alive and keep his fellow dockers in employment there.
Yet zeal was a quality that was never lacking in the Ross family, as demonstrated by his father Tom who was one of those who set up The Distress Fund. “There was no sickness benefit or compensation for injuries in the docks, and we had so many dockers who were dying and getting pauper’s funerals,” Colin explained, “Ten thousand people joined the fund at a shilling a week and if a docker died his widow got seventy-five pounds. The work they put in to collect that one shilling a week, but that was the kind of people East Enders were, we looked after each other.”
Similarly, Colin came up against a management that had no concern for the dockers’ welfare when manhandling sacks of asbestos. “They said it was perfectly safe,” he recalled with a frown, “and they told me I was troublemaker for objecting. But in 1967, we were the first workplace to ban it, when the union refused to touch it. I feared for the African dockers who loaded it in hessian sacks.”
Living modestly with his wife in an immaculately-kept mobile home surrounded by a small garden close to the River Crouch in Essex, Colin has found a peaceful haven and no longer comes up to London very often, but he was eager to speak to me of the conflicts surrounding the closure of the docks in which he fought with such courage and presence of mind.
“The Royal London Group of Docks was the largest enclosed docks in the world and I was the fourth generation of my family to work there – before me there was Tom, Jack and Archie, who came down from Scotland. My grandfather Jack was involved in the first great dock strike of 1889 that led to the foundation on the TGWU. The East End was absolute poverty then and the strike went on and on. Money was sent from all over the world to support the dockers. Randolph Hearst sent money, and in the end it was the intervention of the Catholic church and Cardinal Manning personally that got the ship owners to the negotiating table. My nan’s brother – his family were so destitute that his wife sold her body to make money and, when he found out after the strike, he killed her.
I joined the docks in 1965 at the age of twenty. At sixteen, I went to sea but if your dad was a docker it was expected you would work in the docks, and my dad’s reputation went before me. When you went to work, you earned good money – but most of the time you didn’t get to go to work. Jack Dash – the legendary union man – took me on one side to recruit me as union leader and said, “Son, there’s three people you want to avoid in life, ship owners, insurance agents and bankers.” I don’t think he was far off there.
People don’t realise the battles we had in our struggle to keep the docks open. We saw that containerisation was coming and we realised it was going to mash the East End to bits. There were 27,000 regulated dock workers and for every one of them another two workers dependent on the docks. 100,000 people relied on the docks for a living. We negotiated with the Port of London Authority and they said, “It’s no good standing in the way of progress.” But what’s the good of progress if it doesn’t benefit everyone? Our argument was – You have the docks in place and the rail links and the workforce, why can’t containerisation be done in the docks? Gradually, they weakened our cause with increased offers of severance pay and then, before we knew it, the asset strippers moved into the Royal London Docks – only they called them Venture Capitalists, they bought up the docks, closed them down and sold them as flats at half a million pounds each.
When I went into the docks, Charles Dickens would have recognised it. It was that antiquated because the ship owners never spent a penny on it. I thought, “Something’s wrong here,” because the shipping companies belong to the richest people in the country, and the wages were so low they could afford to keep 2,000 paid dockers in reserve to cover for the holiday period. It was the industry with the highest level of accidents in the country and you got no sick pay. The mortality rate was high and dockers did not expect to live beyond fifty-eight to sixty on average – this was in the nineteen sixties.
We never realised they were going to close down the docks until we met some American longshore men and they had experienced the same thing. But in America the union was so strong because it was run by the mafia, they got a deal we would die for. I went to Jack Jones at the TGWU and said “Can’t you see what’s happening?” We formed our own unofficial committee, the National Port Shop Stewards’ Committee. The problem was the same in Liverpool, Hull and Southampton and we decided to hold dock gate meetings. We picketed dock gates in London, saying to lorry drivers they would be blacklisted in every dock in the country if they crossed our picket line, and it was a roaring success. Ted Heath was Prime Minister at the time and they threatened to put us in prison, but they realised if they arrested us there would be carnage.
All the time we had viable propositions to keep the docks open, using the river and opening up rail links but the Port of London Authority didn’t want them. All of a sudden, five of our members were arrested and put in Pentonville Prison, so we created a picket line at the prison gate. And in my four or five days there I saw more of life than I’d seen in my life. The TUC called a General Strike in our support. All the unions, the carworkers, the steelworkers, they were with us. Our five members were released but they had smashed us. The dispute shifted from being our dispute to being a dispute about the Industrial Relations Act. The union backed me but my Dad said, “They backed you to take control, and they used it to get more severance money and send us back to work.” I knew then that the chips were down.”
In 1978, Colin Ross left the docks. He went to work at a container plant in Purfleet and his wages increased from £30 to £350 a week, but he found there was no camaraderie as he had known at the docks in the East End. Within two years, Colin left to run a fruit and vegetable at Globe Town Market Sq in the Roman Rd for the rest of his working life. “It was the saddest day of my life,” was how he described leaving dock work, after his personal history of struggle and the struggle of three generations behind him.
“We had it within our grasp to keep the docks open, they could have been working today.” he said to me, raising his hands and reaching out with visible emotion, “I’m not angry, what has happened has happened. I am not bitter but I am annoyed at how it happened. Canary Wharf may be beautiful, yet I can’t ever bring myself to go back to the docks anymore.”
The London Docks were closed by shipowners who wanted to move to new container ports as a means to break the unions and introduce casual labour, and make short-term profits by selling off their warehouse spaces. Yet the final irony lies with Colin, because anyone who has travelled upon the Thames – the silent highway, as they once called it – recognises the absurdity of the empty river when it is the obvious conduit for transport of goods as the roads grow ever more overcrowded. River transport linked to rail would be a much greener and more efficient option in the long term than the container ports and haulage trucks we are now forced to rely upon. With remarkable foresight, Colin saw all this forty years ago and he fought his best fight to stop it happening. So although he may be disappointed his spirit is intact – and his story is an important one to remember today.
Colin made the front page of the Daily Mail in 1970.
Colin’s pass book issued by the National Dock Labour Board.
Colin’s union membership cards.
Note number six, the rate for unloading bags of Asbestos.
Colin as a Shop Steward in 1976.
Colin Ross in his garden in Hullbridge.
Colin’s memoir Death of the Docks can be purchased here
You may also like to read about Colin’s daughter