How to trace your docker ancestors - an expert guide
Do you have an ancestor who was a dock worker? In this expert guide Dr Alex Ombler looks at the different resources available for finding out more about how your docker ancestor lived and worked.
Many family historians come across dock workers or 'dockers' in the course of their genealogical research. Discovering a docker is perhaps not surprising as they were one of the largest labouring groups in Britain throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Shifting millions of tons of seaborne cargo between ship and shore, the dockers were an essential cog in Britain's maritime economy. Yet, as a labour force and community they remain a largely mysterious and unknown group. Many were the descendants of the Irish navvies who had dug out the great dock systems and their clannish culture and tough physical work were hidden behind the dock walls away from public view. Consequently, finding ancestral roots on the docks can be exciting, but also very intriguing. This article offers some pointers on resources that can help researchers find out more about the personal and professional lives of their docker ancestors.
What records are available?
Until 1967 most dockers were employed on a casual basis, that is, they were hired by various employers to ‘turnaround’ (unload and discharge) a vessel and then paid off. Consequently, there are very few records of employment for most of their history.
The first real attempt to organise and administer the dock labour force came in 1947 with the introduction of the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1947. Overall, the Scheme was operated by the National Dock Labour Board, whilst the day-to-day business at port level was operated by local boards. It is the paperwork generated by the local boards that can often provide rich detail about individual dockers, including details of employers, pay, discipline, welfare and training.
The records of the National Dock Labour Board, as well as the local boards of London, Cumbria, Grimsby and Immingham, and South Coast, are held by the National Archives, Kew (BK2-BK37). The archives of most other local boards can be found in the local archives of respective port areas.
Your docker ancestor in the newspaper
Newspaper archives too are essential for learning about docker ancestors. Whilst they offer general information about like notices of births, engagements, marriages, deaths and obituaries, they can often tell us much about the more dramatic events of dockers' lives.
This includes the accidents and injuries that were common on the docks, a consequence of the lifting and movement of heavy goods coupled with an almost complete lack of safety equipment and procedures. A search in local newspapers can offer much detail on incidents of injury and, in cases of fatalities, information on inquests and their verdicts.
It was partly because of the harsh working conditions that the dockers were a highly unionised and strike prone group. Both local and national newspapers reported on the many dock strikes that occurred in British ports in the century between the Great London Dock Strike of 1889 and the last national dock strike in 1989. Many articles feature interviews with strikers, union officials and shop stewards alike and can reveal much about the dockers' attitudes and motives for taking on their employers.
Life outside work
Newspapers can also be particularly useful for learning about the dockers lives outside of work such as the waterfront neighborhoods they commonly inhabited, this can provide a social and cultural context for more personal and individual detail. Articles can tell us about community events, recreation and crime, but also how major national and international events effected docker communities.
For example, they can provide some insight into the heavy aerial bombing raids endured by those who lived in the streets close to the dock gates during both World Wars. However, it must be noted that for the sake of moral many raids were not reported, those that were often had detail curtailed. The British Newspaper Archive currently offers the most comprehensive digital collection of local and national newspapers, but check whether your local library or archive service offers free public access to the site should you wish to avoid paying the subscription.
Alongside archival records, dockland artefacts, like cargo-handling tools, can shed light on a docker’s working life. Until the container revolution of the 1960s, working practices on the docks remained largely manual with gangs of dockers moving most cargoes by hand between ship and shore.
General goods were handled in man-sized boxes, barrels and sacks, whilst bulk cargoes like grain and timber were broken down and shifted by hand. Consequently, a wide variety of unique tools including hand hooks, shovels, forks, pics, pans and barrows were used to aid the cargo-handling process. Following containerisation many dockers kept their old tools, which had often been passed down through generations of dockworkers - some family historians may be lucky enough to have inherited them!
Such items are not only personal treasures that provide physical links to the past, they can tell us much about the skill, tough physical work and specific cargoes handled by those who once toiled on the docks. Researchers not fortunate enough to inherit memorabilia can still access and learn much from historical dockland objects in museum collections in permanent displays and online. The Museum of London Docklands and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich both have good collections of dockland artefacts as do Hull's Maritime Museum, Bristol’s M Shed museum and Swansea's National Waterfront Museum.
About the author
Dr Alex Ombler is the author of Tracing Your Docker Ancestors, the first practical guide to the subject for family historians. In a series of concise, informative chapters he takes readers through the history of British ports and identifies research methods and materials – both local and national – through which they can discover the lives and experiences of the people who worked in them.
Tracing Your Docker Ancestors is published by Pen & Sword Publishing. Get your copy here.