Former dock workers still treasure memories of a career fizzing with excitement – more than four decades on from the industry’s death in Bristol.
Bristol University lecturer Amy King interviewed a dozen ex-dockers last year while studying for a PhD.
This weekend her research will come to life during events celebrating the docks’ history – and the academic has given Bristol Live an insight into the tales attendees will hear.
“Dockers are the best,” said Dr King. “They’re so much fun and so high-spirited and they’ve got all these wonderful stories.”
(Image: Jon Kent/Bristol Live)
The culmination of Dr King’s project was the launch of a website boasting audio clips informing a walk from the M Shed to Nova Scotia Place by the Underfall Yard.
Asked where the idea came from, Dr King revealed inspiration struck when she returned to Bristol after a stint in Washington DC.
Walking around the city’s docks, she reacquainted herself with the towering cranes that used to play a crucial role in the loading and unloading of cargo ships.
However, she soon found herself questioning whether enough was being done to honour the structures’ history.
Determined to enhance the public’s knowledge, she dug out old audio tapes containing interviews with former dockers, before hunting down some of the ex-workers herself.
“They’re not particularly digital as a group so it was very much about getting contacts through existing contacts and word of mouth and the newspaper,” said Dr King, reflecting on her networking strategy.
As she spoke to more and more interviewees, she noticed common themes developing as they pondered their former careers.
Many recalled the physically demanding and dangerous nature of the work, but happier memories drew on the friendships formed and the joy of hearing so many different languages among visiting sailors.
(Image: Courtesy of Andy King, senior curator at the M Shed)
“It’s amazing how well-connected Bristol was,” said Dr King, explaining ships from across the globe would stop by.
“Each nationality that brought in whatever cargo would have their favourite pub to congregate in.
“You would hear the songs that people would sing in their own languages in the pubs.”
For most dockers, the pub would act as a vitally important “community space”, according to Dr King, who said there was once an “extraordinary” number of drinking dens around Hotwell Road.
She said: “The pubs came up a lot in memories. Some dockers sailed from the Underfall Yard to the Llandoger Trow [during breaks].
“The pubs were a really important part of their day in a way it’s not so much for us now.”
As for the daily toil, different cargo would be loaded and unloaded along various points of the docks – timber ships occupied one spot, fruit ships another, tobacco another, and so on.
An entire vocabulary of slang developed to describe the nature of each job, with “splinter money” earned from timber cargo, for instance, and “sticky money” drawn from sugar.
Among the favourite cargo for many, however, were alcohol, tobacco and frozen meat.
Dr King said the twice-weekly visit of ships bearing Guinness was a particular highlight, while some dockers recalled deliberately smashing the occasional bottle of alcohol so they could take it home for the evening.
Others would stash frozen meat up their trousers, only to develop a mightily numb leg, said Dr King.
Summing up the dockers’ accounts, Dr King said the men held “very positive” recollections by and large.
“That was a really important time in their lives and a lot still know each other – there’s a group of them that apparently still go to the pub every Tuesday,” Dr King said.
For the latest news in and around Bristol, you can check back on Bristol Live’s homepage .