The Import Charges Office , North side Royal Victoria Dock, had two satellite offices. One was South Side Royal Victoria Dock – which served 1,2 & 3 sheds; the other was 4 berth which, although it too was on the south side of the dock, had its own import ledger office.There were specific reasons for this.
No 4 berth was a purpose-built transit shed, built exclusively to handle the North American traffic operated by United States Lines ships under "London Clause" conditions. One of the ships involved in this trafic was the "American Harvester".
These ships had been especially converted to transport palletised cagoes making for quicker turnaround times in port.Cargoes were discharged and loaded by the ships derricks; here were no quay cranes at 4-berth.
4-berth was completed in 1961 and was at that time the largest single span transit shed in Europe.It too had been designed to allow palletised cargo to be handled using fork-lift trucks. Hence the inside of the transit shed at 4-berth had no internal pillars; it was in fact one enormous open space which allowed the cargo to be stored in designated areas and serviced by fork-lift trucks.
The berth was used for both import and export cargoes. Two ships per week used the berth. The volume of import cargo was phenomenal. The shed operations were manic. So too were the associated paperwork operations. Uniquely, both the shed writer and his staff shared the same offices as the ledger staff, supposedly to allow for a more integrated service and to avoid delays. The quick clearance of imported goods was essential given the frequency of arrivals and the need to keep storage to a minimum. After all, London Clause goods were expected to be delivered within 3 days of the ship "breaking bulk" under the special "Quay Delivery Rate" or QDR as it was known. Goods left uncollected were likey to be moved to another transit shed, whereby the importer los his London Clause QDR and had to pay higher rates for both the transfer and the storage of his goods elsewhere.
Working in the same office as the 4-berth “lower division” staff was also an experience.
I need to explain what I mean by lower division staff. The PLA was a very structured and hierarchial organisation. It was split between those employed on the “Upper Division Staff” who held Clerical Officer and Executive Officer positions at the administrative and managerial levels and the “Lower Division Staff” who held supervisory type positions at the operational level. To get a job in the Upper Divison you needed to have at least 5 GSE’s at “O” level including English and Maths. For having 2 GCE’s at “A” level I enjoyed a higher starting salary. No formal qualifications were needed for Lower Division jobs but basic levels of literacy and numeracy were tested at interview.
The supervisory roles held by lower division staff were also split between those reporting to the “Foreman” (who worked from an office in the transit shed from where he supervised the operational workforce in the transit shed – ie the Ships Gangers, and Shipside Tally Clerks or OST’s as they were referred to) and the “Writer” who was office bound and was responsible for the associated documentation relating to the import and export cargoes going through the transit shed. A number of PLA clerks would report to the Writer.
Upper Division clerical staff like myself very rarely worked in quayside offices but in separate ledger offices as already described. No 4-Berth was one of the few exceptions to normal practice.
Although 4-berth had its own dedicated import ledger staff, such was the volume of work that these were constantly supplemented by staff from both the North side and South side offices employed on overtime. Weekday overtime was between 4pm and 7pm. Sunday overtime was from 8 am to 4pm.
Working in the North side office, I had learned the import charges rates not only for the “Colonial” cargoes (ie those from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) discharged from the Blue Star Lines ships which used B and F sheds but also for the “ London Clause” cargoes discharged at E berth from Canadian Pacific Line ships.
“London Clause” import charges were beneficial rates negotiated by Shipping Companies many years earlier and they
Given it was handling North American traffic, 4-berth import cargos were entitled to “London Clause” rates. Therefore, after only a few months in the North side ledger office, my “experience” in the intricacies of London Clause rates was enough to secure me copious amounts of overtime at 4-berth – both in the evenings and on Sundays.
I kept a diary throughout 1962 and recorded all the overtime I earned at 4-berth. This is a sample:
My annual salary was £655 My gross monthly take home pay was £54.10.00 In June 1962, I took home £42.4.9 NET
Thu July 5th - 3 hours overtime @ 4-berth
Fri July 6th - 3 hours overtime @ 4-berth
Sun July 29th - 8 hours overtime @ 4-berth
In July 1962 I earned £22.15.0 in overtime, and took home nearly double my normal monthly salary.
Those really were halcyon days or more aptly “the gravy train” days! In October 1962 I transferred to 4-berth. I had never had so much money and during the rest of 1962 and into 1963 the gravy train continued to roll.
Not only was working at 4-berth financially enjoyable but it was also like working in a holiday camp. The senior clerk was Bill Ward. He was a short rotund man with a bald head who always wore his shirt sleeves rolled up. He also invariably wore a brown Harris Tweed jacket. He looked a bit like Humpty Dumpty, but was often referred to as “Kaiser Bill” as he drove a VW Beetle. We got on well. He had an infectious laugh and was extremely funny. He had an amazing collection of stories some true, others of the shaggy dog variety, but all of which were entertaining.
He lived in a bungalow near Pitsea but insisted that it was Bowers Gifford because that sounded posher! One of the stories I remember was this:
One day he was at home painting when a man called trying to sell double glazing. In order to stop the man launching into his sales talk, Bill pretended he was a tradesman doing some internal decorating and not the owner. It sounds terribly unfunny now but to recall Bill telling it in his high pitched voice and laughing hysterically is something I have never forgotten.
On front desk and sharing the small inner office with Bill was Peter “Rocky” Rockenback. He was built like a brick shithouse but very gentle in reality – except when he lost his temper. Like Bill Phillips at North side, Rocky was not adverse to offering lippy Carmen to a bout of fisticuffs. He wore thick, black framed glasses. When annoyed these came off and woe betide anyone who pushed him further!
Sharing the large outer office with me were five other ledger staff. John “Jock” Foster was of course a Scot. He was best friends with Rocky. For some reason he insisted on calling me Emphram Zimbalist Junior on the basis that, in his view, I looked like him! For those too young to remember, Ephram Zimbalist Junior was the star of a 60’s American television programme called “77 Sunset Strip” in which he played a private detective. Old EZJ would cruise down “The Strip” in an immaculate Cadillac convertible and usually had a bevy of beautiful girls on his arm or in his bed. I can not for the life of me think why Jock felt I had something in common with this Zimbalist character. After all, at the time I drove a black and cream 1955 Vauxhall Cresta!
Next up was John(ny) Tilbrook. He too was enormously funny. We shared a liking for the radio programme “Round the Horne” and Johnny could do a really good impersonation of Kenneth William’s character in the show called “Rambling Sid Rumpoe”. Each Monday morning, we would recall the previous day’s edition of the programme and fall about helplessly at the re-telling of the jokes.
John was, with hindsight, bordering on the side of being completely insane. He would constantly make up names of people ‘phoning in for information and fall about in fits of hysterical laughter at his own jokes. One of his favourite tricks was to answer the ‘phone then, holding his hand over the mouthpiece would say to one of us: “There’s Mister R. Sole on the ‘phone asking about a consignment of jockstraps ex the ‘American Champion” in July; can you talk to him?” Until you knew better, you would take over the phone and say to the caller: “Hello. Mr R. Sole?” At that stage Johnny would explode with laughter leaving you with the sudden realisation that “R. Sole” was in fact “Arsehole”! Ho ho – happy days.
The final member of the import ledger staff at 4-berth was Micky Game. Micky was a budding impresario. He read the ‘Melody Maker’ from cover to cover every Friday. Remember this was pre-Beatle days yet he was setting up gigs and hiring bands every weekend and making a small fortune in profit every week. He spent most of his working day organising the following weekends gig, doing little “PLA” work as I recall. Jock detested him and would call him “a little shite”. Bill Ward knew of his reluctance to work and would emerge from his Office unexpectedly, see that Micky was doing his “thing” and would shout out:” What are you f****** well up to Game? Let’s have a little less of the Bernard Delfonts and more f****** bills being done” As he rolled back to his office Bill would utter his trademark phrase: “F****** Sauce!”
Henry Hall was the 4-berth Writer. He was also verging on the verge of being totally insane. His job as I now recall it must have been very, very stressful. The throughput of 4-berth was such that you never got on top of the work. It was like a nightmarish treadmill. No matter how hard you tried the workload never seemed to diminish. But then, neither did the opportunities for overtime!
Henry had a staff of about ten. They processed the “Bills of Lading” that were the Title to imported goods, organised Customs & Excise inspections and the associated paperwork, and issued Delivery Notes for goods collected from the transit shed.
Henry dealt with all the queries and there were lots of those. He always spoke in shouting mode. I suppose we all did in order to make yourself heard in the general din that continued from 8am to 7 pm every weekday, from Saturday 8am to 1 pm and Sunday from 8am to 4pm. , but you could always hear Henry’s voice screeching above everyone else’s. The usual expletives of “F***” and “C***” punctuated his conversations with regularity. One of the things I remember from working in an all male environment was the casual way these words were used in “normal” conversations.
On the occasions when the stress level went too high and Henry finally lost it, however, it was something else. Quite frightening to behold. Henry would pace about the Office having a real rant. His staff knew better than to argue with him when he was in this frame of mind as did the rest of us ledger staff. It was the only time that the office was quiet. I had not been there at the time but I heard stories of there being actual fighting between Henry and other members of his staff in the past. Generally though he was a friendly and genial man although probably quite mad. The worst thing I ever saw him do was to get his cock out and casually walk around the office waving it about. It is hard to imagine that these things actually happened. But they did. He probably ended up in a mental institution.
The No 69 bus used to go from Chingford Mount to North Woolwich and I would sometimes use it to get to work rather than take the Vauxhall Cresta. I would board the bus at the “Crooked Billet” in Walthamstow and alight at the “Graving Dock Tavern PH” stop which was at the entrance to 4-berth on North Woolwich Road. Leaving Canning Town, the bus went over the Silvertown Flyover and along Silvertown Way, past Silvertown Station before going along North Woolwich Road. Along Silvertown Way and North Woolwich Road there were numerous Public Houses (like the “Graving Dock Tavern”) and “greasy spoon” cafés. One of the cafés was called “Georges Café.
Johnny Tilbrook bounced into the office one morning more excited and manic than he normally was. “Have you seen Georges Cafe?” he spluttered. “What about it?” we asked. “He’s had it painted and it’s got a new name!” replied Johnny. “He’s calling it “Georges Dining Rooms” but the guy who painted the name has put “Georges Dinning Rooms instead of Dining Room!”
At lunchtime a few of us went down to see the new sign on the café. Sure enough, it read “Georges Dinning Room” with the double ‘n’.
Many years later when the Royal Docks had closed to shipping but before the advent of the re-development of the area and the building of “Silvertown Village”, I travelled along North Woolwich Road. Although now closed for what looked like a long time, the café was still there and still bore the name of “Georges Dinning Rooms”.
Alas though, in 2006 it no longer exists.
Top of Page