Of all the employers I have worked for, the PLA had the best Induction Programme. It comprised two parts.
The first was classroom based. During my first few months in the PLA in 1962, every Wednesday was spent at the PLA Headquarters building in Trinity Square. The Establishment Department arranged for a group of new entrants to be given information about how the Port of London meshed with the various Commodity Exchanges located in the City of London as well as how the Banking system supported Commerce. The weekly lectures were very well researched and informative. We all took copious notes and were given various booklets on the role of the Port of London in the commercial business of London.
The second part of the Induction programme involved on site visits to see firsthand the variety of activities which were undertaken at Royal Victoria Dock. The ones which I can recall are described in the tabs below.
"A" Berth was situated at the eastern end of North Side Royal Victoria Dock, close to the narrow entrance spanned by a swing bridge, known as the cutting, between Royal Albert Dock and Royal Victoria Dock.
It was a built in the 1920's and was designed specifically to handle the import of chilled and frozen beef from South America, principally Buenos Aires in Argentina and Montevideo in Uruguay.
The Vestey Group had set up large beef raising farms in Argentina and Uruguay as well as large meat processing facilities at both ports.To get the meat to London, Vestey set up his own shipping company - Blue Star Line.The ships were designed to carry beef carcases both in chilled and frozen hatches. Chilled beef retained more of its flavour but required a constant temparature en-route.
For more technical information please click this link.
Blue Star ships had exclusive use of A berth for the discharge of its chilled and frozen beef carcases
Due to the PLA's staff structure being rigidly divided between Upper Divison and Lower Division Staff, a Ledger Clerk from North Side Vic Import Ledger Office was permanently based at A shed Office in order to calculate the import charges payable by each Merchant as qhickly as possible. The resident Clark was Dudley Guppy. He occupied a very small office next to the Shed Foreman's office. It had a desk, a chair, a radiator, a cupboard and a hand cranked caculator, exactly like the ones I had been using at the Provident Mutual!!
Little did I realise at the time that a few months later I would be taking over from Dudley at A shed.
C shed/berth was the only Export berth on North Side Vic. It was leased to Ben Line who shipped a whole range of British made goods to the Far East. it was an extremely busy shed. On most days when the "striking" operation was underway (ie the unloading of goods from road vehicles and taken for temporary storage in the transit shed by one of more gangs of dockers using either hand trucks or fork lift trucks) the queue of vehicles waiting to be unloaded tailed back down the dock main road for many yards. Perhaps 50 vehicles at the beginning of the day at 8am.
It was not unusual for many of the vehicles to be "turned away" at 5pm when worked stopped for the day. They would then have to come back the following morning.
I was "assigned" to C shed's writer, one Ron Parkinson. He was a loudmouthed bully who intimidated all his staff. He made no effort to make me welcome. In fact he was quite nasty towards me. He regarded all "Upper Division Staff" as no-nothing wasters, which included the Traffic Officer. He also had a deep hatred of C shed's Foreman (can not remember his name) who on the few occasions I met him seemed to be continually harrassed by the volume of work he oversaw and the constant hectoring from Parkinson.
I actually learned nothing while at C shed and reported Parkinson's behaviour to the Training Officer at the end of the Induction Programme.
Again little did I realise that in ten years time I would be working with Mr Parkinson in a totally different environment.
On the South Side of Royal Victoria Dock were three massive grain mills; Rank, Spillers and Co-op. Ships laden with grain mostly from the USA, would berth alongside one of these mills and large circumference hoses would be lowered into the hold and the grain sucked up into the mill using hydraulic pressure.
Vessels carrying grain destined for other destinations, however, could be unloaded by one of the PLA's Floating Grain Elevators directly into barges. It is my good fortune to be able to say that I was onboard one of these floating elevators; a completely unforgettable experience!
|PLA Floating Grain E levator|
The grain ship to be unloaded was moored alongside No3 shed, South Side Victoria Dock and the Floating Grain Elevator was positioned on the waterside. Access to the elevator could only be achieved by climbing down a wooden ladder which was lashed to the ship's rail and which ended some 30 feet or so below on the deck of the elevator. I have no head for heights and was pretty scared at the prospect. Trying not to think about it and not look down, I grabbed hold of the top of the ladder, hauled myself over the ships rail, and facing the ship slowly descended down the ladder until I stepped onto the deck of the elevator.
I was met by one of the Elevators crew and taken down below into the bowels of the thing. It was airless and very hot and claustraphobic. About six of us were crammed into this tight space. After the crew had finalised the positioning of the huge pipes into the ships hold and ensured that the output pipes were correctly positioned into the empty barge moored alongside, the signal was given for the unloading to commence.
The noise as the hydraulic mechanism and the roar as the grain was sucked up from the ships hold was both terrifying and deafening beyond description! The whole body of the elevator shook and thrummed ceaselessly. Some of the crew concentrated on ensuring that the suction pipes moved back and forth within the hold in such a way that the vessel was kept properly trimmed. Other members of the crew ensured that the grain was discharged into the barge so that it also was properly trimmed. They were well expreienced at their work.I suppose the same kind of claustrophobia conditions must be present on a submarine.
It took around an hour to fill the barge at which point the machinery was turned off. Up on deck back in the daylight, the air was thick with grain dust. There would now be a pause whilst a second barge was positions alongside. At this point I decided to finish my stay. After thanking the crew I made my way back to the ladder. To my horror,the grain which had been discharged had lightened the ship so that the end of the ladder was now dangling about six feet off the deck of the Elevator! Seeing my dilemma, one of the crew came over and helped me heave myself up so that I could grab hold of the end of the ladder and swing my feet onto the bottom rung. I felt physically sick and was sweating as I slowly climbed back up the ladder. Reaching the top and hauling myself back over the ships rail and onto the deck of the grain ship, I sat on one of the bollards in order to recover from my nightmare climb.
When I think about it now I wonder what would have happened had I had an accident climbing up and down that ladder. A fall would probably have resulted in my breaking my back or my neck or actually dying. Back in the day, there was little thought given to Health and Safety. The only "rules" were set out in the "Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act" a copy of which was displayed in those nominated locations. They did not apply to ships, floating grain elevators and the general quaysides areas within the enclosed docks. Your safety was your concern, nobody elses. But I am glad I had the opportunity to do it and lived to tell the tale!
I spent a few days with the Shed Foreman at F Shed, which was also a Blue Star berth, but which handled frozen meat from Australia and New Zealand. These were mostly lamb carcases or packaged meat products like offal.
The Foreman was Fred Bloggs who was really friendly guy in his forties who had a wicked sense of humour. There was a docker employed at the berth who was nicknamed "Dummy" . The poor guy was one sandwich short of a picnic and when pushing a hand cart would waddle along like a duck! Fred used to do a good imitation of Dummy which, although quite wicked, made tears roll down my cheeks.
I learned a lot from Fred about the documentation in respect of imported frozen meat which came in handy later on when I was working at A berth.
As fate would have it, I met up again with Fred a couple of times later. The first time was in 1970 when I was working in the Chief Docks Manager's Office and the second time weas in 1980 when I was working at London Borough of Newham. Fred had been made redundant when the Royal Docks closed to shipping in 1972 and had got himself a labourers job at Newham. He did his wicked imitation of poor old Dummy just for me one last time!
Finally I had a spell at D shed with the Shed Writer John Rich who was a great guy and not at all like Parkinson at C shed. D shed was not leased to any particular shipping company and as such had a varity of cargoes discharged there. Occasionally it would be used by a Port Line vessel which would discharge its cargo of frozen lamb carcases from New Zealand in much the same way as F shed.
My Induction Course had given me a full flavour of the quayside workings at north side Victoria Dock as well as the floating grain elevator! I never got to visit B shed (which like F shed handled frozen lambs etc from Australia and New Zealand)and the "opportunity" to meet the notorious Shed Foreman there called Reg Green.I had been told that Reg had a liking for young boys and was warned to allow myself to be alone with him anywhere in the shed!