I worked for the Port of London Authority (the PLA) for 18 years - from 1962 to 1980 - during which time I had many positions. They were the best days of my working life. The experiences I went through, the people I worked with and the life skills I learned could not have been equalled anywhere else. Working for the PLA, especially in the docks themselves, was not just a job but a complete a way of life. It was a world behind walls, the workforce was nearly all male and the custom and practices were antiquated. You became sucked into a parallel world, rough, dangerous at times but never boring. Compared to my previous experience of office work at the Provident Mutual Life Assurance Association in the City, this was, at times, like being propelled back in time to Dickensian days.
When I joined the PLA, London was the premier port in the UK. The PLA had responsibilty for navigation on the River Thames from Teddington Lock near Richmond to The Nore in the Thames Estuary as well as operating five enclosed dock systems along the Thames; from east to west these were:
Royal Victoria, Royal Albert & Kinge V Docks (the Royal Docks)
West India & Millwall Docks
Surrey Commercial Docks
St Katherine Dock
To understand how the overall management of the PLA worked, I have produced a diagram. It is important to recognise that as well as it being a highly TOP/DOWN structured bureaucracy, there were two "divisons" into which staff were employed.
UPPER DIVISION STAF comprised the Management positions. All financial matters could only be undertaken by those on those grades
LOWER DIVISION STAFF comprised Supervisory staff and Clerical staff at the operational level. they had responsibility for weights and measures but nor any financial matters.
In 1962, the future of the PLA seemed assured. It was national institution, its management structure based upon that of the Civil Service. It offered a career and a job for life. London was the at the heart of all the trading markets in the world. Many goods were sent to London only to be transhipped elsewhere. It was the commercial core of the country and much of the world. It had gained its status in the days of the British Empire and had held onto that status throughout the post-war years and into the late 1960's.
After a few years of working for the PLA, however, I witnessed the unexpected yet rapid decline of the enclosed dock system in London from 1967 onwards when the arrival of containerised cargo handling techniques revolutionised the way goods were transported around the world. In a few years it swepted away custom and practices which had basically remained unchanged for a 100 or more years. Cargo handing operations in St Katherine and London Docks ceased in 1968 followed by those at Surrey Commerial Docks in 1970. Those operations at India & Millwall Docks ceased in 1972 and at the Royal Docks in 1974. This left just Tilbury Docks operational.
For a detailed account of that decline click here.
Despite this contraction of the enclosed dock systems, I continued to work for the PLA until 1980.
To see details of the positions I held during my 18 years with the PLA click on the buttons here.
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