This book tells the real story about Liverpool's docklands and the people who lived and worked there. Set against the background of Liverpool's unique urban experience, the author sets out to tell what conditions were actually like in one of the world's largest and most important seaports. Sometimes, this makes for harrowing reading. There was poverty and poor housing. There was massive over-crowding, and the town grew at such a rate that public health in the poorer districts was among the worst in the world. Yet migrants came from near and far in search of work. And the work they found in dockland could be plentiful and relatively well paid. Often the work was brutally hard and exhausting. Cargoes had to be unloaded manually or using modest dockside cranes. Deal porters shouldered long, heavy planks of wood, while 2 cwt (100 kg) sacks were commonly carried by one man half-running along a narrow plank from ship to shore. Only the young, agile and experienced could safely handle such loads or the great barrels of tobacco and bales of cotton. Employment on the docks was far from secure.
Until quite recently workers had to stand by twice a day hoping to be picked for that half-day's work. This casual system of hiring brought no security whatever, and dockers were at the whim of the employer as well as at the mercy of trade depressions or even the weather. Not surprisingly there were strikes and industrial disputes, to which the employers' and the government's response was often harsh and uncompromising. At one low point the Royal Navy's HMS Antrim was photographed at anchor in the Mersey 'at readiness' to respond to any trouble from the striking dockers. A series of disputes and generally improving conditions did eventually lead to the abolition of the casual system, but by then the shipping container had led to the closure of many of the docks (the whole South End system closed in 1971), while the creation of a container terminal at Seaforth totally transformed the nature of the port. The traditional docklands and their way of life was gone for ever. Brian Towers was uniquely well placed to write this book. He was a professor of industrial relations whose family roots were as seamen based in Liverpool.
His perspectives and insights recreate way of working and life that have now been largely lost.