The conditions of work were tough down on the Old City Docks. In 1889, the national Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers' Union was established by a Bristolian, Ben Tillett. One of its earliest members was Ernest Bevin, who set up a carters' branch of the dockers' union in 1910. He would go on to become Minister of Labour in Churchill's war cabinet. 

The dockers would usually work in gangs of six, shovelling coal, carrying timber or bagging grain. Others worked within the warehouses, stacking goods using new technology like the forklift truck. Paid by the day, their manpower drove the City Docks.


Some dockers established themselves as specialists in carrying timber or loading coke, while others were known as reliable general labourers. Fresh pine could be smelt along much of the stretch from M Shed to Underfall Yard thanks to the many timber loads stacked along the waterfront, while coal work was done in Wapping coal yard (behind M Shed). One interviewee said that when he first moved into a nearby house, his windows would be thick with soot carried on the wind from the coal yard over the road.


From heavy cargo to long hours and trade union disputes, listen to former dockers talk about the back-breaking work they did.


City Docks: loading crates using a fork lift truck (1958)

Photo credit: Bristol Archives: 40826/DOC/30


City Docks: unloading bales of wood pulp

Photo credit: Bristol Archives: 40826/DOC/31