The Sound of London’s Docks – David Hambling

Click on the link below and select Dock Atmospheres 1935: Dock Atmosphere 1 to hear sound recording.

According to the London Sound Survey, this sound recording was taken at a London dock.  Although the location is not specified, the London Sound Survey notes that, from the accents of the stevedores, it was almost certainly somewhere in the dock of London.[1]  At the beginning of the recording there is a conversation between two merchant seamen discussing the goods that have been brought into port, specifically meat and general cargo, and ‘currents and raisins for the Christmas puddings.’[2] The stevedores in the recording laugh, sing and engage in banter, with one stevedore stating ‘no swearing’[3], giving an impression of respectability to the dock worker.  When listening to the conversation of the returning merchant and the jovial sounds of the stevedores it is easy to assume that the ill-reputation of the London docks is exaggerated.  However the sounds that can be heard in this recording do not represent the conditions of dock workers from previous generations who fought to secure work.  Their sounds were recorded in a different form, and need to be addressed to gain a fuller understanding of the London Dock.

This recording, made in 1935, does not give us insight into the issues of casual labour on the docks and what life was like during the period before the dock strikes of 1889.   Gareth Stedman Jones argues that the issues surrounding casual labour came from the competition for commercial land between traditional London industries and the wharves, warehouses and offices.[4]  The rise in overheads because of this competition saw the decline of traditional London industries as they either had to cut back on space, fuel and work or move to another area outside of London.  Unable to compete with foreign manufacturers or other provincial industries nearer to coal and iron production, most industries moved to another area.[5]  The problem Stedman Jones highlights here is ‘that Trades leave, people stay.’[6]  Thus it can be seen that the ‘industrial vacuum’ created in central London saw those who were unable or unwilling to move at the mercy of ‘employers of casualized and sweated labour [who] were able to reap the advantages of a captive labour market.’[7]  The docks were no exception to this exploitation of casual labour. Beatrice Webb observed the sounds that could be heard at the docks when casual labourers were crying out for work:

Then begins the scuffling and crambling forth of countless hands high in the air, to catch the eye of him whose voice may give them work . . . All are shouting. Some cry aloud his surname, some his christian name, others call out their own names, to remind him that they are there… For weeks they may have gone there, and gone through the same struggle – the same cries; and have gone away, after all, without the work they had screamed for.[8]

The sounds described here suggest not rowdy drunken sailors and dock workers but desperate people looking for release through work.  Webb distinguishes between the ‘respectable’ permanent dock worker and the rowdy casual worker.  She comments:

[G]o to Docks early in the morning.  Permanent men respectable, sober, clean.  Casuals low-looking, bestial, content with their own condition.  Watch brutal fight and struggle: then sudden dissolution of the crowd with coarse jokes and loud laugh.[9]

The sounds that can be imagined from these two observations highlight the despair of the casual labourers opposed to the ‘respectable, sober, clean’ permanent workers.[10]  The sounds of shuffling hands, cries of attention, fighting, coarse jokes and laughter is a far cry from the respectability of the stevedores and sailors in the sound clip.  This suggests that the unfortunate conditions of the casual workers produced a certain sense of apathy, thus making them content to fight and laugh about it.

Fig 1. Engaging Dock Workers at the West India Dock

How then did the sounds of the docks change from despair and violence to those heard in the 1935 recording?  Stedman Jones discusses the effects of the Dock Strike of 1889, describing it as a ‘cathartic release from the social tension of the mid-1880s’[11] for the casual labour force.  The rallies that were held created a new sound of the docks, one that would reverberate through London.  The strike was headed by Ben Tillet and John Burns, who managed to keep the strikers in order.  Stedman Jones reproduces Burns’ ‘“lay sermons” to the strikers:’[12]

“Now Lads are you going to be patient as you have been? (Yes).  As orderly as you have been? (Shouts of yes!).  Are you going to be your own police? (Yes). Then now march off five deep past the dock companies offices and keep on the left hand of the street.”[13]

Fig 2. John Burns Addresses London Dock Strike Rally 1889

The sounds of the rallies and the marching of dock workers ‘through the City without a pocket being picked or a window being broken,’[14] shows that the casual dock workers were not bestial or content with their condition, as Webb had seemed to suggest, but organised and disciplined workers.

The marches and the rallies allowed for a change in the atmosphere on the dock, gave the workers a sense of unity and paved the way towards unionisation and decasualisation.  Initially, unionisation allowed for workers to gain employment through membership, forcing companies to accept the union ticket.  However Stedman Jones argues that during the bad winter of 1890-1 companies were able to break the unions through a form of decasualisation.  He further states that they were able to do this through high unemployment and introducing preference lists which meant that workers would have to look to the companies rather than unions for employment.[15]  Quoting William Collinson, Stedman Jones sums up that, ‘[T]he Dock Companies instituted a strict medical examination for all applicants for that class of work, and the process weeded out a large number of strikers.’[16]  This shows that, although the dock workers were able to change the conditions of work, many workers were still unable to gain work.

Fig 3. The London Dock Strike, August 14. 1889

Through examining the period before this sound recording was made in 1935, it becomes clear that the area of the London Docks was a place of changing sound.  The earlier casual labour force could not gain work except through the shuffling of their hands raising in the air and crying out in despair for the attention of the employer.   They were described as beasts who fought, made coarse jokes and laughed, content at their own demeaning conditions.  However, the changing sounds of rallies and marches against the oppression of casualised labour, all without smashing of windows, shows that they were not beasts but men.  All of these experiences were the precursor to the sounds of laughter, song and banter that can be heard in the recording.  Through these audible experiences, the modern explorer of the docks can examine those who inhabited them and find more about their lives.

David Hambling


[1] London Sound Survey, ‘Dock Atmospheres 1935’ Available at: (Accessed: 8 Nov 2016).

[2] Unknown. ‘Dock Atmospheres 1935: Dock Atmosphere 1’ Available at: (Accessed: 8 Nov 2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stedman Jones, G. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1971).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Charles Booth cited in Stedman Jones, Outcast London, p.154.

[7] Ibid, p.154.

[8] Webb, B., ‘Dock Life in the East End of London’ cited in London Sound Survey: Historical References to London’s Sounds Available at: (Accessed: 8 Nov 2016).

[9] Webb, B., ‘Dock Life in the East End of London’ cited in O’Day, R., & Englander, D., Mr Charles Booth’s Inquiry: Life and Labour of the People in London Reconsidered (London: The Hambledon Press, 1993).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stedman Jones, Outcast London, p. 315.

[12] The Times, 24 Aug 1889, p.10 and The Times, 28 Aug 1889, p.10, cited in Stedman Jones, Outcast London, pp.315-16.

[13] Ibid

[14] Champion, H. H. ‘The Great Dock Strike in London’, cited in Stedman Jones, Outcast London, p. 315.

[15] Stedman Jones, Outcast London, p. 318.

[16] Collinson, W. ‘The Apostle of Free Labour’, p. 88, cited in Stedman Jones, Outcast London, p. 319.


Fig.1 Illustrated London News., ‘Engaging Dock Labourers at the West India Docks 1886’ Available at: (Accessed: 8 Nov 2016)

Fig. 2 Unknown. ‘The radical politician John Burns addressing a meeting during the 1889 Dock Strike.’ Available at: (Accessed: 11 Nov 2016)

Fig. 3 Unknown. ‘On This Day: August 14 – London Dock Strike of 1889 Begins’ Available at: (Accessed: 11 Nov 2016)