Curator’s Choice – Dockers’ Tools

Posted: 14th June 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Dockers’ Tools

The docking industry underwent significant change in the second half of the 20th century as mechanisation, containerisation and reorganisation transformed the way that cargo was handled. Hull Maritime Museum holds a substantial collection of dockers’ tools and related objects which were originally displayed in Walter Oglesby’s barbers shop on Hedon Road, near Alexandra Dock. Walter was hairdresser to many of the dockers, and as the industry modernised they donated various tools and pieces of equipment to him that they no longer needed to carry out their jobs. The resulting ‘Marfleet Collection’ (as it became known) that he amassed in the 1980s not only reflects the sense of pride that they took in their work but also reminds us how physical and labour intensive the docker’s role was.

Cargo was traditionally moved on and off ships manually. Dockers had to stow ships carefully so that goods did not move while the vessel was at sea. This was never an easy task when we consider that ships from Hull were sailing all over the world and could travel significant distances across vast oceans in rough seas, so arranging and loading cargo was a very precise operation. Similarly when unloading, a methodical approach was needed to avoid damaging the cargo. A whole range of different tools were used to help with the process.

What I find most remarkable about the Marfleet collection is how basic the tools are. Yet these simplest of tools were effectively instrumental in keeping trade going across the world. The example shown in the photograph here is a tomahawk, which is about 35cm long and was used to drag and lift single planks of timber into position. Vast amounts of timber passed through the port of Hull and was stored loose. Other examples included hand hooks for manoeuvring crates or bags, and the more unusually named ‘catspaw’. This consisted of a flat plate with short spikes which was used to handle porous bags containing cargo such as sugar, coffee, seed and animal feed. The spikes would grip but not rip the bag and therefore avoid spilling the contents.

Each docker was responsible for providing his own tools, so although a standard pattern was generally followed they also varied slightly. Many were fashioned from other implements or adapted for individual needs. Dockers valued their tools and often wrote their names on them to avoid losing them; after all they couldn’t do their jobs without them. They were robustly made and would generally stand the test of time, so they were often handed down from one generation to another.

Dockers had to be strong enough to manoeuvre heavy crates but had to work carefully enough to avoid damaging cargo. Ultimately they had to work as a team, and despite the casual and irregular nature of employment this instilled a real sense of community amongst them. The manual nature of docking left workers vulnerable to accidents, some of which were fatal, and the Marfleet collection is a testimony to their hard – and often dangerous – work.

Written by Assistant Curator Susan Capes

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