George Pye, 83, has lived on the Isle of Dogs his entire life. He is, in fact, a fifth generation “islander” and third generation stevedore, or dockworker, having worked at the Millwall & West India Docks since 1960. In short, few people alive know the area and its community better than he does.
The London Docklands run through my blood. Though us locals call it “The Island”. I was born there in 1935, and basically haven’t left since, apart from two enforced absences. One during the Blitz, when I was evacuated to Bristol, and then for two years of national service in 1954.
My father was a stevedore, as was his father before him. So I couldn’t wait to go into the “family business” from the moment I understood what it was. I guess I bought into the hype in the papers at the time that you could make a fortune. This, it turned out, was not the case. But though it may not have made me rich in pocket, I feel very rich in experience.
“We can handle anything at the London dock… including elephants.” That was the Millwall & West India Docks’ slogan. Though, as far as I know, we only ever unloaded one elephant, back in the 1930s. She was hoisted off the boat by crane in a canvas hammock before being trucked off to London Zoo. That was a famous day – even the local paper covered it.
The days would start early. All the stevedores would congregate outside the George Pub for the “call on”. That’s when the foremen would call out the names of the men they wanted to work for them that day. I can remember a lot of pushing and shoving when the good jobs came up. Fights were not uncommon. The rest of the day was then spent loading and unloading whatever the boats were bringing in or taking out that day.
It was a very dirty, messy job most of the time. It was backbreaking, too. Depending on the day, you might be loading sugar, cement, paint, dye, beer, hemp, tea or any other commodity you can think of. Once, I even loaded a military-grade tank onto a boat. That was weird – I don’t remember Britain being at war with anyone in the 70s. But we did it.
But nothing was dirtier, or messier than when the ships carrying seagull poo came in. I never understood why they collected so much of it. I later learned it was for fertiliser, from the islands of the Indian Ocean. And apparently, it was very expensive. They called it Guano. Though to us is was just muck. The worst thing about it: after a long day of bagging and loading bird poo, there was no way you could take the bus home. You had to walk, no matter how far that was. The stink was too embarrassing.
If I could describe island life in one word, it would be “family”. Everyone knew everyone. And we looked after each other. That’s not to say there weren’t arguments. Once, I remember one of the crews got into a row with the governor about overtime. They wanted it, and he said the boat was leaving at 5pm whether it was finished or not. So, to get their own back, they found his Mercedes in the car park, picked it up with a forklift, and loaded it on the boat. By the time the boss came out at 5.45pm, the car was well on its way to Norway. He was not happy. It took him three weeks to get it back.
I used to say that to survive on the Island, you had to be either an athlete or a boxer. I mean, if you started gossiping about someone or their family, you can bet your life that someone in the queue knew the person you were talking about. And it always got back to them. The world isn’t like that now.
You can’t talk about the Island’s community without mentioning the annual Agricultural Festival. It was a celebration of the unique culture of island life. It was organised by the people and for the people. And like many good things, it was never without a few beers.
Its highlight was the “Pram Race”. Don’t be fooled: it was more of a pub crawl than a race. The rules were simple: one person pushes a friend or spouse in a pram from the City Pride to The George, via roughly 24 pubs on the route. In each, the men had to drink half a pint and the women a soft drink. As you can imagine, a lot of pairs never finished. In the early 80s, I even won. But that was mainly because my wife’s friend was the “driver”, so to speak, and I was the “baby”.
This year (2018) will be my 65th year doing youth and community on the island. We might not be planners, but we know what works and we know what the community wants. Fortunately, I think we are being heard. And I hope anyone who moves to the island has as good a time in future as I’ve had in the past… and am having right now for that matter.
Interview by Matt Blake