Malcolm Bell, or ‘Mally’ as he is known to all, has retired from Associated British Ports (ABP) following five decades working on the Humber Estuary. Here, Mally reflects on the changes he has seen across his career as a Docker.
My first job when I left school was an apprentice welder at the Drypool Engineering Company in Hull, based at the shipyard where they built the Bounty. About six weeks later, I went on to the barges sailing up the River Trent and the River Ouse to Ganisborough, moving general cargo such as shipments of tinned fruit. Then, at 26, I joined the British Transport Docks Board (BTBD) before the company became ABP. It was there I became a registered Docker and received my Docker's book. I remember the docks absolutely full of ships from everywhere in the world and most Dockers riding bikes to get around.
Every day we would go into the ‘pen’ that ran the labour exchange, where we would get our job. We used to call it the pen as it was like a sheep pen with hundreds of push bikes outside.
Once we had picked up our job we would head off on our bikes to the vessel and begin work, loading or discharging its cargo.
"It’s not just the safety clothing that has changed over the years. Port equipment has also modernised."
When I started working, an old Docker said to me that my working life would feel like five minutes, and do you know what? He was absolutely right! If I wasn’t getting married I’d probably work until I was 100. It has been brilliant.
When I became a Docker, no protective equipment was issued. Today, across our entire port operation, ABP staff are issued and have to wear the latest in protective equipment, including steel toe capped boots, a hard hat, glasses, gloves and high visibility clothing.
Back in the day, Dockers were issued with Wrangler gear. We were given boots, jackets and jeans. Back then, it was top class Wrangler gear and you always knew who was a Docker in the town because they were all out in their Wrangler gear on a night.
It’s not just the safety clothing that has changed over the years. Port equipment has also modernised. We used to work a lot with derricks, which are static cranes on-board old freighters, and winches. Using a rope you would pull the cargo up, swing it around onto the ship and lower it down into the hold. Now they are all Ro-Ro ships, where the cargo is driven on and off vessels, they are a lot easier to handle, meaning more tonnage but with less time needed to discharge and load.
In the early days, everything was lifted off a pallet and stored by hand. The Dockers would call this port operation ‘hand balling’. These days, nearly everything is handled with a forklift. My favourite pieces of machinery were the cranes. I used to enjoy crane driving and tug driving, taking the trailers on and off the ships. To drive a tug really well can take about two years of practice before you are absolutely confident. It requires some real driving skills to push a trailer like a 40-tonne MAFI up a ramp into a vessel.
"What makes it a great place to work is the people I work with. They all have hearts of gold. Everybody looks after each other."
About four or five years ago, I heard about a corporate swim challenge across the Humber and I asked to represent ABP, raising money for their chosen charity at the time. The conditions were rough on the day, but the swim went ahead. As I swam, one of the other swimmers was getting a bit close, I thought it odd that he had a grey swimming cap on, because we were all wearing blue caps. When I got out, the guys on the lifeboat who accompanied us on the swim said, “Did you see that seal playing with you?” I said I thought it was a swimmer!
With a grandfather and father who worked on the docks, my two sons and grandson are carrying on the family tradition. After five decades working on the Humber, I have retired from ABP at 68, but I’m still working two days a week with an agency. I have really enjoyed my working life. It has been a fantastic career and I have enjoyed every minute of it.
What makes it a great place to work is the people I work with. They all have hearts of gold. Everybody looks after each other.