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Port in a storm of union upheaval

Author Mike Fell at Hull Maritime Museum
Author Mike Fell at Hull Maritime Museum
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Its docks handle 10m tonnes of cargo a year and it is home to a vast new wind turbine plant. But it might have been a consignment of Lada cars, driven off the boat from Russia by the management, that changed the course of Hull’s future.

A new history of the port, which aims to dispel the myth that the city’s fortune was founded solely on fish, casts new light on the industrial warfare that waged on the wharfside in the 1970s – and on the changes that kept the operation afloat.

An early view of coal being exported from Victoria Dock. Note the pile of loose timber on the right. Picture courtesy Mike Fell

An early view of coal being exported from Victoria Dock. Note the pile of loose timber on the right. Picture courtesy Mike Fell

Mike Fell, who was in charge of the port for 16 years until 2003, said the docks owed their continued existence to the repeal in 1989 of the Dock Labour Scheme, a piece of legislation even Margaret Thatcher had baulked at reforming.

Without its removal, he said, the Alexandra Dock, which had closed at the beginning of the decade, would never have reopened and the offshore wind turbine programme by the German multinational Siemens, known as Green Port Hull, not been possible.

The rules governing dockers, which had been introduced by the post-war Labour government after the strike of 1945, had handed port workers unprecedented guarantees of job security and made it illegal to employ a docker not registered with his union.

The stereotype in Hull and the other great port cities was of dockers leaving work with their pockets lined with cargo, because even the commission of a criminal offence could not be punished with dismissal.

Mrs Thatcher had been afraid to take on the industry, her former Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wrote in his memoirs. When, after a decade of her premiership, the scheme was finally scrapped, her Employment Secretary, Norman Fowler, called it “a total anachronism”.

Mr Fell, whose new book charts the history of Hull’s docks and the steam railways that served them, from the opening of Queen’s Dock in 1778 to the present day, said: “The old National Dock Labour Board was made up of militant shop stewards and management, and the shop stewards had the upper hand.

“When it was abolished it was thought that the country would come to a standstill but it was over in three weeks.

“For the first time, I was able to ask management staff if they would drive off a cargo of Lada cars from Russia – which would have been a criminal offence until then.”

Ports that were not controlled by the board, including Felix­stowe, were able to outgrow their rivals as they took advantage of the boom in containerised freight – and in Hull, the Alexandra Dock was a victim.

It was the employment revolution that became the catalyst for renewed investment in the docks, Mr Fell said. “It created employment and spin-off benefits for other industries. It was only good news.

“I was able to recommend reopening Alexandra Dock in 1991. If we hadn’t done that, the Siemens development couldn’t have happened here.”