The work was demanding and dangerous, the workforce was casualised and routinely exploited and the workplace was disorderly and perilous but the image of the docks held a special place in the imperialist imagination. All of Britain’s maritime supremacy and economic power as a nation that traded to survive was focused on the dockside. Despite the development of mechanised lifting gear the greater part of the labour involved came from physical effort – enormous quantities of finished goods and raw materials were loaded on and off ships by hand. A picture of ceaseless activity is placed before us. Rail mounted cranes, teams of horses, motor vehicles and railway wagons compete for space on the quayside, above them swing cradles of locomotives or turbines and hoists bearing cotton bales, sacks of sugar or animal carcasses. A compelling theatrical scene of wonder for the spectator and a raucous, turbulent and unstable environment for the manual labourers where the threat of serious physical injury could come from any direction at any moment.
Our old friend the shipping container killed off this spectacle and replaced it with a highly formalised aerial display of bar-coded containers – all very fascinating in a different way but totally inaccessible to the general public. It’s a world of computer commanded reach-stackers, gantry cranes and side-lifters manoeuvring outsize boxes from ship to shore and back again with maximum cost effectiveness in an anonymous intermodal zone where the most frequently heard sound is the warning beep of reversing vehicles.