Home » Dock Life » Childhood Days : The Docks and Dock Slang by Tom Ash

Childhood Days : The Docks and Dock Slang by Tom Ash

tom ash

Recently,  local writer Alfred Gardner very kindly loaned some of his old Dockland books which he has collected since the 1970s. What is remarkable about some of these books is that they were often produced not to make money but to put on record the life of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times. One of these books was Childhood Days : The Docks and Dock Slang which features the memories of Tom Ash.

The early part of the book features the childhood of Tom as he grew up in Bermondsey and some of the local history of the area. However in 1960, Tom goes to work in the Docks on the south side of the river and the book looks at the life of a docker from those days.


Surrey Quays 1960s (Museum of London)

Tom paints a realistic picture of a docker’s life with plenty of characters trying to earn enough money to survive. He was working in Finland Yard when  a stevedore was killed , as he says ‘ The Docks were a dangerous industry’ . It was at these times that the camaraderie of the dockers came into play by not working for the rest of the day to show their respect and raising money for the family of the deceased.  Tom illustrates the way that where you worked along the riverfront had ramifications for pay, if you were lucky enough to work on ‘ The Gold Coast ‘ near Tower Bridge  on the tomato boats, fantastic wages were available. However these were the exception and most dockers especially casuals struggled to get a decent wage.


Surrey Quays 1960s (Museum of London)

At the end of the book is a list of dock slang, some were local to the Surrey Quays and south side of the river, whilst some were in more general use. Here are some of my favourites:

Top Man

Each Hold had a ‘Top Man’ to control the direction for the crane driver.

Bomping On

Men who were not successful in getting a days work and had to get their books stamped for the day.


Dock police

Ice Cream Man

The official rat catcher who dressed in white.

Babies Heads

Refers to the Steak and kidney puddings made in round dishes by docker’s wives.

Beach Comer

Man employed to keep the Quays clear of rubbish.

Ceiling of a Ship

It was when you could see the bottom of the hold when moving cargo.

Air Raid Committee

A nickname for the Area Committee who settled disputes on ship


Time for a tea break

Cold Pot

Cold storage depots.

Tom Pepper

Dockers name for someone who could lie his way out of an awkward situation.

Donkey Man

Man on ship working the winches.

Books like this are an important record of the days when the docks were still the lifeblood of the city and millions of tonnes of cargo was transported up and down the river. It is also a record of a lost way of life when thousands relied on the docks for employment.


  1. Caroline says:

    I thought it was only in the North West that steak puddings were known as babies heads!

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