Early days of Container Traffic at Tilbury

by John Winkie

Container port

From 1965 to 1971 I worked for the PLA as a Traffic Officer in Tilbury. (Traffic Officers were operational wharf managers.) In 1967, I worked as the manager for the package timber operation at 34 berth.

In January 1968, on a day with six inches of snow on the ground, 43 berth started operations. From 1968 to 1971 I was the manager of the container terminal at 43 berth. This was the first container berth in Tilbury. We had, I recall, four office/supervisory staff and eight labourers. The ship was chartered by European Unit Routes and was called the Ruhr. It was a simple coaster with no facilities for carrying containers. I think it carried 27 20ft equivalents.

We had one operational Paceco crane and four Clark straddle carriers. We had absolutely no training or guidance on how we should run the berth. I adopted the responsibility of loading and unloading the ships as well as overall management of the berth.

Over the next few months EUR added new routes and ships and my recollection is that by the middle of the year we were turning round three ships a day. After a short while the ships were larger and made to take 65 20ft equivalents.

Containerisation in those days was not the well regulated industry it is now. We had to handle 20, 30 and 40 ft containers and these varied in height from 8ft, 8ft 6in and the occasional unit even taller. This created enormous problems both on the berth and stowing safely on the ships.

The straddle carriers had height limitations which meant any container over 8ft high needed special stowage. The lifting frames for the cranes and straddle carriers were of fixed lengths so any mixture of lengths required frequent frame changes. But the small ships being used meant the cranes were continually having to move sideways up and down the quay often just for moves of a foot or two. This demanded very high levels of skill from the crane and straddle carrier drivers.

Some drivers developed these skills quickly and could maintain high speed operations in safety. Sadly some couldn’t adapt, either being too slow or with risk levels. It became apparent we needed to establish training and testing programmes which enabled high speed and safe operations. The Assistant Docks Manager Mr. Chambers, together with a very skilled driver of both cranes and straddle carriers, Percy Hood, and myself, visited several ports in Europe and found the right training programme in Hamburg.

We instituted these programmes in Tilbury with wonderful results and great pride for those who successfully passed the tests. I cannot emphasise enough how key this training was to the high performances achieved in safety for all concerned.

An aspect which hadn’t been considered in preparations was HM Customs demands which frequently required the complete unloading and reloading of containers on the berth. Clearly we couldn’t manage this with the small labour force and so extra men had to be added together with a small shed. Our offices were simple transportable buildings with very limited facilities.
1968 was much too early for computer operations so all paperwork was manual and we had to develop our own systems for processing export and import containers and in particular recording container locations. This opened up another concern for safety as it entailed staff on foot locating and instructing straddle drivers which containers to pick up and move. As volumes grew this became increasing difficult. Eventually we developed a system based on plastic tags on magnetic boards but I left to migrate to New Zealand before this was fully implemented.

Container operations were very new to everyone during this period and we had a constant stream of visitors including royalty and port executives from around the world looking at opening facilities themselves. Interestingly I know of other members of our team who went on to run significant docks overseas.

Volumes increased well beyond the capacity of our machines to cope and we had to institute a system of extended hours on weekdays whereby the full berth worked 7am to 7pm with an emphasis on ship operations, and a reduced crew continued on until midnight to cope with truck deliveries and receipts. This late working crew had the next day off. The berth also worked both weekend days and carried on through all public holidays including Christmas day. I think it was not until 1970 that any levels of shift work were introduced.

An extra Paceco crane and several more straddle carriers had been added and whilst the cranes were quite reliable the straddle carriers were a nightmare. Initially we had no engineers or facilities on site for their maintenance and repair. This was one of the biggest factors affecting the berth’s efficiency and took a long while to improve.

After two years of operation the volumes had outgrown the space available on 43 berth and 41 berth was added. 39 berth also opened dedicated to OCL operations but we were responsible for labour supply only. OCL had different cranes and equipment and significantly better facilities. On the other side of the dock United States Lines had also opened again with better facilities and systems. This was an operation operated by the PLA with drivers trained under our system. With the addition of these berths Tilbury became a major computer centre.

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  • Please see my photo of American Lancer in the search section and the relative comments Jack Willis

    By Jack Willis (27/11/2023)
  • I became Docker in 1959 and in my fading memory I think the first “Container Ship ” (abut 1962/3) was the “AMERICAN CHALLENGER” and was discharged at 25 Shed, them known as “City line Berth”. Maybe these is someone out there to confirm this. I remained working in Tilbury, as a docker until 1966 then as OST (Tally Clerk) until 1987. The change that happened within the Docks and method of work was tremendous, the early days it would take up to 60 men on the the ship and the same on the Quay , with the operation to discharge would maybe last 5 days/ and loading the same. The work was HARD but the camaraderie, characters , banter and wit was unforgettable. Today I think it takes about 10 men.
    in a lot less time.
    Can you imagine about 500 men with bicycles on their shoulders going up and over the bridge at the Dock Station between 7,30 – 7-50 hoping for work.
    The change happened and I took severance in 1987

    By Anthony (Tony) Duligal (24/11/2023)

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