Alan Blackwood’s information packed two part article ‘The Shipspotter’, in the February and March 2016 issues of Sea Breezes, evoked happy memories of the variety and activity of UK docks in the 1950/60s when the red ensign flew from many a vessel’s stern and before this whole way of life all but disappeared within the next two decades.
He mentions that for most if not all liner vessels, whatever their destination, Scotch whisky featured large in the outbound manifest. It was also one of the most pilfered, and many a cadet/apprentice/midi, self included, will remember being delegated to stand and watch every case from start to finish as it was stowed on board. Cargo slings were occasionally bumped over the hatch coaming by the crane men, the odd case dropping off, possibly breaking one or two bottles inside, followed by a variety of cups appearing from wherever, to catch the drips as they filtered through the packing.
Having watched what we thought was every case being stowed, and noting the occasional damaged one, the ‘tween deck locker was finally padlocked as we congratulated ourselves that nothing had escaped our beady eyes. That was until we reached our unloading port, Australia and NZ in the case of Port Line, only to find that many cases had been partially or totally emptied of bottles. How did they do it, we all asked, and which of us had not been paying attention? Speculation was rife, and a culture of blame prevailed for a while.
Years later, all was revealed by Len Burnett in his most interesting book Rogue Docker (2011). Himself a docker in Birkenhead for 13 years in the 1960/70s, the law eventually caught up with him. Whisky featured, along with many other commodities, some of which disappeared out of the dock gates before they even came aboard.
Looking through an old copy of the Nautical Magazine, now incorporated into Sea Breezes, a small news item mentions that; “Pilferage of Export Goods is now reckoned to be costing the insurance companies and underwriters £50,000,000 a year”. Quite a sum even today, but the magazine is dated April 1948.
Within the same cover are another two articles on the same subject, re the “appalling pilferage of cargo”, highlighting that the “majority of robberies take place in port, or between docks and the warehouse”. Fast forward to the present day, most general goods are now carried in 20 and 40 ft containers, cutting out all loose handling between consignor and consignee, eliminating most pilferage at a stroke. In the early days of containerisation, there were occasional reports of certain boxes being “diverted” on the final leg of their journey. Present day micro chipping and bar coding no doubt addresses this problem.
How surprising therefore to read the February 2016 Railnews, (today’s news for tomorrow’s railway), which gives an account of a container shipped from the USA to Southampton, then by train to the Freightliner depot in Manchester, for collection by a Wigan based road haulier for delivery to Rotherham. It was instead collected by a haulier with false number plates presenting the ‘correct’ documentation. Unfortunately for the thief, the legitimate driver turned up soon afterwards, the police were alerted and the culprit caught. The haul was recovered almost in its entirety just over a week later, consisting of £650,000 worth of cosmetics. It appears that some security loopholes remain to be plugged, and opportunities still exist for a modern day rogue docker.
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