REMINISCENCES | The Dockers of Australia

Regional Endeavour. Photo: University of Newcastle

No history of Australian shipping would be complete without mention of one of its most notorious and colourful species, the ships painters and dockers.

Formally known as the Federated Ships Painters and Dockers, they controlled everything connected with docking, launching and tying up ships at the dockyard in Newcastle.

They were a curious bunch of “permanents” and “casuals”, who seemingly operated on an agenda that was quite a mystery to all the other trades at the dockyard.

They certainly had the best conditions of all the trades, laundered overalls, extended bath times, allowances for confined space work, working at heights, overwater and under ships in dock. These fantastic working conditions were offset by some outrageous acts which entered into the realms of local folk law.

The union was run out of the shadiest part of the Albion Hotel across the creek from the floating dock. Here, information was whispered out of the sides of mouths about everything that was happening on the waterfront.

At one time the painters and dockers “syndicate” owned a racehorse, which resulted in mass absenteeism on days when this old hayburner was running at country meetings. Everyone was curiously sick on the same day.

In another instance, there was a mass sacking of a complete shift of P&D riggers who one night found a hole in the fence of the floating dock that led directly to the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Cowper Street.

The riggers were there to refit a propeller on a ship due to undock in the morning. Naturally the ship in question wasn’t undocked and it was at the pub that their employment was terminated. This, of course, led to a mass walkout of all trades, about 3,000 men, in protest, such was their influence.

The union seemed to have an almost transcendental power over the shipyard management, who knew the dockers could stop a ship undocking with almost a blink of the eye. And there were some colourful characters amongst them and some of the most innovative nicknames ever thought up. There was “Cocoa” Brown for instance and his two sons, Milo and Bonox. Sammy the Seal, Black Bob the foreman, Dim Sim and Spring Roll and Bunny Royal to name a few.

The Regional Endeavour was Australia’s first drillship converted from ANL’s Mount Kembla for Drillships Ltd. The work began in 1973 in Newcastle almost opposite the Albion Hotel. Naturally most of the information about the conversion was discussed in detail at the Albion Hotel well before it reached the management of Drillships.

This job opened the door to a raft of new shenanigans for the “dockers”. “Ghosting” had already become a refined art on the waterfront. This basically involved picking up a pay-packet but not actually turning up for the shift. This skill was lifted to new heights on the Mount Kembla conversion.

Casuals who “worked” past midnight were entitled to a day off on full pay the next day. Having slept soundly on the job or not even been there at all they could turn up on the following morning “pick-up” under an assumed name.

Building the drill tower on the Regional Endeavour involved rigging skills which were not agreeable to the local boys. Drillships brought in a team of riggers from the US (Blackfoot Indians no less) to erect the drill tower. They had incredible aerial skills and were worth watching for entertainment alone. So, for every imported rigger aloft there was a painter and docker sitting on the deck below watching the proceedings. Needless to say, the drill tower went up in record time.

But if the antics of the Newcastle “dockers” was legend they were nothing compared to the Melbourne waterfront in the 60s and 70s. A particularly entertaining account of those days was aired a few years ago on the ABC Conversations series with Richard Fydler interviewing a journalist who also went under an assumed name of “Jack the Insider”.

This series brought back vivid memories for me when I shipped out of Melbourne in the 70s. Painters and Dockers in the early days before containerisation in Melbourne worked for “eight bob a day and all you could pinch”.

Without splitting hairs, the Victorian Branch of the Federated Ships Painters and Dockers was a thinly disguised front for some of the earliest organised crime in Australia. Virtually everyone who did “business” on the Melbourne waterfront paid hush money to the Secretary of the P&Ds at the time.

Now this was a very coveted and lucrative position to hold until it came to election time. Then it became a very precarious one, with shootings and murders of opponents occurring disturbingly often.

The police seemed powerless to do anything about it and anyway there were never any reliable witnesses willing to testify. One particular shooting, in my memory, took place one Saturday afternoon in one of the Port Melbourne pubs. The place was packed. The SP bookies doing a roaring trade when someone let loose with a sawn-off shotgun bringing down a candidate for the P&D Secretary’s job. The noise was deafening in that enclosed space, one of the barmaids was covered in blood yet surprisingly no-one saw anything.

You could order anything that took your fancy and invariably it would fall off the back of a truck in the vicinity of the port. Leather jackets, colour TV’s you name it. With containerisation this “re-allocation” of goods was raised to a whole new level. Whole containers disappeared from the docks (with papers) and then reappeared unobtrusively to the container park clean and empty.

One of these shady transactions, as I recall, was at a time when Mag wheels first became popular in Australia. Without mentioning any names, a certain Chief Engineer on the Empress of Australia had two of these fabulous looking wheels on his new Monaro.

In a clandestine arrangement with one of the P&D entrepreneurs he ordered another two of these wheels to complete the set. A handshake was all that was needed to cement the deal and off he went to Tasmania with the Empress. When he returned to Melbourne, he was elated to find two matched wheels (complete with tyres) leaning against the gangway. His joy soon turned to sorrow when he returned to his beloved Monaro only to find his car sitting on blocks and his original two wheels missing. An honest mistake and he got a full refund for what was described as a “clerical error”.

There are many more stories like this, still one has to be careful about airing them. Retribution with the Melbourne P&Ds was always swift and permanent and didn’t usually involve lawyers. When I see Webb Dock today with its sterile automation and absence of dockers I look back almost nostalgically on those good old days of that now extinct band of scoundrels, the Ships Painters and Dockers.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Each week, we will feature new personal experiences from across the globe. Submissions to: [email protected].

Kent Stewart

Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.