The Dockers and the Pool of London

The Pool of London reached its peak - it was mentioned as early as the 7th century by the Venerable Bede - in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was in this period, of course, that London grew to be the biggest city in the world, with an ever-expanding population constantly in need of the necessities and luxuries of life - much of which came in from Britain's already global maritime trade: in 1751 the pool handled 1,682 ships and 234,639 tons of goods coming in from overseas. By 1794 this had risen to 3,663 ships and 620,845 tons. The congestion was so bad that they used to say it was possible to walk the whole way across the Thames simply by stepping from ship to ship.

Originally, the Pool was the stretch of the River Thames along Billingsgate on the south side of the City of London where all imported cargoes had to be delivered for inspection and assessment by Customs Officers, giving the area the name of "Legal Quays".

This was necessary - and here is the point, for our purposes - because smuggling, theft and pilferage of cargoes were rife on both the busy open wharves and in the crowded warehouses. But the area's colourful history as a den of thieves - or half-thieves, half proletarian labourers - belies its significance in the social and economic history of London and the process whereby paid wages gradually took over from an older system of barter and 'taking' goods in kind, in lieu of getting access to enough money to live on. In other words, nicking stuff and doing a hard day’s work blended into the same thing, resulting in less of a clear-cut division between illegal and illegal ways of getting a living as might have been found elsewhere.

If you'd like to read a serious historical study of all of this we recommend Peter Linebaugh's 'The London Hanged' - in which he argues that the mass hangings of the time were basically a strategy by the authorities to train the population out of its old, tried-and-trusted habit of pilfering stuff and accept piss-poor wages instead. On a lighter note we also recommend the film 'Pool of London' (1951), a fairly gritty (for its time) post-war drama about the dodgy types still ducking and diving around the pool in the post-war period.

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