Above: View of the Deal Porters seen from the west side of Canada Water.
The large shopping precinct and car park called Surrey Quays was laid out on land that was partly the old quays of the Surrey Docks and partly additional land gained by filling in some of the original docks. The vast expanse of the eleven old docks was a sight to behold. The land around them was covered by open quays and large warehouses handling many different types of commodities from countries around the world. The most common commodity – imported from the Baltic countries and also from Canada – was that of soft-woods like deal.
Today, those who walk around the sides of the remaining docks on their way to do shopping have little idea of the vast amounts of deal that was imported through these docks. Being a soft-wood, it could easily be damaged as it was bring unloaded. Only specially trained men – known as deal porters – were allowed to handle the timber. General dockers were allowed to unload all other goods but they were not permitted to work on the timber ships.
The work was very arduous and also quite dangerous. A ship would arrive filled with timber. After removing the covers, a few planks of the timber were laid out to form a walkway off the ship for the deal porters. They then lifted several planks of wood at a time onto their shoulders and walked along the timber walkways onto the quayside where the timber was neatly stacked up to a height of 10 or 12 feet. As the men carried the timber, the long lengths flexed up and down on their shoulders with the movement of the porters. They were also walking on long timbers which also flexed with their weight. Since the men were carrying large weights on their shoulders they wanted to reach the wood-stack as soon as possible and so they had to balance themselves as they felt the movement both on their shoulders and underneath their feet. It was a heavy and very tiring job to work in those conditions for at least eight hours each day. That was not always the end of the story. Ships had to be unloaded as quickly as possible because skippers wanted to get out to sea and collect another cargo. Time was money. Very often the men were told that they had to work compulsory overtime to complete the unloading of the vessel. In those days work was in scarce supply and so few of the porters would have refused the work for fear of not being taken on when another ship-load of deal arrived.
When all the docks had closed down – some time in the 1970s – I had the privilege of meeting several deal porters. One in particular was Len Hatch who became a great friend until his untimely death about 2014.
Deal porters were the unsung heroes of the Surrey Commercial Docks. The piece of public art, in the form of a mock-up of two men unloading a ship is to be seen beside the remaining part of the old Canada Dock, now called Canada Water. It was made by Philip Bews and was installed 1995. The dock has been landscaped and part of it is a nature reserve. This means that the public art becomes obscured with bushes and reeds during the summer months. The picture at the top was taken in May 2016 before the vegetation became too dense.