Standing in a doorway on the sunless side of the street, I got into conversation with an elderly man this week. He was as he said ‘born and bred’ in Walworth and now nearing 80 was ready to move away. He could not see any hope for the community in which he had lived his whole life; it was damaged beyond repair. I challenged his counsel of despair but he was adamant. ‘It’s all these foreigners,’ he said ‘My daughters went to primary school with one or two black faces. Now it’s the white faces that are ones or twos.’ He resented the changing nature of the local community and feared the strange and unknown people who were now dominating his world.
His perception of the changing ethnic mix of Walworth would for many be simply labelled as racism. I am sure that racism played its part in his views but I also began to see how difficult it is for the ex-Docker community to experience this changing landscape of population as anything but unnerving and disquieting. Some older residents of course are able to enter into the rich human diversity on their doorstep with gusto and enjoyment but many remain frozen in protecting what they value. Their identity is threatened and so they become defensive and close down contact with people who obviously differ from them.
The Surrey Commercial Docks always had a mixed community. Given the huge extent of the British Empire, the London docks were always teeming with people from across the globe. But the work practices were rooted in an era when stevedores – who offloaded and packed the sea-going vessels – were hired daily at the gates of each wharf. The nineteenth century foreman would pick individual men from the crowd to work that day (or in some cases half day) on the basis of the skills and numbers needed and the perceived reliability of each worker. It was dangerous work that required high levels of skill and good judgement, moving heavy and bulky goods from ship to shore or vice versa. Get injured or fall out with a foreman (or be born with the ‘wrong’ colour skin) and you could face months without pay; families survived on little as it was but when hard times came, to be without work for long was devastating.
Faced with such inhuman practices from employers, over centuries the workforce became deeply committed to each other. The solidarity of docker families is renowned and before the Blitz, Walworth was part of a huge hinterland of back-to-back terraces that housed the enormous workforce needed to keep the Surrey docks running. From 1922, the Transport and General Workers Union played a critical role in holding the community together and defended those workers with some status from the worst behaviour of their employers. Those who had no status or who were not recognised by the unions were vulnerable to near-slavery. Poverty was a way of life for many and people became dependent on each other for the basics.
This history provides a crucial backdrop to understanding today’s resentment of ex-docker families to the transformation of the population that older members have witnessed. Not only have the industrial footings of their livelihoods been swept away to Tilbury by containerisation but their communities have been rebuilt and re-populated out of all recognition. They are rightly proud of their cultural heritage and their part in defeating Hitler. They seek even now to preserve the last vestiges of the old ways of life and their identity against the cold winds of globalisation. Since 1982, the British National Party and English Defence League have articulated their views consistently. Combined with the demonization of the working class by the political and media elites – as chronicled in the highly recommended Chavs by Owen Jones – it is not surprising that too many pensioners feel aggrieved and resentful toward the newcomers all around them.
Honesty and Listening
I am not condoning their racism or defending their views; in fact I am sickened by their prejudice. I think though that a deeper understanding of their experience of vast and unremitting change in a conservative culture should allow for a more nuanced response to their anxieties. Too often such concerns are labelled ignorant and consigned to the bureaucratic pile to be ignored. As I listen to their views at the doorstep, I find myself asking how to sustain honest exchange with these citizens whilst not supporting their views. We cannot regard them as some do as throw-away people. Their respect and trust will only be retained if they are listened to on their own terms and given opportunities to hear how other neighbours view the same issues. It is in dialogue with other residents that their fears may yet be overcome and their contribution valued. And its in such conversations that everyday politics – tackling the tough problems together – comes to life.
Owen Jones (2011) Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class Verso
Fiona Rule (2009) London’s Docklands: A History of the Lost Quarter Ian Allen
Stephen Humphrey The Elephant and Castle: A History Amberley (Published 28 Nov 2011)
Mark Baxter and Darren Lock (2010) Walworth Through Time Amberley