THE NAME of the infirmary was tellingly blunt. The ‘Poplar Hospital for Accidents’ suggested that the East End of the 1800s was a dangerous place where bad things happened. And though it would become a refuge for East Enders suffering every kind of ailment, primarily it was created to cope with the constant stream of broken and shattered men carried from the East India Docks – the most dangerous place of all.
Dock work was inherently dangerous of course. The frequently half-cut dockers (cheap booze being one way to make a hellish job bearable) were manoeuvring large, heavy objects between moving ship and stable shore across narrow gangplanks, often slick with ice or other muck. They worked in a confusion of men and vehicles, alongside precipitous drops into the filthy Thames, with sharp grappling hooks being swung around with sometimes careless abandon. But a series of historical turns would make the job more dangerous still during the 1800s.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Port of London was completely gridlocked, with ships taking days or weeks to be emptied, turned round and sent back to sea. The answer was to build a series of new, enclosed docks, increasing capacity while bringing down costs to the merchant companies, and thus of the goods they were importing. The West India Dock was built in 1802, the East India in 1803, London Docks in 1805 and half a dozen more would follow. The dock owners were now losing less stock through theft, with their well-protected docks, and so prices could come down further. It would lead to an economic boom for England and the beginnings of the great days of London retail. East End stores and market stalls were now selling imported fabrics, tea, coffee, rum, oranges and bananas, and East Enders could afford to buy them.
But with increased capacity came competition, as the dock owners cut prices to vie for business. That meant lower wages for the dockers, who were already on a daily rate or were being paid by the quantity they shifted throughout the day. And there was more competition for jobs, as new labour came in from the English countryside and from Ireland, forcing down wages further. Corners would be cut, and so accidents would happen.
The work itself was dangerous, dirty and tiring (and tired men had more accidents). Bags would burst, showering dockers with iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement or guano. A docker of more recent vintage, Bill Abbott, recalled the perils of working with inexperienced men, saying: “I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally – bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar.”
Bill got off lightly. Cargoes could fall from nets or slings as they were being winched to and fro. The busy river would roll ships around at the dock, casting men over the side, to be drowned or crushed between hull and dock. Within the holds of the ship, barrels and chests would be dislodged, crushing men beneath them. In the confused melee of river traffic, collisions occurred, despite the skills of the watermen and lightermen – even those experienced river pilots went over the side from time to time. On the dock itself, cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks all added to the accident count.
So in the early 1850s, a drive was launched. Money was raised by charitable donations and the former Custom House was purchased and transformed into the new Poplar Hospital in 1855. It was soon bursting at the seams and had to be expanded twice over the following years; at one point, it was estimated that a dozen new cases were being treated at the hospital every hour of the day and night, and the hospital bore a plaque “in grateful recognition of the splendid services rendered by the Hospital to the Staff of the London and India Dock Company, since the Hospital was established”.
Seventy years on, its role hadn’t changed. Poplar Borough Council published its Official Guide to the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1927, and reported that: “Accidents in the Port of London, in the docks and shipping, amongst the factories and the engineering works, are of frequent occurrence, and often of the most terrible character … immediate attention to the injured is often a vital consideration.”
The injuries were horrific of course. Crushed limbs, severe lacerations, arms or legs often amputated by falling machinery or whipping ropes. And the Poplar Hospital, while a boon, was still severely limited in what it could do for patients. By the mid-1800s, anasthaesia was becoming established at least. In the early 19th century surgery had been an horrific affair, with pain relief consisting of biting on a strap of leather and a strong will. Unsurprisingly, many died of shock during their operations. One estimate put the post-operative death rate in London hospitals at over 90 per cent in the early 1800s. And it was a common saw that you were safer outside hospital than in. Infection was rife, with no understanding of what caused disease, let alone antibiotics to combat it. A docker might go in with a serious wound only to die from infections picked up in hospital. By the late 1800s, antibiotics had joined anasthaesia, and surgical techniques had improved, but survival rates were still pitifully low.
Times would change of course. The hospital suffered bomb damage in 1941 but wouldn’t close until 1975. In 1982 it was demolished to make way for new houses – the old Victorian buildings and limited space no longer suitable for the demands of modern medicine, though the people of Poplar would miss their local hospital. But by then of course, the docks were all but dead. Downriver, at Tilbury, the docks may still be dangerous places but the advent of health and safety awareness meant the carnage of the docks was history.