Tales show the vital role Royal Docks played in wartime

Once they played host to the world’s biggest ships, handling millions of tons of cargo every year.

Now the skyline is dominated not by dockyard cranes, but by London City Airport and ExCeL exhibition centre.

But the dedication and bravery of the men who worked there lives on in the writing of docker-turned-historian Henry T. Bradford.

The son of a docker, Mr Bradford also worked in the Port of London for 32 years, but was forced to retire after sustaining serious injuries in a work accident.


He attended night school and studied at the London School of Economics before writing his first book, Heroes of London’s Docklands.

The follow-up, entitled Dockers’ Stories from the Second World War, has just been published by The History Press.

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It tells of the daring deeds of docks men during the six-year conflict.

Though workers were often killed and injured during their everyday work, the book shows how they displayed incredible bravery, even at a time of war.

Mr Bradford said he had heard many stories during his time working at the docks but it was their wartime adventures that seemed most vivid.

In the introduction to his latest work, he writes: “Obviously, I was not a participant during the Second World War, but a passive child who, with many thousands of other children, was evacuated away from my home.

“But this did not preclude us members of the civilian population from being embroiled in the war and experiencing the wonders of modern warfare through enemy bombing of our cities, towns and villages.

“But at least that experience gave me some little insight into the traumas that the men whose stories I have narrated must have felt during their enforced preoccupation during battles with the enemies of the state.”

The book chronicles eight stories of what Mr Bradford describes as “extraordinary, ordinary, common men”.


Among them is Captain Jim Fryer, who saved survivors from the wreck of the hospital ship Paris, which was sunk as it sailed towards Dunkirk in 1940. He was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Less dramatic but equally memorable is the tale of petty officer Jack Hicks, who was tasked with steering a clinker-built boat on a hush-hush job from the north east to the Thames, with his crew consisting of just one co-man and a Wren.

Some of the cranes remain to remind us of the past, but now the landscape contains Newham Council’s new headquarters, the Regatta Centre, London City Airport, ExCeL, the Britannia Village housing development, Capital East, and the bridge across the docks.