Sitting on the Dock of The Bay……

This is the 13th in my series of blogs documenting the lives and more importantly, telling the stories of my 2 x Great-Grandparents. By the very nature of the fact that these are the last few of my 2 x Great-Grandparents stories, will tell you that these have been by far the hardest to complete. With a name like Henry Barnes, living in London, will give you an indication that this ancestor was a little harder to trace than some of my others. That coupled with the fact that access to records has been limited to online only, due to the pandemic, makes Henry’s story a little bit harder to tell, but just as absorbing and interesting.

This is the tale of a honest and hardworking man, who lived and worked in one of the toughest areas of London and worked in one of the harshest industries at the time, the London Docks. A man that worked hard all his life to provide for his family at a time long before there was a welfare state. For as long as it has existed, the East End has been regarded as the ‘tough’ end of London, a place of extreme overcrowding and poverty, where only the strongest survived. Over the course of just one hundred years, the term ‘the East End’ became synonymous with poverty, overcrowding, disease and crime. If you mention the term ‘East End’ to anyone, it immediately conjures up images of the infamous unsolved brutal murders of Jack the Ripper, plus the equally heinous crimes of the Kray Twins. It was against this backdrop that Henry Barnes grew up, worked and raised a family and managed to survive and live to a ripe old age.

Slum Dwellings In The 1930s

(1930’s Slums in East London)

Henry was born on 17th January 1863, the youngest of nine children born to Richard and Matilda Barnes (nee Stone), at the time Richard Barnes was aged 40 and Matilda Barnes 39. His father’s occupation was a Rigger and the family home was in Poplar in London.

Henry Barnes came from a family that were heavily connected with both the East End of London and the Docklands of East London, his father was a Rigger all his working life and Henry was to follow in his father’s footsteps, also working as a Rigger and Stevedore all his working life. The London Docklands would have been a harsh and brutal place where only the toughest would survive and the work would have been heavy and manual, with a high potential for accidents and even the possibilities of death as a result. The health and safety concerns in the London Docklands were nowhere near as stringent as they are today and despite a militant workforce, conditions were harsh and dangerous. 

The growth and expansion of the London Docks coincided with the new and expanding railway network and with the new Docks capable of accommodating the largest iron and steam ships, the Victoria and Albert Docks became London’s main docks and the heartbeat of the capital. Hundreds of thousands of tons of grain, tobacco, meat, fruit and vegetables were unloaded onto the quayside and stored in the giant granaries and warehouses. As a result, employment opportunities increased and with the greater increase in tonnage, came the demands for a quicker turnaround of the unloading and loading of ships.

There were a range of skilled and semi-skilled jobs and Henry and Richard would have been classed as semi-skilled in their roles as a ‘Rigger’ or ‘Stevedore’. The role of a ‘Rigger’ basically involved the safe loading and unloading of Cargo from ships and would basically involve the ‘rigging’ of the items to allow the safe movement of the cargo. Stevedores were in charge of loading the cargoes onto the ships, ensuring that cargoes were balanced evenly and in the correct order to be unloaded at different ports. The least skilled and least well paid work was that of the dockers themselves. Dockers unloaded cargoes and moved them from the quayside to the transit sheds and warehouses using claw shaped hooks of varying shapes and lengths, known as dockers’ hooks, they lifted cargoes transported in barrels, sacks, bales, casks and crates. 


(Riggers hard at work on the dockside)


(Dockside Cargo waiting to be loaded or unloaded)

Due to the fluctuating numbers of ships arriving each day in the docks, no men were employed as permanent workers. Instead they would have to crowd around the dock gates early in the morning in the hope of some work. The foreman, known as a ‘ganger’, would come and stand at the iron gates of the wharf entrance, where there would usually be a crowd of anything up to one thousand men. Probably only a hundred or so men would be required, and those at the back of the crowd would climb on the heads of the other Dockers to reach the ‘ganger’, to get from his hand the token admitting them to work. The scrambles were frightful and fights were commonplace. The elderly would be knocked back and come out of it utterly exhausted, with no chance at all of work. The ‘ganger’ would have his pick; yet after all this battling, many would be paid off after just one or two hours work. The ‘ganger’ was paid a bonus for discharging ships quickly, therefore they would often pick the largest, fittest and strongest men. To have survived in this harsh environment, both Richard and his son Henry would have had to have been both physically and mentally tough, this was no place for the faint-hearted.


(The scramble for a days work)


(Waiting for the call for work)

By 1871, the Barnes family are living at 6, Brunswick Road, Poplar, London, as recorded in the 1871 Census and at home are Richard Barnes who is recorded as a Rigger, his wife Matilda Barnes, along with 7 of their children; Sarah aged 23, Richard Junior aged 21, also a Rigger, Matilda Junior aged 19, George aged 14, John aged 12, Walter aged 10 and our Henry aged 8. Brunswick Road was a typical traditional London Victorian Terrace Street, with row upon row of house crammed into such small areas, each street immediately backing onto the next one. Living conditions were cramped, squalid and pretty miserable, but that’s the only life that these families knew and there was a toughness and resilience of these East London families to just get on with life. The map below shows the close proximity of Brunswick Road and Benledi Street to the London Docks.

1871 Census

Henry Barnes 1871

(Class: RG10; Piece: 572; Folio: 116; Page: 16; GSU roll: 823320)


(Brunswick Road, Poplar)

                   Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_01_288_AV63_989

By the time of the 1881 the family have moved a bit further along Brunswick Road, this time we find them occupying number 15. At home are Richard Barnes a general labourer, his wife Matilda Barnes along with just two of their sons, Richard Junior aged 31 and Henry aged 18 and like their father they are both listed as a General Labourers.

1881 Census

Henry Barnes 1881

(Class: RG11; Piece: 503; Folio: 37; Page: 8; GSU roll: 1341112)

On 10th May 1883, Henry Barnes marries his sweetheart, Martha Harvey at All Hallows Church in Poplar, London. Henry is recorded as being a bachelor and Labourer aged 21, living at 15, Brunswick Road, Poplar. His father Richard Barnes is recorded as a Rigger. His young bride Martha Harvey is recorded as a spinster aged 19, of 34 Benledi Street, Poplar. Both these streets over the years housed many of my ancestors and they were very significant roads in my Families History. Many of my extended family would have lived in the same few terraced houses of Poplar and most likely these families would have known each other, went to school, socialised and worked together. Martha’s father was Edward Harvey and once more a connection to the River Thames, he was employed as a Waterman.

Henry Barnes Marriage Martha Harvey 2

(Marriage Certificate for Henry Barnes and Martha Harvey)

Screenshot 2021-08-20 at 00.03.20

(Map of Poplar, showing Brunswick Road and Benledi Street)

During this time, the second phase of the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and large cities like London were expanding rapidly. With a vast rise in both population and Industry the inevitable result was a rise in poverty in Victorian London. Towards the end of the century, things began to improve slightly for the working class man as workers began to become more organised and the rights of workers and the lower classes started to become recognised. Henry would have been very much a part of these changes and they would have impacted on his life and the life of his family dramatically.

Earning a living was a fundamental requirement to ensure that working men kept the misery of the workhouse at bay. For a very long time, the daily rate for the average docker was two shillings and sixpence a day for eight hours work; But that was only one part of the problem, The majority of Dock Workers were only employed on a casual basis , with the vast majority of workers literally fighting for any scraps of casual employment. As the end of the century loomed closer, workers gradually became more organised and a trade union for Dockers was formed in 1887, just prior to the London Dockland Strike, which took place on 14th August 1889. The legal status of trade unions in the United Kingdom was established by a Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867, which agreed that “the establishment of the organisation’s was to the advantage of both employers and employees”. Unions were formerly legalised in 1871 with the adoption of the Trade Union Act 1871

The main demands of the dockers during the Great Dock Strike (1889) were that the rate of pay be increased to 6d an hour, known as the ‘dockers’ tanner’ and that a man be taken on for at least half a day. The strike involved 100,000 Dock Workers and most certainly Henry Barnes himself. The strike highlighted the plight of poverty in Victorian Britain and was seen as a landmark moment in the History of the Trade Union and labour movements.


(Dockers Strike 1889)

By the time of the 1891 Census the family have moved to 49, Benledi Street in Poplar, once again connections to these same two streets, for the Barnes, Harvey and Wootton families. Henry is listed as a general Labourer and by this time the couple have four young boys, Henry Edward Barnes who was born on 15th January 1884 and is aged 7, Albert Ernest Barnes who was born on 13th December 1887 aged 4, Walter Arthur Barnes who was born on 3rd February 1888, aged 3 and my own Great-Grandfather John Edwin Barnes who was born on 17th March 1890 aged 1.

1891 Census

Henry Barnes 1891

(The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Kew, Surrey, England; Census Returns of England and Wales, 1891; Class: RG12; Piece: 327; Folio: 134; Page: 40; GSU roll: 6095437)

Henry and Martha went on to have four more children, Arthur George Barnes born on 5th June 1892, another son, Edward Richard Barnes, born in 1895 before finally having two daughters, Martha Annie Barnes born on 3rd July 1898 and Ethel Maud Barnes born on 2nd November 1900.

Henry and his family move again and are living at 50, Burke Street in West Ham at the time of the 1901 Census, living at the family home are his wife Martha and children, Henry Edward aged 17, Walter aged 13, John Edwin aged 10, Arthur George aged 6, Martha Annie aged 2 and Ethel Maud aged just 5 months.

1901 census

Henry Barnes 1901

(Class: RG13; Piece: 1584; Folio: 34; Page: 6)

Sadly for Henry his wife, Martha sadly passed away at the young age of 40, they had been married 22 years. She died on 28th July 1905 at the Union Infirmary, North Leyton, Essex. Henry was present at her death and he was listed as being a Dock Labourer and the couple were living at 66, Hemsworth Street, Canning Town, London.

Hemsworth Street

(Hemsworth Street)

In 1911 we find Henry seeking refuge in The Wave Lodging House, 1, Custom Street, 234/235 Victoria Dock Road, Victoria Docks, East London. Here he is lodging with lots of ex-Sailors and ex-Dock Workers, The Wave Lodging House was essentially a hostel for sailors, casual dockworkers and homeless people searching for work. The Wave was known among sailors across the world as a place where a clean, cheap bed could be found. Beds and baths were on offer for 4d (four pence) or 6d (six pence) a night.


(Wave Lodging House)

1911 Census

Henry barnes 1911

(Class: RG14; Piece: 9518)

Almost every online tree, on one of our ‘favourite websites”, has Henry sadly dead and buried in 1930, but rest assured he was very much alive and kicking, by the time the 1939 Register was taken and Henry would have been the grand old age of 76, which is pretty remarkable given the tough life he had. To reach that age certainly tells you something about his character and the fact he lived for another 40 plus years alone, after his wife had died, is also testament to his strength and character. These were tough times for many families, with survival the sole aim of the game and Henry must have been a really strong and resilient man to get through all of this.

With age and no doubt health against him, we find Henry living at 162, Victoria Dock Road, with his daughter Ethel Maud Bellchamber (nee Barnes) and her family, also living next door at 163, Victoria Dock Road are Henry’s son, Arthur George Barnes and his family. At the time his son, Arthur George Barnes is recorded as permanently disabled and a retired Dock Labourer, so it might be that Henry was helping with the care of his own son and family. We cannot say for sure the reasons for the family staying so close together, but we can interpret that the Barnes family, like many East End Dock families, were a close knit family and ‘looked after their own’.

1939 Register

Henry Barnes 1939

(The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1939 Register; Reference: RG 101/1045G)

Even in his Death, Henry was a difficult man to find, he died on 2nd November 1941 aged 78, which given his hard working life, was a pretty decent age to reach. He died at 42, The Plain, Epping in Essex which is presumed to be, St. Margarets Hospital, The Plain, Epping, which is a former workhouse union infirmary, military hospital and asylum. This was later renamed St. Margarets Hospital in 1938. The cause of death was Chronic Myocarditis (heart failure), Chronic Bronchitis and Carcinoma of the Colon. His home address as recorded on the certificate was 162, Victoria Dock Road in Poplar and his occupation was listed as a Stevedore. Informant on the certificate was his daughter Margaret Annie Crow (nee Barnes) and she was living at 34, Bromley Hall Road in Poplar.

Henry Barnes Death Certificate

Now finding Henry’s burial should have been a ‘walk in the park’, or should I say a ‘walk along the Dock of The Bay’, given that I now have his Death certificate, but once again Henry bowled me a curve ball, with the fact that he died in Epping in Essex, but was still living at the time in East London. After exhaustive searches and enquiries, I have so far still been unable to find his burial location, but I won’t stop looking.

This leaves his story not quite finished but if I waited any longer, his story might never be told. 

Henry Barnes was probably the most troublesome ancestor that I have written about, but at the same time I can safely say without doubt he has been the most enjoyable to write about, I hope you enjoyed his tale…….



Sittin’ in the morning sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch them roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
Cuz I’ve had nothing to live for
And look like nothing’s gonna come my way

So, I’m just gon’ sit on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

Looks like nothing’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, listen

Sittin’ here resting my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, listen
Two thousand miles I roam
Just to make this dock my home, now

I’m just gon’ sit at the dock of a bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

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18 thoughts on “Sitting on the Dock of The Bay……

    1. Thanks Jane, his wife dying young will certainly have totally changed his life, but maybe this made him more resilient and maybe brought him closer to his children? We will never know for sure, but one things for sure, he was a tough man to survive in such hard times


  1. My father died this Friday afternoon. He was 96. Even if he was struggling, physically, his decease came unexpected. We were very close. I held his hand. I find great comfort in the timeless recounts of your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Had preferred to have mentioned it bilaterally. I guess what I want to communicate is that you must not underestimate the importance of the work you’re doing. There is so much compassion that speaks from your writings and so much humanity from the lives you write about. I feel humbled by it. I could not have imagined that a family tree blog could have had this effect on me.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am so deeply humbled by your words, that really means the world to me. To have someone say something like that about what I write about really makes every story worthwhile. When I first started this blog I had no idea where I was going with this, I never dreamt for a moment that people would read what I write about and to have someone say such kind things is a writers dream thank you for your kindness


  2. You have given a wonderful
    insight into the tough lives of Eastenders. What a struggle, just to get a meagre few coins for a hard day’s work! It might be worth contacting Tower Hamlets Local History and Library: http://www.tower They may know the most likely cemetery where a man from Poplar would be buried at the time. Could he also be buried with his wife?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jude, sadly his wife was buried in a paupers grave with unknown people, but good shout to contact the library. Tower Hamlets cemetery was amongst the many I have checked, but the library is a great shout as there might be some smaller burial locations that I hadn’t considered

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Paul. Wonderful story of your GGF Henry and one that intrigued me and I can associate with having worked in shipping for 35 years. I was fortunate enough to work in the waning days of “break bulk” cargo handling before today’s containerization. It was everything you mentioned and how strong your GGF was for sure in one if not the most hazardous industry there was; I was not surprised to read his son working in the same industry was disabled. The “scramble” was known as “the Shape” here in the US and as competitive as you described before unionization. But curious you did not mention corruption; one characteristic here was “the kickback”: longshoremen were many many times only picked for the gang if they kicked back part of their wages to the hiring boss! A very sad situation for a brutal job at low wages to have to give back part of your meager wages just to work! I would not be surprised that your GGF also had to survive that practice. I truly hope you find his grave. Thank you for another great blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words and for sharing with me your own personal experiences. I had read about the bribery and corruption in a number of books and maybe should have mentioned that this was rife, you make a great point. Tough times indeed, I’m not sure I would have survived such a harsh environment myself. Thanks again for your kind words


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