On the waterfront: Safer hooks after docks death

editorial image
Have your say

The tragic death of 44-year-old docker George Preston Hamilton in 1948 was sadly one of many to result from post-war accidents in Britain’s docks. Always a dangerous environment, many fatalities involved crane and lifting operations.

March 12, 1948 was like any other day in Sunderland’s South Docks with dockers busily engaged in handling freight. At East Quay South, a cargo ship was discharging iron ore for Consett steel works.

George Hamilton was among a gang of dockers working in the hold. As a seven-cwt tub was being lowered, it caught an obstruction causing it to be lifted from the crane hook and fall onto the unfortunate man.

Mr Hamilton received serious injuries and although he fought bravely for life, he died in hospital seven days later. He had been a well-known professional boxer, active between 1923 and 1930, living in Premier Road, Humbledon.

An inquest was held before Coroner Cuthbert Morton on March 22, when hatchwayman James Mead explained: “It had been an attempt to negotiate a difficult job.”

Evidently, the ship’s propeller shaft tunnel and a cross beam four feet above had divided the hold into four. While being lowered, the tub had struck the tunnel and beam almost simultaneously, causing it to rise from its hook and fall onto the victim.

The type of hook in use was known as a Liverpool (or “C”) hook, having originated many years before in Liverpool Docks. Although designed to prevent it catching on the sides of a ship’s hold when being lifted, it was an open hook prone to its load slipping off if impeded during lowering operations.

The inquest jury returned a verdict of “accidental death,” but suggested that use of spring hooks instead of open types would mean less likelihood of accidents.

Only the month before, plater’s helper Robert Hill Hutchinson (31) had died when a steel plate had slipped from a crane hook at TW Greenwell and Co’s ship-repair yard.

Taking note of the jury’s recommendation, the RWC set about designing a new hook for unloading ore buckets to avoid similar mishaps.

Long-serving foreman blacksmith Harry Wilson, was tasked with arriving at a solution.

In time, he came up with a closed hook design and made an experimental version in the Commissioners’ forge.

Claimed to be the safest available, the hook was trialled during the discharge of the British India steamer Modasa at Corporation Quay in November, 1950.

Basically, his invention was a hook comprising a single-turn helix from which it was virtually impossible for a load to become disengaged.

So successful was the trial that a patent was applied for and subsequently granted, leading to much safer working practices for dock labour.