Museums, Archives & Heritage

Denis Delay: Docker, Trade Unionist and Writer

Dennis Delay. Image copyright The Independent.
Dennis Delay. Image copyright The Independent.

Denis Delay (1927-2011) began his working life as a London docker and went on to become one of the most influential Trade Union figures in the steel industry. After his retirement in 1990 he returned to his interest in the London docks and their history. Delay worked tirelessly on his book on the history of the London docks from 1889-1955. Unfortunately, he never got the pleasure of finishing it. However, Delay’s research and draft writings were deposited at the Trade Union Congress Library Collections and it has been my privilege to go through his papers and catalogue them.

The first time that I saw the archive, it was frightening to say the least. I was met with a pile of red TUC cloth folders filled to bursting point with papers, press cuttings and draft writings. There were a number of large carrier bags filled with press cuttings, which had just been collected up from Delay’s desk. Delay’s computer, a box of floppy discs, a printer, a couple of books on Locoscript and a few books on the docks were also deposited. Somehow I was supposed to make sense of everything before me. Having done my own research for a PhD, I could appreciate what was in front of me, but making sense of someone else’s work was going to be quite a challenge, but a challenge that I was willing to take on. I was excited to be the first person to go through all this research that Delay had spent the last twenty years of his life doing. For Delay, it appears, from those who knew him in those final years, to have been his full-time occupation.

The first objective was to systematically go through all the paperwork and find out exactly what was there. Chris Coates, Librarian to the Trade Union Congress Library Collections, had visited Delay’s home to see the quantity and quality of the material being donated. Coates had had a brief look at a few sample folders to get an idea of the collection but it was the initial survey which provided the most information, so far, on the collection. From the initial survey, decisions were made on how the collection was categorized. It also proved a very useful aid in bringing subjects, which had become scattered over many folders, back together again. There were two obstacles. Firstly, that in gathering Delays work together and transporting it to the Trade Union Congress Library Collection, the papers had become muddled; secondly, that during Delay’s latter years he too began to suffer with the onset of dementia, which again muddled his work.

After the initial survey of the papers, it was on to cataloguing the press cuttings. The press cuttings went from the turn of the 20th Century up to Delay’s death in 2011. The press cuttings not only covered the history of the docks, famous unionists, political figures, but also Delay’s personal interests: health and well-being. It was from these personal interests that I could have an insight into the person behind the research, which I found equally fascinating. Of course the press cuttings on personal interests were of no relevance to the overall collection and we, Chris and I, decided to remove them in order to make the collection relevant to researchers on the docks.

It was during this initial survey that I found a number of personal letters Delay wrote to a dear friend of his, Gillian McCredie. In one letter he discusses his writings saying “I started this work with intent to outline events in the Port of London following the Second World War insofar as they concerned the men who worked there handling cargoes, called dockers, stevedores and lightermen”. Delay was obviously aware of his own ‘failings’ and deteriorating health as he continues “…unfortunately, I have had to leave it in an unfinished state because: a) I went beyond my original idea of recording those events by backtracking to try to cover events which took place from the 1880’s up to the end of that war; b) Out of interest, I got far too immersed in detail; c) Because of impatience I also jumped from one aspect or period to another, instead of completing each one in sequence.”

This letter particularly appealed to me, as I could relate to all of Delay’s ‘failings’. It is so easy to stray from one’s original plan and get lost in the detail of particular events. Also, if one does not think that a particular aspect or period of research is progressing as one would like it is easy to then ‘jump’, as Delay puts it, to something completely different. However, I would suggest that these are not ‘failings’ but part of the process of research. Delay’s research has now provided a collection of papers and writings which reveal his personal interests in the history of the Docks. In the post Second World War period Delay’s papers have a focus upon the interaction of the unions. Delay was particularly interested in the union strife of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers (NASD).

Throughout Delay’s draft writings and notes there are many anecdotes about his own time working on the docks during the 1950s. Delay worked on Surrey Docks, which, he described as “…a most interesting place, a world of its own, physically set apart from the rest of London, and the men a community with a unique and extraordinary way of life”. Delay continues:

Here is an account by a participant of a way of life that has gone for ever and will never be seen again. It begins on a summer day in 1950, or maybe 1951, as I stood on that spot where Lower Road joined Redriff Road, part of a crowd of over a thousand other men, under a big clock fixed on the wall over a little old jeweller’s shop.

Delay’s experiences of working in the docks can be found in his draft writing Down by the Riverside: A Tale of the London Docks. On the front cover of this draft Delay acknowledges that this was an early version by scribbling a note on the front cover which states: “This is a first draft, and f*cking awful with it. If I drop dead before revising it, I hope a good editor will comb out all the garbage”. Delay has made some handwritten corrections on this work, which once again gives an insight into how he worked.

Down by the Riverside was one of the most troublesome parts of this collection as it eluded me for a long time. I could find the printed early draft of the work but could not find it on Delay’s computer. One of Delay’s major faults was the titling of sections of his work. On the computer all the files were sequence coded and without opening it, the title would not necessarily give an idea of contents, hence on the CD in the collection there are notes to try and help anyone wishing to read the draft writings that were on Delay’s computer.

I was no computer expert, but with Delay’s work I was to take a step back in time to what I am told is an old DOS based system called Locoscript. All I know is that I was looking at a computer screen that I vaguely remembered using in my childhood. The screen was black and the writing was bright green and made up of lots of small dots. The only way to navigate around the system was via the use of ‘hot keys’ or the ‘F’ keys. However, the first problem I had was to even find where all his documents were hidden. When the computer was turned on it looked quite conventional. McCredie had told me that I would find all of Delay’s work in Locoscript but the first problem was: Where was Locoscript? I had no idea what I was looking for, but after a bit of stumbling around I found the icon which was to open up my new world of Locoscript. Having spent my time going through all the files on the computer I was disappointed to find no trace of Down by the Riverside. I knew that there had been other computers but McCredie was confident that everything was on the computer donated; there was everything apart from Down by the Riverside, which was Denis’ own recollection of his days working in the docks, the most important files I felt. If the files were not on the computer then the only other possibility was that they were hidden in the box of floppy discs that came with the computer.

My search began with the most recent floppy discs. Luckily Denis put the date on a lot of his discs, although there were still many which had no label on them. The most recent discs once again were disappointing, there was still no trace of Down by the Riverside. On rifling through the box of floppy discs again in the hope of a bit of inspiration, I found an envelope with two disc marked ‘TDBTRS’. My interest was sparked, could this be the initials I was looking for? The Down By The River Side. I had to find out. This was problematic. Once files had been saved to floppy disc from Locoscript they could not be opened again by Locoscript as it would corrupt the information on the floppy disc. With every step forward there were always a few steps back again.

Having struggled with getting my way around Locoscript, I took to the internet to try and find out if anybody knew anything about this software. Luckily I found Malcolm Surl of Luxsoft, whose help has been invaluable. Potentially I had found Delay’s personal story of working on the docks, and at that moment I could not open it at all. I note that Word cannot read anything from Locoscript, it is merely presented as random characters on screen. I got back in touch with Surl and sent him the files, which by then I had done so many times. He would work his magic and get them transformed into Word documents that I could then read. To my surprise I received an email from Surl’s wife to say that he was unwell and in hospital. It’s selfish to say, but it did make me wonder if I would ever get this final piece in the jigsaw, unravelled from Locoscript and into Word. Within a couple of days and to my complete surprise Surl got in touch. He had very kindly worked his magic on the files, and attached to his email were the files headed up ‘TDBTRS’. This was it. With nervous apprehension, I clicked the files and opened them. Yes, it was the original files to Delay’s personal story Down by the Riverside. I was delighted. And it is at that moment, that you look around to the people nearby and realise that you are on your own in this quest. There I am, celebrating around my home that I have finally found the files that I have been searching for, and which I was beginning to think Delay had taken to the grave with him, and my husband looks at me like I am some crazed woman. He knows that I have been searching night and day for these files for months now and can see my obvious excitement, but he still looks confused that I can be so excited over one email from someone who I have never met and yet am so eternally grateful to.

As it turns out the files are in the original format. Within the Delay collection there is a printed copy of Down by the Riverside, which Delay has been through and corrected manually, but Delay evidently did not make these corrections on the computer too. Therefore between the CD files and the draft copy, one can see Delay’s thought process, and his quick-to-criticise comments are scattered throughout this piece. The only disappointment with the files is that the last two chapters are missing, but from the draft copy they do look like an afterthought from Delay. At least they are not missing entirely, as there is the draft copy version of them.

This has been the defining point of Delay’s collection, that without being able to see all of it, no one part of it can tell the whole story. Therefore, it has been so important that the collection has remained together. It is thanks to Chris Coates at the TUC Library Collection that she initially saw the potential of this collection and has brought it into the public domain. For me, it has been a privilege to catalogue Delay’s papers. Having started out with little knowledge of either Delay or the history of the northern docks, my own research has been on Stepney and the East End of London, I now feel akin to Delay. I can fully appreciate Delay’s ups and downs of researching and it is a shame that such unfortunate circumstances brought us together. It would have been very interesting to have met Delay and I’m sure that we would have had a mutual understanding and appreciation for each other’s work.

Delay had written to McCredie that “It would be nice if someone competent who you liked and trusted would agree to work on it to complete it…”  I just hope that I am living up to Delay’s expectations!


  1. Hi Sam,
    At the Museum of Childhood, I think we might have some material from Denis’s childhood, which I wrote about a while ago, completely ignorant of his later life! I’d be very keen to check this is the same Denis and make links between our catalogues.

    By the way, I know that feeling of the researcher’s moment of discovery so well – “you look around to the people nearby and realise that you are on your own in this quest”. But then the connections that follow from those discoveries are always unpredictable and surprising.

  2. Readers may also be interested in The Journeymen Coopers of East London, 1971, by the late Bob Gilding (History Workshop Pamphlet 4, on this site), which includes a fascinating account of the London Dock in the 1960s (‘Down the Vault’, pp. 28-48). Bob was an East End cooper who served his apprenticeship and as a journeyman worked in different East End cooperages. In 1961, for greater security and protection from slack periods which were getting longer, he took a job with the Port of London Authority, working in the wine and spirit warehouses of the London Dock. Vaults and dock closed in 1969, when Bob had started as a student at Ruskin College. (Without the files from Ruskin, destroyed last year, I can’t confirm the date when he started or whether he had a union scholarship.) There with the encouragement of his tutor, Raphael Samuel he embarked on the history of his trade recounted in this pamphlet.

    1. Anna, there is currently a project called Beer, Barrels and Brewhouses looking at the East End of London an how the big breweries grew and then died away (an over simplification).

      I have had Bob’s book on my bookshelf for a couple of years now and reading through it for the project it is very relevant and does exactly what Bob wanted, to show the view from the Cooper’s point of view.

      Any additional information would be gratefully received.

      Regards – Terry

  3. An interesting account but I take issue with ‘Of course the press cutting on personal interests were of no relevance to the overall collection’. While realising that cataloguing both destroys as well as creating meaning and accessibility, materials that might not seem relevant to one researcher may be valuable to others who may be able to make different connections. I think we need to recognise that there are numerous approaches to – and analyses of – different material. I am reminded of my research years ago on militant feminist teachers in the NUWT. Other researchers had concentrated on equal pay and conditions whereas I looked at the informal obituaries included at the later files of the union’s life which might have been dismissed as mere’personal’ material.

    Re Anna Davin’s comment on Bob Gilding’s wonderful pamphlet it is available online through the Bishopsgate Institute.Sadly, all the history (and labour studies) dissertations written by Ruskin students before 2000 were destroyed.

  4. Am I six years too late? I have been researching the Stevadore Union, London Docks, Wapping and the Irish Community throughout most of this year. This is mainly out of self interest because my family were a Dockers family from Wapping, I have lived in Wapping since 1979. I am particularly interested in the woman of the community and how they fared while being a Irish Dockers wife! However, while digging a bit deeper with my research I came upon Denis Delay. Now here’s an interesting figure and his collection WOW! Is there anyone out there who would like to talk???? Many thanks and tons of good wishes Elaine Delay

    1. Hello Elaine
      My father was William Dennis Delay, born in Wapping in 1905 and also a stevedore.

      1. Hello, my single name is Rita Delay – I am cousin of Elaine. I think Dennis Delay was my father’s uncle. I remember going to inform him of my mothers death in 1960 at his flat in Matilda House – Wapping. That’s if it’s the same person. It looks like the name, Denis, Cornelius, John is recurring over the generations in the Delay family. My brother was a Cornelius who met Denis Delay – not your father – but the trade unionist.

        I tried to work out family tree but gave up.

      2. Dear John, could your dad be my dad’s brother? Do you know the name of your grandparents? Please do get in touch my email is Good wishes Elaine

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