top of page

Working the Quays of London with George Harrison

Yes, you read that right, I am talking about George Harrison; though it may not be the exact George Harrison you are thinking about. It is not in fact the famous George Harrison from the Beatles, but instead it is an ancestor of mine coincidentally named George Harrison.

The one thing both my ancestor and the musician George Harrison have in common is that they both were born in England. George Harrison, my ancestor, was born in Middlesex, England on May 21, 1792 and lived to be 48 years old when his life was ended tragically in an accident while working on the docks or quays of London in 1840 (if you’d like to learn more about George’s life then check out my YouTube video or listen to my podcast episode highlighting his life and legacy).

It was during my investigation into his life for that video sketch and learning about his work and death that sparked my interest in the quays of London. What exactly is a quay and what were they for? What was work like there and what accident could have resulted in his death? These questions were among the top of my list as I researched, and through it all I learned some pretty fascinating facts and history, so let's dive in!

First of all, a quay (pronounced ‘key’) is simply a “platform projecting into the water for loading and unloading ships”. In other words, a quay is basically a dock where ships would come to unload or load their cargo. The city of London was an important port town and by the 16th century, London had become a world-class and sizeable city, especially when it came to trading goods with other European and World countries. Because London was ever growing and the activity along the Thames River was also increasing, the government saw fit to introduce and establish a set amount of ‘legal quays’ as to increase profits, aka taxes, as well as regulate goods. So, in 1559, the experienced Sir William Paulet instigated an Act of Parliament under Queen Elizabeth I that set new rules for customs and established 20 legal quays.

One of these established ‘Legal Quays’ and the one where my ancestor George Harrison worked on was one named Galley Quay. This quay was located between the Custom House and the Tower of London. According to a topographical dictionary of London from 1831, Galley quay has a frontage of 101 feet. Since the quay is actually smaller in size, it probably could only have accommodated one or two ships at a time.

No actual death certificate documenting George Harrison’s death has been found, but according to family genealogical records from those who knew George, he was a foreman operating at Galley Quay and died there in an accident. Now in these times, working the quays was a pretty dangerous business. Conditions were dirty and dangerous, and cargoes could be toxic such as barrels of iodine or asbestos. Cargoes could drop out of their containers or nets, large and heavy boxes and barrels could fall down, and cranes or equipment could fail and snap. Since George was a foreman, he would have exposed to all of these dangers. More likely than not, he probably died of something along these lines.

Tragically, being a foreman was not a very lucrative career at the time and George’s death meant that his new widow would have to work to provide for their family, but nonetheless, George’s legacy lives on. He truly was a hard worker and raised his family to value kindness and education, something that has impacted generations!

Do you know what your ancestors did for a living?? Let us know!


bottom of page