When we first shifted up to Haweswater from Ewden they were all navvy people but later you got a lot of unemployed from West Cumberland. The money was never good enough for navvy people any road, and any road there weren 't many navvy people about any more.
They were a bad lot working up there, though, the unemployed. They hadn't much class.
They had just started when we shifted to Haweswater, the huts weren't all up anyhow, and I started as a timberman and finished up as a ganger. Ten pence an hour for men when they started. Timbermen used to get eleven pence. Gangers only got twopence more. They didn't give them much.
During the Slump I was in the tunnel driving a heading into the valve shaft. One and threepence an hour, timbering, by then. When I was six foot in a Union feller comes along and says I was entitled to one and six. So I got one and six. I knocked the heading through the muck until I got to rock and then Jameson, the chief engineer, fetched me away from there to go down on the dam, excavating. I was made gangerman then. It was me and my gang what got the biggest part of the foundations out. Rotten rock, a lot of it, too.
It was a good job if it wasn't for that bloody click that got up there. They'd put years on you. They weren't workmen. You had to regulate them all the time.
After the rage of the guns there was a bottomless quiet about places like Ewden valley, a deep silence that ached, a homecoming to make men cry, standing on the hillside outside the old stone village of Bolsterstone, the valley green below, house smoke idling up from the gabled huts. A stone farm-house stood on its own hill on the hill over the valley. There were quite gentle crags and whole woods of [227/228] trees unlacerated by gunfire. Ewden Beck flows into the Don, but close as it is to Sheffield it is quiet.
Navvies coming home went back to what public works were restarted and to what fresh beginnings were made, but their old ways were collapsing beneath their boots. Nobody became a navvy after 1914: recruiting stopped when war started. Navvying was killed by new machinery, bureaucracy and a lack of big new public works.
New machinery was least harmful: it may never have mattered at all if it hadn't been for the other two. Navvies learned to cope with steam machinery and could have done so again with diesel and petrol. There was more to being a navvy than swinging a pick. To be a navvy was to be a special man, belonging to a special community. Navvying was a community, not just a way of doing work.
Bureaucracy was worse, circumscribing people as it did with its dole money, means tests, its prying, its bits of paper. Bureaucracy has no place for free paperless men. No place for penniless Lincoln Tom. No room, either, for tramp-navvies: priggish civil servants now often decreed who'd work on public works and who wouldn't. In the summer of 1927 an ear-ringed ganger was unearthed, crying, behind a tree at a Cardiff relief work scheme. Stiff-collared clerks in the Labour Exchange had picked him his gang, a hand-dog, under-muscled bunch. 'Not a man jack of them,' sobbed the ganger, 'is strong enough to dig the skin off a rice pudding.'
Worst was the Slump. There was no work. The Quarterly Letter opened 1932 with a list of sixteen jobs: six on dams, ten on railways (and one of them was a pedestrian subway at Paddington station). Back in the '80s it began with incomplete lists of fifty big railway jobs, twenty-odd big dams, and massive dock works. All navvy-intensive affairs.
In 1919 the Navvy Mission and the Navvies' Union renamed themselves, in accordance with new realities. The Mission became the Industrial Christian Fellowship, its work now in factories where it had gone during the War, not with the diminishing navvy. The Union became the Public Works and Constructional Operatives' Union, open to a whole swathe of trades: navvies, tunnel miners, pit and well sinkers, blackgang men, timbermen, platelayers, pipelayers and jointers, pipedrivers, concreters, asphalters, scaffolders, gangers, timekeepers, builders' labourers, brick-field men and cement and lime workers
Membership of the old Navvies' Union held steady throughout [228/229] most of the war until suddenly it climbed to 11,000, its highest ever, in 1918. The new Public Works' union kept on climbing as well until it, too, peaked at around 18,000 at the end of 1919. From then on it was all decay and disintegration: sometimes precipitate, sometimes slow. In 1929 the Transport and General Workers' Union poached an entire North Staffordshire branch without the executive in London knowing a thing about it.
The Transport and General, in fact, had been recruiting navvies for some time, without really understanding them. (Muckshifters, they knew, were navvies' labourers — but they found they were also semi-skilled men in their own right and therefore no labourers at all.) They recruited Tom Cusack from the Public Works' Union in 1928 to be their District Organiser in Stoke where he was a town councillor. With him he took the credit for winning the boot money dispute in the Mersey tunnel where the old navvy muck-shifter was lost in a welter of grummetters, telephone men, tool and bolt carriers, pit bottom men, crab-fixing-labourers, and labourers-clearing-up. Tom Cusack died early in 1929.
In the summer of 1935 the Public Works' Union — all one hundred and fifty of them — transferred to the Builders' Labourers' and Constructional Workers' Society which, in 1952, amalgamated with the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers which, in 1971,merged with UCATT. (In 1920 some break-away members of the Navvies' Union joined with the National Association of Builders' Labourers to become the Altogether Builders' Labourers' and Constructional Workers' Society which, in 1934, merged with the TGWU.)
John Ward came home from Siberia, hating totalitarianism and even more politically independent than before. 'The War killed party for me', he declared. 'England and its people, the great race and the Empire to which we all belong is the only thing that really matters now.' Russia, China, the Royal Air Force and Hong Kong now matched his pre-War concern with the African colonies, the Army, and his never-ended feud with the Admiralty. He rarely spoke in the House. He spoke longest during the Workmen's Compensation Bill debate, 1923. It was November. A general election was close. 'Don't let us leave the thing half finished in the last days of our life,' he pleaded with the Commons. 'Usually people do justice at that moment if they never did it at any other time.' In 1922 he was taken ill at the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva and came home to have a bone removed from his face. He [229/230] was still General Secretary of the Public Works' Union, still Treasurer of the General Federation of Trade Unions, but his union was in decay, the Federation was in decay, and he was getting old. Old and ill. Old and moderate, scorned by sneering young extremists. He had a heart attack at the 1925 GFTU annual meeting in Blackpool. Next year his wife died. In 1928 his son, Dr Lamer Ward, accidentally scratched himself with a scalpel as he dissected a corpse at the King Edward Hospital, Baling. Infection killed him. 'I am awaiting the end,' Ward wrote to a friend as his son lay dying, 'almost bereft of reason, that a brilliant young life should be so sacrificed at the dawn of its day.'
Lady Cynthia Mosley, Oswald Mosley's wife, took his Stoke- on-Trent seat from him in 1929. Now he sixty-five, not too sorry to go home to Hampshire where he had a house he called Omsk, a jumble of stucco and clapperboard, between Appleshaw and Wey- hill, the place where he had learned to read half a century before. He even rode to hounds, in a car. He had come a long way from the ploughboy of the '70s, the navvy of the '80s, the radical of the '90s. He died at Christmas time, 1934.
(Omsk was later occupied by a recluse, a rector's daughter. The house lay shuttered in a wilderness of hawthorn, bramble and garden flowers run wild.)
In December 1919, the Industrial Christian Fellowship brought out what was meant to be the last Letter (and even then it was addressed to 'Industrial Workers Everywhere'). It was a little premature: the navvy was not yet dead. The old Letter was re-issued in 1922, running without another break until 1933 when it closed for good.
Mrs Garnett edited her last Letter in December 1916, sharp and biting as ever ('some mean skunks never contribute a penny, though they always expect a Letter given them'). She had first bought her shovel, she said, in 1872 when she took a Christmas tree to the Lindley Wood children. Now those children were old, or dead. 'I always loved you,' Pincher King, once a nipper at Lindley, now an old man in Australia, wrote to her, 'though I was a rough lad. I couldn't help it, so keep smiling.'
'For the navvies,' she once said of herself, 'I have sacrificed ease, health, money, and other things which I love and enjoy. I have given all I had to give. It is love's work, and love is the pay.' She died in March, 1921. A plaque to her memory was unveiled in Ripon Cathedral in 1926 [230/231] and a memorial fund was opened in her name. Dan Munro of the Ewden valley dams was the first beneficiary. He got an artificial foot.
Navvy — now Daddv — Smith was sent to Luton in 1926, lost and lonely. His work with the Industrial Christian Fellowship took him only into factories, though in 1928 he did make a trip to Tilbury docks. 'It was like old times,' he said, "to be among a few navvy friends again.' He died in Luton, in 1932.
Patrick MacGill went back to writing, fictionalising and rejuvenating Moleskin Joe as the hero of a novel. The book opens in 1914 with a dam burst. Moleskin falls in love with the girl who saves him. He goes off to the War and comes home determined to find her. His money runs out and he sets up a moonshine still in the hills around Kmlochleven with the gentrified son of a ganger. The boy has already seduced the woman who saved Moleskin but in the end he gets his deserts and Moleskin gets the girl. 'Times are not what they were', says one of the characters in the book. 'And the old buck-navvies are off the map,' says Moleskin. 'I was at the old kip-shops in Newcastle, Manchester, Bradford, and they're not there. And there ain't so many o' them at this skinny job.'
MacGill survived the death of the navvy, survived the next War, and died in 1962.
Navvies, always isolated by fear and contempt, were now isolated by their own decay. The roaring and the riot were over. They were like relics, they were so few.
Young men from Haweswater rode in long-nosed buses down to Penrith on Saturday afternoons to taste small-town teas. They drove home tipsy in the still, light-fading evenings, cuddling girls with thighs like feather beds, the bus lurching between high uncut hedges, changing down through the gears on the steepening hills, to the dam: the last big navvy job. On their way they crossed the Eden, only yards from where navvies had rioted in 1846, a few miles downstream from where they killed a man at Armathwaite in 1870. After 1943 half their village had gone. Trees, a wood of them, grow where the huts were. In the woods, like rows of orderly tumuli, are their foundation mounds.
Rough times, though. A rough affair.
[Note: Full citations for works cited by the name of the author or a short title can be found in the bibliography.]
The new scope of the Public Works Union is from its Handbook, 1919. Membership figures are from the GFTU's Quarterly Reports. The TGWU's raid on the Staffordshire branch is from GFTU Proceedings and Reports July 1928/June 1929. What happened to the Public Works Union after 1933 is from the TUC's Historical Index. Cusack and the Mersey tunnel is from the TGWU's The Record March 1929. His death is from the same source and from the Staffs Evening Sentinel 21 Feb 1929 and a private letter (dated 8 March 1929) which Ward wrote to the Sentinel's editor and which is now in the newspaper's library.
Ward's plea to the House during the Workmen's Compensation debate is from Parliamentary Debates Vol 168 1923. His son's death is from a letter Ward wrote to the editor of the Staffs Sentinel (dated 20 Sept 1928) now in the newspaper's library. His own death is from the Staffs Sentinel 19 Dec 1954, the Andover Advertiser 21 Dec 1934, and The Times 20 and 22 Dec 1934.
The renaming of the Navvy Missionary Society is from Quarterly Letter to Men on Public Works 163, March 1919. Mrs Garnett's last letter is in no. 154, Dec 1916. Her lifelong devotion to navvies is from no. 81, Sept 1898. Her death and the plaque in Ripon Cathedral is from no. 185, Oct 1926. Navvy Smith's death is from July 1932.
MacGill's novel is called Moleskin Joe. 
Last modified 25 April 2006