There were ten, twelve of us at Scotty Jack's on the Basingstoke- Woking widening. Wiltshire Jumper, he was there. He could do the cobbler's dance, same as these Russians do, half sitting on the floor. When he'd done the dance, he'd jump up and hit his heels on the table, bang, bang. I think that's how he got his name-not from the jumper drills. He was a railway navvy.

Smallbeer Scan, he was there. Crowbar Nobby. Crowbar used to say if he had no beer his mouth was no good to him and he used to sew it up. He'd ask the landlady for needle and thread and sew his mouth up. It was an easy thing to do to put the needle through once the holes were there-same as earrings. Daft, silly sort of bloke. He had whiskers and all.

Billy Butler, he was there, rope running for Scotty Jack. (A rope runner was the same as a guard, only it was on a muck train.) He had a moustosh, too. We all had moustoshes before the War. Most everybody had a moustosh, little or much. It was for the flu' or something. If you keep shaving your upper lip it sticks out like a scrubbing brush.

Another time, the Horse Guards were camped, at Pirbright, and it was a wet day. All the navvies went into this big marquee the soldiers had. Beer was three ha'pence a pint then. We used to buy a gallon at a time. A great big can of the stuff. Well, Jimmy Fingers challenged these here soldiers at tug o' war. Jimmy goes back into the tent. He calls his team out. 'Steamer Ike, Hydraulic Punch, Steam Navvy Nobby.'

'Here,' says this old sergeant, 'we thought we was going to pull men, not a lot of machines.'

The navvies won, and all. He gave Jimmy Fingers a bucket of beer. You could wash your head in it.

Another time at the Llangyfellach tunnel Lincoln Tom put a drill through his foot. He took his boots of f and the ganger-feller says to [82/83] him: 'Why don't yon take your socks off, Lincoln?*

'They are off,' he says. 'I never put them on.'

You've never seen such a thing in your life. His feet was so black you couldn't tell if he had his socks on or not. He had toenails on him as long as his fingers. He'd put the drill right through his foot and all, but he was back at work in no time.

When I jacked at Patricroft I went down to Hayfield in Derbyshire. When you started at Hayfield you had to work three shifts and a quarter. Start at six o 'clock in the morning, work all day, all night until nine o'clock the next morning. Go home, start work the next morning at six. You were only getting bare time, and all. But where I was working you worked six to six: one week nights, one week days. Double-shifted, we were.

I was filling skips, getting out the foundations of the filter house. Muck dam. It's under the High Peak. I lodged there with old Mother Adams. Proper navvy people they were. They had two relatives on the stage: the Stoke Sisters. Violin players. Funny how a rough family like that married some decent people. She used to drink like mad, swear like a trooper, smoke an old clay gum-bucket pipe. Good hearted, though.

They had two sons. Punch and Jack. Punch got shipwrecked — never was right in his head after that. Then there was Min, a silly, fat bugger. Then there was Edie. She married a decent feller as well, I met them at Ewden after the First War.

For over half a century the Navvy Mission published its (Quarterly Letter exhorting navvies to behave themselves. Surviving copies are bound in volumes in the church of St Katherine Cree, City of London. Inside the church a quiet coolness is made colder-seeming by the thick-walled silence. The Letters themselves have time- crackled edges, crumbling a little, brown and sorrowful. In them we hear the small stifled cries of the dead. Mrs Thomas begs her daughter Mrs C Williams (Pupe) to write her at once. Will Bonny Hooper come or send for his little girl (15) now destitute. Little Darkle, miner (26), black hair and eyes, scar on nose, send at once to your wife, left destitute with three children. Shop Bill please send the week's board you owe Mrs Leeks and also the money she was kind enough to lend you to buy a pair of boots, but which you sloped off with. Beware of Quiet George, a big man, dirty in his habits, who sloped off with his week's rent. Walter Banks is requested to write at once to Mrs Garnett, Ripon, She trusted him [83/84] and doesn't think he means to cheat her. Where is Hunky Dory who worked at Avonmouth Dock? Will the man, who, after receiving food and shelter, stole a new shirt from the Navvies' Home, Charlton Mackrell, Somerset, kindly return it to Mr Billing, or else apply for a needle and cotton to mend it with.

New Town Jack died alone at the Junction dam. His friends were in Wales though he didn't know where. 'One thing has struck me more than all besides, that the life of a navvy is a very lonely one,' says the recorded voice of one dead man, speaking to us for the sole and only time.

In the cool muffled quietness of the church the voices call, small with time, saying their single sentences and dying into an endless silence like an ache of deafness. If there were more pages, you think, you would hear more. As it is even the voices of the editors, hoarse with unheeded admonition, are brief and snatched. Navvies' voices are quiet and truncated, teased out of the past's fabric. Imagination, like a computer, enhances what was the background clangour of their lives into faint almost unheard noises in the head.

Small worries, small woes, small people. They mattered little then: they matter not at all now. Still, they leave the sadness of people who suffered and whose sufferings are now beyond help. How can you comfort the dead, when the grave is such a chasm?

1884: Mrs Plum, homely as a hearth rug, wrote with all the third-person formality of a Duchess from the mud of the Thornton Moor dam. 'Eliza Johnson, wife of Lincolnshire Bill Johnson, will greatly oblige by sending her recipe for eye-wash to Mrs Plum, Thornton Moor, Bradford.'

Sinker sank his mates' sick club money in booze.

1885: Devil Driving George, a youth and a Salvationist, eloped with his raddled, fat, middle-aged landlady and her husband's clothes. 'This George has never been one of our members,' says the CEU, 'and never will be: we want no such.'

1886: Cranky York, a contrary man, stole money from a sick gathering on the Thirlmere pipe track. Darkle May was sacked at Dunford Bridge for indecent behaviour with his landlady's little daughter in her calf length boots, calf-length frock, and thigh length pinafore.

1887; Ginger Charlie — Black Enoch's mate — stole Peg Legged Devon's kit, slyly, in Birkenhead. Smoker ran away from Silloth [84/85] docks and left his wife and family to face the workhouse.

1888: One-eyed Conro conned J Gardiner by forging the signature of Three-Fingered Jack, who had a broken leg at Nunhead, south London.

All landladies with young daughters were warned on no account to give Black Lank a lodge.

Mrs Broughton, Rishworth Moor dam, asked John Pitts to give her the money he got when he sold her mangle on the q.t.

Cat-Eating Scan ran away from Bere Alston with Thomas Harris's wife and baby. Mrs Harris rifled the eldest child's piggy bank. Harris didn't want his wife back, just his baby daughter. 'She took against the rest of them, and no doubt but what she'll serve it the same as it gets older. The seven I have got are getting on well, thank God.'

1889: 'Evervone to beware of Thick Lipped Blondin, who lodged with Mrs Herbert, hut keeper, Bere Ferris, and took away her best shawl; she thinks it very hard, as she has six little children, and has to work hard to get a living. (Mrs Herbert sends this.)

All young women and girls were warned: 'Beware of a married man, a make-shift navvy and not fit to walk in a navvy's shoes, known as Curly, late rope runner and engine cleaner at Skipton. He goes as a single chap, and has cruelly wronged a young woman at Skipton.'

1890: Coal, a handy man (he could make anything) abandoned his wife and children in Goole. Coal also liked to preach. He preached a lot in Goole. 'He had better now act up to it,' said Mrs Garnett, coldly.

1891: a strong able-bodied ganger ran away with the sick club money from the Saxby and Bourne railway. He was well to be made out, red-faced and splay-legged as he was. And he had a good position with a permanent wage. ('Don't go on the Saxby and Bourne Railway, Lincolnshire,' advised the Navvies' Union. 'Wages are low, lodgings are scarce, and the job is generally not up to much yet. There are plenty of "yaller boys" knocking about!')

1892: 'To inform Mrs F Frances, better known as Mrs Johnson, that her husband is dead, who she wanted to put in Preston Workhouse. His son wrote to her from Delph, but the letter came back "not found". She is supposed to be living on the Pipe [85/86] Track, with Sand Washing George, if so she can now marry him, and we hope she won't treat him the same if he falls ill, nor bury him with his boots on.'

1895: High Back Dick, otherwise Snotty Nose Dick, sloped his landlady at the Blagdon dam.

1894: Squeezem and Cambridge Tom robbed their landlord's son of his pet rabbit on the Tottenham and Forest Gate. Squeezem repented, later.

1896: Bill Tar Pot sloped his landlady at the Rishworth dam and Mrs Garnett warned everybody (mates and landladies) to beware of Half-Ear Slen who enticed a woman from her husband and children on the Great Central. 'For shame on such rubbish, as call themselves men! Mates! cry shame on him if any of you see him, he is well to be picked out, he has a high back, crooked nose and bandy legs.'

1897: Toothless Devon, with a plastic, good for girning face and a rich west country burr, left his family to the care of the Wirral workhouse.

Mrs Pope would pay a pound to anyone who could prove her husband had bigamously married his housekeeper.

1898: Ginger Suffolk, rather short and stout, very fair, rather dark blue eyes, with the word love tattooed on his left arm, and with a speech impediment, left his wife at Christmas. She had a baby to look after and wanted to hear from him.

George Cander sent his little girl Mary to the Home for Waifs and Strays, promising to pay for her keep. But he didn't.

Pincher King wrote home from Melbourne. He was now a sub-inspector of sewers and his head-gaffer was Bob Johnson, late walking ganger' on the Long Drag — a kind of general foreman, 'walking' because he walked about and did no work. Pincher had been a nipper at Lindley Wood where he lodged with Mrs Leworthy next to the store with One Thumb Bob, Pretty Dick Draw, Snuffy Charlie and Cockney. He left for Australia with Gloucester Bill and Nobby Jones when the Eccup dam was starting (he was on the Long Drag himself, for a time). He was married, but he kept in touch with the few navvies in Melbourne — Teetotal Devon and. [86/87] Jimmy Dean, among them, though he particularly wanted to hear from Young Steamer Jack. Nobby Jones went to Tasmania when the banks on the New South Wales coalfield went broke. Joe Leworthy was last heard of in 1906, unloading stores at the Canadian Pacific's Winnipeg workshops. (A crane hurt another Leworthy in 1901 at the Hisehope dam, which now holds back a little lake like a scalene triangle, the dam-side longer than the shore-sides, on the Durham moors.)

1899: Peggy (he had a cork leg), a swarthy man, was asked to remember his landlady was a widow and couldn't afford to lose the money he owed her.

Patsy Bryan, a middle-aged man, eloped with a teenage girl from Dagenham Dock. A disgraceful scamp, said Mrs Garnett. His mates said if they caught him he'd get what he didn't want but did deserve.

1900: White Cockney's wife would forgive him if he gave up his wicked life with another woman. And signed the pledge. And made her a home.

Slop-making Ben, who carried his kit in a sugar bag, was mugged while on tramp near Sheffield. He lost his shirts, coat, and a pair of boots.

1901: Lizzie Mottershead, nearly six foot tall, living with Mad King, would hear something to her advantage if she got in touch with her mother.

1903: H Edgington warned his mates against Slen Jim at the Thornton Heath widening. 'First he stole ten shillings, then the landlady's purse, hid the money under the dog kennel, was bowled out and confessed. A regular thief, mates. Spot him, and beware.'

W Burgoyne warned against a scoundrel called John Evans. 'He got up at i a.m. to rob his bed-mate of 5.10s. that he had worked hard for, and sloped his landlady of twelve shillings lodging money. Is believed to have gone to Cray Waterworks. Look out for him, lads, and hunt him off any works.' In Mrs Garnett's opinion he was nothing but a disgusting thief.

Mrs G. was doubtful of a debt incurred by Gentleman Jimmy Drew, repayable at the Tanners' Arms, Grigglestone. Was it a drinking score?

Nottingham Rags sloped his landlady. 'Now, Rags,' advised [87/88] Mrs G., 'pay up and be respected.'

1904: Centrifugal hob-nailed away from Mrs Whitfield's cookhouse, a pair of stolen bluchers in his hand. Charles Jones denounced Gravesend Nobby alias Nobby Burton alias Nobby Melton, a ganger on the Dearne Valley railway. 'This rascal has to my knowledge broken up several homes and taken their wives away from their husbands, homes and families, Yours faithfully, Charles Jones.'

'What fools the wicked women are who go away and live in adultery,' said Mrs Garnett. 'What fools!'

Comic abandoned his family to the workhouse.

1906: Catherine Charlotte Barnes was a tall, dark-haired, }7-year old woman, tattooed with a hand shaking a hand on her right arm. She was last seen in mourning, with a younger man, shorter than herself, called Lightning, a walking ganger, crane man, or oily waste man, with a fair drooping moustache.

1910: Bill Archer drank a full week's wages at the Chew Valley dam. He mooched more money and vanished.

1911: Bill Heards, at Newport docks, sloped his landlady and several lodgers. 'Landladies, make this not in print version black gang man pay before he climbs,' urged Mrs Garnett.

In 1905 Mrs Ottaway was living in Green Street, Derby. 'Having just lost my husband, a thorough old tunnel miner and drainage man, I should like it put in Navvy Letter that some men from Derby Sewerage promised to come to act as bearers, and carry him to his grave, and not one turned up, causing me greater sorrow and expense, and I had no one. I had a carriage for them to pay for.'

Mrs Ottaway spoke for them all. 'I am as I am,' she said, 'and can't be no ammer.' [88/89]

Sources

All material from Quarterly Letter to Navvies (1878-1893) and its successor, the Quarterly Letter to Men on Public Works (1893-1933).


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Last modified 20 April 2006