Big contractors — the Lucas and Airds, the Brassey and Petos — were like homimds at the top of an evolutionary tree, slowly risen from more lowly creatures who'd once paddled in mud at the bottom. Contracting began on canals where the hierarchy under which the navvy lived was first fixed:


    consulting engineer

    resident engineer



    walking ganger



The contractor and the hagman were what mattered to the navvy and the contractor was the common story of the small getting big: the story of the small getting big twice, in fact. Telford got the contracting system just about right when the railways did an atavistic back-somersault to the messy fragmented ways of the earliest canals. The story of the small contractor getting big began again after the canal/railway break. Contractors at first were small enough to be navvies. Then they were bigger and inefficient. Then big and efficient. Then very big, very efficient, and international.

Early canals were made messily: a bit of direct labour here, the odd biggish contractor there, butty gangs here and there and, everywhere else, hundreds of one-man undertakers or taskers each undertaking a single task like cutting and puddling a short length of canal. The tasker was often a grosser navvy big enough to beat a fractious gang into submission. Sometimes they were called gangmasters or gangers, before the word meant a paid foreman.

A butty-gang was a contracting unit in itself, fit to undertake a task for a fixed sum. How the gang split the money was up to them. The word itself is cognate with buddy — the pal of the kind asked to spare a dime. It was a gang of equals, mates, pals, friends, or buddies. They were probably an importation from the coalfields and lasted, on public works as in the pits, into the twentieth century. [158/159]

In 1904 when frost stopped the job at Tidworth I went on tramp to Cheltenham. Stayed one night in Devizes, one night in Bath and the next night I slept rough in a barn of hay at Nailsworth. Then I went on to the Honeybourne and Cheltenham railway.

The contractor was Rowland Brothers and we worked the butty system there. Share and share alike. We were putting up a fence at the side of the track. You got half a crown for eleven post holes. That was one chain. There were five men in the gang and you got a shilling a chain for putting the post in and wiring up.

We were in a private lodge there, me and some bloke they called Cockney. Good lodge that was, too. Homely sort of place. Sixpence a night for tea and 'taters. The old landlord was a cowman on a farm. He was only getting twelve shillings a week.

So Christmas come and we got no money. The ganger kept it and did a slope. But the butty system was the best of the lot for navvies, long as some mush didn't make off with the money.

The Navvies' Union disliked butty messes. 'Butty messes are all right where the work is bound to be done piece-work,' they said, 'but whenever it is possible it should be put a stop to. It only means for a miserable additional pittance, gangs do twice the ordinary amount of work.'

At first canals lent taskers the tools they needed. In 1768 the Coventry even had its wheelbarrows made to order ('according to the Model lately sent from Staffordshire'), then had to hire men to watch them ('one man 2 Day watching Barrows — 0-2-0') and others to cart them about. It wasn't long before they realised they needn't bother and as early as 1774 the Chester canal decreed its taskers should find their own planks and barrows which, furthermore, they had to buy from the company as long as the company's stock of them lasted. Tools meant capital and the lack of it made it harder for the unbusinesslike to be their own masters: harder, but not impossible. The lone tasker lasted to the end.

Well, from Lunedale I went to the Chew Valley dam and after that to Patricroft, driving a> heading under a tram road for drains for rain water from Manchester. Sandrock, no timbering. You blasted at the bottom of the tunnel and chopped the overhang off with a hammer and wedge. I was getting twenty shillings a yard, thirty-five under the tram road, and out of that I paid a man six shillings a shift to shift [159/160] the muck. He wasn't a navvy, he was a local labourer. I was doing my own blasting with pills of gelignite.

On the other hand, it did not open public works to the more farsighted and businesslike and before long professional contractors were cheating navvies and swindling canal companies all over the country. Most did one job at a time, but some thought they could take on several simultaneously.

Charles Jones — Mancunian, mason, miner — was a one-job man. He'd been a tasker in the Norwood tunnel on the Chesterfield in the 1770s, and later was the tasker who failed to drive the first Blisworth tunnel on the Grand Junction in the '90s. He was also the man who at least half-bodied the Sapperton tunnel in the '80s. 'Vain, shifty and Artful in all his Dealings,' was what the Thames and Severn called him when he sued them in the Court of Chancery. At Sapperton, Jones was jailed three times for debt. Out of jail he drank and drove a slow and slipshod tunnel, not helped, it seems, by the Company. When he hit jointy rock they tried to make him enlarge the bore to make room for brickwork at his own expense. It may be they got him drunk, in some low-ceilinged inn in the lush Frome valley, to get him to sign a paper justifying what they'd done. Then, after engineering it so he could be fired if he missed work for twenty-eight consecutive days, he was jailed for debt, getting out only hours before the deadline to find the Company had sold his belongings, few as they were. His son promised to kill the clerk of works and was ordered out of the district.

'My Pasehons is Quite wore out,' said Jones.

Part of the arch at the western end where it emerges into the deep, deeply wooded Frome valley collapsed in the winter of 1784-5. No two parts of the tunnel joined and the bits that had been bored were unsafe because the masons couldn't get in to line them. You can still see the hole made by one roof fall. Next summer Jones was sacked, and sued the company in the Court of Chancery, but even Chancery, a slow and slumbrous place, dismissed the case after waiting some years without hearing from him. Once Jones had gone, the Thames and Severn hired groups of taskers, working round the clock. Walking through the woods overhead was like strolling on a volcano: explosions shook the ground with small earthquakes.

Canals had no great contractors, no Brasseys, Petos, or Walkers, iron-stiff with probity. At best they had the Pinkertons, a whole [160/161] family of them, all variously incompetent or corrupt. Near the end of his career John Pinkerton had a joint-contract on the Lancaster Canal with a Glaswegian called Murray, a rogue, like himself, in knee-breeches and wig. Their engineer they kept on the brink of despair. 'The clamour is raging you are to have Barrow Beck running into the canal this day — in point blank contradiction to the Act of Parliament,' cried Archibald Millar, that engineer, 'For God's sake do not be so very crazy.' Pinkerton took Fire too readily and quarrelled with everybody, particularly an elderly Scots contractor called Stevens (who robbed the King's highway of sand and left the public to fall into his unfilled holes). One day he and Pinkerton collided over who could take stone from a quarry. 'Gentlemen,' said Millar, equably for once, 'I very plainly see greed in both sides.'

On top of that, Pinkerton's work was poor and he was away most of the time on quite another contract on the Leeds-Liverpool. It was clear he had to go, and in the fall of 1795 his contract was rescinded. He went to the Barnsley broad boat canal until things went wrong there as well:, war-time inflation, to begin with, and unexpectedly bad rock. Pinkerton asked the company for more money and the company asked the same of him. The case, with its sheaves of ribboned, ink-fading paper, was in Chancery and then with York Assizes until 1812, when Pinkerton was told he'd lost. It was his last loss as it turned out: by then he was too old to work. By 1812, in fact, he'd been in the canal contracting business for the best part of half a century, beginning on the Driffield in 1768 with his brother James. (They were probably born at North Cave in the East Riding.) In 1772 they were joint-contractors on the Market Weighton, a canal which leaves the Humber but never quite reaches the town it's named after. In 1777 they were mucking up the Erewash — the banks and locks leaked and the company threatened to bring in proper workmen to mend them at the Pinkertons' expense.

John then contracted on his own until in 1785 he nearly wrecked the Dudley tunnel by cladding it with bad bricks. He had to pay to get out of that contract, before it ruined him. Then he was in trouble at Greywell on the Basingstoke and his Greywell troubles, whatever they were, kept Winchester Assizes busy almost to the end of the century. Squabbles over the Birmingham-Fazeley lasted fifteen years and the physical faults he left in the canal weren't cleared up for another quarter century after that. [161/162] The Birmingham-Fazeley company claimed he bodged the puddling and built the locks of stacks of poor unbonded bricks and brick-ends. Only the bricks facing outward were good. On top of that he drove them a tunnel at Curdworth when they distinctly asked for a cutting.

'He was too moderate,' Pinkerton said of himself in the third person, 'and too gentle to secure his own interest against the falsehood and calumny, with which little, mean, and envious individuals assailed his character, and poisoned the minds of the Company's Committee.'

He claimed his work was blameless, blaming the envy, lies and spite of the company's officials for what happened to him and the canal. The officials the company hired, he said, were of very low quality. Bough, the engineer, was 'at once vicious and needy, too ignorant to penetrate a. hypocritical disguise and too low bred not to consider the head clerk a very great man.' (One of the officials was little, mean and envious enough to sue for libel. As a result Pinkerton spent a month brooding on the meanness of mankind and his own misfortunes in the bawling chaos of an early-nineteenth-century jail.) Men like Pinkerton, however, rarely got the chance again, on canals. Men like Telford saw to that.

By the 1820s Harecastle tunnel on the Trent and Mersey was in a terrible mess — people could still just about leg through, panting in the bad air, their boats filling the sagging bore like corks in a bottle neck. But Telford's contractors, Pritchard and Hoof, did in three years what Brindley took eleven to do and left Harecastle Hill with two black holes (one small, the other smaller) and a broad, brown, boat-marshalling yard at its foot.

On the Liverpool-Birmingham John Wilson and William Provis contended not only with the boldness of Telford's engineering, but also with the terrain and with landlords. Wilson had to build a wide-curving embankment near Nantwich to keep the canal clear of somebody's property. The bank slipped, dolloping down in great lumps into a public lane. Wilson died before the bank was heavy enough to be stable but his sons carried on.

Provis had the Shelmore Great Bank. It splayed. Its bottom oozed out. Then it sank in the middle, like sad cake. The worry of it is said to have killed Telford. Nothing cured it save, ultimately, Provis's perseverance in dumping muck. (Today it's a fine wooded embankment, laced with water, pierced by narrow road tunnels, a [162/163] solid bit of landscape.) What was so galling was that the bank was a diversion, a loop, to give Lord Anson's game birds a place in which to live lives of unhindered rusticity preparatory to being shot to death by gentlemen with flintlocks. Provis also contended with Knighton reservoir, which leaked, and the Knighton branch line, which sank bodily into the Weald Moors. At Cowley they planned a long tunnel but instead got a short one with a long approach cutting because the rock was so rotten.

Regression came with the railways when hagmen, the most reviled creatures on public works, came back into their own grubbing greedily away like maggots, parasiting off better men.

'The Devil has a lot of sub-contractors,' said Thomas Walker, the contractor. 'A bad lot, I tell you.'

John Ward once wrote part of a novel, Rude Reality, in which Joe Warren, the young hero, is promoted from fat-boy to turn-out without the pay rise. He asks the hag for his extra money just as a train is derailed. 'To ask a hag for more money is to ask him to part with his life, and a crime never to be forgiven. Though poor Joe was nearly a half-mile way, he was evidently the cause of the accident: in fact the impiety of his ambition for more brass would have thrown any self-respecting engine off ordinary metals.'

'Send that bloody thing about his business,' the hag roars at Stafford George, the ganger.

'What for?' asks Stafford. 'The nipper had nothing to do with it. If he's to be sacked for nothing, I go too.'

But the man was utterly lost to humanity: corrupted by greed, hollowed by avarice. He docked Joe's wages to help pay for repairs to the running road.

'Do you call yourself a man to cheat a lad who is practically an orphan?'

'I cheat no one.'

'No one, that's true, but all who have any transaction with you.'

But if the early railways brought back the hags, they also brought out a new kind of man who was about to become suddenly rich. Fortunes in those early days were made casually. George Wythes, who died rich, became a railway contractor when railway contracting began. Eighteen thousand pounds was the figure he first thought of for his first tender. Add a couple of thousand, said his wife. Double it, she said before going to bed. Double it again, she said over breakfast. Even then it was the lowest tender and the [163/164] bedrock of Mr Wythes's fortune. In the early 18405 people based tenders on guesses — or 'formulae' — about how much muck a gang could shovel in a year, an hour, a day, a month. If your figures were wrong in the right direction fortunes dropped into your palms: otherwise you left gangs of unpaid men behind you.

The fortunes, for those who caught them, could be spectacular. More cash passed through Thomas Brassey's counting houses than through the treasuries of half a dozen European principalities. And Brassey began as a salaried land agent in what has since become urban Birkenhead. He helped Telford survey the Holyhead road, then George Stephenson find stone for the Sankey viaduct on the Liverpool-Manchester. On Stephenson's advice he went into the railway business himself.

Like Napoleon, Brassey had two-o'clock-in-the-morning-courage. 'Never take your troubles to your pillow,' he always said. He was self-contained, self-sufficient, a man who quickly costed work in his head and lived contentedly with the consequences whatever they were. On top of that he was good at choosing people. Once, when he was worried about taking the Great Northern across the Fens (in one place the weight of a man made an acre of ground quiver like a big flat jelly) he met Stephen Ballard, by chance, on Cambridge railway station. Although they were strangers Brassey hired him on the spot. Ballard, ex-nurseryman, ex-manager of the Gloucester and Hereford canal, floated the railway over the bog on a sandwich of faggots and peat sods, which slowly sank, squeezing out the water, leaving behind whatever was solid. 'He remembered even the navvies,' said his biographer, 'and saluted them by their names.' They didn't forget him either — Brassey's benching was a particularly laborious way of filling wagons from below their wheel bases (which meant you were stooped double one moment and were bolt-upright the next flinging muck in an arc over your head. Do that for ten hours at a stretch and muscles harden till they're brittle enough to crack). There was even a song about him:

I'm a nipper, I'm a tipper,
I'm a navvy on the line,
I worked for Thomas Brassey
And he gave me two and nine. [164/165]

They gave his son an earldom to match the family income.

Joseph Firbank started work at seven pushing baskets from the coal-face of a Durham pit. At nights he bought himself an education of sorts at sixpence a time before starting out again as a navvy on the Bishop Auckland and Weardale where he saw there was money in contracting. To get his hands on some of it he set up in business as a bagman at the Woodhead tunnel, a dank, bleak hole, slobbering water, legendary among navvies as an easy place to die, a hard place to live — except it was good to Firbank who went on to make a lot of money. Thirty years later he stood to lose a hundred thousand pounds on the Long Drag because of inflation caused by the Franco-Prussian War.

But Firbank was exceptionally lucky, or gifted. By mid-century it was almost too hard for the really poor-born to make money out of railways. Only people like Samuel Morton Peto could do that — men born half-winners to begin with: rich enough to have expectations of success, poor enough to have to try.

Peto (1809-1889) was the son of a farmer and, more importantly, nephew of a London builder who left him half his business when he was still young. (Peto almost lost his first contract because he looked too young. He said he would wear spectacles next time to make himself look mature.)

Between 1850 and the mid-'60s money for new railways was scarce: the existing lines paid low dividends, capital outlay was high, fixed interest rates cut profits, you waited years for any dividend at all, and the most obviously profitable routes were already in business. But contractors were now capitalists with money tied up in staff and equipment and it paid them to 'buy' contracts by helping to finance new railways in some way: by taking shares instead of cash, perhaps, or by buying shares themselves, or by paying the deposit while Parliament considered the company's proposals. Sometimes a contractor bought the land, paid the engineer, and guaranteed interest on capital while the line was building — as long as he got the contract. Contractors even helped finance the building of railways, constructed them, and then ran them. Peto, Brassey and Betts ran the London, Tilbury and Southend after they'd built it. In this way Peto made Lowestoft into a port and a sea-town out of a fishing village. The navigation company which had dredged the channel through the beach at Lowestoft (to make Norwich into a sea-port) was bankrupt. Peto and Grissel bought the company, [165/166] built a railway to Reedham, channelled and dredged the cut across the beach, built quays, wharves, a fish market, a town. All the same the Overend, Gurney banking crash of 1866 hurt Peto and he ended his days on a Cornish mineral railway.

By now there was a certain continuity among the big contractors: Thomas Walker started life with Brassey in Staffordshire and went with him to the Grand Trunk railroad in Canada. Then he worked with Peto and Betts on the London underground before setting up on his own (his first contract was the tube line from Whitechapel to Brunel's old Thames tunnel). He built Barry and Preston Docks, bored the Severn tunnel and dug the Manchester Ship Canal. Men like Peto and Walker did a lot for the navvy, in their way. Peto spent a thousand pounds a year of his own money hiring preachers, not only to preach, but to teach them to read. Walker likewise gave them schools, hospitals and churches. But at the same time Walker in particular was an autocrat who would brook no discontented workmen — or strikers.

Last modified 23 April 2006