Decemberorated initial W

alker once broke a strike at the Severn tunnel in less than a week. The Great Western men he inherited with the contract had a grudge against him from the beginning — until he took over they worked leisurely eight-hour shifts: firing a shot, taking a break, shifting the muck, knocking off. Walker wanted a longer day with two tight meal breaks, making for efficient ten-hour shifts. Shots would be fired before snap-time to let the fumes clear while the men did something at least marginally useful to Walker, like feeding themselves.

One Saturday in May 1881, a notice was chalked over the main shaft. 'I hope the bloody bond will break, and kill any man that goes down to work.' The night men wouldn't go down — instead they went to the pub and came back sullen and untalking. Walker left his office.

'Now what do you fellows want?' The men shuffled. "Now tell me what you want?' Walker said again, 'and don't stop hanging about here.'

One said: 'We wants the eight hour shift.'

'My good men, said Walker, 'you'll never get that, if you stop here for a hundred years. You'd better get your money as soon as you can, and go.'

They went, though not far. On Tuesday Walker laid off the carpenters and blacksmiths — who straightaway threatened the strikers with a good hiding. Thursday and Friday the strike began to crack: next week it broke apart.

Turn-outs or strikes on canals were usually broken, rather than settled, by locking-out the strikers and hiring new men. More often than not it worked. It was the way Mr Cartwright, assistant engineer on the Lancaster, broke the strike for more pay on the Lune aqueduct in the Spring of 1794. The new men were content enough, or cowed enough, till harvest time, when they struck. [167/168] 'Mr Cartwright,' Archibald Millar, the resident engineer, reported1, 'endeavoured all that he could to have all the Carpenters & Labourers at work, flattering them with Encouragement of Beer on the one side and threatening those who did not come should have no more Employment at the Aqueduct. The Scots men, Particularly the Carpenters, paid no respect.' He added, 'I hope and expect a little time will correct these combinations. The Harvest will not last always.'

Harvests and navvy-shortages caused by the Napoleonic War sometimes gave the men the upper hand, briefly. (Sir Charles Morgan, in 1793, asked Parliament to compel navvies to harvest his barley at wages he fixed. 'I despair of getting in the corn,' he threw up his hands when the Commons threw out his Bill at its First Reading.) Men boating muck to the Lune 'turned out for larger prices' in 1796 and, perhaps because of wartime labour shortages, they may have won — a few weeks later Millar grumbled that wages were now so high the boat emptiers would no longer work full-time. On railways it was much the same. Strikes were rare, and rarely successful. (The corollary of navvy freedom was that they were solitary men. They were not joiners, or combiners.) Men on the Slamannan and Edinburgh and Glasgow Junction struck for more money early in 1846. Soon, half of them wanted to go back to work, except they were frightened of the half who didn't. Police were brought in from Falkirk and the men who still wanted to strike were fired. Dozens of little flash-strikes in the '40s were like it.

In 1886 the Manchester Guardian reported that men on the Thirlmere dam had struck for more pay. 'Large numbers of men are flocking to the district seeking employment,' the story ended. So, presumably, did the strike.

Until the end of the 1850s a navvy would have been quite rich with a lot less than his nominal pay — if the weather had let him earn it, and if truckmasters, sloping gangers, gangers with crooked measuring sticks, and the long gaps between pay-days hadn't robbed him of it.

Truck on public works was probably as old as navvying. 'It has [168/169] been the custom for the last hundred years,' said Peto a little inaccurately in 1846, 'ever since they commenced making canals.' (Some canals we know were sensitive about their officials selling things to navvies. James Hook, a counter (a kind of timekeeper), on the Hereford and Gloucester had his wages raised in 1793 to persuade him not to. He was later fired for asking for more.)

Truck, the word, comes from a Norman-French verb meaning to shop or barter, and as a way of cutting wages — by paying workmen in goods rather than coin — it dates at least from the early 15th century when Colchester Corporation banned it in their town. 'No weaver shall be compelled to take any merchandise or victuals for his wages against his will, but only gold or silver.' Pre-nineteenth century truckmasters characteristically gave overpriced goods or groceries in place of money. Workmen either ate their wages or sold them at a loss. Either way it was a pay cut. Nineteenth century truckmasters on the other hand more normally gave money wages, as long as most of it came back across their truck-shop counters. The image is irresistably Dickensian; grubbily mittened, multi-caped creatures fingering iron-bound coffers smeared with candle grease.

At first sight, truck as practised on public works seems less grasping than elsewhere: only men drawing subs in the long pay gaps were forced to accept it — if you could last two, four, six, eight weeks without pay, you got full money wages. But if you needed money between pay days — if you had debts, a drink habit, were a gambler, or the pay gap was just too long — you were given a ticket which was worthless anywhere but in the truck-shop. Truck, as practised on public works, seems to have come from the coalfields, brought in perhaps with the colliers who worked the early canal tunnels. A Royal Commission looking into truck in 1871 took as an example a colliery in South Wales. What they found was very like what happened on public works. Pay day at the pit was the second Saturday in the month. In between were official draw-days when you could pick up — in cash — some of your wages. Between the draw-days were the lie-days when money already earned lay in the company's books. Cash could never be drawn on lie-days. Instead you were given tommy tickets, usable only in the company's overpriced store. (Overpriced, apologists claimed, to finance what amounted to a loan to the miner and to pay for the clerks' extra work.)

The tommy ticket told the counter clerk how much the collier's [169/170] wife could spend. When she'd ordered what she wanted, the counter clerk chalked the price on the cover of an advance book which she took to the cashier who gave her cash to that amount. Then she went back to the counter clerk, gave him the money and collected her groceries. People who slipped away clutching the cash and abandoning the goods were called slopers, the origin presumably of the word on public works.

On public works, similarly, you could sub only out of your lying time — untouched earnings lying to your credit in the company's books or the ganger's faulty memory. The ganger wrote out a tommy ticket, often on a crudely printed chit like the one from the Edinburgh-Hawick railway shown to the 1846 Committee.

Work ..... Borthwick . . 184 ...

Mr Govan,

At the request of ...... No ...... give him goods to the amount ...... to account, or in advance of wages that may be due to him by Messrs Wilson and Moor, and place the same to their debit.

By appointment.

At the Summit tunnel, where the pay gap was not uncommonly nine weeks, beer-tickets were easier to get than tommy tickets. You could get a tommy ticket only at fixed times: beer tickets were yours for the asking, up to and even beyond your lying time.

Beer tickets were good only in the bagman's own trackside tom-and-jerry or in a pub where he'd done a deal with the landlord. Either way, the barmen kept the score and since the navvy was often illiterate and in any case always drank to get drunk, he had no way of checking he wasn't being cheated. Frequently he was. Tommy tickets, likewise, were good only in the hagman's own store, or in a shop where he'd done a deal with the shopkeeper — generally a ten per cent commission on all captive navvy business. Even if the navvy asked for cash, he was given a cashable ticket out of which a penny in the shilling was docked as commission.

They give us great wages,' said a navvy at the Summit tunnel in the '4o0, 'but they take it all from us again.'

Four theories have been put forward to explain truck. Perhaps the least likely — but most widely believed at the time — saw it as a way of controlling drunkenness. Others saw it as a way of binding the servant to his master through debt. A third theory said it was because of a shortage of small coins and a poorly developed system [170/171] of personal credit. (Which may have been partly true on canals. Pinkerton paid his men on the Basingstoke in tokens, presumably because of a lack of coin, and before they went on the rampage the Sampford Peverel rioters had trouble changing their tokens for cash.) But perhaps the most reasonable (perhaps even the real) reason for truck fits public works most comfortably. Truck, says this theory, needed two things — unmoneyed masters and high-earning workers. Unmoneyed masters, by dictionary definition, couldn't pay money wages, but credit for goods and groceries was easy to come by. This theory, then, predicts that truck would be practised not by the big and rich but by the small and poor: and everywhere this does seem to be true — butties in coal-pits, petty-foggers among nailers, bagmen in the hosiery trade, ganger-hagmen on public works. Until nearly the time of the Crimean War, hags were often only navvies able to supply and subdue a gang of men. Truck's culprits and victims were navvies.

And hags often were victims. Head-contractors defrauded them. One ganger on the Trent Valley line in the 1840 nearly starved to death when his contractor refused to pay him, denying they had ever agreed a contract to alter the bed of a stream. Corrupted witnesses called to corroborate the contractor's testimony refused to perjure themselves when they reached the witness box. But, 'You have no jurisdiction,' the contractor told the court, walking away free.

John Deacon told the 1846 Committee he had kept tommy-shops on several sub-contracts. He was under-capitalised, the head contractor paid him once a fortnight and he needed some way of paying his footloose navvies. Tickets were a sort of paper money: men about to leave sold them at a loss to people with money who were staying. 'Though you got', Deacon admitted, 'better men for Sometimes bad luck forced good contractors into truck. Anna Tregelles knew one in South Wales in 1847. At first he did all right and paid cash wages. Then he took on a second contract which turned out to be all wet muck and contrary rock. Blasting shot fountains of top soil in the air but left the rock uncleft. In summer it wasn't too bad. He switched men from good to bad contracts and everybody made money. In winter, the good high-earners wouldn't work the bad ground. The contractor got poorer. He opened a tommy shop to get his money back. At first he paid half in cash, half truck. Money got scarcer, his food poorer. Meat was [171/172] discontinued. Thin strips of poor bacon took its place. Soon his tickets were worth only half their face value when it came to things like boots. Good navvies left. Make-shift men, previously unemployable, were taken on.

Altogether Parliament brought out twenty-eight pieces of anti-truck legislation though the Truck Act is generally thought of as the one Edward Littleton introduced in 1831. Littleton was MP for Staffordshire where truck was most rampant, particularly among nail-making petty-foggers, iron-masters and coal-owners of the smaller sort. Littleton was an owner of the bigger sort, out to ruin his little truck-mastering competitors. The Bill itself was largely drafted by William Huskisson, a man better known as the first railway accident statistic, killed as he was by a loco the day the Liverpool-Manchester opened. The Act in fact was pretty ineffective, seeing that all prosecutions were private and not many folk wanted to litigate themselves on to a bosses' blacklist. Besides, bad as truck was, it was better than no wages. This Act as well missed out navvies. 'At the time my Bill was passed,' Littleton said, 'several Railways and Canals were being constructed, where it was necessary for the Contractors to have shops. I could not resist the Appeal made to except their cases. Perhaps the same reasons do not exist now.

They probably didn't exist in 1831 either. Shopkeepers would wait in a wildnerness if there was money at the end of it, Peto implied to the 1846 Committee. He told them, 'At one place I saw several butchers' carts, loaded with meat, and the butchers' men crying out 'Who wants a fine leg of mutton?' At Ely you'd see thirty or forty bakers' carts, all piled up with bread, going into the Fens on Saturday, to supply my men.'

But even though the 1831 Act didn't apply to public works there were at least three prosecutions under it. A hag called Riley took a sub-contract under a man called Warden on the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton. Warden paid in tommy tickets: Riley sued under the Truck Act; the case was tried at Gloucester Summer Assizes, 1847. The Judge began by ruling the case could be heard because, although the contract was to make a railway cutting, clay from it was used to make bricks and brickmakers came under the Truck Act. The jury ruled that Riley was an employer, not a labourer: the fact that he navvied alongside his men was immaterial — he still expected to make a profit from [172/173] their work. The Judge gave him leave to appeal to the Court of Exchequer to get his debt settled in coin as well as groceries, but the Exchequer Court judges also ruled he was an employer, that employers were excluded from the Act, and that he could therefore be paid in goods.

The other case was tried a year or so later in Grimsby, where the tommy shop on the dock was the contractor's afterthought: cash wages had been paid long enough, in 1850, to give local shopkeepers a taste of navvy money. So when Hutchings, the contractor, set up his own tommy shop, Grimsby's tradesmen set up a Reform Association to challenge it. William Parker, shopkeeper, took a ticket from a dock navvy in payment of an account and asked Hutchings to cash it. All Parker had to do in court was prove that Hutchings refused to do so. Hutchings claimed the case was not covered by the Act and brought in witnesses, timekeepers, hags, and other time-servers, to speak in favour of the tommy system. All twelve hundred men at the dock were happy with it, they claimed. 'If this were correct,' said the Wolverhampton Chronicle, 'why were not some of these men brought to prove the fact? The poor fellows are paid monthly in cash, if they can wait so long. If not, they must either take tommy or starve.' Judge Smith found against Hutchings. 'I never gave a decision with greater pleasure and satisfaction to my own mind,' he said, 'and this I do fearlessly, feeling satisfied that I have tangible grounds for the validity and legality of the verdict.'

Some magistrates, too, inclined to common justice whatever the law said. In the 1850s William Palk, a gentleman of no fixed employment, advised navvies who couldn't get cash, even as change in a truck transaction, to sue their contractor in the Exeter Guildhall. More than that, he found a lawyer to plead their case. The magistrates found for the men and made the contractor give them their money, which he did just before firing them, and just after parading an unruly bunch of drunks through the streets waving banners proclaiming how good his truck shop really was. Stafford Prince, who lost his job, gave Palk a pair of singing canaries.

Legally, navvies didn't come under the Truck Acts until 1887 by which time truckmasters were in any case long gone from public works, put out of business by the new big contractors. Right from the beginning, in fact, the truckmaster's end was in the hands of [173/174] engineers like Brunel who had anti-truck clauses written into his contracts ('if you can trust a man for a shilling's worth of provisions you can trust him for a shilling'). Brunel's anti-truck clauses don't seem to have worked too well. The same flaxen haired navvy Mayhew met in Cripplegate told him: 'After I left the Brummagem line, I went on to the Great Western. I went to work at Maidenhead. There it was the same system, and on the same rules — the poor man being fleeced and made drunk by his master.' Peto seems to have been effective, for he only sub-contracted to moneyed hagmen, each of whom had to deposit a tenth of his contract price (some were worth 3000) in token of keeping the rules. The rules were strict: no truck to begin with, and weekly pay. Timekeepers told the office on Friday afternoons what the week's wages were going to be and coin in sealed bags was ready for the gangers by noon next day.

"You are not aware,' Peto asked a witness called before the Select Committee examining the 1854 Payment of Wages Bill, 'that on 17/20ths of public works, the truck system is abolished by the contractors themselves ?' In spite of the curiously precise arithmetic he was probably right. Truck certainly didn't bother the union when it was formed, any more than did the sloping gangers and the long pay-gap which so exercised the 1846 Committee. In all cases the cause was the same: the penniless hag.

Penniless hags, as well, made it unlikely a navvy was ever paid what he earned. The long pay-gap, itself, was a device for confusing the unlettered man about what he was owed and some people ended the month owing money to the truck-ganger. Men were paid, half-drunk, in small coins picked out of a basin in the middle of a taproom, then hustled away to count it in a corner. If a man was short-paid it was his word against the ganger's and his henchmen. And if all else failed, the ganger could just refuse to pay anything and, since the contracts they made between themselves were not covered by law, the navvy had to put up with being robbed. It all made what a navvy was supposed to be paid slightly academic.

Proto-navvies on the Bridgewater are said to have got tenpence a day — five shillings a six-day week. In November, 1774, the Chester committee ordered: That the Daywage Men on the Canal be paid only 16d per Day for the best Hands and Others hired as Low as they can.' The strike on the Lune in 1794 was for fourteen shillings a week and a ten-hour shift, which may mean they already earned ten or twelve shillings.

The wages of contemporary farm labourers varied with distance [174/175] from London. In the 1790s a Berkshire farm hand could expect to earn seven shillings a week for most of the year, ten shillings at harvest time. In Kent he could expect nine to ten shillings throughout the year. But in remoter Westmorland a man, his wife and three children between them could expect only eleven or twelve shillings a week. On his own, the man's wages were probably five or six shillings.

The Napoleonic War doubled prices from threepence to sixpence for muck shifting, but navvies' wages went up only locally. Men on war-work on the Royal Military Canal still only earned thirteen and sixpence a week in 1807. On the Caledonian some got only eighteen pence a day — nine shillings a six-day week. But when Thomas Thatcher advertised for diggers at the Floating Harbour in Bristol in 1804 he promised at least five shillings a day. If not, 'I will advance the price of work so that every good workman I may employ shall get such wages.' 'You cannot get a good Navigator under three shillings a day,' George Stephenson said in 1832. Henry Palmer, an engineer who employed Navigators on the London Dock in 1832, said, 'Eighteen shillings was the lowest I paid, (even for Irish labourers.)'.

Between 1847 and 1877 beef prices rose nearly forty per cent. Mutton went up fifty per cent, potatoes, a hundred per cent. Rents doubled. Mechanics wages rose by fifty per cent. Labourers' — not navvies' — by sixtv-four per cent.

Comparable weekly wages

Year 1843 1846 1849 1851 1855 1857 1860 1865 1866 1869
Getters (pickmen) 16/6 24/- 18/- 15/- 19/- 18/- 17/- 19/- 20- 18/-
Fitters (muck shifters) 15/- 22/6 16/6 14/- 17/- 17/- 16/- 17/- 18/- 17/-
Masons 21/- 33/- 24/- 21/- 25/6 24/- 22/6 24/- 27/- 27/-

Common labourers between 1851 and 1869 earned from ten-and-six to twelve-and-six a week. Coal-getters got between fifteen and twenty shillings.

Translating old money into modern equivalents is difficult, but perhaps twenty 1845 shillings roughly approximated to twenty-five [175/176] 1980 pounds. At the top of their tide, therefore, the nineteenth century navvy only earned around 50 a week at 1980 rates and even then he needed to work at least fifty per cent longer. Adjusting for hours worked, the navvy's best wages were perhaps as little as 20 a week at today's rates. Not a lot when you consider how it was earned: lifting over two hundred tons of matter over your head every week, sledge-hammering drills by candle-light, straining up a barrow-run with the weight of muck stretching your shoulder muscles till you thought they'd never pull back into shape again.

1846 and 1866 were the peak years for navvies. Never again in peacetime did they do so well either relative to the cost of living, or to what the rest of the country earned. Men at Thirlmere and on the Manchester Ship Canal in the late 1880s and early 1890s still only got fourpence-ha'penny an hour — twenty shillings a sixty-hour week. In the depression of the early 1880s, in fact, John Ward claimed there'd been an actual reduction in wages which in the south western counties were down to between half-a-crown and three-and-sixpence a day. He had himself worked on the Swindon and Marlborough for half-a-crown, sixpence less than the men of fifty years ago.

Between 1902 and 1909 the cost of living rose by four or five per cent; between 1909 and 1913 by nine per cent. Wages by now were not uncommonly fivepence or sixpence an hour, even sevenpence in London. Men at the Alwen dam in North Wales were offered sixpence-ha'penny an hour in 1913, the year the Union persuaded firms in Birmingham to pay sevenpence for the first time (thirty-five shillings, that is, for a sixty-hour week).

These of course are fixed hourly rates. Navvies themselves preferred either the butty system or payment by the piece of work done. Contractors preferred paying by the yard. 'The reason is quite plain,' said John Ward. The hole gets all shapes, and the navvy is unable to measure it; the contractor's agent measures it, however, with the result that if you count the waggons this week, and get so much money, next week you may send out more waggons and get less wages.' But, unswindled, piecemen earned the most. Piecemen working in Chat Moss on the Liverpool and Manchester earned up to the three-and-sixpence a day as early as 1827.

The Great War raised wages more than did the one against Napoleon. In 1917 men on new canal works at Rood End Lane, in Birmingham, were offered tenpence-ha'penny an hour with [176/177] bonuses for good timekeeping. After the War things were never the same again. Wages now were fixed by a Civil Engineering Construction and Conciliation Board who graded jobs in classes from V to I, with a special London rate above that, according to how urbanised an area was. The Union, now the Public Works and Constructional Operatives', along with other societies representing public works men (such as the Transport and General Workers') had to get jobs reclassified to get more pay. In the winter of 1920 the PW&CO won an increase for men at the Hurstwood dam near Burnley by convincing the Industrial Court the dam was in a congested area. Wages went up to two-and-a-penny an hour. In 1923 the TGWU took credit for getting Harwich reclassified as a Grade III (small industrial) town with a farthing an hour increase in wages.

Wages were index-linked and when in 1930 the cost of living dropped four points, wages, according to the Working Rule Agreement, had to drop an ha'penny an hour. The Trade Union side put in for a penny all round increase which was accepted by the Employers' Federation and eventually the Conciliation Board, on which both sides had representatives.

Comparable yearly wages

Farm labourer4882

These, though, are best-case wages. In reality few men earned that much consistently. Bad weather halted all earnings for nearly half of 1871 on Firbank's Lichfield and Croxall contract. Twenty-four days were worked in May, the best month; only twelve in Februaryruary, the worst.

The Irish as well, often worked for less — one of the reasons they were segregated into all-Irish gangs and perhaps the main reason for many of the riots of the '30s and '40s. The riot in which Stephenson was swept up on the North Midland line in 1838 was caused, said the Leeds Mercury, by the Irish working for 'less rate of wages.' (A troop of artillery with a field gun was sent for, as well as the local Yeomanry.)

In the early days, what the pay was supposed to be, even what [177/178] you had earned, was sometimes immaterial: you got paid when the company had money to spare. In Januaryuary 1795 a meeting of the Stratford canal was attended not only by the committee but by a great number of navvies as well. 'Very Clamerous for the Money due to them,' say the minutes of the meeting, 'and also being in great distress for the want of the same. In order to preserve peace and quietness the Committee promised them that Money should shortly be remitted to pay them.' The Huddersfield Narrow was an expensive waterway: only twenty miles long but crammed with locks, aqueducts, reservoirs and tunnels — and one of them, the Standedge, was the highest and longest in Britain. Floods damaged the canal's banks in Augustust 1799 and by the following March there was no money for wages. In Decemberember the committee decided to pay in full those workmen who were owed up to thirty pounds: men owed more than that got five shillings in the pound.

Then, hagmen ran away. Richard Hudson abandoned his contract on the Basingstoke canal in Decemberember 1788 and left his men, country people, not navvies, unpaid. John Pinkerton promised the local labourers he would re-let the work as soon as the frosts broke: they would be able to elect their own gangers and they would all be paid fortnightly. Simon Hamor quit the Leeds and Liverpool in a hurry in July 1791, leaving his debts behind him.

Navvies had no redress, nor were they the stuff trade unionists are made of.[178/179]

Last modified 24 April 2006