It was at Chew Valley I Joined the Navvies' Union, at a public in Greenfield called the Red Sign. Colonel John Ward, he started it and I see him once outside the Lamplighters in Avonmouth shouting to join him, but I spoke to his second in command at Chew — a little old feller called Gardener. 'If you don't join the Union you're nothing but cowards and curs to your very hearts.'

Later they joined the All-together Union and went bust.

1889 was bright and hot and in the heat and sunlight of that summer the semi-skilled in London had two great victories. In July the Beckton gasworkers won a reduction in their working day almost for the asking. Then a small society of tea warehousemen led by Ben Tillett put in a claim for sixpence an hour — the 'Docker's Tanner' — and a guaranteed minimum four-hour day. Tillett organised bands of music, marches, and daily mass meetings in the bright sunlight on Tower Hill. Money came from as far away as Australia. In five weeks Tillett won.

Until then unions had mainly been for artisans or workers like pitmen and cotton-spinners. In the eighteenth century they began as combinations of craftsmen exposed to the world by the decline of their guilds and by the removal of State regulations on labour and wages. All combinations, of masters and men, were suppressed from 1799-1800 because of Parliament's fear of Jacobinism. The Combination Laws were repealed in 1824 without having noticeably suppressed anything. The word 'Union' became more common, particularly in shipping and ship-building, but unions were still mainly self-help societies for artisans, offering short-stay lodgings to fellow-members tramping for work, for example. They were exclusive (they worried a lot about the numbers of apprentices in their trades) and they were very concerned with sickness and old age benefits. [179/180] In the early 1840s a new kind of unionism began among miners, engineers and cotton-spinners, trades created or strengthened by the> Industrial Revolution. In the 1850s the engineers organised the first national union with a London headquarters while a meeting of trade unions and trades councils in 1868 is generally held to be the beginning of the Trades Union Congress.

Some trades working alongside navvies had combined, off and on, several times since 1824. The Operatives' Builders' Union (it had a Grand Lodge and a Builder's Parliament) was a reaction to the way contractors were coming between employers and craftsmen, itself a development perhaps from canal practice. 1834 was the year the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union organised the first protest march — over the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It was also the year Cubitt, the building contractor, locked out his workers for boycotting beer from a non-union brewery. Employers demanded their workmen sign 'the document', a pledge not to join a union at all. A Builders' Labourers' Union was formed for a time during a dispute in 1859. In 1872, Patrick Kenney founded a General Amalgamated Union by its name potentially open to navvies — but it too declined and Kenney was later jailed for pinching spoons from the Holborn Restaurant at a Trades Union Congress dinner. But the Beckton gasworkers and Tillett's dockers began something quite new. As the hot summer of 1889 cooled and, in London, Hansom cabs like upright coffins-for-two briskly clopped in the gaslit fog of autumn and winter, ardent young men, mostly socialists, began organising everybody in sight: waitresses and shop assistants, Post Office Letter Sorters, labourers of all kinds.

For navvies there was the Navvies', Bricklayers' Labourers' and General Labourers' Union, founded in the autumn of 1889, possibly in London, possibly on the Manchester Ship Canal, possibly in both places simultaneously. 'The Class War,' said the new union, leaves no room for invidious distinctions, craft jealousies, or unorganised forces. The workers of each and every occupation must combine or starve, and the trade unions of all must federate or die. Just as the coal-dust of the miner is as honorable as the type-dust of the printer, so the hod-carrier and the navvy, with their few paltry pence per hour, are at least as important social and industrial factors as the grasping and over-paid contractor or employer.'

"The struggle of the future is between riches and poverty, [180/181] between labor and idleness, between justice and legalised plunder.'

'Our motto is "Union — no dogs or blacklegs need apply"; our programme is "Less work, more money, and better securities of life, limb, and labor"; and our ultimate object is not one-third or two-thirds, but that full three-thirds of the rightful dues of all Labor, of which Labor has so long been deprived by Monopoly, and which can only be attained by the realisation of that Social Commonwealth to which we look forward with confidence and with hope — where all will share fairly in both the work and the pleasure of life.'

To this end — ORGANISE, AGITATE, ACT!' They listed the reasons for joining. Among them:

Union equals strength. Disunion equals weakness equals insult, insecurity, ignorance, injustice, joylessness.

If you want to be free, free yourself.

Why are rent-thieves, profit-grinders, money-mongers so rich? They stick together. Imitate the enemy.

Everybody's doing it — even washerwomen and sandwich- boardmen.

The union, when it takes control, will deny non-unionists work.

It's cheap, now. Later, it will be dear.

Unions are going to take over Parliament and re-create the world.

('If all this does not seem to your mind sufficient reason why you - yes, YOU! — should join the Union or give it (whether openly or secretly we don't care) your support at once — why, then, you are either a capitalist, a fool, an enemy, a blind mole, an old fossil, or a BLACKLEG!')


John Ward, M. P.

John Ward, General Secretary right into the 1930s, always said he began it all, but then, in 1891, so did Arthur Humphreys. Doubtless it was both of them, along with a few others. Humphreys, the first General Secretary, was not born a navvy. He became one on the Ely Railway in the Fens. For a time he worked for Walker at the Millwall Dock and the Whitechapel Underground. At Whitechapel, Walker wanted to lower wages but Humphreys (said Humphreys) led a strike against him and won.

Leonard Hall, the Union's first District Organising Secretary and [181/182] editor of its short-running newspaper, the Navvy's Guide, was a middle-class boy, a doctor's son from Cumbria, forced by family troubles into working as a nipper on the Lancashire-Yorkshire line when he was thirteen. Then he sailed steerage into a succession of penny-dreadful adventures and wheezes: successively he was a sailor, soldier, cowboy, student. Twice he was shipwrecked. Once he was knifed in a duel. Twice he was shot: once for speaking his mind in a Slave-State election, once for starting a mutiny in a Virginia oyster dredger. He was still only twenty-one when he worked his passage home in a cattle boat and began a fifth or sixth career as a journalist with a brightly coloured line in autobiography, then a sixth or seventh as a union official.

Tom Cusack, National Organiser, was a very reluctant union man at first. For a time he worked alongside Ward on the Manchester Ship Canal where they flung muck into the same wagon. They met again outside the Totley tunnel on the Dore and Chinley, Ward now a union official, Cusack a tunnel tiger. "No amount of persuasion,' said Ward, 'could convince him to drop the pick and shovel to become a trade union organiser.' But when they met again early this century at Derby sewage works Cusack was at last persuaded to join.

Januaryuary 1891, was the month the union brought out its own newspaper, The Navvy's Guide, whose first, full title was: The Navvy's Guide and General Laborer's Own Paper. In Februaryruary, March and April it called itself: The Navvy's and Laborer's Guide. In May and June: The Navvy's and General Laborer's Guide. It was edited by Leonard Hall, it was printed in Eccles, it cost a penny, it promised advertisers a ten thousand circulation, and it seems to have run for only six months. Its motto was the question John Ball asked in the Peasants' Revolt, "When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman?' and it opened:

To our Friends, If there is one class more than another at this moment which requires every possible means of airing its grievances and improving its position, it is the class which comes under the wide description of "navvies and general laborers". Although numbering in this country some hundreds of thousands strong, yet no body of men have hitherto submitted so patiently to a heavy and galling yoke, year after year, as they.'

'Until recent years,' the first edition went on, 'the newspaper and the printing press were the close monopoly of the "classes", of the well-to-do and the powers-that-be — weapons for the aggrandisement [182/183] of the privileged, and for the further enrichment of the rich, by the deeper impoverishment of the poor; whilst the rights and wrongs of the "masses", the claims and sufferings of Labor, were consistently misrepresented, belittled, and too often stifled, by the blatant twaddle or the sinister treachery of that army of intellectual prostitutes who are hired and paid by the strong and the cute to cajole, mislead, and bully the weak and ignorant. Within half-a-dozen years, however, we have changed all that. A compulsory Education Act, cheap literature, free libraries, and increased rapidity of communication in every department of life, have resulted in the raising of an opposition band of writers and thinkers — men "of the people, for the people", capable of putting into intelligent and forcible English the feelings and wants of their own class, and personally devoted by heart and conviction to its interests and its cause.'

'The work on the Ship Canal,' Ward wrote in the first issue, 'has never been a "healthy" job, as is evidenced by the number of inquests which weekly take place on killed outright or fatally injured laborers, in which the ordinary verdict — mostly a dead fraud and falsehood — arrived at by the juries of tailors and grocers who "sit on" bodies (with a vengeance!) is "accidental death". In nine cases out of ten we have no hesitation in saying — and we speak from personal, local and practical observation — that the verdict should be that of manslaughter against the contractors or Company.' (Walker's executors threatened to sue for criminal libel. The printer apologised: Ward didn't.)

Around this time Missionary Cox criticised navvies for grumbling about low wages at the Thirlmere dam. More money, he wrote in the Letter, means more drink-caused stoppages. Less drink, more money, was his equation: stop drinking, and contractors will pay you more. Poor Cox, he nearly lost his job. The Mission printed a notice disclaiming they favoured a low-wage policy. Mrs Garnett hoped landladies would give Mr Cox a cup of tea when he called. 'A Mr Cox,' began a grateful Guide, 'writing in that would-be mesmeriser of the British laborer, The Navvy's Letter or the Christian Navvies' Organ, is kind enough to admit that "it is not a good thing for a working man to be paid too low, but," (we know these "buts") "the reason of the low wages paid on many works is the fault of the men." To a certain extent we agree with this last, yet when Mr Cox proceeds to twaddle about drink being the cause of low wages, we must vigorously join issue. Don't let us be [183/184] misunderstood. We are no champions of Bung, and the Gin and Swipes interest has nothing to expect from The Navvy's Guide. But it is an economic cause — the law of supply and demand — and not the quantity of drink consumed, that regulates wages and the hours of toil. That pernicious tarradiddle circulated so presistentiv by the Pharisees and the Shylocks, that individual thrift is the cause of individual wealth, is a lie. It is monopoly, not self-denial, that gives riches.'

'What snivelling Judas was it,' asked the Guide,

who wrote in the Labor News, before the recent strike of the Gasworkers' Union at Darwen, Lancashire, had scarcely begun, that "the strike was a fiasco", a failure? If the Labor News had not proved itself long ago to be a slimy reptile and a dirty betrayer, there would have been no necessity for starting The Navvy's Guide and General Laborer's Own Paper.' The Ship Canal News was, 'a snivelling, huckstering, cheap self-advertising sheet, prepared and issued by the Ship Canal fuglemen. A fraudulent specimen of spoiled butter wrapper. A miserable monthly liar. A chronicle of "crammers". A prevarica- tor's primer. A catchpenny calumniator. A pandering pedler. A villainous vilifier. A magazine of mischief. A monetary misleader. A sneering story-teller. A reckless reporter of "riots".

('It is,' said the Sporting Chronicle of the Guide, 'about the wickedest little wildcat of a paper that I remember to have seen. It is all teeth and claws. There never was such a journalistic little tearer.' Needless to say, newsagents refused to sell the second issue.)

Membership for the union was drummed up by muscling in on disputes (mainly in the building trades), by accosting navvies leaving work, through hand-bills and by holding meetings — mass or otherwise. A procession carrying a banner reading 'Courage, Perseverance and Combination' left Patricroft for the Ship Canal offices on the first day of March, 1891. Ward, Hall, and Humphreys spoke from the back of a lorry. Humphreys told the crowd if they didn't join the Union he wouldn't let them work when the Union controlled them. Foreign blacklegs would be forced to join, too.

Hall said the Royal Commission on Labour was chloroform to the working class. Look who'd be on it: Aird, the contractor who underpaid his navvies; Joseph "Screws Judas Iscariot" Chamberlain; The Prince of Wales, a snitch who betrayed his card-sharping friends when they stole money from each other; Lord Randolph [184/185] Churchill, still trying to grow a moustache; Lord Derby who gave himself four thousand pounds a week and his labourers thirteen shillings; Lord Londonderry who had devastated County Durham rather than let his colliers join a union. A resolution — that union was the workingman's only hope — was carried, with a few dissensions. 'Bummers', Humphreys shouted at the dissenters from the back of the lorry.

Baling branch held a meeting, simultaneously, on waste ground in London. George Haley, branch delegate, spoke from the back of a wagon. He'd been a kipper-monger, and a navvy in the Severn tunnel. Recently, he told the crowd, he'd tried to organise washerwomen, only they were too scared to attend his meetings. All the same it was wrong that women had to work like that. Children died of neglect and men were driven to drink. (He was a teetotaller, himself.) Last winter was a good one for agitation, but he would refuse any gifts offered him for his part in it. Nor would he be bribed into keeping quite. If he stopped speaking in public, it had been hinted, he'd get a better job. But he could always go back to fish-mongering.

Early in 1891 the union had thirty branches: twenty-one in London (their headquarters were in Benledi Street near the East India Docks), and nine along the ship canal. Over half the London branches met in Coffee Houses or Cocoa Rooms. In Februaryruary 1891, Eccles branch had three hundred and fifty members, two hundred of whom had joined in the last three months — the earlier crop having been dispersed by floods, bad weather, and the navvy's roaming habits. The shifting public works man was always a big problem and it seems likely the Union was always stronger among settled town labourers and building workers than among genuine navvies. (The Guide's 'Where the Work Is' column listed twice as much work for builders' labourers and road-menders as for genuine navvies — although, of course, that may only mean there was twice as much non-navvy work about.) Mrs Garnett, who couldn't bring herself to call it the 'Navvies'' Union, said, 'I have never seen but one, and an early number, of the General Labourers' Union paper, and I counted sixteen mistakes in its list of public works in progress and pitied any of our men who had taken its information as their navvy guide. Many a cold, long tramp they would have had for nothing.' [185/186]

Throughout 1890 the Union claimed it handled a strike a week, on average: short-lasting, single-site, micro-strikes by the sound of them (the biggest, lasting a fortnight, involved only seven hundred men). Raises of a ha'penny, three-farthings, and a penny were won. Yet in their biggest dispute, on the Ship Canal, the Union argued people back to work. It was in Februaryruary 1891, and there are two versions of what happened, the Manchester Guardian's and the Guide's. According to the Guardian the strikers were violent and riotous: men at Mode Wheel who wanted to work were stoned, the works railway was damaged, a train was almost toppled over an embankment. 'It was a lock-out, not a strike,' said Hall. 'The men behaved throughout, even when molested by the police, with the utmost good humour.' It began over a farthing — a fourth of a penny — pay-rise which was given to everybody except men already earning fivepence an hour. The fivepenny men accosted the walking ganger who said, in language so foul it shocked them, they'd get no more. What began as an affront over a farthing, ended in anger over the walking ganger's behaviour.

A meeting was held in the light ot a street lamp at Eccles Cross. Leonard Hall, the chief speaker, showed them a telegram from Benledi Street — the union gave him leave to do what he thought best but in London they deprecated the strike. In Hall's opinion, too, it was ill-advised. The Company was desperate for money and had just gone to the Corporation for help. Not to have to pay wages for a few weeks was just what they wanted. Recruitment to the Union, he lied, was nearly complete and he planned to shut down the Ship Canal very soon. Join him. Join the Union. On the other hand, he went on, they had been insulted and should have some redress for that. He suggested the meeting should elect three delegates to go with him to Salford to ask for an apology.

Next morning they all met again on waste ground near the canal offices. Ashmore the company's agent, didn't believe the men had been insulted — they used fouler language themselves, habitually. Ashmore then drivelled on, said Hall, about the men's ingratitude for the soup kitchens the company had provided in the late frosts. (Howls of derision at that.) The men had not been sacked, Ashmore finally said, and they could get back to work, or not, as they pleased. Hall left that to the meeting though he reminded them they were poor, uneducated men whose only hope was unity. Join the union, don't strike, and when they did all turn out it would be for sixpence an hour, not a paltry farthing. Soon every man would be controlled by the union.

The meeting voted to strike. It made no difference. Men were [186/187] plentiful and the union never did control them. Next year, when a wage rise was refused, two men tried to burn down Latchford railway station. The fire raisers were seen by a navvy called Abraham Thomas. They beat him up. Wagons were dropped into the empty canal. A watchman was killed. Even the nippers struck and marched along the banks with home-made clubs, recruiting other lads by force. end of which was Parliament itself. The Trades Union Congress put the idea to a committee. Ward, a big and loud man, was on the founding committee until the 1897 Trades Union Congress sacked him because it was overloaded with labourers.

Because of the Union's catch-all title, its potential membership was probably somewhere around two million. The mark of its failure was that it was always so small, even at a time of tiny unions, that its right to exist was sometimes questioned. In 1906, for example, a writer in the Labour Leader listed its outgoings:

Unemployed, travelling & emigration benefits25
Sick and Accident benefits361
Funeral benefits58
Payment to Federation72
Working Expenses642
Funds in hand265

'I do not suppose Mr John Ward would relish the absorption of his paper union by some organisation better able to help the men,' the Labour Leader went on, 'but if the few members of the Union were wise, they wouid insist upon such a transfer, and not keep a useless society together simply to enable Mr John Ward to draw his salary and pose as a Trade Union leader.' The Navvies' Union was 'simply a benevolent society. And the financial position shows that as a friendly society it is hopelessly insolvent.'

That year, 1906, it had a thousand members, a fifth of what it had in 1891, and it bounced about around this figure until 1913 when membership in most unions climbed (mainly because you could get the dole more easily by belonging to one) and it went into the Great War with around five thousand. How many were navvies is hard to say: probably not a lot. All the same it was probably right to call it Ward's Union, like a seventeenthth-century regiment named after its colonel. He was the common factor through its whole history. Hall left, probably in 1891, to work for the Lancashire Labour Amalgamation and Humphrey's name disappears two or three years later.

Throughout the '90s there was talk of federating trade unions into a new society rich enough to help them, individually, during strikes, and big enough to induce some friendliness between them at other times. It might even be the workers' end of an axis, the other Nevertheless his union joined the new society, the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), late in 1899 and he was himself elected to its Management Committee in 1901. He was balloted back year after year until 1913-14, when he was given the Treasuryship which he held until 1929. Small as his union was it gave Ward a footing in the GFTU, and the GFTU gave him a footing in Labour politics.

Last modified 23 April 2006