The following contemporary account provides a fascinating overview of the life of a navvy in general, including their typical classifications, earnings, accommodations, food & drink, morals, etc. using examples from the construction of the Settle - Carlisle railway.
It was originally published in 'Chambers's Journal' on Saturday January 13th, 1872, although this extract was obtained from pages 27-29 of the digitised version of the consolidated volume for 1872, as downloaded from:
In these days of rapid locomotion, when we are transported from place to place on a 'cushioned cannon-ball' to quote Brother Jonathan, or, as the late President of the Board of Trade would have us believe, in the 'safest place in the kingdom,' who ever casts a thought — as bank succeeds cutting, as cutting is followed by tunnel, as tunnel gives place to viaduct, or as towns and villages roll rapidly by — on the life and labours of the men through whose instrumentality our modern system of railroads, and all its attendant conveniences, has reached its present state of perfection? We enjoy the comfort of speedy transit, our goods are generally conveyed with remarkable regularity, and our letters duly arrive in time for breakfast; yet who that participates in all these, and many other similar privileges, which were denied our forefathers, thinks of the labour — hard, muscular, toilsome labour that has been expended on the line which carries our persons, goods, or letters to their destination? We read in the papers of great men who, by their feats of engineering, render themselves famous, and find a niche in the Temple of Fame; and of men who project new lines of railway, and carry them out, directing by their superior minds the labour of the humbler worker, without whom all the brain-power in the world would be of no avail. Yet how few notice the hard-working, hard-eating, hard-drinking, and hard-spending 'navvy,' who has been an important element in maturing the project of his more richly endowed brother!
The very name 'navvy' has passed into a synonym for all that is rough and uncouth; but although it is not far from the truth, there are 'navvies' and navvies. The term, which is a contraction of the word 'navigator,' is generally supposed to have originated in the days of canal-making, when Brindley and others were trying to supply by water what water itself, in the vaporised form, supplies to-day. Then gangs of roughly-clad men were congregated in various parts of the country to cut the 'navigation,' and from that the word has been carried on till our time, when it means, in its contracted form, a powerful fellow who, with pick and spade, assists to clear the surface of the soil, and prepare it for the introduction of the 'iron steed.' Whence they come, and whither they go, to shuttle off this mortal coil, when they have escaped the dangers of tunnels, cuttings, &c, few can tell. Some, but not very many, are navvies born, and would consider it a disgraceful thing to forsake their fathers' calling; while the ranks generally are recruited from among the stout able-bodied men who, for a good day's pay, can do a good day's work. Plenty of muscle, with the will to use it, is the first element in the construction of a 'navvy,' and once 'footed,' he learns his other accomplishments with only too great facility. In going among a gang of men employed on a large cutting, it is a matter of surprise to hear the variety of dialects which ever and anon rise to the ear, in language often the reverse of polite, when addressed to a follow-workman, but, when speaking to a 'gaffer,' they can be as civil and respectful as any.
The Somersetshire 'moon-raker' is a very common variety; and Welshmen frequently make up a considerable portion; while numbers can be traced to the low-wage-giving counties south of the Black Country. When a new contract is known to have been entered upon, the word is very soon passed from end to end of the kingdom; and if it is one of any magnitude, preparations are made by the real specimen of the genus navvy for a 'flit.' Usually, if it so happen that he has a 'better-half,' with a number of 'small quarters,' he goes up to the scene of the projected line 'prospecting,' making inquiries of any from whom he may think he can obtain information as to the probable duration of the 'job,' who's gaffer, who's ganger, what the pay, and numerous other questions, which have to be well considered before the wife and weans are sent for. If, perchance, he meets with a man who has been working with him on some other 'contract,' the acquaintance is renewed, and consultations held as to whether it is likely to be a 'good,' or only a 'middling' job. Then comes the grave consideration, 'What sort of accommodation can we get?' and here the shoe pinches very acutely at times; for, if the line is to run through a wild, unfrequented tract of mountain region, as the Settle and Carlisle will do, when completed, house-room cannot be had for love or money. In these cases, the contractors build a number of 'huts' of wood, covered with felt, tarred, and sometimes whitewashed; with a good, substantial cooking-range — a most essential consideration to a navvy's wife — in the centre of the hut; and partitioned-off sleeping-places at each end—one intended for the tenant and his wife, and the other for single-men lodgers. This latter is usually made so as to hold four pair of bed-stocks, each to accommodate two men; and where room is scarce, it is not on uncommon thing to find sixteen men lodging in one hut — eight in bed in the daytime, and eight at night; while the whole of the cooking depends on the wife of the tenant, who has her hands full in providing for such men and such appetites, for, no matter how the butcher may try to pass unsound meat on them, they will have none but good food, and plenty of it. A navvy's larder only wants three things to be completely furnished — namely, beef, beer, and bread; if anything else is added, it is in the way of luxuries, such as jam, tarts, &c, With the muscular exertion that they undergo during their ten hours' 'shift,' they require a good substantial diet, and generally manage to get it. The 'hut' is their home; and thither, in wet weather, and when not at work, they withdraw, but not to remain longer than is absolutely necessary, for Mrs Navvy is generally gifted with a pretty good tongue, and soon orders them off, out of her way.
At one place on the Settle and Carlisle Railway, huts have been built to such an extent that accommodation is provided for over eight hundred men, at the lowest estimate, besides women and children. Two complete villages have sprung up — on what was, five years ago, only a common, inhabited by a few sheep, and grouse — with the historical names of Sebastopol and Inkermann; a connecting railway between them; and a regular service of trains, for conveyance of ' market-stuff,' as well as for the service of the works. A complete colony is established, with telegraph, post, and savings-bank office. A school-room has been erected for the children, and entertainments provided occasionally to help to entice from the 'grog-shop.' In a neighbouring dale, where the line has to pass, there is not the same accommodation; but in both, the huts are built after the same plan, and are rented by men who have been able to satisfy the foremen that they are fit to take charge of a lodging-house, for such, in fact, each one becomes, though perhaps not to the extent described above. There is nevertheless a great amount of crowding in such places; and were the powers of supervision over lodging-houses which are exercised in towns exercised here, more huts would have to be built, and considerably increased accommodation provided. The majority of men employed are single, or, having wives and families, have left them at home in a town where better lodging can be had. The interior of the huts on a wet day is anything but attractive, and it must require a considerable amount of stoicism to enable the occupants to put up with such close quarters. As it is, when winter approaches, a goodly number go to hibernate in the towns, to return with the spring. The difference between the winter and summer population in the large colony alluded to is very great — amounting to nearly eight hundred pounds on pay-day. The navvy can earn from three to four shillings a day, working ten hours; and if, by reason of the claims of a family, he works six days a week, can earn good wages; but, as a rule, he belongs to a spendthrift race, whose only object is to exist, without casting a thought to the future. When engaged on a 'job,' a number is assigned him, which is entered on the books at the office, and all working time is entered by the timekeeper, who visits the spot several times a day to mark down the men at work. When pay-day comes, where the number engaged is large, a quantity of small tins is placed on a board with numbered tickets and the amount of cash due to each ticket in a separate- tin, so that, on presenting himself at the pay-window, he has nothing to do but give his number, empty the tin, and walk away. The work is carried on largely by the system of sub-contracting. One navvy undertakes to do a certain amount of work, and engages men under him, who look to him for payment; and by this means a man of ordinary experience and judgment is enabled to make a good living while the work lasts.
The spirit of clanism is very powerful among them — their antipathies and partialities being very strongly developed. Yet there is often a substratum of good feeling and fellow-sympathy existing, which is not apparent to a superficial observer. One point upon which they feel very strongly is their dislike to work with Irishmen. Scotchmen and Welshmen they can fraternise with, but an Irishman is enough, almost, to make a whole gang strike. These national feuds are of very old standing, and are supposed, by men who have lived among them for years, to be traditional. A fancied grievance which may have occurred on the first railway made is cherished, and, when opportunity occurs, avenged over and over again; riots of very serious character sometimes taking place, whereby life and limb are endangered, and property damaged.
At Armathwaite in Cumberland, last winter, such a riot occurred, which ended in the death of one man, and the trial of several others for murder. Police are of very little service when the blood of such powerful men is aroused. One of the peculiarities existing among them is their willingness to share their food, or 'meat' as they term it, with any unemployed navvy, or one who is passing from one place to another. But woe betide him if he attempts an onslaught on their drink! A strange man has been seen to go into a hut where navvies were at a meal, and, sans cérémonie, help himself, without a word of reproof from any; but one of the number got up, and placed himself in front of the beer, and laid an embargo on that, saying: 'thee mon ha' as much meat as tha' likes, but yo' munna touch t' drink.' There is perhaps a touch of justice in the distinction, as unless a man will work for the wherewithal to purchase the drink, that luxury should be denied him.
When, by some accident, a man is killed, as not unfrequently happens, the men, as a body, will not allow the parish to bury him. In life, the dead man may have been a churl; but in death, they seem to feel that common brotherhood which their rough mode of life tends to neutralise. One or two of the most intimate companions of the dead make a 'house-to-house,' or rather 'hut-to-hut' visitation, and state the case to the inhabitants, who rarely fail to respond to the appeal made to enable the body to be buried decently. The usual question is: 'Weel, what'a goin'! Perhaps 'a shilling.' 'We mon be t' same as t' others' and forthwith out comes the shilling all round, which is carefully handed to the relatives or nearest friends of the deceased; and if a surplus remains, it is applied for the benefit of the family, if such there be; while many will lose a 'quarter,' or even 'a half,' to go to the funeral. Generally, in each batch of huts there is one woman who has a reputation as 'general requisite.' If a hand gets hurt, or a leg broken, 'Big Ellen,' or some other female, who has a peculiar cognomen, is fetched; and if a corpse is to be laid out, none but this assistant will do.
While in work, the men are made to pay towards the support of a doctor, who resides in or near the huts ready to attend in case of accident or illness. Usually the sum of threepence in the fortnight is deducted from the earnings, and for this, attendance, &c, is provided for wife and families.
In the construction of such a line as the one mentioned, which, in part of its course, runs through about the wildest, bleakest part of England, there are many grades of men employed, all of them of a different stamp, and as chary of mixing with others as any of the small aristocrats of our small towns. For instance, in tunnelling through a bed of the hardest mountain Limestone, there are employed men who designate themselves miners, whose work is of a rather higher class than the regular navvy, and these will on no account eat, drink, or sleep with a navvy; they consider themselves in the light of skilled workmen, and can command higher wages. Horse-keepers, drivers, enginemen, &c, have each their own ideas of position. The miners in one of the tunnels in progress can earn as much as six shillings per day, or per 'shift;' relays taking it in turn to work night and day alternately; and well the money is earned, for the process of blasting, which is the only means by which this tunnel can be made, is carried on incessantly — one hole, into which a charge of perhaps two pounds of powder is placed, costing from ten to twenty shillings, according to the depth and character of material.
The delivery of letters by the postman in such a collection of huts is a task of surprising difficulty. Very few men are distinguished by their proper names. When first a man comes on to a 'job,' his fellows are on the look-out for some peculiarity, and if they detect one, they apply a name to it, by which its possessor is known for years, it may be. 'Lanky;' 'Gloucester' 'Soldier,' 'Nobby,' 'Cuddy,' 'Caleb,' and scores of other names are given, so that it must have puzzled the census taker to get a correct schedule of the denizens of these bleak moors.
The men employed on the line already mentioned are collected from all kinds of works — water-works, sewering, &c. — in all parts of the country; and as England will soon be full of railways, the race of navvy will become gradually scarcer and scarcer, until probably a specimen will be as rare as that of a Waterloo veteran.
The text quoted above was extracted and checked / corrected by Mark R. Harvey.