Contemporary Account of SCR Construction: Chambers's Journal, 1873 edition

The following contemporary account describes the original writer's encounter with the family who ran a 'tommy-shop' at Batty Wife Hole (the main navvy settlement at Ribblehead), complete with tales of the navvies he encountered - or heard about - during his stay.

It was originally published in 'Chambers's Journal' on Saturday March 8th, 1873 although this extract was obtained from pages 157-160 of the digitised version of the consolidated volume for 1873, as downloaded from:


It came in the way of my work recently to visit a colony of navvies engaged in the construction of the heaviest portion of the works on the new line of railway at present being made between Settle and Carlisle. The headquarters of this scattered colony are on the slope of an outlying buttress of Ingleborough Hill, at the foot of which is a deep hole in the limestone, whence issues the headwaters of the Ribble. From some old legend of a suicide, this wild and savage place bears the curious name of Batty-wife-hole. Three or four hundred navvies are housed in the wooden huts, covered with black felting, that have been set down at hap-hazard on to the slope above the river-head, and there are various settlements bearing outlandish names bestowed upon them by the navvies themselves. Inkermann, Sebastopol, Belgravia, Jericho, Salt Lake City — all these can be reached with no greater exertion than half an hour's wade through the deep, treacherous, oozy bog of which much of the moorland is composed. True, when reached, they are not much to look at, but they are racy of phases of that curious half-savage navvy life, which has in it so much that is interesting to the student of the by-tracks of human life.

While staying in Batty-wife-hole, I became acquainted with a family which I shall call Pollen. The father had been a navvy in his earlier days; but having saved a little money, had set up a tommy-shop, and was making money. His wife was a robust, powerful, purposeful dame, of immense energy, considerable surface-roughness, and real genuine kindliness of heart. During my stay, I was indebted to this burly navvy-woman for several good turns, in-connection with which there could be no thought of self-interest. There was a married daughter who lived in a caravan at the gable of the parental hut, and there were two unmarried daughters, one an extremely pretty girl of about twenty, the other considerably younger.

Pollen had taken a letter for me down to Ingleton, and in the afternoon I looked in to see whether he had come back. His good lady reported his non-arrival, adding — 'Afore we comed here, we were on the "Surrey and Sussex;" and this morning, Betsy Smith, a lass as my daughter knowed there, comed here to see her mother, as is married on old Recks; and my girls, they be to have a holiday for to spend wi' their old friend. Well, I bid them tighten themselves up a bit, and tak' a basket, and go to the top of Ingleborough Hill, the three on 'em, for a day's 'scursion like; and when they'd come back, I'd have tea waitin' an' a cake, and I'd get in a bottle or two of wine, and we'd make a bit of a feast on't, you see, sir, for the lasses mayn't see one another no more in this here life.' It seemed as if I had achieved the footing of a friend of the family; and Mrs Pollen invited me,' if I would not think it beneath me,' to look in and participate in the modest festivities of the evening. Beneath me! Why, it was the very thing I desired.

The navvy population of Batty-wife-hole do not keep fashionable hours. Half-past five was the hour named by Mrs Pollen, and I was punctual. As I came up the road from the 'Chum-hole,' through Inkermann, to the mansion of the Pollens, the face of the swamp in the watery twilight was alive with navvies on their way home from work. They stalked carelessly through the most horrid clinging mire. What thews and sinews, what stately, stalwart forms, what breadth of shoulder and shapely development of muscle were displayed by these home-coming sons of toil! The navvy is a very rough diamond; but when you come to mix with him familiarly, and to understand him, you come to realise that he is a diamond. His character has never been more accurately delineated than in the words which I venture to quote, written by an engineer who knows him to his very marrow. 'The English navvy has his bad points. Very bad points, they are, no doubt, but, as a rule, they have all a common origin. The fountain of all, or almost all, the troubles of an English employer of this description of labour is the ale-can. But with these bad points there are many elements of the true pith and ring of the English character. Industry like that of the beehive; sturdy toil such as that which was commanded by the builders of the pyramids, or the brick-building kings of Nineveh; firm fellowship and good feeling, evinced in subscriptions to sick funds and doctors' bills; clear-headed application of labour to produce a definite result; above all, a sense of the right that man and master alike have to fair-play and honest dealing: all these virtues are to be found in the kit of the navvy. He is a man with whom there is some satisfaction in working, and a man as to whom you can attribute any failure in the attempt to elevate him into a position of permanent comfort and respectability not to any inherent infirmity of nature, but to want of early training, and to the potent influence of strong drink.'

The 'lasses' had got down from Ingleborough Hill, and were seated round the huge coal-fire in Mrs Pollen's keeping-room. It was a state occasion; and the six navvies, who are lodgers, were relegated to their own sleeping-apartment, where I found Mr Pollen, slightly the fresher from his journey to Ingleton, and having his hair cut by one of his lodgers prior to entering the sphere of gentility in the other room. Mrs Pollen was painfully polite, and her notions of my capacities for rashers of bacon eaten along with buttered toast must have been based on her experience of navvies. The young ladies were at first slightly distrait, but Ingleborough air had given their appetite a beautiful fillip. Mr Pollen was benignly jocose, with a slight tendency to hiccup. After tea, he entertained me with an historical account of Batty-wife-hole, from his first appearance, in a van on its soil, exactly three years previous. Shortly afterwards, he said, 'some chaps came down to make experimental borings, and they had to bide wi' us in the wan, for there were nowheres else to bide. All that winter there were ten of us living in that van, and a tight fit it were, surely. Of a night I used to have to stand by it for half an hour with the bull's-eye as a guide to the men homecoming through the waste. Sometimes one would stick, and his mates would have to dig him out; there were two chain o' knee-deep water four times a day for the fellows atween their meat and their work.

'It were a winter! The snow lay on the backs of the hill-sheep for two months at a stretch, and many on 'em were frozen as hard as a chip. But we got over it somehow; and in the spring, Becks and me built this cottage, and the works began in fair earnest There's been a good many deaths — what with accidents, low fevers, small-pox, and so on. I've buried three o' my own. I'm arter a sort the undertaker o' the place. You passed the little church down at Chapel-a-dale, near the head of the valley. Well, in the three years I've toted over a hundred of us down the hill to the little churchyard lying round the church. T' other day I had toted one poor fellow down — he were hale and hearty on Thursday, and on Tuesday he were dead o' erinsipalis; and I says to the clerk as how I thought I had toted well nigh on to a hundred down over the beck to Chapel-a-dale. He goes, and has a look at his books, and comes out, and says,' says he: "Joe, you've fetched to t' kirkyard exactly a hundred and ten corps!" I knowed I warn't far out They've had to add a piece on to t' churchyard, for it were chock-full. And there were one poor fellow I toted down the hill as don't lie in Chapel-a-dale. It were the first summer we were here, and a cutting had been opened outside the Dents-head end of the tunnel. Five men were in a heading as was being driven in along the track of the tunnel. There came on such a fearful thunderstorm as nobody hereabout ever saw the like afore or since. The end of the cutting was stopped up, and the water came tearing down the hillsides into it, and soon filled it like the lock of a canal. The chaps in the heading were caught afore they could get out; as the water rose, three swam into the cutting, and tried to scramble out As the water rose, they got on a wagon that was in the heading, and tried to prop themselves up between some barrels that were on it We could just see one, the tallest on the two — the face of him just above the water, and his hands held afore his month, to fend off the water that came lipping over him every now and then. He could get no higher for the head of the working, and it was horrible to see him. But we were tearing like mad at the bank of earth that was blocking the cutting, and at last we got a hole jumped through it, and then the water soon found its own vent, and emptied the cutting. The shorter of the two men in the heading was drowned, and his mouth stopped up wi' clay. He came from Kingscliffe in Northamptonsheer, hard by my own native place; and I got a coffin for the poor chap, and toted him down to Ingleton, and sent him home by the railway.'

I don't know to what greater length Mr Pollen's gossiping reminiscences might have extended, if they had not been interrupted by a tap at the door communicating with the room inhabited by the navvy lodgers. Sundry smothered and gasping squeakings of a fiddle had been audible lately from that apartment, the sounds being suggestive of the existence of an assertive and pertinacious violin, upon which the navvies were collectivelv sitting, sternly determined that while they lived, it should not violate the decorous quiet incumbent on lodgers whose respected host and hostess were entertaining visitors. The 'lasses,' I had noticed, were yawning a little after tea, as if the hill-air of Ingleborough had induced a somniferous tendency. As the tap was heard at the door, a glance of mutual intelligence and a smile of satisfaction passed round the younger ladies, and in truth Mrs Pollen herself did not frown as she called: ' Come in.'Enter a stalwart navvy, whose powerful frame contrasted comically with his shamefaced countenance. He was blushing from ear to ear, yet there was a twinkle in the big black eye of the good-looking fellow that might speak of a consciousness he was not altogether taking a leap in the dark. He bore a message from the navvy brotherhood in the other room He craved humbly of 'Mother Pollen' that he and they should be admitted to participate in the festivities of the evening, where unto they engaged to contribute by instrumental and vocal music, replenishment of the refreshments utterly regardless of cost, and good behaviour. Pollen pronounced at once for their admission. Mrs Pollen only stipulated for order; and the navvies trooped solemnly in, and seated themselves on the extreme edge of a form. Mrs Pollen helped them to wine, of which all ceremoniously partook; and then the black-eyed navvy took Mrs Pollen aside, an interview which resulted in the introduction of a pail of strong ale and a bottle of whisky. The navvies were a decided acquisition. First, the black-eyed navvy played a lively spring on his fiddle. I may remark, that he had imperceptibly edged off the form, and had dexterously taken up new ground between Miss Pollen and the lass from the 'Surrey and Sussex.' Then Tom Purgin sang My Pretty Jane. Mr Purgin was a smart ruddy-faced young fellow with black curling hair, and the physical development of a Hercules. 'Tom is the best man on this section,' whispered Pollen to me. A dance followed — something between a reel and an Irish jig — in which the black-eyed navvy immensely distinguished himself by playing and dancing at the same time; while the noise his big boots made in the double-shuffle was a Terpsi-chorean triumph that may be imagined, but cannot be described. The beer-pail was replenished, the ladies were radiant with good-humour and enjoyment, the navvies were making themselves as agreeable as possible, and the evening altogether was passing most hilariously.

The 'Surrey and Sussex' lass was suddenly interrupted in the middle of a song by a loud knock at the outer door. Mrs Pollen rose, and admitted a stranger, a big navvy in working-dress. This worthy had no card, but he 'named himself' as the 'Wellingborough Pincer.' At a glance, one could see that the 'Wellingborough Pincer' was not quite so sober as he necessarily would have been if intoxicating beverages had never been invented. He was a new-comer at Batty-wife-hole, having only arrived that day; and being a Northamptonshire man, he had come to pay a visit to his 'townie,' as he had learned Mr Pollen was. On Pollen the ties of 'townieship' are binding; he hailed the 'Wellingborough Pincer' with effusion; and that individual soon made himself extremely at home, resorting with marked freedom and frequency to the beer-can. Our own navvies had been obviously chafing at the goings-on of the 'Pincer,' restraining themselves, however, for the sake of peace. His conduct was obviously leading to a shindy. Mrs Pollen had been absent for some time, engaged in serving some customers; but just at this crisis she came upon the scene, and comprehended its bearings with a quickness which may have been owing to intuition, but perhaps more to experience. To resolve, with Mrs Pollen is to act. In two strides she had the 'Wellingborough Pincer' by the scruff of the neck, and was bundling him toward the door. He struggled a little, but Mrs Pollen pinioned him with a vice-like grasp, and with a promptitude and dexterity which won my heartiest admiration, accomplished his ejection. I rather think she threw him out; anyhow, there was a sound as of a heavy body falling; and returning to the bosom of her family, she forbade any of 'her men' from following the 'Pincer' into the darkness where unto she had relegated him. Harmony recommenced; the black-eyed navvy and I became confidential; and he told me how he had loved Miss Pollen for a considerable period, how they 'had squared it together,' and how he only wished that her father had another van in which they might take up housekeeping. In the midst of this interesting conversation, the 'Wellingborough Pincer' reappeared on the scene. Mrs Pollen had not bolted the door, and he had entered bent on apologising all round, and expressing his heart-felt repentance for his conduct It struck me at the time that the leading motive for the 'Pincer's' apparent contrition was a keen anxiety to return to the neighbourhood of the beer-pail; but he appeared sincere, and his expressions of sorrow were graciously accepted. He made the most of his time, and it was a caution to see what quantities of beer that man contrived to swallow. But he was an ill-conditioned dog in his cups. Without the slightest warning, he suddenly hit Tom Purgin in the eye. It was good to see that honest fellow's power of self-restraint. 'It will keep till to-morrow,' he said with a pleasant smile, as he wiped some blood from the cut cheek-bone. This was Tom's own quarrel, and in his own quarrel he would not brawl in the presence of the women. But the blow had cut short the 'Pincer's' stay under Mr Pollen's roof. Again Mrs Pollen was upon him; again that determined and powerful female grappled him, dragged liim across the floor, and sent him forth from the door. Enlightened by experience, she this time shot the bolt.

But this 'Wellingborough Pincer' was an incorrigible and indomitable nuisance. He would not retire quietly after this his second ejection. He picked himself up, and commenced a persistent hammering on the doors and window-shutters of the hut, accompanying this exercise with a voluble flow of execration of the people who were inside. With difficulty did Mrs Pollen restrain her navvies from sallying out and inflicting condign punishment on the incorrigible 'Pincer.' But it was reserved for Pollen himself to vindicate the proud principle that an Englishman's house is his castle. Rising (with some little difficulty) from his seat, he oracularly pronounced the monosyllable 'Joe!' At the word there emerged from under the table a powerfully built bulldog, whose broad chest, strong loins, muscular neck, and massive jaw, gave evidence of strength and purity of blood, as did the small red eye of unconquerable ferocity. Silently Pollen moved to the door with Joe at his heels. He threw it open, just as the 'Pincer' had commenced to rain on it a fresh shower of blows. 'Here, Joe!' was all Pollen's reply to the volley of execrations that greeted him. There was a dull thud of a heavy fall, a gurgling noise, and at Pollen's word, 'Come, Joe!' the dog reappeared, sententiously wagging his tail. The door was shut, and the 'Wellingborough Pincer' demonstrated no more against it.

After a parting glass, I withdrew from the festive scene, declining with thanks the offers of Tom Purgin and the black-eyed navvy to see me home. I examined the precincts carefully, out of what was perhaps a weak apprehension that the Pincer might be tying about somewhere, mangled, helpless, and perhaps indeed throttled. But that worthy was 'gone and left not a wrack behind,' and I sought my couch with equanimity. A day or two later, Mr Pollen called on me, and told me that he had received a summons at the instance of the 'Wellingborough Pincer.' Rather, indeed, there were two summonses, one for selling drink without a licence, the other for setting a dog at that interesting gentleman. Mr Pollen was game for litigation, and would hear of no compromise. The 'Pincer' had called upon him that morning, and expressed his readiness to stay proceedings, on condition that the dog were shot, adding, that the doctor had assured him, were this not done, that his — the Pincer's — arm must inevitably be amputated. Mr Pollen had requested him to go about his business, and was ready to face the magistrates in the serene consciousness of virtue.

I left the place before this cause celebre was tried; but I heard the leading incidents — Mr Pollen drove to Ingleton with his wife and his two witnesses, Mr Purgin and the black-eyed navvy. The 'Pincer' stated his case, and summoned a witness who saw him worried by the dog. Then Mr Pollen arose and pleaded his own cause. He cited his wife to prove that she sold no drink, but that the whole affair was her 'treat' in honour of the 'Surrey and Sussex' lass. The magistrates asked particularly whether it was in defence of his own premises that Pollen had called in the assistance of the dog, and on being assured that this was so, gave judgment against the 'Pincer' on both counts, condemning him also in costs. On the way home, the Pollen conveyance, which contained, in addition to the load it had brought down, the Pincer's witness, was upset in the ditch, owing, it was hinted, to the collective inebriety of the passengers, but ultimately reached Batty-wife-hole, and a triumphal entry was accorded to the Pollens. The 'Wellingborough Pincer' returned to work a wiser if not a better man, but he was execrated by the whole community for having imported legal proceedings into a colony where the policemen live in a sort of contemptuous toleration. Hints were uttered that his career at Batty-wife-hole would be a short one. The 'Wellingborough Pincer' was last seen in the neighbourhood of a deep blind shaft, that had been excavated to divert the water from the workings in the tunnel. He may have suddenly migrated, but there are not wanting those who darkly hint that an exploration of the shaft would disclose the fact of his being in the immediate vicinity of its bottom.


The text quoted above was extracted and checked / corrected by Mark R. Harvey.

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