Navvies and Their Needs/Chapter 1

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IT may be doubted whether there is in England any class of men which, as a class, has produced greater results and attracted less attention than the navvies. Some of my readers will doubt, perhaps, whether I am justified in speaking of them as a class distinct in any sense from the working class in general. Others, on the other hand, may, I fear, have learnt to think of them as not only excluded from any recognised class of men, but as hardly belonging to the race of man at all. My chief objects in this and subsequent papers will be—first, to claim for my navvy friends a place, and a very respectable place, in the genus homo, and next, to show that I am justified in speaking of them as forming a distinct species of working men—a species, too, of more than common interest, one that has been formed in our own time by a process of natural selection, the survival of the fittest; one that appears to have become more distinct and better defined since its first development. It is also one that may justly complain of neglect, although claiming, and ready amply to reward, the attention of the student in human nature, of the philanthropist, and above all, of the Christian and the evangelist. There are some points of resemblance between the navvies as a class and the gipsies, of whom we have lately heard so much. But in any comparison of the two the gipsy must, I think, yield to the navvy on the score of interest and of merit. They are alike in that both differ widely in their haunts and habits from their fellow-men. Each may be regarded as a distinct species, but the gipsy forms a foreign, the navvy a native species. The species gipsy is ancient, effete, and dying out; the species navvy is young, vigorous, and still developing. The gipsy is chiefly interesting in romance, and notable for his preference for a dishonest to an honest mode of life; the navvy for the sterling worth, reality, and honesty of his work. One reason, no doubt, why the navvy has attracted so little attention is that he is generally to be found and his work is most frequently done in out-of-the-way places, far from the busy haunts of men. Fifty years ago the railway began its mighty march in England, the pioneer of an advanced civilisation, but the navvy has been the pioneer of every railway that we have. And as now we pass in rapid travel from end to end of England over the smooth and level iron road, each embankment, every cutting, every tunnel, bridge, and viaduct, yes, every foot of road bears witness to the hard and patient toil of many a thousand navvy hands. The navvies have been everywhere before us, and have passed on out of sight; they have no doubt sadly scratched and disfigured the face of their country, but how fruitful have their scratches been. They have left, alas! in many places whither they came sad memories of the ill they did, ill we think that for the most part would never have been done had it not been forgotten by those who sent them that their navvy servants had human hearts and immortal souls as well as broad backs and sinewy arms. Besides the construction of railways there is another class of works on which navvies have of late years been very largely employed—the making, namely, of reservoirs for the water supply of large towns; especially in the north of England with its many densely populated centres of industry is this the case. The natural water supply—the stream flowing from the distant moor, pure and limpid till it reaches the first large village or town upon its banks—is fouled by dyes and sewerage and abominations of every kind, and flows on to be rendered ever more and more foul by every town it passes till it reaches the sea. Meanwhile the dwellers in the towns must seek elsewhere for the supply of pure water, so essential to their life, and often they are driven far-a-field in their search. Perhaps they find at last some distant moorland stream still undefiled, and flowing, probably, down some remote valley innocent of coal, unexplored by any railway, and possessing only a thinly-scattered agricultural population. An Act of Parliament gives them the right to take thence the water that they need. But before they can take it they must store it up in a reservoir, or perhaps, in several reservoirs, constructed on the course of the stream one above another.

I know of one town in Yorkshire where the water supply is being secured by the formation of four such reservoirs, whence it will flow through pipes a distance of some fifteen miles. The probable cost of the work is more than a million, the probable time that it must occupy more than ten years, the probable number of men employed during that time it would be difficult to estimate; and this is but one instance out of many, although no doubt the works in progress are in this case on a larger scale than in most others.

It is when employed on works like these that the navvies are found gathered in the greatest numbers, and that their needs cry out most loudly. Their work often lies so far from town or village that it is necessary to find for them accommodation on the spot. Huts are built, and mushroom villages, sometimes of considerable size, spring up and remain for years. It is in such places that the best opportunites are found, as well as the most pressing need for ministering to the social, intellectual, and above all the spiritual needs of the navvies. It was in such a village—of which I hope before long to give my readers a fuller description—that my first acquaintance was formed with the species navvy. But before I do so I should like to introduce to them an individual of the species, and to let him tell in his own words something of himself and his fellows, and of their manner of life.

I chanced one day to get into a third-class carriage on one of our northern railways, and to travel some distance with a navvy as my sole companion. There was a time when I should have preferred to get into another carriage, but having learnt to take a friendly interest in navvies generally, I rather rejoiced at the opportunity of friendly communication with any member of the class. In this case my friend was a man of middle age. Rather above the middle height, he displayed a breadth and depth of chest which told plainly enough of strength and endurance. His features and fair complexion were of the type so distinctively English. He had on the thick nailed boots, the canvas trousers, and pea-jacket, which, with the soft wide-awake hat, complete the dress of the true navvy; between his knees he held a bundle containing probably all his worldly goods, tied up in a white smock, the sleeves of which he held in his hands. As I looked at him, he sat gazing out of the window with his light blue eyes, little inclined, it seemed, to speak. When I addressed him, however, he proved ready enough to talk. After a few preliminaries, I began to ask some questions about navvies in general, their work and life. It was in reply to some question of this kind that he answered, with a touch of bitterness in his tone:—

"Outlaws, sir, that's what we are. Wanderers on the face of the earth, and outcasts from the society of all decent people."

"Well," I answered, "your occupation makes you more or less wanderers, but if you conduct yourselves decently why should decent society cast you out."

"Aye, sir, that's where it is. Why should it? But it does. Give a dog a bad name, you know, and you might as well hang him straight off. Of course, I knows well enough that some of our chaps gets a bad name for themselves, and deserves it. I doubt there's a good many blackguards among us, more's the pity, but we aint all bad, and there's some of us goes to the bad because nobody won't allow as we're fit for aught else."

"Nay, surely you make matters out to be worse than they are."

"Well, sir, I've been at this job a good bit now, and I've been up and down and all over, and I've seen a deal: and I'll just tell you how it is. Decent people, them as lives in towns and villages and has homes of their own and no occasion to tramp, they gets a notion into their heads as we belongs to a different breed from what they do. They reckon us a sort of big strong beasts, very useful in our way, but terrible dangerous and not of much account except for strength. Why, it was only t'other day as I heard a woman telling about a railway accident, and she said as there was three men killed and a navvy. That's the way, sir. We aint men at all, we aint got no feelings nor no soul, nor nothing but just strong backs and arms and a big swallow for beer. Ha! ha! it makes me laugh sometimes does folks' ignorance; but it's a sad job too, sir—it's a very sad job, for it's the spoiling of many a young fellow as might be kept straight with just a little kindness."

"I fancy that something has helped to keep you straight," I said.

"Aye, sir, you're right there,"

And my friend who had been voluble before, suddenly relapsed into silence. His last answer had been spoken in a low tone. He looked down and played with a kit between his knees. I saw I had touched a tender point, but I wanted to hear more, so I waited in silence. At last he looked up.

"I see you're a parson, sir, and if you wasn't I don't fancy you're the sort to laugh at a chap, so I'll just tell how it was. You fancy something has kept me straight. I expect you mean I don't look like a drunken black-guard, and I've got a decent jacket and a good kit to carry. Well, if you'd seen me five years ago you'd have fancied something different I can tell you. I don't fancy you'd have got into the same carriage with me at all. I just was a villain, and I dare say I looked it too. You'd have been more likely to have met me tramping it on the road, or if I'd got a shilling, you might have sought me in the nearest public; and I'd nothing better than a dirty old smock to my back, nor I wasn't troubled with no luggage. If ever a man went right away to the bad I'm the man. I started bad, for I run away from home. It wasn't much of a home, right enough, but I didn't go the way to mend it. However, I ran away, and when I'd spent all my money I sold the clothes I had, and bought a smock and some canvas trousers, and just tramped to the nearest work. What made me take to navvying? Why, you see I'd lit upon some chaps as was navvies, and they told me about the big wages they'd earned, and the free sort of life it was. Well, I worked first on one job, then on another; sometimes I'd plenty of money, and then I'd pack up and go on tramp for a bit till it was all gone, and I had to work again. Well, you see, sir, at all the works I went to I never met with any one as cared to make me any better than I was. I wasn't as bad as some of my mates, but we was none of us good. We mostly worked hard all the week through, and then when Saturday night came we'd start a-drinking, and you may guess what sort of a day Sunday was. Yes, sometimes there'd be a Scripture reader come among us, and give tracts about at dinner-time, and talk a bit. When I worked on the — — railway we had one. But he had to travel up and down the line, and we didn't see much of him. Sometimes there'd be a preacher come on a Sunday, but he didn't find many to listen to him. He should have been there on Saturday by right. You see, sir, there was nothing done for us in a regular way. Of course, we didn't want anything doing; we never complained about it, though I fancy some of us felt it sometimes. There was one place where we used to work, and the huts were built in a field by the side of a river over which a viaduct had to be built. Just across the river was a village, and a pretty little church in the middle of it, and on Sunday when the bells rang for service, and we could see the people turning out in their smart clothes, looking so trim and happy, I think some of us used to feel what a difference there was between us and them. And then, when the bells stopped, and all was still, there was an odd sort of feeling, as if we were shut out, like them the Bible tells of who came too late. Of course, we might have gone if we'd liked. But we didn't think so. We didn't think we should be welcome there. Folks would have stared at us, and whispered, and indeed we didn't know whether they'd have let us in at all without a black coat, and it was only very few of us had that. Many a time I lay on the river bank listening to the bells, and watching the people, and sometimes I fancy those bells preached the first sermon I ever got any good from. When I left that work, I tramped a long way, just working a week here and a week there, and never settling. I felt sick and weary of the bad ways I'd got into, and yet I didn't know how to get out of them. Well, it happened about Christmas-time, about five years ago. I'd been tramping all the week, and on Christmas night was getting to the end of my journey. It was in Yorkshire. The snow was lying pretty deep, and I'd lost my way on a high, bleak moor. I stopped at a farm-house to ask the way to the work I was seeking, and they showed me a short way down through a dark wood. I was beginning to think I had lost the way again, and I felt down about it, for I was tired out, when all of a sudden I saw a bright light in front of me, shining on the path. I've often thought of it since, how I walked that night out of darkness into light in more ways than one. I stopped a bit to see where the light came from, and while I waited I heard the sound of singing. I listened, and it was 'Hark, the herald angels sing?' I knew that hymn, for I'd heard it and sung it many a time when I was a boy. It seemed like an old friend to welcome me. So I walked on a bit nearer, and then I found that the light and the singing came from a little church. It seemed a queer little place. It was built of wood, and had great square windows, just like a house. I got close up, and looked in at one of the windows, and saw the place was pretty full. It was full of navvies too. There were some in their Sunday clothes, but some in nothing better than their working smocks, and one or two with their sleeves rolled up, as if they'd just come off work. There was a sort of desk at one end, and a clergyman standing at it. Well, I thought it was a queer start, and I was just passing on, but as I went by the door it was just a bit open, and I looked in again. It looked so bright and warm, and nobody there but working people, that I plucked up courage and stepped in. I stood there with the rest, and nobody took any notice, only one man gave me a hymn-book, but that warn't much use to me, for I couldn't read a word. When they stopped singing there was a prayer, and then the clergyman preached. I was glad to sit down and rest, and at first I felt sleepy with the warmth, but I got looking at the clergyman, and then I couldn't take my eyes off him. For he talked so much in earnest, and what he said sounded so strange and new to me, and yet so simple too, that I couldn't help listening. I don't think I shall ever forget that sermon. It was about those words, 'The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.' He told us about the Saviour who came at Christmas time, all out of love for us; and the best of it was that he made it so plain that it meant us, and not only better sort of people, I just felt as if I'd found some one who cared for me. And indeed, sir, so I had. I've learnt more about it since then, and I do know now that there is One who cares for us navvies, aye, even for the worst of us; and, thank God, I've learnt to care for Him too.

"I expect, sir, I've tired you with my talk. I shall have to get off at the station we're coming to; but I'll just show you something as I've brought away from yon place." And so saying he produced from the inner recesses of his pea-jacket from one pocket a good-sized reference Bible, and from another a prayer-book and hymn-book bound together.

"Can you read these now?" I asked

"Yes, sir, I've learnt to read and write too. You see I've been well off these last five years, and I've got something to show for the time; but I'm fearful sometimes how it'll be with me now. I'd never have left——, but you see the work was done, and I was forced to come away. I wish I could give up navvying altogether, and yet sometimes I think I should like to help other navvies to what I've got myself I'm going now to some works near——, and I fancy nothing is being done there for the good of the men. I've learnt the value of going to church, and I mean to go if I have to walk miles for it, but what we want is more work like that I've been telling you of—regular work among the navvies themselves. You see, sir, we're most of us very ignorant, and it isn't likely as we can teach ourselves, and we want some one to come to us and find us out and teach us."