Navvies and Their Needs/Chapter 2


IN my last paper I promised a description of a navvy village. Will my readers spend a Sunday with me at L——— W———, and let me show them, not only the village itself, but its inhabitants—something of the outer and inner life of the place, and something, too, of the work which was carried on there not by, but for the navvies. L——— W——— is a place that was. I saw it rise, watched its life, and have looked on the deep waters which roll over the place where it stood. It has passed away, and the busy crowd that peopled it, but the memory of it lives, and something more—the lessons that were learnt there, lessons some of which I would impart to my readers, lessons which will, I trust, bear their fruit, a harvest of widespread and undying good. I must preface further that in writing of the work done at L——— W———, a work in which I had a happy share, it is very far from my purpose to wite about myself By far the greater part of the work was done by lay helpers, a kind and most helpful band, without whose assistance my own efforts would have been of little avail. We worked together, very closely united by our common aim, and, I think, never stopping to ask whose share was the largest. In speaking, therefore, of these things we did and tried to do, I shall speak always of "our work," begging the reader to remember thas his attention is asked only to the work.

We set out, then, on Sunday morning in good time from the little town of, on our way to L——— W———. It is a bright morning in winter, and the fresh crisp air braces us for the four-mile trudge and the steep hill that lies before us. We are a cheerful party, some five or six in number, each laden with bag or satchel in which are stored provisions for the day, with books, tracts, &c. Our road lies up hill nearly half the way, then over undulating ground, till we turn in at a gateway and reach a grassy slope, from the top of which we survey the whole scene of the navvies' labour. The valley lies before us, and as we look up it the eye can trace its winding course far away among the hills, whose soft lines meet and mingle at each bend. The moorland stream comes down apace flooded by melting snows from the hill-sides that shut it in. Immediately below us lies the deep slit known as the "puddle trench," which navvy hands are cutting across the valley, and which will contain the foundation and core of the huge bank which is to turn our valley into a reservoir. A few men are at work even to-day, and the stillness of the morning is broken by the groaning and creaking of the steam-pumps by which the trench is kept clear of water. We descend to the level of the valley, and make our way across to the opposite side, and then through the wood which clothes the slope, our path leading up the valley, and in a line parallel to it. Through the wood for nearly a mile, and then we come to a smaller valley branching off from the main one and sloping upwards from it. Here stands our village—here are the dwellings of our navvies and the scene of our work. The first place to which we go, and to which I will introduce the reader, is the school. It is a good-sized brick building, containing a spacious school-room and a very diminutive apartment for the school-mistress, who sleeps in a little chamber more like a small ship's cabin than a room, and has for sitting-room another almost equally diminutive. The school-room is furnished with tables, desks, and benches, and all the apparatus necessary for day-school and Sunday-school. I must say a word, before I go further, about the day-school. We had been at work at L——— W——— a long time before we could obtain this boon for the navvies. The building in which it was held was built by the men's employers for general purposes. It was to be a place of worship, a place of amusement, or instruction, as occasion might offer. For some time it was used on Sundays by representatives of various denominations, who held meetings, preached, and had a Sunday-school in it. its destinies were next affected by the appearance of small-pox amongst the men, when it was used as an hospital. The small-pox departed, the school was thoroughly cleansed, and was handed over to us for the use of our Sunday-school, which had hitherto been held in the church. A very unsatisfactory attempt at a day-school had before this been made, but with no visible result. The children of the place were a little band of wild savages—wild in appearance and in manners. Most of them knew a great deal more of the world and its wickedness than their age warranted, and were as ignorant of better things as it was possible to be. We succeeded at last in obtaining the appointment of a trained schoolmistress. Fortunate in our choice, we secured one who, in spite of great difficulties, and even some hardships, remained with us till the work was ended. She proved admirably suited to the work, and before long the aspect of the place, as far as the children affected it, was entirely changed, The school was, after a time, placed under Government inspection, and obtained very favourable reports. It is very creditable to the inhabitants of the huts that when they were called upon to pay an extra sixpence a week in their rent for the support of the school, they so highly appreciated the boon that no grumbling was occasioned by the tax. The sum thus raised was supplemented by a private contribution. But, to return. As soon as we arrive in the school, everything is made ready for the day's work, but we have generally been preceded by one or two of the men who have been busy getting the forms arranged for each class. And now the bell is rung, and the scholars begin to assemble. All ages are represented in the stream that flows through the open door, from the aged man who leans on his stick to the infant who can just walk, and is led by an elder brother or sister. All come to learn; none of the adult scholars can be pursuaded to act as teachers, unless on a very rare emergency. And, indeed, not a few of the men come there to learn their letters; the majority have yet to acquire the power of reading with any facility, and only one here and there can read, when he comes, with tolerable correctness. I know of many men who left L——— W——— with books among their most treasured possessions, who but for the Sunday-school would have gone as they came, quite unable to read anything but the sign of a public-house. The adult class numbers about twenty, and the children bring the total up to nearly one hundred. Having opened the school with prayers and a hymn—always heartily sung—as the muster of teachers is good, and my presence not required when once all are fairly at work, I will ask the reader to accompany me in a walk about the little village. There are three rows of huts sloping upward from the school towards the wood; besides these are a few outlying buildings which bring the number up to thirty-five. Each of these huts is inhabited by a married couple, who are landlord and landlady to as many lodgers as they can find room for. Just now, when the work is in full swing, the huts are very full, over-crowded some would say, as I think rightly, but it is a crowd that goes and comes and does not complain. Most of the men are still in bed this winter morning, some are within at their breakfasts, but of some we get a sight without entering the huts. Several of those we encounter have an appearance the reverse of prepossessing—the appearance of men who were very drunk last night, and with whom the bad beer and the raw spirit which pleased them then have left a splitting headache and a bad temper for their morning's entertainment. They are nursing a thirst which they cannot quench till mid-day, when the beershop will open. Others we see who have just turned out, and are standing outside the huts with bare arms and neck, having a good wash. The navvy is generally a man of clean habits, and knows well the value and the pleasures of a wash after his day's work and his night's rest. One man turns as we pass, and lifts his streaming face to look at us. I recognize a friend, and stop.

"Hullo, Somerset! not at the school this morning?"

"No, sir, not this morning; I laid a bit later than usual, but I'll come in this afternoon."

My friend, whose grand name does not imply connection with any noble family, but merely that his home is in Somersetshire, is a regular Sunday scholar, and I don't like to see him absent, but I know what his work is, and cannot find much fault with his extra dose of sleep on Sunday morning. He doesn't look like one of the topers. His eyes are bright, and his weather-beaten face the picture of health. All the women are busy—making beds, getting breakfast, some baking, some cooking already for the dinner; most of them, as we catch glimpses of them at the doors, look worried and driven, careful and troubled about many things, and evidently completely deprived of anything like Sunday's rest. At one hut which we pass the landlady comes to the door and wishes us good morning. She is a very comfortable woman, with a bright cheerful face; she is clean and neat, and appears, unlike her neighbours, to have no pressing work on hand.

"Good morning, Mrs, Sharp; how are you this morning?" "First-rate, thank you, sir; and how's yourself? Won't you step in a bit, I'm all alone." "All at school?" I say, as we accept the invitation. "Oh yes, they're all gone, and a good job it is for them and for me too." "Yes, you get a quieter Sunday than your neighbours do." " Aye, that I do, sir, and much need of it. We women is worked like slaves. With nine or ten men to look after and wait on there aint much rest, and as for a bit of quiet for reading or thinking about one's soul, it isn't for the likes of us. I'm very thankful for my Sundays, I can tell you, sir. I've got a good set of lodgers—they're very good chaps, and don't give near so much trouble as some. I got a fresh one in yesterday. I didn't much care about having any more, but there was room for one, and I didn't want to offend Mr.—— so I took him; but I just told him he'd have to behave himself like the rest. He didn't much want to go to school this morning, but the others talked him round, and I fancy some of them lent him a thing or two, for he hadn't got no Sunday clothes." I like going to No. 13; but we must not linger here, it is not a fair specimen. In no other hut will you find the same peace and quiet this Sunday morning. We must visit others this afternoon, now we should only be in the way.

"I'll take the key of the church with me," I say, as we rise to go, and Mrs. Sharp reaches it for me from the nail where it always hangs; and so we pass up between the rows and towards the wood. A little way above the huts, standing back under the shadow of the trees, is our church. It is not a handsome structure, nor can it boast of anything that could be described as architecture. If it has any beauty, it is that of simplicity, set off by the lovely frame of stately woods in which it is seen. The windows are square, and the only ecclesiastical features it possesses are its high-pitched roof and the little bell-tower which adorns its western gable. Within there is less of the picturesque than without. The walls are plastered and whitewashed, and the only break in the monotonous white neatness is caused by the presence of a large round stove, whose black flue, despairing of concealment, ascends with honest straight-forwardness to the hole made for it in the roof. Neat wooden benches supply seats for about l00 persons; and a plain communion-table and reading-desk, complete the furniture. We have no service here till the evenings, the clergyman who takes it having to officiate first at morning and afternoon services in his parish church. So we do not stay now, but having just seen that all is right and ready for the evening, we go on our way. There is one other public building in our village. It is one of the out–liers I spoke of just now, and is known by the name of the Shant. In other words, it is the public-house of the place, but it is under very strict rules. No spirits are sold here, only beer. It is open only at stated times, and for short periods. Sometimes it opens only to serve those who fetch the beer away, and in the evening it is open for an hour, and the men may go and sit there and drink their beer, but this is not allowed on Sundays. By this time the morning school is over, and when we return we find the teachers busy, some clearing away books, other unpacking their provisions, and making ready for the picnic meal which is dignified by the name of dinner. The mid-day rest is very welcome. It is pleasant to stroll away into the woods, or down to the bank of the river, and to enjoy a little Sunday quiet till the bell rings again for afternoon school at two o'clock.