Navvies and Their Needs/Chapter 3


I WILL now once more ask the reader to accompany me to the huts, this time to enter one or two, and make acquaintance with their inhabitants. Dinner, the great event of the day, being over, we can count on a welcome which might have been denied us in the morning. I must choose those huts where there are sick ones to be visited in preference to others. The interior of the huts is the same in each, and one description will serve for all. The outer door opens into the kitchen, which serves as the general living room. It is a good-sized room, open to the roof. The floor is of brick, and the furniture very simple, consisting of a long deal table with forms on each side of it, a few chairs, and perhaps an arm-chair for the special use of the landlord. The walls are more or less decorated, according to the taste of the inmates, and the beams, which run across just within reach, are hung with men's clothes, handkerchiefs, and so on. At one end of the room is the range, and at the other a door leading into an inner apartment. This inner room is rather smaller than the other, and is generally used as the men's sleeping room. In this case it is furnished with five large wooden bedsteads, constructed in very simple fashion, and each one supposed to accommodate two men. Above this room, and in the slope of the roof, is another which is reached by a ladder from the outer room, and which is generally occupied by the landlord and his family. In some cases, however, this arrangement is reversed, and the lodgers are stowed away in the loft. In the first hut we enter we find a number of men gathered round the fire. All are smoking, some reading, some talking, while at the table a game of dominoes is going on. We notice that the favourite periodicals seen to be of the lower-class newspaper kind. Some of the men take no notice whatever of our presence, and make no reply to our greeting. Some, on the other hand, make a move, and invite us to a chair near the fire, and from one or two we get a welcome which is cordial, if not loudly expressed. We ask for the land-lady; one of the men calls to her, and she appears at the top of the ladder leading to the upper room. "Come up, if you please, sir," she says; and we go, knowing that it is there we are most wanted. It is a terribly close room that we enter, with a sickly smell that tells of over-crowding. There are three beds in the small space, one of which is occupied by the patient whom we have come to see. It is not a navvy, but the daughter of a navvy, and the wife of a navvy, a girl of about twenty, with a face to which long sickness has brought more beauty than it would have had in strong health—a tender fragile being, seeming altogether out of place amid these rough surroundings. She has been ill a long time, and is not far from the end, and her sufferings are very great, terribly aggravated by the foul air, coarse food, and rough though kind nursing. It is a very sad sight, rendered more sad by what we learn of the sufferer's past life. Born in a navvy's hut, wandering all her life from place to place with her parents, surrounded always by sights and sounds of evil, what could she know of good ? In no place where her father has worked before has any provision been made for the mental or spiritual welfare of the navvies or their children—no school, no church. Her mother could teach her nothing but the same poor miserable creed she held herself, of which the chief tenet was, that this world was so bad, so hard and rough, so toilsome, that no change could well be for the worse. But the girl's eyes lighten as [we enter, and she smiles a welcome. It was long before my visits were so received. At first she barely tolerated them. They seemed to her to imply that her illness was more serious than she would allow it to be, and they threatened to disturb the quiet of her ignorance. That false peace was disturbed at last, and now, knowing that her sickness is unto death, she can look forward to the end with peace which no fear can disturb, for it is founded on the simple yet profound knowledge of Him who is mighty to save. One such case as this is ample reward for any amount of care and pains which we have spent at L——— W———, and one such case seems to me to proclaim with burning eloquence the needs of our navvy population. Neglected, degraded, brutalised men are a sight sad enough, but to see women in the same state moves one to deeper disgust, and to greater pity and remorse. The next case of sickness that awaits me is that of a young man, a navvy, struck down in the pride of life, and dying like the girl we have just left, of consumption. One gets into a way of thinking of navvies as strong above their fellows, and it is a pitiable sight to see one with pale sunken cheeks, and shrunken limbs. It happens, however, not unfrequently. The strong frame is over-taxed, the man works sometimes under a burning sun, sometimes in driving rain or snow, sometimes up to his middle in water. He generally perseveres long after he ought to have given in, and then gives in once for all. We find the sick man propped up in an arm-chair by the fire. He has a very bad weary look in his face. Time hangs heavily on his hands. He has absolutely nothing to do. He cannot read, and there is no one save occasional visitors like ourselves to read to him; he can do nothing but think—think of the health he has lost, of the sickness which is wasting him away, of his pains and of his weariness. Such thinking is apt to breed discontent. It seems hard to rebuke his murmuring; for the short time we can spend with him we must try our best to make him cheerful. We read to him a little, and he asks us to pray with him. This we do in the name of Him who, while he promised tribulation to His disciples, bade them also be of good comfort. Then we try to talk cheerfully about the supply of his present wants. It is pleasant to hear that his mates are very kind to him, and bring him each pay-day a contribution from their own wages. It is their habit to do so, and each man, as he spares a shilling for his sick friend, knows that in his own need the same kindness will be shown to him. Before our visits to the huts are concluded, the children are already pouring out of school, and preparations are being made for the evening meal. The hour of tea is a very welcome one to our teachers; the meal can be had in rather more comfort than dinner, and there is a delicious sense of relief at the thought that the day's work is over, and the rest now enjoyed has been fairly earned. Some of the teachers, however, have still something to do; there are tracts to be changed, visits to be paid, and one of them has to devote half an hour to the management of the lending library. In one corner of the school-room stands a large cupboard, always locked, except for one half-hour on Sunday afternoon. It is full of books, and to those who subscribe the large sum of one penny per month, these books are lent. They are in great demand, and many of them have been read and read again, till there is very little left of them. Among the many mistakes which we made in our work at L——— W———, one of the chief, I think, was in the management of this library. We began with a very fair supply of books, to which we were largely assisted by the Pure Literature and other societies. These books were eagerly sought for, and for a time supplied the needs of the readers, but the supply was not maintained, nor were new books obtained in sufficient numbers to keep up the usefulness of the library to its highest point. It would have been well, too, if, in connection with our library, we had had an organisation for the sale of cheap and pure literature. A little was done in this way, but, I am afraid, a great deal more was done by the vendors of pernicious literature. We had our schools, our reading-room, and night-school in winter, our savings-bank and clothing-club, but I fear we did not at the time realise the importance of the ample supply of good and cheap reading. Although among the navvies the greater number are unable to read, yet one meets with a good many who can do so, and it is probable that in each hut one would find at least one man who was able to read to his companions. Such talents were generally appreciated, and often on Sunday evening, in winter-time, the men would gather round the fire in the hut, while one read aloud, sometimes a tract, sometimes a newspaper, and now and then a chapter of the Bible. But meanwhile the evening is closing in, it is nearly church time. The bell begins to tinkle, and the square windows give forth a bright light into the outer darkness. And now two or three of us set out to visit between us every hut, to use what influence we may to bring their inmates to church. It is not altogether a pleasing task. One feels rather guilty of an impertinence when one disturbs a pleasant party in their own house, and remonstrates with them for being there, and urges them to turn out into the cold night air. However, the visits are always kindly received, and are by no means fruitless. When we reach the church we find it warm and cheerful. There is a good fire in the stove, and the lamps which hang from the roof burn brightly. The benches are filling, and when the bell ceases every seat is full. It is always so on winter evenings, whereas in summer the congregations are usually smaller, for the men wander off into the woods and are not to be found in the huts as now. The service consists of evening prayer and a sermon. It is conducted with the utmost simplicity, but varied with as much music as possible. We sing as many hymns as can be conveniently introduced. I think that no stranger entering the church during service could fail to be struck with the great heartiness with which the navvies joined in it. Care is taken that all who can read should be provided with books, and the little trouble involved is amply repaid by the heartiness of the responses. From his desk the preacher looked Sunday after Sunday on an array of earnest faces, while the solemn thought pressed upon him that to many he was speaking for the first and last time. Every Sunday some new faces greeted him, while others were looked for in vain; for navvies are unsettled beings, always on the move, and many a one who came to church, and hoped to come again, found himself far away before the week was spent. And now our Sunday comes to an end, and with many a hearty shake of the hand, and with many a warm wish for our safe journey, we set off homewards.

Such is a navvy village as it has been, as it may be. Let it not be supposed that the above is a specimen of what is commonly found in such colonies. I have described an exceptional state of things; and, alas! the exception is a rare one. I had long supposed it to be so, judging from what I saw and heard at L——— W——— I found there in large numbers men who were perfectly ready to welcome and appreciate any effort made for their spiritual good, but to whom all the ordinary means of such good were almost unknown.

In the autumn of last year we addressed inquiries to the managers of all the public works we could hear of in the country. The object of these inquiries was to ascertain the number of men employed, the extent to which they were lodged in huts, apart from other men, and the provision made for their spiritual needs in the way of schools, services, &c. The number of places from which answers were received was thirty-four. Out of these there were twelve at which were no huts, the men being lodged in towns or villages which happened to be sufficiently near. Thus, there were twenty-two places at which huts had been erected, and navvy colonies, more or less extensive, called into being.

The total number of huts reported was 843, giving an average of about 38 huts to each place.

The total number of men employed was 13,244, or an average of nearly 400 at each place.

I must here ask the reader to remember that these facts and figures are gathered from a comparatively small area. Our queries were addressed to the managers of some 70 different works, of which we heard merely by questioning the navvies at L——— W———, and by studying the columns of the newspapers. There can be no doubt that the number of works in progress is very much larger than this.

But replies to our queries were received from only 34 places. Even so, we have information relating to the condition of 13,000 men, besides women and children. What the grand total would be if complete statistics could be gathered from the whole of England, it is difficult to guess.

For want, however, of larger information, we take our 13,000 as a sample, remembering that they are but a sample, and ask—What provision is made for their moral and spiritual needs?

One of our queries was, "Have you any night-school, Sunday-school, or Sunday service?" These questions were answered in 22 cases by a comprehensive negative. These answers came in part from the 12 places where there were no huts, and implied that no schools or services existed especially for the navvies, although there may have been both in the town or village, but — the navvy would say—not for him. The next question was, "Does any regular Minister come?" To this, in 21 cases, the answer was "No." Out of the total number of 34 places we counted four only where was a Sunday service attended by navvies; two where they attended a Sunday-school; three where they had night-schools; and three where were day-schools for their children.

Iu each case the managers—to whom our inquiries were addressed—were invited to add such remarks to their replies as they thought fit. Some of these remarks are very striking, and show how differently our efforts were viewed by those in authority in different quarters.

One manager appends a warning to his remarks to the effect that if any missionary is coming he must not be thin-skinned. Another tells us that "navvies don't care much for ministers, the idea being that money is wanted more than souls." This is, indeed, a most unfortunate idea, and one which I have never met with among navvies. At L——— W——— we certainly never asked the men for their money, save once a year, when we held a missionary meeting, and had a collection, which was almost always a good one. Our observations led us to the conclusion that no man is more ready and willing to pay for what he gets than the navvy. He generally earns good wages, and his habit is to spend them freely. He will give generously, almost lavishly, to help a sick mate and if he chance to meet an old acquaintance out of work and on the tramp, he will nor fail to bestow a shilling on him.

At L——— W——— the navvies were never asked for any contributions toward the expenses of the church, but had it become necessary at any time to appeal to them we should have done so with the utmost confidence that the response would be made not grudgingly or of necessity, but most readily, by many cheerful givers. We gave away many Bibles and Prayer Books, but I believe as many were bought as were given, and I am sure that in most cases the purchase was preferred to the gift. Many a time have men come to us with the request that we would buy for them a Bible or a Prayer Book, and when asked what price they wished to give, have put down half-a-sovereign, or even a sovereign, saying, "I want a real good one, with references and maps, and I'm not particular to a shilling or two."

My own experience, therefore, leads me not to be alarmed by the opinion expressed above, but rather to think that if any effort to minister to the spiritual needs of navvies is to succeed, opportunity must be offered to the navvies themselves to participate in it. I would not urge them to give, but I would let them know that they were free to give if they would, and I believe they would not be slow to avail themselves of the opportunity. The last of these "remarks" which I will quote is—

"Sir,—We have been here nearly four years, and we have never been visited by any minister. Our job is nearly finished. No one has ever so much as sent us a tract to read on a Sunday.

"The Manager."

I said I would claim my reader's sympathy for navvies on the ground of facts; and surely this one fact, even if it stood alone, would be sufficient ground. But we have seen already that it does not stand alone. It is merely the description, plainer and more outspoken than usual, of the state of things in many places.

If, then, these things be so, the question is, Can anything be done to mend matters? What can be done? and to whom must we look for the doing of it? One very common reply to these questions is, "Let the clergy of the several districts in which these navvies are look to it; let them provide all that is needed—services, school, and so on—for the use of these people, who are their parishioners, if only for a time." This sounds plausible enough, and there are cases in which all this can be done, and is done. But imagine a case—such as I have seen—of a large district, with a dense population, and a small, overworked staff of clergy. The centre of the parish, in which dwell five-sixths of the whole population, is a manufacturing town, but the parish boundaries stretch far away, and enclose distant moorland hamlets, and large tracts, it may be, of almost uninhabited country. Into one of these outlying districts come the navvies. There, within the boundaries of the parish, but perhaps four or five miles from the town, is formed the navvy village, requiring a parochial organisation of its own.

In many cases the old saying holds good, and everybody's business is nobody's business. There is no lack of people to cry shame on the neglect which the navvies suffer, and to say, "Something ought to be done for these people." The difficulty is to find those who say, "This is my business; I must do something for them."

Generally speaking the responsibility is very widespread. Wherever a large number of navvies is gathered to execute some extensive public work, there is sure to be also a large number of people who derive benefit from their presence. In the first place their employers are benefitted. Then the neighbouring land-owners, on whose property the works are executed, derive pecuniary advantage. The tradesmen, too, of the neighbouring towns and villages profit largely, for the navvies spend their earnings freely. On all these there rests directly some share of responsibility. And indirectly it spreads wider still. If the works are of public utility, then on the public in general falls a share of the burden, and to each and all of us belongs the duty of seeing, so far as we may, that the men who make our railways, our reservoirs, our docks and harbours, are not uncared for in the things which concerns their souls.

To many, no doubt, the peculiar needs of navvies in this respect have been unknown. It has been the object of these pages to make them known, at least to some, and if that object has been in any degree obtained, I may appeal to my readers to render help how, when, and where they can. Many, no doubt, would help willingly, but lack the opportunity. With the view of offering such opportunity, and of ministering in the way which seems most likely to be effectual to the needs of the navvy population, it has been proposed to form a Society for this special purpose. There are already existing so many religious societies and agencies, that the idea of forming a new one is not a little formidable. Yet if a new need is discovered, which can be met by none of the old agencies, to establish a new one seems the right and proper course. In the present case there is no need of a very extensive organisation or of a very large income. A little would go a long way; and if only a small beginning could be made, the way would become plainer towards more complete operations.

In any case I trust that the present account of an almost unknown section of the community will have proved interesting to the readers of the Quiver, and that it will have enlisted their sympathy with the spiritual and moral needs of our navvies, which hitherto have scarcely ever been prominently brought before the public.

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