In 1904 I was at Tidworth, building the barracks. You had to be per fumigated before you could start work there and we lodged in Brimstone Bottom. A navvy was killed in the summer-shot in the Ram public house.
('Mates!' cried Mrs Garnett, 'don't cross a threshold red with blood!')
Tidworth, an Imperial Army town, is in the valley of the Bourne, a seasonally wet/seasonally dry tributary of the Salisbury Avon. Every day while the town was being built, the Ram brimmed with drinking navvies, milling and swillicking ale by the bucket in what is now the car park bounded by the brook. Then, one humid morning late that hot summer, work was rained off, and they packed in even tighter.
All morning there was an undertow of violence. A half-blind navvy called McHann engaged in brief pointless fights with barmen and the landlord. The landlord, Arthur Thomas, was uneasy all the time — he carried a navvy-stopping pistol to bank his takings — and that afternoon he closed the taps early. He was counting money at the till when Jukes, a barman, came in dirty from his last fight with McHann. A pewter pot broke a window. Angry men with blood on their faces threatened to dynamite the place. Thomas locked the doors and ran upstairs. 'I've got this for you bastards', he called from a bedroom window, showing them the navvy-stopper before firing, twice. Jukes followed with a double-barrelled shot-gun which he steadied on the window-sill. Some unknown navvy — possibly McHann — flung a pewter pot which hit the gun barrel, fired the gun, and killed a middle-aged Norfolk man called Shaw (or Sharpe, accounts differ) leaning against a tree, now gone, by the river.
'I'm pleased you've come,' Thomas told the police when they [124/125] came. 'You can see how I'm situated.' Outside was a litter of dented pewter and broken glass. 'I thought they'd smash up the bally show.' He was taken, cigarette in mouth and fingers, to Pewsey jail in a brougham.
Thomas and Jukes were freed, their trial stopped half-way through. With them there ended a long, long trail of riot, murder, random bloodshed and mass multi-navvy brawls dating back to the eighteenth century. All public works were blood soaked. Blood dripped, spurted, trickled or just steadily flowed, mainly from accidents, but also from knees, knuckles, hobnail boots, spades and pick helves. Violence was everywhere, casually vicious.
Rioting was endemic in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain in any case. The upper classes were callous, the lower were riotous. People rioted against new machinery and the price of grain, for Parliamentary democracy, against the price of theatre tickets. In the summer of 1795 canal navvies joined bread rioters, unhappy at the price of corn, near Barrow-on-Soar in the Quorn hunting country. A volley ot musket balls stopped them, some of them for good. 'The brown bread was very good,' said the Gentleman's Magazine 'but this, it should be recollected, was among that newly created, and so wantonly multiplied set of men, the diggers and conductors of navigations.'
On top of that, navvy rioting was often a kind of revenge by people who felt outside the law and outside society. 'Us behaves to folks according as they behave to us,' a man once told Anna Tregelles. 'Tell the navvy dogs the lock-up's too good for them and us'll rampage for the fun of giving them the trouble of putting us there.'
On top of that, navvies were often wild men doing hard jobs, hardened by death and calamity all around them. They were also men who lived by their strength and gloried in it. Fighting was a semi-organised sport with them. (Prize-fighting, in fact, was the national sport in the days of the canal men.) In 1805 Ned the Navigator fought and killed Sam Elseworth, butcher, behind the Ben Jonson's Head in Stepney. Men building the Redmires dam near Sheffield in the 18305 fought in a meadow, still called The Fighting Field, behind the Three Merry Lads. Prize fighting was the Sunday pastime on the Long Drag, and spontaneous rings of men formed wherever navvies were idle. There was even a style of boxing called Toe-the-Line, the rules of which were simple — you faced each other across a line scratched in [125/126] the dirt and took it in turns to fist-hit each other's head. You couldn't defend yourself: each in turn was an open target.
At the Llangyfellach tunnel there was a bloke what they called Toe-the-Lme. He used to work all day, stay in a pub till throwing out time, then go and sleep outside on the grass winter and summer. He was a quiet bloke until somebody hit him. He never knew he could fight a fore that.
But even given the tendency to violence, must riots had specific causes. Irishmen to begin with were the common factor in nearly a third of them, either because they undercut wages, because of religion, or because of the resentments between people of different cultures. Drink was a cause of many riots and a factor in most. Tension between navvies and the police caused trouble — not so much full-scale rioting, perhaps, as small-scale affrays in which the police were often badly damaged. A lot of navvies were themselves part-time criminals (if only as poachers and food-thieves) happy to make public works into ready-made hideaways for full-time delinquents.
'Well, you see,' a navvy once told Anna Tregelles, 'it's one of the ways of the line never to suffer a police to pick a chap off the work: and maybe now there's a dozen or more on 'em up there,' he went on, pointing along the unmade railway, 'as wouldn't know but the police was after they; so they'd all set on 'en, and do for 'en pretty quick.'
(Army deserters were sometimes hidden too — not always successfully. A gunner, recaptured on the Beckenham line in the 1850s, was sent back to his regiment with 'D' for Deserter branded on his chest.)
Their Betters were not above using their lawlessness, either, when it suited them. During the 1796 Parliamentary elections, for instance, Lancaster canal cutters were recruited by Lord Stanley's agent to intimidate the opposition. Any heavies would have done and navvies were heavier than most. 'We are going on very ill with the work in their neighbourhood,' grumbled the canal engineer, 'Not a man has been at work since the Canvassing began &. I doubt it will be the case as long as the Election continues.'
(A clutch of Peto's men started a riot when he stood for Parliament as a Liberal in Norwich in 1847. They turned up, loyally [126/127] cheering, outside his committee rooms as the polling booths closed. Somebody from a rival party threw a stone. The riot ran into the market square where a gang of navvies, outnumbered, hid in the Cattle Market Hotel. Windows fragmented, mirrors splintered, a man's scalp was gashed open. Peto won, too.)
Navvying's last thirty years were riot-free, the first thirty were probably riotous, but the in-between years were like bomb-bursts, particularly during the manias of the 1790s, 1840s, 1860s.
What seems to be one of the earliest recorded canal riots broke out casually in 1794 on the Hereford and Gloucester. Police were assaulted and a navvy called Dyer was arrested. (Perhaps the same Dyer who'd been fired a few months earlier for the idle way he and his men fed Mr Carne's Machine at the Oxenhall tunnel.) Other cutters were jailed for felony. It was ugly enough to stir the canal committee into paying to have them prosecuted as an example and a terror to the rest. The committee, after all, hoped to live profitably with an unalienated countryside once the navvies had gone. Next year there was a riotous affray, rather than a riot, on the Dearne and Dove about which we know little except it was quickly put down when the ringleaders were snatched. The cavalry, though called out, was never used. Some canal riots seem to have been against authority, others came out of a fellow-feeling with the down-trod, like the time in March 1795 when diggers from the Leicester and Northampton Union attacked a column of the Leicester Fencibles as they escorted a couple of deserters back to town. The deserters deserted again while the Volunteer Cavalry coralled the cutters in the Recruiting Sergeant, a pub in Newton Harcourt, where pike-armed navvies stood at bay, blocking the doors, until the horse soldiers winkled them out with sabres. Among the people arrested were Red Jack and Northamptonshire Tom, 'two fellows,' said the Leicester Journal, 'notorious for being a terror to every country they have resided in.'
Given a choice of fines or jail, the rioters — like most navvies — went inside. Others were offered jail or the Navy.
Some years later, in 1811, a disagreeable shopkeeper in Sampford Peverel was enough to start a riot on the Grand Western in mid- Devon. It's probably true to say most navvies detested shopkeepers as mean and unmanly creatures and this particular one, called Chave, they found particularly despicable. He had recently bought a shop with a sitting tenant living above it. To scare him away, [127/128] Chave hired a 'ghost' to rattle chains and beat drums next door. At dusk one evening in April, the day of Sampford's yearly cattle market, some navvies who had been idle and drinking for three days spotted Chave on his way home. They followed, jeering all the way, then threw stones at his house. His wife shot a man dead, and hurt another. 'It's impossible,' said the Taunton Courier, 'not to feel the deepest abhorrence for the proceedings of a savage ungovernable banditti, whose ferocious behaviour we hope will be visited by the heaviest punishment of the law.'
Next year, navvies who were straightening, deepening and widening the River Witham, rioted because a baker cheated them at a pub called the Plough, below Lincoln. They ousted the Plough's landlord, drank his ale, stole his sign, took the baker's basket and crossed the river to march on Bardney, armed with cutting tools. One man carried another man carrying the inn sign. In Bardney they threw bread (his own) at the baker and hung the inn sign in a tree. They stormed the Bottle and Glass, rolled out the barrels, staved in the ends, and wallowed in ale. They robbed the villagers. The village crusher hid in the village almshouses until more constables came from Horncastle. One was killed. The Riot Act was read and cavalry, jangling, herded the navvies together. Farm carts carried them to jail.
A few years later, in 1829, Joseph Hekekyan Bey, an Armenian engineer, was in the Wirral where navvies were throwing up a sea-wall to protect the end of the peninsula from sea-erosion. Because they belonged nowhere, said Hekekyan Bey, and because there were so many of them, they thought themselves beyond the law. One day they went in a body to Liverpool races where they started beating up the police and public with clubs until a posse of young bloods and merchants' clerks rounded on them. Navvies were being arrested as far away as Congleton late into the evening.
At one time when people were paid once a month in pubs, what the newspapers called 'riots' were routine paroxysms, regular as neap tides, except they were usually nothing more than mass- brawls involving nobody but navvies and not harming them over much. Like the men who spoiled Mrs Garnett's Christmas in 1881 when they 'rioted' in the American Tavern near the Alexandra Dock (which they were building) in Hull. 'Oh! What a happy day for England, and for us it would be,' said Mrs Garnett, 'if this should pass into a proverb, "sober as a navvy".' Or like the fight that broke out on the Leeds-Thirsk railway in [128/129] June 1846. Beer selling in the huts was banned because men spent more time drinking than they did working. They got rid of the drink by drinking it. Drinking it got them drunk. Getting drunk got them fighting, three hundred of them, all mangled together in a meadow of unmown hay on Wescoe Hill in Wharfedale.
One man who was drunk for a week, was stripped by his friends and jumped upon, in fun. 'Pumping upon him,' was how the Halifax Guardian put it. After pumping on him a bit, they blacked his naked body with soot and pumped upon him a bit more. They then re-sooted him. By then, though, he was dead.
Long, linear, isolated jobs seemed at least semi-essential to riot, as well. Dams and docks were quieter than railways and it was not by chance that one of the very few reservoir riots happened on a pipe track, the nearest waterworks got to railway conditions. Long, linear and isolated. It also had the classic combination of drink and Irishmen.
In Septemberember 1890, Lupton in Westmorland was the nearest village to two sections of the Thirlmere-Manchester pipe track. One was let to a Liverpool firm, the other to a Dublin company with an all-Irish workforce. Between three and four hundred men worked within drinking distance of the village. Most were single or temporarily womanless. Both Lupton and Nook, its neighbouring hamlet, overlook Lupton Beck. A mile and a deep green hollow separate them. The Plough is still a pub, free-standing in its own asphalted car park. The Nook Tavern, then a less posh affair (probably an ale-house) is now a private dwelling, a long, low building of local stone. They drank non-stop all over a weekend and through Monday. That afternoon an Irishman beat an Englishman in a straight fight in the Nook Tavern. Small squabbles then broke out spontaneously, sporadically, until they imploded into an open riot in which the English mounted a full-scale assault on the Plough where the Irish drank in a specially segregated taproom. The landlady tried to lock out the English, now armed with iron bars and staves, but when she failed she bolted the door into her main building, then bolted herself.
It was now eight o'clock in the evening, and dark. Outside it was cool. A breeze rustled the tall black hedges. Inside, before the English came, it was hot and fuggy, loud with Irish brogue and song. Then the English crashed in, and tobacco smoke and navvies swirled and rolled in the oil lamps' glimmer. Men roared like [129/130] wounded bull calves. The fight spilled out into the yard and the road, except for three men lying in blood, spit, and sawdust on the taproom floor. In the lane a hundred evenly divided men brawled and swayed.
Killings seem to have been incidental to most riots (only one man died at Lupton, after being smacked about the head with a spittoon) and deliberate murder was rare. Hangings were rarer, and at least one of them was a mistake.
I worked alongside Dan Sullivan at Llangyfellach. He was hanged for kicking a woman to death. Later a relative confessed to having killed the woman.
One of the other, few, executions was a double hanging by the side of the Edinburgh-Glasgow railroad track near the place where two Irishmen killed an English ganger in Decemberember 1840. John Green, the ganger, had been in charge of the gang only two days. The first day they threw bricks at him, the second they murdered him. Overnight, the newspapers speculated, the gang had drawn lots ribbonman-fashion to pick his killer. Early next morning Green met them in the dark on a bridge near Bishopbriggs just outside Glasgow. He commented on the weather and they hit him with an iron bar, knocking his hat off. 'Oh, God,' called Green, 'are you going to murder me?' One man kept hitting him with the bar. Another kept jumping on him in hobnailed boots.
Police and soldiers of the 58th Foot (later the Northamptonshire Regiment) drove up from Glasgow in omnibuses to arrest the whole gang. Over the next few days they were driven in noddies from the Bridewell to the Sheriff's Chambers in Stockwell Street for questioning. In the end, James Hickie, Dennis Doolan and Patrick Redding were brought to trial. Hickie was transported, the others hanged.
Doolan and Redding shambled to the gallows, as ungainly in their shackles as quadrupeds made to walk upright, until the chains were struck from their ankles at the foot of the gibbet. A bishop prayed for them. Then there was the black hood, then the noose, then the drop that broke their spines with a loud crack in the bright May air. A young soldier, pale as the hanging corpses, blacked out and fell.
The Irish potato crop partly failed in 1845, failed completely in 1846, failed again in 1848. Potatoes were wheat, meat and vegetables [130/131] to the Irish — many ate nothing else — and when whole crops were blighted (leaves blackened, stalks turned brittle, tubers rotted) they died of hunger. Rats ate the dying and the dead. Graphs of the Great Famine years and the peak years of the railway riots would roughly match and, though the two are never mentioned together in newspaper accounts of the time, bitterness must have moved the Irish.
The Penrith riots began and ended one cold week in Januaryuary, 1846, in the cutting near Yanwath, south of the town on the wide plain of the Rivers Eden, Eamont, and Petteril, flanked by the blue humped hills of Cumbria on one side, the straight blue hills of the Pennines on the other. Things had been tense for some time, mainly because the English thought the Irish undercut their wages. Both sides were segregated as was usual; the Irish were in the north near Plumpton; the English were in the south near the Pele tower at Yanwath. In between, near Penrith, was a kind of everyman's land where both sides mingled and where trouble began on Monday Januaryuary 9th. A drunken English ganger ordered an Irishman to drop his pick and pick up his shovel and the Irishman told him to sod off. Others sided with him and the ganger called on the rest of the English to run the Irish off the works. Everybody went on strike, huddled in camp. After dark the next day a battalion of aggrieved Irishmen trudged down the half-made track, flattening the frozen mud-peaks, to Yanwath. Uneasy magistrates fluttered behind on horseback, until one galloped ahead to warn the English to retreat. They left in good order, leaving their village to the Irish who, surprisingly, left it unlooted and unrazed. Next morning English recruits came from Kendal and Shap and between them they looted and gutted the Irish settlement at Plumpton. Wispy smoke rose in the cold daylight. An Irishman was already dead.
The Westmorland Yeomanry now patrolled the Irish quarter of the Townhead, an older part of Penrith, narrow-streeted to shock-absorb raids by Scottish moss-troopers. On Wednesday, after hearing the Irish were mustering outside the town with reinforcements from Carlisle, the Yeomanry redeployed, leaving a gap through which the English infiltrated. Once inside the Townhead they stoned an Irish lodging house kept by a man variously called Mr Eevy or McLevy, then dragged a navvy called Dennis Salmon from under a bed and down the long winter-bare [131/132] garden that backs on the railway. John Hobday, a middle-aged man with a clipped beard, swung a pick helve at him, double-handed.
'I called out for mercy,' Salmon told the jury, 'but the prisoner said: "pitch into the bugger, he's life enough in him yet.'"
Tyson Hodgson, farmer and parish constable, pleaded with Hobday, too. 'An Irishman will sulk for an hour before he's killed,' said Hobday, swinging at Salmon.
Next day the horse soldiers on the Carlisle road met the Irish contingent. Faced with armed troops, even irregulars, the Irish hesitated. The Yeomanry loaded their carbines. The Irish fell back. Many took their wages and fell right back to Carlisle where the regular army garrison was already on stand-by. On Monday, a week after it all began, cavalry still patrolled the works, though that afternoon they handed over to the 89th Foot (later, the Royal Irish Fusiliers).
All that remained was Hobday's trial, watched by a gallery-load of his mates. Character witnesses swore what a steady man he was. He had worked for Blisset, the contractor, for fourteen years. Even the railway police found no deep fault in him 'except he got drunk like other navvies'. Others said what a quiet and inoffensive chap he was.
The Carlisle Patriot's court reporter disagreed. 'The prisoner is a remarkable man,' he wrote, 'and may be considered a type of the class to which he belongs. His stature is rather below the common height, but his broad frame gives evidence of immense strength. His countenance is forbidding in the extreme. Every feature indicates habitual crime,
For evil passions, cherished long,
Have ploughed them with impressions strong,
while his rough matted hair completed the aspect of the finished ruffian. We understand he has said that for nine years he has never slept in a bed, or worn a hat: that his custom was to put on his boots when new, and never remove them until they fell to pieces, and his clothes were treated very much in the same way, except that his shirt was changed, once a week.'
He was transported, to the dismay of the gallery. Hobday laughed.
A few days later Irish gangs on the Edinburgh-Hawick were paid in a pub in Gorebridge, a grey-stone town above a little ravine. In the pub a packman moved quietly about in the smoke and the noise [132/133] selling his wares to the navvies. Two of them, pretending to be interested in a watch, took it, looked at it, then refused to hand it back. Railway police bundled them off to the line's own lock-up where they stayed until the small hours of the next morning when a mob of their friends broke them loose. Together, raucous and loud, they trooped off to Fusie Bridge — then a hamlet, now a widening in the road — where they kicked a policeman to death.
The murdered man was a Scot and the rest of the navvies on the line, most of them Scottish, set out to avenge him, mustering an army early next morning at Newbattle paper mills by the crags of the River South Usk, marching south like proud rowdy soldiers, colours flying, voices and arms raised, pipes and bugles sounding calls to bloody war. They captured and sacked the sod settlement at Borthwick Castle. Behind them were the blue Pentland Hills: ahead the Moorfoots were still whitened by snow.
The Irish, unable to cope with this semi-disciplined onslaught, fell back to regroup and finally break at Crichton Moor, a heath where beeches lean like well-used brooms away from the wind. The Scots razed their camps. Next morning the Irish counter-attack was broken by a patrol of heavy cavalry from Edinburgh.
Sheriff Spiers of Edinburgh still wanted two of them for the murder of Richard Pace, the policeman: Pat Reilly, a stout middle-aged man with speckled whiskers, a blue bonnet and big boots; and Peter Clark, a sandy man. Both got away.
Who won usually depended on the head count, victory almost always going to the bigger battalion, both sides being pretty equal in physique. A journalist on the Dumfries Standard had another theory. 'When fights occur, the English are generally victors with fists — but the Irish, if cudgels are used.' Thus, until regular soldiers were called in, Irish navvies trounced the English on the Chester-Birkenhead in Octoberober, 1859.
A hagman called Graham offended the Irish by hiring only Englishmen on this contract, so one Monday the Irish clubbed the exclusive English off the line. Next day the English fell in, army-style, and battled with the Irish near Childer Thornton in the Wirral. But the English were outnumbered and out-armed — sticks against pick handles and shovels — and were trounced. Superintendent Palmer came from Birkenhead. The Irish had now set up headquarters in an ale-house in Childer Thornton and next morning they sallied out to trounce the English [133/134] again. Palmer sent for the Army: the 96th Foot (later, the Manchester Regiment) and the i4th (Prince of Wales' West Yorkshire). Some of the Irish escaped across the fields, while the rest barricaded themselves in houses in Childer Thornton, until Palmer backed his horse against the doors and let him kick them down like a self-propelled battering ram.
But, if anything, the Irish were more ferocious than the rest. 'The most reckless, violent set of people than can be imagined,' Maurice Dowling, police commissioner in Liverpool, said of them in the i84os. 'They assist each other and attack the authorities whoever they may be; they keep the neighbourhood where they reside' — they were building the North Dock — 'in a constant state of uproar and confusion on Saturday night, Sundays and Mondays, and generally a portion of Tuesday.' 'They are,' he went on, 'very violent towards the police.'
They squatted, rent free, in cellars from where only massive police raids could dislodge them. Several policemen were nearly killed, one of them trying to stop a mass brawl. 'They were in the act of butchering him,' said the commissioner, aghast. 'They were hacking at him with their spades.'
The commissioner's troubles didn't end there either. Whole families of Irish counterfeiters traipsed behind the navvies like camp-followers, uttering base coin like a spoor, seducing them into passing dud money whenever they were broke, which was almost all the time.
(Around this time, too, the Irish had a curious punishment for their own people. 'If they are offended with any of their fellow workmen,' Alfred List, an Edinburgh policeman, told the 1846 Committee, 'as a revenge they will go to the hut and eat his provisions, then kick him off the work.'
'With that system of vengeance,' a committee member suggested, 'they are not given to pilfering much, are they?'
'No,' said List, 'only feeding.')
Where there were no Irish, foreigners would do, as in the summer of 1866, when English fought Belgian on the Surrey-Sussex Junction.
There was a navvy settlement at Blackham on common grazing ground, thick with hawthorns and brambles, above the Kent Water, a tributary of the Medway. It is a fat green country, almost over ripe, over rich, over green. Hedges were then as tall as trees. White- capped oast houses stood on wooded slopes threaded with smugglers' [134/135] lanes. On summer evenings the air was an itch of midges, clamourous with bird song.
One Saturday evening in Septemberember two Belgians in Caleb Sherlock's beer> shant insisted on showing the English how to box and kick. The English chucked them out. Two other English navvies, hearing the noise, ran down through the brambles and were sandbagged by the Belgians. A general brawl erupted. It kept re-erupting all night. When Moses Stanbrook, a works inspector, arrived at midnight they were breaking down the huts. Police came with the early morning light, the Sunday bells ringing out over Sussex. The brawl kept re-erupting all day and long after dusk. PC Nathan Tobutt saw a gang of men leaving Caleb Sherlock's beer shant at ten o'clock. They broke into a Belgian hut and dragged Rosalie Martin from under a bed, her skirts about her head, and beat her.
Moses Stanbrook tried beer bribes. 'For God's sake act like Englishmen,' he said when that failed, 'and leave the foreigners alone.' Somebody hit him on the neck with a stick. More police came.
The magistrates' court was held in the Crown in East Grinstead High Street. All the Belgians who hadn't jumped bail were acquitted but two Englishmen got two months' apiece. 'Any attempt to prevent aliens from honestly gaining their livelihood in this country,' warned the chairman, 'will be severely punished.'
(Firbank's biographer says Belgians were brought to the Oxted tunnel as strike-breakers one undated winter around this time. In the subsequent riot the Belgians fled unclad into the woods (thick with snow) and hid there several days.)
Sometimes the police stopped riots, sometimes they started them, often they were harmed.
In May, 1846, letters were sent to contractors at Kinghorn on the coastal railway between Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy on the Firth of Forth's north shore.
Sir — You must warn all your Irish men to be of the grownd on Monday the 11 of this month at 12 ocloak or els we must put them by forse
to dow it.
135/136] Next week, hand-written placards were nailed about the town:
Notice is given
that all the Irish men on the line of railway in Fife share must be off the grownd and owt of the countey on Monday the i ith of this month or els we must by the strenth of our arems and a good pick shaft put them off Your humbel servants
On Sunday a host of Schots men hobnailed down the narrow street called Nethergate from the viaduct they were building to the beach, a fang-shaped bit of sand which doubles up as the harbour. Inchkeith Island, twin-humped and lighthoused, was hazy in the morning light. But however wild and threatening they were that mild May morning the evident readiness of the police to truncheon them down, calmed them down. Nothing more happened.
In June 1855, a Division of the Army Works Corps waited at the Crystal Palace for a ship to take them to the Crimea. The Palace on the hill winked in the sunlight and Royal Waterman's Square, brand-new, gave a fair imitation in yellow brick of a Tudor mansion. One afternoon in Penge some of the AWC men stripped and began sparring, fists up, elbows down. Some respectable women were so scandalised they scurried along, as though on castors, to complain to a police constable. They goaded him and his mate into truncheon-charging the ring of men watching the boxing. Both were hurt. More crushers trotted up. Boots pounding and legs pumping like caricature cops in a flickering movie, a body of peelers in tall shiny hats then truncheon-charged the entire First Division, Army Works Corps, five hundred men, all entirely innocent, as they gathered for afternoon roll-call at the Crystal Palace. One north countryman was truncheoned between the shoulder blades as he walked alongside the phaeton where he had put his wife for safety. Nearly half a century later the son of one of the policeman told Katie Marsh it was the most dangerous moment of his father's rustic life. The reality of what they had done occurred to the police all at the same time, as they stood about to be engulfed through their own illegal stupidity.
Only Katie Marsh saved them. She drove her carriage between them and the men, imploring the navvies to stop.
'I shall not go away until you are gone if I stay here till midnight,' she told them. 'You will not murder these men before my eyes, I know.' [136/137]
Seven navvies were jailed. One wrongfully. He was alibied by a tentmaker, whom Miss Marsh traced. But nothing, apart from their wounds, happened to the police who had caused it all. The Bench, in fact, rarely reprimanded the police for mistreating navvies and there are few recorded instances, even, of defence counsel condemning police brutality.
Late one Saturday night in Augustust 1866, PCs Osborne and Moore heard sounds of disturbance in Newhaven High Street. A navvy called Soap leant against a wall, swearing. 'The police,' said the Sussex Advertiser, 'very properly interfered; an altercation arose between them.' It didn't last long, the altercation. Soap felled them both, with his crutch.
'If these poor men were sometimes treated with a little more leniency,' Soap's defence lawyer submitted, 'if the police would remember that they were the guardians of the public peace, and not the petty tyrants of hard working men, these cases could not occur.' The judge disagreed. 'It is necessary that police constables and all peace officers should be clothed with more protection than other people.' Soap got eight months', hard.
Not long before, three navvies had been tried for their lives for killing a policeman in Somerset. Would he have died, defence counsel asked, if he had not been acting illegally?
The Red House Tavern (now the Red House Inn) is a free-standing stone box near Yeovil, where the old Roman road to Dorchester is crossed by a lane. Twenty centuries of droving have worn the road into a deep groove. The cross-lane — to East Coker- is sunken, too. Then, it tunnelled through its own border of thick, high hedges ('the deep lane shuttered with branches,' T S Eliot wrote of East Coker nearly a century later). Just after midnight on Januaryuary iith, 1862, a group of navvies and a boy called Jeremiah Rowe were horse-playing about outside the pub. George Chant was 29. George Handsford was 24. Charles Rogers was 33. Hubbard, a police constable, walked by. 'Who stole the fowl?' one of the navvies asked.
'Damn the bobby.'
Hubbard walked a few more yards until stones were chucked at him. He turned and, in the moonlight, saw Handsford tossing them. Hubbard went on up the hill towards Yeovil, the road lit only by his unbright lamp and the moon. On top of the hill he met PC Penny and together they went back to the Red House, where the [137/138] navvies still loitered in the cold moonlight. Penny put his hand on Handsford's shoulder. 'What's your name?' Penny asked him.
'What for?' said Handsford.
'I'm taking you into custody for throwing stones at Hubbard.'
But Handsford, though arrested verbally, was unarrested physically. The police wandered off again. By chance on top of Yeovil Hill they met Sgt Keates and all three went back to the pub where the navvies still loitered in the cold moonlight. Handsford still wouldn't come quietly, so they jumped him, wrestling, grappling and scuffing in the dim light, the studs in their boots knocking sparks out of the road, till one of them snapped the jaws of his handcuffs on Handsford's wrist, though all that did was turn one flailing arm into a deadly weapon.
'What? Are you all going to see me taken like this?' Handsford called to his mates.
Chant squared up behind Sgt Reates. Rogers, his white slop faintly gleaming in the moonlight, cracked the two constables on the head with a stick and ran. Handsford's handcuffs struck Penny on the temple. Of the navvies, only Handsford and Chant were now left. Sgt Keates lay stunned in the moonlight. PC Penny lay dying. Keates got up, chased Handsford, knocked him down, and arrested him. PC Penny still lay dying in the moonlight.
Rogers was found a day later hiding under a basket in the back-house of an inn. 'If I hadn't hit him,' he explained to the arresting officer, 'he'd have killed I.'
Mr ffooks, for the defence, began by questioning the legality of the arrest. When an affray — in this case the tossing of stones — was over, a constable had no more powers of arrest than anybody else. He had to get a magistrate's warrant. In this case the affray had been over for an hour before the arrest was made. He went further. Had there been an affray at all? Those stones had been pitched in fun, not thrown. PC Hubbard admitted they truckled at his feet. Didn't the jury think a powerful man like Handsford could have thrown them with force if he'd wanted to hurt the constable? Flipping or tossing pebbles was no felony, merely a misdemeanour, and the police had no powers of arrest for that. The navvies would never have fought the police, had the police not assaulted them. The Jury must teach the police how to behave.
The judge summed up. There were two questions: was the flipping of pebbles an assault? and, if it was, did the lapse of time between the assault and the arrest constitute a continuing pursuit? If [138/139] the jury said no to the second question, the arrest was illegal and Handsford's resistance was no felony. If they said yes to both questions, then PC Penny was murdered. If they said no, his death might still be manslaughter. Chant and Rogers were acquitted, but Handsford was found guilty of manslaughter with a recommendation to mercy. He got four years' hard labour. [Medical evidence suggested Penny was killed by the handcuffs on Handsford's wrist.]
Workhouse masters and other jacks in office often mugged lone navvies as well. In 1904 Charles Lovett, tramp navvy, was rescued from the masters and porters of Marlborough Workhouse by a policeman called Shaw, though before they came to trial Lovett vanished, and they were freed for lack of evidence. Shaw was threatened with losing his job and Mrs Garnett pleaded with Lovett in the Letter. 'Stand up for justice, mates!' But Lovett had gone for good.
Absconding hagmen, if caught, caused riots. Hapton is a bleak four-street town growing uphill from roots in the Liverpool-Leeds canal in the Colne-Blackburn cotton conurbation in the Calder Valley. In 1846 they were building the East Lancashire railway there and in Septemberember the police brought two hagmen called Benley and Leech before the magistrates. They had packed their furniture and were about to take off without paying their men when the navvies caught them. There was no money, they told the men. Then there's no food for you, said the navvies, locking the hags in the billiard room of the Angel (now gone). They charged a ha'penny a peek and collected seventeen shillings.
A police raid busted them out of navvy custody into the police cells. Why was there no money, the magistrates asked. It was expended they explained, and since their wives had already fled with their other chattels, there was nothing the law could do. The navvies, however, grabbed Leech and locked him in the billiard room again until the police raided the place and put him back in the cells for his own good. Still, he got his share of the stolen contract money: the men shared what they got from the peep-show.
Only twice, perhaps, did navvies fight for their bosses like cow-hands in a range war. The first time was in 1845 on the Gravesend-Rochester where the contractor told the company he'd keep their railway unless they [139/140] gave him more money. The company, outraged both by the blackmail and the theft of their line, were even more put out when the contractor sent a ganger to steal the cylinder ends from their locos, leaving them stranded — forlorn, immobilised and cold, their tall smoke-stacks unsmoking — in the old converted canal tunnel at Strood. The ganger made off in a post-chaise, chased by a carriage brimming with the company's men, arms and fists waving through the open windows. The ganger was arrested on the gang-plank of a London-bound river steamer.
By now the company had occupied its own Gravesend terminus, by force. The contractor's men smashed through the doors and turned them out, by force. More navvies wirh picks and crowbars marched off to capture and occupy the station at Rochester. The police could do nothing and in the end it was the magistrates who persuaded both sides to post token forces in the termini and go to arbitration.
A few miles away, a few years later, the second railway war was fought where the Oxford-Worcester strikes the northern end of the Cotswolds near Mickleton, a village of mixed Gloucestershire stone and the black-and-white of the Warwickshire plain. On the scarp side, the tunnel gapes black and wet over the Vale of Evesham. In the hot summer of 1851 Brunel fired the Mickleton contractor because he was behind with the work and gave the job to Peto and Betts. Marchant, the old contractor, said he wouldn't budge without being paid for the plant he'd bought. Navvies sent to drive him off by force were beaten up. Then Brunel, backed by navvies, tried to evict him personally one hot Friday in July. Marchant, who knew he was coming, called out the magistrates and faced him from behind their backs, and those of a squad of cutlass-armed police. The magistrates read the Riot Act. Brunel fell back.
A small army of Peto and Bett's men then tried, early on Monday morning, scuffing and trampling as delicately as anybody can in navvy boots towards the mouth of the tunnel. Marchant's men were awake and ready. Skulls cracked. Shoulders dislocated. A man who drew a pistol was felled with a shovel. The magistrates came back with the Gloucester Artillery. It was still early morning, the country rich and fat with cows and ripening fruit. The embankment curved away into the Vale of Evesham and the sunshine.
The day grew hot and uneasy. More men arrived. To break the deadlock the magistrates told Marchant to start work. What [140/141] happened then was like a 17th century battle in scale and tactics — a ruck of men at push of pike hob-nailing in freshly worked muck: blood soaking into it could ruin respectable folk. Brunei and Marchant stepped aside to talk it over. Behind them a finger was bitten off. Time to back oif. Cubitt and Stephenson were asked to arbitrate.
The last two riots on public works, curiously enough, fell within days of each other in the blazing summer of 1904: the killings at the Ram near Tidworth and at Seathwaite Tarn in Cumberland. Few regular navvies worked at Seathwaite, an isolated little concrete dam in the almost soil-less fells above Dunnerdale, under an immense, silent, grey-green corrie scattered with scree, but nevertheless newspapers began with headlines of navvy riots before saying they were sorry for maligning honest men. The rioters were labourers. 'In addition to the genuine navvy,' said the North Western Daily News, 'there is always a lot of men who are really hangers on.' Such were Owen Cavanagh, Joseph Foy, and Garrett Kinsella.
The pub where it all happened is now the Newfield Inn. Then it was the New Field Hotel, a little old thick-walled house in an L-shape of buildings in a sharp bend in the road. All around are the woods by the River Doddon. It was a hot summer. People died of the heat. Two navvies died of heat stroke in Colchester. In Seathwaite the hot sunlight burned out the intense rocky greyness of the place.
Owen Cavanagh was a young Millom man, an ex-soldier (he had a bad eye), a labourer — not a navvy — making the road that switchblades up the fell to the dam. He had a drink-damaged liver and peritonitis and the day he was shot he'd started drinking at nine in the morning. By midday he, Foy, and Kinsella were in the New Field. Foy fell asleep and the publican ordered them out. They smashed the deep-set windows and the furniture, a hanging lamp, glasses, beer bottles, a mirror. Everything breakable was broken except the whisky bottles which they opened. They hurled half a ton of rocks at the vicarage, the church and the schoolhouse in the shade of the trees by the Doddon, before trooping back to stone the New Field. A barman shot Foy in the legs. The publican shot Kinsella. An engineer called Todd shot Cavanagh, who died next day in the tourist luncheon room. The gunmen were acquitted.
It was the end of the warfare on public works, though not the end of the navvy's involvement in war. [141/142]
Last modified 21 April 2006