Banker: See Navvy.

Banksman: Man in charge of the winding gear which raised and lowered men and material up and down the vertical access shaft of a tunnel.

Barrow run: A plank stretching from the bottom to the top of a cutting. Men pushed barrows filled with excavated earth up them — usually helped, it should be said, by a horse or mule pulling from the top. (Illustration)

Batter: The slope of an earthwork be it a dam, cutting, or embankment.

Berm: A step or flat horizontal bench in the batter of an earth dam. Enables the dam to have a broader base.

Black gang: Mechanics who maintained and repaired machinery. They were never navvies, but became important as public works became more mechanised. (Illustration)

Blondin Steel: wire stretched across a valley above a dam site and carrying skips (qv) which could be raised and lowered exactly where needed. Presumably named after the French acrobat and tight-rope walker, Dr Blondin, who once crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire.

Blow up: Start of the working day. On canals, we think, a bugle was blown to tell the men to get digging. See yo-ho.

Bluchers: Navvy boots, named after the Prussian General at Waterloo. Pronounced 'blew-kers'. (Navvies never wore wellingtons, named after the British General at Waterloo.) See Yorks.

Brassey's benching: Filling wagons from below the base line of their wheels. You were bent double one second, shovelling up earth, and the next you shot bolt upright to discharge the earth high above your head. Named after a famous contractor who was raised to an Earldom.

Bumpsticks: Embankments were made by tipping earth from wagons, which freewheeled down a railway line until brought to a sudden stop which jerked the bed of the wagon into the air and caused the earth to slide out down the growing embankment. Bumpsticks were the barriers doing the stopping. (Illustration)

Butty system: Share and share alike. Piece work (qv) undertaken by a gang of skilled navvies for a fixed price. The money was shared equally among them. Only the best men were invited to join a butty gang. Cognate with US buddy.

Drink Sellers: Beer was frequently sold to navvies as they worked, usually by local publicans who came on to the works with jugs and cups on yokes around their necks, (Illustration) or turned up with barrels in small carts.

Drumming up: Making tea in a drum, a metal vessel of any kind from a kettle to a bucket and anything in between, though probably never a tea-pot.

Drunk as a Navvy: An expression common among people who were not navvies, but an accurate one. Navvies were prodigious drinkers. Cf Drunk as a Lord. Both expressions were in regular use until only a few years ago.

Fats or Fat-Boys Navvy-born boys began work when they were seven to nine years old, carrying blunted picks as big as themselves to the blacksmith's forge for re-sharpening. Ten and eleven year olds worked as fats or fat-boys — slithering about in mud under the wagons, greasing axles and wheel hubs. ('Fat' from the fat or grease they smeared on the wagons. A fat-boy was normally as lean as a long dog.)

Fitters: see muckshifters.

Follower of Public Works: Navvy was a derogatory term. The general public were often ferociously hostile and contemptuous of navvies who were sub-working class in many ways. Follower of Public Works was a euphemism used by sensitive navvy people when dealing with the non-navvy masses. Few navvies, however, were sensitive.

Getters or Pickmen. Getters or pickmen worked right at the muck-face, bringing it down into heaps suitable for shovelling away by other navvies

Gumbucket Clay: tobacco pipe, usually short.

Gutter or Gutter Trench: To make a dam leak-proof, a deep trench called the gutter is sunk to impermeable bedrock and filled in again with non-porous material such as puddled clay (qv) or concrete. At Haweswater, sheets of copper were also used.

Hagman: A subcontractor, often a navvy with bigger fists than his fellows, and a tendency to dishonesty (more).

Hammerman: See Tiger. The hammerman struck the head of the drill, a steel rod, held by the spannerman (qv) against the rock face in a tunnel.

Heading: A small diameter tunnel for pipes and access,never for trains or narrow boats.

Mooching: Quite simply begging, door to door, by men on tramp (qv). Would sometimes offer to do odd-jobs in return for food.

Muck: Everything a navvy shovelled he called muck — earth, blasted rock, clay, all were generically and indiscriminately muck.

Muckshifters or wagon-fillers, fitters, or runners-out: navvies who moved earth or stone.

Navigators: Canal navvies began by calling themselves Excavators, Cutters, Diggers, Bankers, and Navigators (because they made inland navigations). When navigator was shortened to navvy, navie, or navey, nobody knows.

Navvy: Short for navigators, the men who dug the first inland navigations or canals. They lasted from the 1760s to the 1940s as a distinct and separate underclass of people with their own way of life and mode of dress. Essentially they were skilled at moving earth and rock by hand. Originally called navigators, excavators, bankers, diggers. Occasionally also known as pinchers (1850s), thick legs, blue stockings (1870s), bill boys tradesmen and excavators (1890s). The term is unknown in US but known in Australia. Confusingly the word is still in use in the UK but with a changed meaning: now used for a labourer, usually Irish. This confusion has led many people into thinking all navvies were Irish. They were not. Most were English. (See Navvy Mission)

Navvy Battalions: Infantry battalions not destined for the Front in the Great War but used for building roads and railways bringing material to the front line. Many of the soldiers had, in fact, been navvies in Civvy Street and went back to public works when demobbed. Mostly only older navvies (some in their sixties) served in these battalions. Younger men served in combat units. (Although virtual outcasts in their own country, it is wrong to think of navvies as unpatriotic. They were not. So many volunteered for war service that entire works closed through lack of manpower.). The Army called them Labour Battalions.

Navvies' Letter: Quarterly magazine to men on public works published by the Navvy Mission (qv). Useful for its lists of jobs.

Navvies' Union: Founded in 1891. An unsuccessful attempt to organise the unorganisable into a trade union. However it gave one of its founders, John Ward, a foothold in the labour movement that enabled him to move on to other things such as becoming a Member of Parliament, and recruiting Navvy Battalions (qv) in the Great War. He led one battalion, as its Colonel, to oppose the Communists in Russia after the 1917 Revolution.

Navvy Mission: Most navvies were English and most English navvies were deeply irreligious. The Church of England sent out missionaries (illustration) — usually converted navvies — to christianise them. Later became the Industrial Christian Fellowship and as such is still in being. (extended discussion)

Navvy's shilling: A navvy arriving at a job where there were no vacancies could expect a shilling from each man working there to help him on his way.

Nipper: A boy. Any boy. All boys — navvy-boy or not. Older nippers looked after the turn-outs, the points on the works railway — what Americans call "railroad switches" — where wagons and locos were turned in and out of the sidings or to and from the tiphead. (illustration)

On tramp: Most men walked from job to job. They were then said to be on tramp. Navvying was an itinerant way of life. See mooching.

Pantry: A straw bag (illustration) used for carrying a man's snap (qv) and tea bottle.

Pick-and-Shovel Work: A polite phrase for navvying.

Piece Work: Wages could be earned in one of two ways: payment by the hour or payment by the amount, or piece, of work done. A butty gang (qv) only ever did piece work, knowing they could earn more money by getting the job done quickly, or by negotiating a good price.

Puddle or puddled clay: Clay soaked with water and kneaded, usually by the heels of boots, to render it water-resistant. Used to line the beds of canals, and keep the water from soaking away. Also used in the gutter trench (qv) of earth or muck dams to make them waterproof.

Pug-mill: A mill with knives and water for cutting clay into pieces small and wet enough to be usable by the puddle gangs.

Randy: A drunken frolic — in the words of one missionary (who may have been biased) — involving every sort of lewdness, abomination, and bad women. Usually ended in a free for all fight.

Rope runner: A fireman, guard, shunter and general helper of the driver of a work-locomotive on public works. Also ropey.

Runners-out were muckshifters who wheeled the muck away in barrows, usually straight up the sides of the cutting on planks. [Illustration]

Shant: Very specifically a hut selling beer. Related to shanty (as in shanty-town) but never used by navvies to mean living quarters.

Shovel: A spade. No navvy ever called a spade a spade.

Skip: Large bucket for lifting men and muck in and out of deep holes such as gutter trenches or tunnel shafts. (illustration) See also banksman and blondin.

Slope. To slope was to welsh, do a midnight flit, sneak away without settling your debts or after you'd stolen something. There was a child's song about it:

I had a sloping lodger, but I don't care,
But I don't care,
He left a pair of clogs that I can wear,
And he won't get them back till he pays me.

Sloping was probably the major navvy-crime against another navvy. The term originated in coal-mine tommy (food) stores: The tommy ticket told the counter clerk how much the collier's wife could spend. When she'd ordered what she wanted, the counter clerk chalked the price on the cover of an advance book which she took to the cashier who gave her cash to that amount. Then she went back to the counter clerk, gave him the money and collected her groceries. People who slipped away clutching the cash and abandoning the goods were called slopers, the origin presumably of the word on public works.

Snap: Not specifically navvy but a common dialect word for lunch eaten at work. Also called bait.

Sod hut: Self-made sleeping space of planks and turf.

Spannerman: See Tiger. The spannerman held the drill against the rock face, twisting it between strokes delivered by the hammerman.

Sprag: wooden stick or pole.

Spragger: armed with a lump of wood called a sprag which he poked between the spokes of freewheeling wagons to control their speed, particularly near the turn-outs.

Steam Navvy or Shovel: (officially a steam excavator). A mechanical digger powered by a steam engine.

Straining Tower: Early form of Valve-Shaft (qv) for feeding water from the reservoir into the pipes. 'Straining' because solids were strained or filtered through copper mesh.

Tiger: The top man in a tunnelling crew. He indicated where charges were to be placed in the rock face. Hammermen and spannermen then drilled the holes. The tunnel tiger charged and fused them and fired the shots. Muck-shifters shovelled the rubble away. A good navvy could do all four jobs, depending on vacancies.

Timberman: Trenches have to be shored up or they collapse. The timberman put in the timber shoring, choosing the wood himself and doing all the hammering and nailing too. A skilled job: a timberman was ranked next below tigers.

Tipper: A lad who ran alongside the horse pulling a wagon loaded with earth which was to be tipped to form an embankment. At the crucial moment, on a signal from the bankheadman or tipsman (qv), the lad unhooked the horse from the wagon to let it freewheel towards the bankhead, or head of the growing embankment.See bumpsticks.

Tipsman: See bumpsticks. As the freewheeling wagon neared the barrier, the tipsman released the tail-board catch with his shovel.

Toe-the-line: A way of fighting with fists only. Each man took it in turns to stand with his toes on a line and take one blow from his opponent, who then toed the line and took a punch in return. The winner was the one not lying prone on the ground.

Tommy: Food to the navvy was tommy, and he carried it to work in a tommy handkerchief, generally red with white spots. Tommy was bought in tommy-shops and the provident and non-mooching carried it on tramp in straw bags called pantries. At work navvies drank tea, either brought cold in a tea bottle or made on site in a can called a drum. A drum could be anything: a biscuit tin with a wire handle, perhaps. Making tea was drumming up.

Truck, the word, comes from a Norman-French verb meaning to shop or barter, and as a way of cutting wages — by paying workmen in goods rather than coin — it dates at least from the early 15th century when Colchester Corporation banned it in their town. 'No weaver shall be compelled to take any merchandise or victuals for his wages against his will, but only gold or silver.'

Pre-nineteenth century truckmasters characteristically gave overpriced goods or groceries in place of money. Workmen either ate their wages or sold them at a loss. Either way it was a pay cut. Nineteenth century truckmasters on the other hand more normally gave money wages, as long as most of it came back across their truck-shop counters. The image is irresistably Dickensian; grubbily mittened, multi-caped creatures fingering iron-bound coffers smeared with candle grease. [more]

Tunnel tigers are navvies who specialize in building tunnels.

Tunnel Tiger: See Tiger.

Valve-shaft: A tower in a reservoir containing the mechanisms for getting water from the lake into the pipes. Usually near the dam itself but, unusually, in Haweswater near the end of the lake. See Straining Tower.

Wagon-fillers: see muckshifters. [Illustration]

Whim-gin: a horizontal windlass for raising objects from mine and tunneling dshafts. [Illustration]

Wing Trench: Gutter trench (qv) extended into the hills on either side of the dam.

Yo-ho: The end of the day or shift: so named because the timekeeper or ganger called out 'yo-ho, yo-ho'.

Yorks: Strings tied below the knees to keep trouser bottoms out of the muck. See bluchers.


Victorian Economics Victorian work Contents

Last modified 24 April 2006