Mr. Sullivan explained to me in an e-mail communication that he wrote the following letter, which appeared until the title "Navvying Meant Freedom" in Daily Telegraph on 7 September 2002, "in response to a review of A. N. Wilson's book about the Victorians. It is universally believed over here that navvies were Irish." I have added the subtitles [GPL].

The Nationality and Religion of Most Victorian Navvies

A moment's thought should convince anybody [that most Victorian navvies were English]; the evangelical wing of the Church of England set up a Navvy Mission Society, with offices in Westminster Abbey, to convert the heathen navvy — nobody ever thought of trying to turn Irishmen away from Catholicism. In addition, the Society published a quarterly magazine called the Navvies' Letter. It was unequivocally aimed at the English — it carried long lists of men injured or killed on public works and almost all of them had either English surnames or nicknames such as Lincoln Tom and Cumberland Ike.

Again, in the 1840s there were quite serious riots on some of the new railways (serious enough to bring out the yeomanry); from newspaper reports it is quite clear the Irish were in a small minority and were being attacked by the English. The motives seem to have been at least partly financial; the Irish were said to undercut wages by working for less money.

One problem, I guess, is that the word navvy is still in use in England and today it does mean, very accurately, an Irish labourer.

Butty-Gangs and Hagmen

I always thought buddy was probably the older form of butty, if only because Americans often kept/keep words that have dropped out over here. I think butty was used in the Lancashire coalmines as long as they lasted.

A skilled butty-gang, of course, could make more money by doing a job for a fixed price quickly and efficiently.

Hagmen were pretty universally hated, my father always said, because they cheated you if they could. He favoured direct labour works or the bigger companies. Hagmen were navvies themselves and so perhaps were resented for that reason also. I don't think I ever found out the word's etymology; it certainly isn't in the OED, nor Webster's which is more understandable. Wright's Dialect Dictionary might have it.

Navvies as Social Outsiders

I can't emphasise too much that navvies were quite literally outcasts, despised and hated (and feared) by very many people. My father always called them a fraternity. So children born to navvies most often became navvies themselves. Many — and I couldn't find out what percentage — were soldiers who'd served twelve years with the colours and were released on a small pension. In time of war they were recalled.

Family History

My father was born in a village in Surrey to a non-navvy settled family. He worked for the village blacksmith in the 1890s. His older brother, Tom, had been an artilleryman and then worked as navvy until he was called up to go to South Africa in the Boer War. My father always looked up to him, and I think this was one of the reasons he chose to become a wandering navvy in 1906. When the Great War came he joined the Royal Artillery. In 1919 he tossed a coin: Australia or the Ewden Valley dams in Yorkshire? Yorkshire won and that's where he met my mother who was herself the grand-daughter of a Cornish hardrock miner called Jewell who'd gone to work on the Carlisle-Settle line in the 1860s.

Victorian navvies sometimes sank new colliery mine shafts. We think her father met her mother in this way in the Wrexham coal field in North Wales. Her mother was a coal miner's daughter. My mother was born on the Elan Valley dams in mid-Wales in 1900. Her accent was north of England-ish because that's where she lived most of her life. My father, too, kept the Surrey long 'a' (as in bath) but picked up the northern guttural 'u' (modified, of course) simply because most of his work was in the north and northern accents prevailed.

John Ward set up a Navvies' Union on the Manchester Ship Canal late in the 19c; few joined because they were unorganisable. After all, they were free. Ward later organised Navvy Battalions in the Great War, became a colonel and led the Middlesex Regiment to Russia to oppose the Bolsheviks and then had to fight his way along the Trans-Siberian railway. He became a Member of Parliament, the only the navvy to rise so high, if you discount contractors like Brassey.

Related Materiols


Victorian Economics Victorian History Victorian work

Last modified 8 May 2006