After work, hut-life offered neither peace nor comfort nor softness. You sat on benches hard as your bones, slept in beds hard as your boots. Even the flat transparent bed-bugs inflated black and hard with blood. Bone-aching beds and furniture you shared, cramped with unwashed men smelling of stale drink and earth. At bottom there was a simple question. How did you house, feed, and nightly liquor up gangs of domestically careless men, remote from settled life? In any of four ways: private lodges, sod huts, shants, properly regulated settlements. Worst were the sod huts. 'I never,' said a clergyman on the South Devon line in the 1840s, 'saw anything to be compared to them.'
From Fontbum I went to Middleton and went to work digging a fishpond for some toff. I made my own lodge there. A turf cabin. A fireplace: wood across the top and sods for the roof: planks to sleep on. Sleep rough and in your clothes. I cooked my own tommy, as well, over an fire in a bucket — rabbit, chicken, swedes, taters (all stolen). I never did see the bottom of that bucket.
If they were made when the earth was dry, they weren't too bad. You could always whitewash the inside walls, they were often rent-free, and in summer they nodded pleasantly with grass and flowers. But if the sods were cut wet, the huts steamed. One sod cabin, twenty-seven feet by twelve, on the Edinburgh-Hawick railway in 1846, housed twenty people. Another was built on Saturday and occupied on Monday. Its back wall was a bank, sodden with ground water. Water, soaking through the sod walls, trickled into the beds (and the contractor charged a rent).
Twenty years later on the Kettering-Manton some sod huts were three-roomed houses as high as a man. In one, children slept in a meat safe — the Brat Cage — slung from the rafters. [73/74] But, however big and posh they were, fungus always grew inside in summer (John Ward said he often lay in bed picking mushrooms) and in winter icicles like pick-blades hung from the sod ceilings.
Canals, as always, belong to the prehistory of navvying: little was written about them and there's not too much to speculate about. We don't know how canal navvies lived — possibly in a combination of sod huts and private lodges. (Even engineers sometimes lived badly — the Lancaster's man on the Lune lived in a 'Shade' of waste wood which also covered the saw-pit, carpenter's shop, the stores and the kitchen where the engine man slept.) When diggers were wanted on the Market Weighton canal, in 1772, lodgings were one of the things offered to outside navvies. 'The Works are clear of water,' ran an ad. in the York Courant, 'and near good Lodgings, and are now going on with great Spirit.'
Landowners wanted the cut but not the cutters. In the late 1770s landlords were vexed by huts along the Stroudwater in which, it seems, diggers squatted. It was the same twenty years later on the Gloucester and Berkeley where people lived in huts just off canal land until the contractors evicted them when they got unruly.
Against that, a few years earlier, the Thames and Severn built navvy lodging-houses which are still there, still in use as pubs. The Tunnel House, on the Thames side of the Cotswolds, was then the New Inn, the top two floors of which were probably dormitories while the ground floor was the taproom and dining hall. Outside was a bowling alley, sheds, stables and the water cistern. On the other side of the hills in the Frome valley (filled to the brim with trees) is the Daneway Arms — once the Bricklayer's Arms — and still gaunt-looking for the Cotswolds.
The Worcester and Birmingham, as well, built rough brick houses for its diggers. December, 1792: 'Resolved That Barracks be erected on the Land by the side of the Lane at the deep Cutting opposite Edgbaston Hall sufficient for 100 Men to lodge in-with a Building for them to eat in. Messrs Morecroft' — the contractors — 'having agreed to furnish beds and other necessaries.' (The W&B were odd in the care they took. They once sent a hagmaster to the offices of Aris's Gazette to correct a news item about a navvy's death the paper had just printed. In return their diggers were sober. At the ceremonial opening of the Selly Oak-Gas Street section in 1784 they held 'aloof from Intoxication and the Smallest instance of quarrel' even though they had plenty of ale and a whole roast ox to feast on.) [74/75]
Whether the shanty system began on canals we don't know, though since it thrived so strongly on the earliest railways it's a possibility. A shant, essentially, was a free-enterprise doss-house/ beer-cellar, put up and run for profit either by a ganger or a professional shanty-keeper who did no other work.
Dandy Dick ran away from his home near Harrow and went navvying on the London-Birmingham in 1835. He worked first as a tipper, then as a bucket-steerer at the Watford tunnel where he joined Bullhead's gang with another lad called Kick Daddy. With them were Canting George, Happy Jack, Long Bob, Dusty Tom, Billy Goat, Frying Pan, and Redhead. Most of the tunnel gangs lived in shants around the tunnel shafts, a gang to a shant.
Each had its own old harridan to mend and cook, wash shirts and make beds. On top of that she was the tapster, keeping the keys to the locked beer barrels on a leather belt around her waist. At night the shants rocked to their flimsy foundations with roaring drunks, a seething mob of them, guzzling ale by the gallon. The old women were often beaten up and were usually both scarred and bandaged.
One rainy May morning Dandy Dick visited a friend who lived in a one-room shantover the tunnel. The shant was a composite affair stuck together like Frankenstein's monster from mouldering bits of matter found lying about the site: part brick, part stone, part tile, part tarpaulin, part mud, part wood. Looking after it was an old Lancashire woman called Peg, as battered as the shant itself, gazing at the world through fist-blackened eyes and a bandage which circled her head, chin to crown. George was out, she said. Dandy waited, sitting on a three-legged stool. The only windows, and the only door, were grouped in the middle of one long wall of the oblong room. Kitchen and beer barrels faced each other from the shorter walls at either end. Bunks, ship-like in tiers, lined the long wall opposite door and windows. Because it was a knock-off Sunday, men sprawled on benches by the door, played cards on the earthen floor, or lay on their bunks, drunk or asleep, their heads on their kit, their dogs alongside them. (Hunting, fighting, and poaching dogs, mainly: bulldogs, lurchers, whippets.)
The kitchen was an open space at the end of the hut consisting of a fireplace (a dozen guns on pegs above it), a copper, a shakey table, a dresser, and a double row of lockers which were the navvies' tommy boxes. Each man bought his own tommy. Peg cooked it. Cooking meant boiling and each man's next dinner — meat, veg, pudding if he had any — was wrapped in linen and steeped in the [75/76] copper. Notched sticks tied to the bundles hung outside the pot.
The nicks and notches were a code telling old Peg who owned what.
'Why, sithee, lad,' she told Dandy, 'this bit o' stick's four nicks on 't, well it's Billy Goat's dinner. He's a-bed yond. Now this is that divil's Redhead's, and this is Happy Jack's. Well, thee knowst he's got a bit o' beef. Redhead's nowt but taters. He's a gradely brute is Redhead. And Billy Goat's got a pun or so o' bacon and a cabbage. Now, thee sees, I've a matter o' twenty dinners or so to bile every day, which I biles in nets, and if I dinna fix 'em i' this road, I sud ha' niver tell where to find 'em, and then there'd be sich as row as niver yet was heard on/
Red Whipper came in at that moment with a young hare. 'Get it ready and put it in along of the rest,' he growled at old Peg, 'and look sharp or thee's head may be broken.'
Professional shanty-keepers were always with the navvy (at Lunedale I lodged with Pincher Paine. He didn't work. He had forty lodgers in that old shant. Double beds, too) though most of them were slowly transposed into near-replicas of themselves by working navvies, generally gangers, who took over as tenant-landlords in contractor-owned huts. The ganger's wife, helped by a skiwy, now did the washing, cooking, and bed-making, as well as the money-making from the sale of booze. At the same time the huts, and the hut-life, got better.
Thirty years after Dandy Dick, Daniel Barrett was chaplain on the Kettering-Manton line. There, some of the huts were still shakey home-made shacks, others were piled turves, but the rest were well-appointed, well-run, timber-built dwellings as good (says Barrett) as an officer's quarters on manoeuvres. Some were black with gas-tar, some were white with whitewash, most had red-brick chimneys. Three rooms were common: a central living room, a dormitory wing for lodgers, a private bedroom for the landlord and his family. Front and back doors were porched. Inside, the walls were papered with clippings from the Police News, with funeral cards, with patchworks of swatches from paper-hangers' pattern books, and with cartoons from the Gospeller and the British Workman. Boots swung from rafters. Brick floors were strewn with silver sand. Men usually washed out of doors, at the back, drying themselves on roller towels. They slept, two to a bed, on straw mattresses with their kit swinging on beams over their heads.
The landlady slept with the landlord in a big iron-bound bed [76/77] close to her ale kegs in her own private bedroom with her chest of drawers, looking-glass, ewer and earthenware basin. Stuffed birds served as ornaments: live hens and pigs as food. Some owned clocks, sewing machines and violins. Some kept vegetable gardens. Nameplates gave many of the huts their own individuality and dignity: The Terrace, The Hermitage, The West End, Rose Cottage.
At the Basingstoke and Woking widening I lodged with ScottyJack Caswell, a loco driver, and his missus near Pirbright.
You had to get washed out of doors on a bench, break the ice and get water from a tub. I never knowed no private wash houses on the railways, any road. I didn't like it, either, but being tough you dursen't say anything. They were a rough lot of navvies who followed the railways. You had to be a savage, any how, to put up with the conditions. Many men used to kip out in sod shants they'd built. Horrid life.
There were about ten, twelve of use at Scotty Jack's. The landlady cooked all your tommy but you had to bring your own, though. That's right — I had a lot of bacon and stuff when I got locked up for being drunk. I never heard of her having any board-lodgers, any how.
From Lunedale, I walked to Fontbum and went to work on the reservoir. I was feeding the pug mill there — putting clay into a machine which chopped it with knives and shot it into wagons. First lodge I had there I slept two to a bed with an old navvy who got into bed with his boots on. I soon shifted that lodge. I thought of getting married there to Sarah, a skivvy in the hut.
So I went away to Bellingham and on to Haltwhistle and on to the Castle Carrock reservoir. All I did there was watch the blondin to see it was going all right. Sixpence an hour just seeing the thing kept running. It carried ballast from the quarry to the crusher for the concrete. I never stopped to see the dam. Just the gutter. We lodged forty to a hut, but in single beds.
So I jacked again and went to Whitehouse in Northumberland, and went to work on the reservoir there. Decent place that was. Nice place. I lodged at Old Davy Brown's. You had to sleep two to a bed so I come out and went over to Cumberland Jack's. A hell of a good lodge that was. Good food, too.
Cumberland's place, like Scotty Jack's, was the standard navvy hut, [77/78] linear descendant of Dandy Dick's shant: even the bungalows of the model villages were only better-class copies.
Model villages began at Lindley Wood where the Mission began and where order was imposed by Leeds Corporation. Lindley Wood, unusually, was a brick-built settlement: brick huts, brick school, brick shant. (As well as its original meaning, shant by now also meant a settlement's pub or drinking shop.) Only the church on the hill among the trees was of wood, a plain square building, with an open belfry on its gable end, whitewashed inside, heated by a swag-bellied stove. The brick huts, even more unusually, had half a second storey. Half a ceiling gave them half a loft, leaving the rest of the space open to the rafters. In some, lodgers slept in a ground floor dormitory: in others they climbed the ladder at night into the half loft.
Lewis Evans, the Mission's founder, visited a dying girl in one of them. '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. Her sufferings are very great, terribly aggravated by the foul air, coarse food, and rough though kind nursing. 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? Her mother could teach 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.'
Thomas Walker, rare perhaps unique as a contractor willing to impose some comfort on his navvies, built one of the few navvy settlements which is still lived in — Sudbrook, at the Gwent end of the Severn tunnel. (Maintenance Staff still live in the pre-tabricated huts built at Haweswater in the late 1920s. When last heard of, the navvy huts in the Ewden Valley near Sheffield were being demolished because they were fire hazards.) When Walker took over the tunnel, Sudbrook (not then so named) was only a row of cottages, a stump of ruined church, and the earthworks of an old fort. He left a village of houses and semi-detached 'villas'. Even his hospital is now an apartment block called The Walker Flats. He built temporary but impressive villages on the Manchester Ship Canal, particularly at Eastham where the Mersey forms a broad bight like a bladder filled twice daily with tide and pollution. [78/79] "The cottages or huts adjoining the Eastham Lane,' said the Ship Canal News, 'have now very prettily laid out gardens. It was a source of amusement to the residents to hear such remarks as "I had no idea they were so comfortable" from the passers-by, as if navvies were different from the rest of the human family.'
Before it became a motorway interlacing high-rise flats, Birmingham was a forward-looking city which in the 1890s built, unprompted, a model navvy village for people on the Elan Valley dams in Mid-Wales. It stood (its better built successor stands) on the River Elan's south bank, reachable only by a single suspension bridge. At one end the Elan watered the village through its own waterworks: at the other it flushed away human waste through the village's own sewage works. Elan, too, had its own self-manned fire brigade with fire engines and station, and fire hydrants in the streets. Fire buckets hung from every house front.
It was laid in streets of wooden huts, roofed with tarred and sanded felt. Outside they were clad in weatherboarding: inside, with matchboard. There were one-family huts and huts for lodgers where each man had his own cubicle and locker. There were bath and wash houses, a free library, a gym, a public reading room, a school, churches. For a penny a week you could join the Public Recreation Room where there was a snack bar, games, and newspapers.
Needless to say, the canteen — the shant — was closely regulated, too. It opened for four hours a day and even then you could drink only six pints there. They sold Allsopp's single-X beer and bottled Bass, but allowed no women, singing, juggling, reciting, gambling, dicing, card playing, dominoes, marbles, shove penny, or draughts. No food. The idea was copied from Lindley Wood where the shant had been run by, and for, the City of Leeds. (In turn Elan was copied on the Grizedale dam in the Forest of Bowland.)
Immediately across the bridge over the Elan on the flat ground to the right above the river was the accident hospital where Thomas Pugh was carried to die in September 1898, after accidentally shooting himself with the pistol he was repairing in the blacksmith's shop. The fever hospital was in the trees further along the hill. The Elan's a noisy beck, white-water washing moss-grown rocks. Oaks and larches grow along its banks, like a grey haze in winter.
The village was policed by its own inspector, constable, and bridge janitor whose job it was to keep strange navvies out — trippers and sightseers were free to cross. Only uninspected navvies [79/80] were barred. On the north bank was an overnight holding hut where incoming navvies were kept for cleaning, checking and disinfecting
So I went away from Lunedale to York with Geordie Woodman. We had a shilling between us and went into a lodging house, a four-penny padding can. Twopence for bacon, a penny for bread, ha 'penny for sugar and the rest on 'bacca. We went to Moltby, No work. We went to Bamford and stopped at a navvy hut. Got to Derwent the next day.
There was a navvy settlement at Birchinlee and they wouldn't let navvies in until they'd been perfumigated in case they were carrying lice. I worked in the concrete gang on the lower dam and lodged with Waxie Bean, a Northampton.
That was a good job. Direct labour jobs were always best, not like these private enterprise gangsters. It was a proper little town at Birchinlee. Well, they called it Tin Town, anyhow. Two or three shops. One big grocery shop. A baker's. Barber shop. Baths, as well. You never got that out of private contractors. They were robbers.
The robbers, however, were under attack.
As late as 1906 there were no proper overnight huts at all on the Water Orton-Kingsbury line even though it's only a few miles from Birmingham city centre. As it happened, the railway passed close to Hams Hall, stately home of Lord Norton. When he heard what was happening he sent Navvy Smith, the missionary in Birmingham, to see the contractors, offering to share the costs of building proper huts. When they said no, he wrote to John Burns, President of the Local Government Board, who sent Dr Reginald Ferrar to find out what was going on. As a result Navvy Smith found himself one Friday midnight in September escorting Ferrar along the track, peering into tumbledown barns and mud hovels roofed with corrugated iron, flashing a bull's eye lantern on people who had spent the day bent-backed shovelling damp earth and who now lay stiff and chilled on stale dung and old hay.
In Surrey around this time navvies were building the Brooklands motor racing track, an oval concrete bowl with sloping sides like a slightly flattened fairground wall-of-death. The contractors built no huts so many navvies slept untidily rough in the gorse, thus upsetting the well-to-do of Weybridge. The Government asked Dr Ferrar to look into it. Until they were set on fire by the well-to-do [80/81] of Weybridge, he found, the men had lived in home-made shants of fir boughs called Firwood Avenue and the Hotel Cecil. It was as though all Weybridge wanted of the navvy was his work: extract of navvy, perhaps, a distilled essence, sanitised by being disembodied but, Ariel-like, still capable of heavy labour.
Neither Norton nor Ferrar seemed to get anywhere at the time. Norton was ignored, Ferrar's report was filed. Even John Ward, now an MP, only got fobbed when he spoke about navvies in the House. 'I beg to ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he'll consider the advisability of framing a Standing Order making it compulsory upon the promoters of Bills for Public Works (such as canals, docks, railways) to make provision for suitable and sanitary house accommodation for the workmen and their families.'
'I'm afraid that my Department have no power to alter the Standing Orders,' Lloyd George, for the Board of Trade, blandly fobbed him off.
But, for all the stalling, something was happening and in 1911 the Speaker suddenly asked the House to consent to a new Standing Order. 'It amounts to a great public Act of Parliament,' John Ward, jubilant, exaggerated. In future. Parliamentary Committees examining Public Works Bills had to be satisfied the men would be properly housed. If not, and if the works were more than three miles from a town or village, they could order the contractors to erect proper huts. 'Even if no housing reformers are returned at a future great election,' Ward, still jubilant, went on, 'at least the influence of this Session will be permanent.'
But in 1922 he was still questioning the Minister of Health about the poorness of navvy housing, at the Ashford Common reservoir in Middlesex. 'If my hon. and gallant friend will read my statement he'll find that a great deal's been done,' he was fobbed off. [81/82]
[Note: Full citations for works cited by the name of the author or a short title can be found in the bibliography.]
The South Devon's huts are from the 1846 Committee, those on the Edinburgh-Hawick from the Scottish Herald, 4 to 25 April 1846, and those on the Kettering-Manton from Barren. Ward's mushroom picking is from the Staffs Sentinel 25 Oct 1924.
The Lune engineer's Shade is from PRO RAIL 844/240. The York Courant ad. is from the 10 Nov 1772 edition. Hutting on the Stroudwater is from Handford's Stroudwater and ultimately the Gloucestershire Record Office. Huts on the Gloucester and Berkeley are from PRO RAIL 829/4. The Tunnel House is mentioned as being expressly built for the tunnellers in the Gentleman's Magazine No 56, part 2, 1786. It, and the Daneway Arms, are also referred to by Household. All material about the Worcester and Birmingham is from PRO RAIL 886/4.
Dandy Dick is ultimately from an article Dandy himself wrote in Household Words, as retold here by Barrett.
Huts at Lindley Wood are from Evans's article in The Quiver, 3rd Series, Vol 12, 1877, and Our Navvies. Sudbrook is from Walker's Severn Tunnel. His cottages at Eastham are from the Ship Canal News 26 May and 15 June 1889. Elan's lay-out and amenities are from the Public Works Magazine 15 March 1904. The drinking rules at Elan and Lindley are from papers held by the ICF library. Grizedale is from the Blackpool Herald 17 May 1904. The [246/47] self-shooting at Elan is from the Montgomery and Radnor Echo 24 Sept 1898.
Hovels on the Water Orton-Kingsbury are from Quarterly Letter to Men on Public Works 186, Jan 1927. Ward's exchanges with Lloyd George are from Parliamentary Debates Vol 152,1906. Trouble at Brooklands is from Dr Reginald Ferrar's Report to the Local Government Board on the Accom- modation of Navvies at the Brooklands Race Track, Parliamentary Papers Cd 5694 LXVIII 1907. The announcement of the new House of Commons Standing Orders is from Parliamentary Debates Vol 29, 1911. Ward and the Ashford Common dam is from Vol 157, 1922.
Last modified 20 April 2006