[Dick Sullivan wrote this autobiographical appendix to his Navvyman for the readers of the Victorian Web. [GPL]
Navvyman ends at the Haweswater dam because navvying as a way of life also ended there. But men and women (and children) of course lived on. This, then, is the story of what happened next, with an account of what it was like to be child in a late Victorian family in the last navvy settlement in England. That settlement, called Burnbanks, was composed of two rows of huts made from prefabricated concrete slabs on what had been an empty hillside. It is in Mardale (a dale, of course, is northern English for a valley) in the former county of Westmorland. Westmorland — the land of the western moors — is pretty oddly named, now, given that the local word for moor or hill has been 'fell' ever since the Viking invasions. The Vikings were here in force, occupying the low ground by the lake and pushing the English on to the heights around the valley rim.
The river (beck in the Viking dialect) flows over a force (waterfall in standard English) called Thornthwaite, a Viking tongue-twister. The beck joins the Lowther which flows into the Eden and so to the sea. Mardale then is somewhere east of Eden, though to a very small boy in the early 1940s it was more like the Garden itself.
In Hut 31, where I was born, my mother also took in lodgers. They slept in a dormitory attached to the house though they also shared a common room called the 'dug-out' after the living quarters in the trenches of the Great War. Cumberland Ike was there, dying of cancer of the mouth from a lifetime smoking short clay pipes of the kind navvies called gum-buckets. The floors were lino'd but also had a few rag rugs made from sacking and, well, rags. Clothes were boiled in a copper, or 'poshed' in a tub with a dolly-peg which looked a like a small milking stool with a long handle. The washed clothes were then put through a mangle, twin rollers turned by hand with a large iron wheel, to squeeze out the water. Bread was baked in the oven next to the open fire and left to rise on the hearth, along with cake (which if it sagged instead of rising was called 'sad'.)
On wash-day (Monday) the house smelled of soapy water and wet clothes. On baking day, of freshly made bread. (If cake had been baked, the smallest child had the right to spoon out and eat whatever cake-mix was left in the bowl. Enough always was.)
One of my earliest memories is of running, on a Sunday outing, into bracken taller than I was and coming out with a deep wound in the calf. All night long, or so it seemed, my mother bathed the wound with carbolic soap and water as I sat on the draining board with my feet in the kitchen sink. Sepsis was serious, of course, there were no anti-biotics, town was far off, and there was no other remedy. The leg is still here; so is the scar.
My mother was born, one of the last of the Victorians, at the Elan Valley dams in mid-Wales. Like Mardale it was an idyllic place, and still is. The wooden huts of the settlement were reached by a bridge over the river (which is pronounced ee-lan, by the way). Life there, however, was appalling. Her father, old Punch Jewell, drank. If he drew wages on a Friday evening, his wife had to go through his pockets as he lay unconscious on the hearth on Saturday morning looking for money to buy food for the children. There were eleven of them and all were small from lack of food.
But her mother, my grandmother, was a very remarkable woman, I guess. None of those eleven children went off the rails, though most of them turned away from navvying and led settled lives. One became a crane driver at the Camell Laird ship yard in Birkenhead on the River Mersey. He lost his fingers as a child on the Manchester Ship Canal in the 1890s when another boy, for a prank, threw his cap under a steam roller. In trying to get it (clothes were scarce — second hand or hand-me-downs) his hand was crushed.
My parents met at the Ewden Valley dams in Yorkshire after the Great War. When Ewden finished they all moved together to Mardale, parents, grandparents and children. Jimmy Jewell was a ganger on the dam while my father drove the tunnel for the pipetrack through the hills at the head of the dale. He worked there alone.
My grandmother's death was a bad one, too: a brain tumour first destroyed her mind, then left her blind. One day, fifty years later, I came across the notice of her death as I was reading the Navvies' Letter in the church of St Katherine Cree in the City of London. (Bibliography) It is a Wren church, cool in summer, cold in winter. I was researching Navvyman and to read of my own grandmother's death was the last thing I expected. Her name was Sara-Ellen, something I'd not known before; until then she had always been 'your grandmother'. For a long time I sat slightly shocked, then sought out the vicar to tell him also. To his credit, he too was moved and in one of those nice human gestures, we silently shook hands. She was a collier's daughter from the Wrexham coalfield in Wales, and a mid-Victorian of course.
School for navvy children in Mardale was in Bampton three or four miles down the lane. During the War English children began school at the age of four and, come snow or shine, toddlers walked those six or eight miles to and fro every day. The original school was too small for the influx of navvy children, so Manchester Corporation Water Works (whose dam it was) built another, of creosoted wood, alongside. It's still there.
Another of my earliest memories is of something that happened in the Spring of 1942 and which has affected my whole life. We four year olds were taken on a 'nature ramble' on the fells behind the school. Up there in the first warm sunshine of the year I came upon the briars of a bramble bush silhouetted against the sky. To a child it wasn't a bush but a bramble-tree. It induced in me a sense of joy and uplift verging on ecstasy. It is a sense that has recurred throughout my life and in my old age I've thought about it deeply. That feeling is, I believe, the same as animated Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Across the road from the navvy huts was the timber yard, the sawmill, the black gang's workshop, and the fitter's shop. By-passing them all, you walked through oak woods, blue with bluebells in the Spring, to the beck and the old Roman bridge. Not, in fact, Roman but so-called because it was old and had no walls at the sides. It was for pack-horses. Charcoal had been made in woods up-valley at one time and carried away in panniers on the flanks of horses — hence the need for a bridge without walls.
You could catch tiddlers in a jam jar in the water by the bridge or, deeper in the woods, slip and slide inside an eel trap, big as a small hut to a child. The eel trap's gone now, rotted away probably, but the descendants of the tiddlers still swim in the beck. And trout, eating rings in the smooth water on summer evenings when the midges are out.
Beyond the dam, which was then growing higher by the month and still white (today it is black with age), was The Peak and beyond that, Wallow Crag. Legend had it that a horseman once rode over the cliff: every inch of his body was bruised but not a bone broken. So they said. But then they said his ghost still rides over the crag on every anniversary of his death. (They also said the ghosts of Roman soldiers march along High Street, on the top of the fells, to Hadrian's Wall.) There was a small lake, or mere, there already before the dam was begun: in fact very nearly two of them since a great spit of land almost cut the lake in two. At its head was the hamlet of Mardale, demolished when the dale was flooded. Stones from the church were used to build the valve shaft which has a certain ecclesiastical look to it. The bridge is still there and in times of extreme drought it reappears and can be walked over again.
Here we need to turn back to the demographic changes taking place in mid- and late-Victorian times. At least 92% of the people, it is thought, were literate by the time the 1870 Act made education compulsory for both boys and girls. One outcome of this level of literacy (at least I have always believed) was the creation of a new lower middle class who were, by chance, now needed to work in the new department stores and as clerks in banks and expanding commercial companies. New suburban railways took them home to new streets of suburban houses, often grandiosely called 'villas'. They lived above the abyss; if they failed there was no social security nor could they step down a rung of the class ladder, but they could, quite literally, starve in genteel poverty.
Their culture was literary (Kipling was king) and their manners and mores were based on how they imagined the aristocracy and country house set behaved. The Pooters were typical (Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith, 1893). But they also, I suspect, influenced working men who wanted to be better read, have better manners, and share some of the higher things. In our hut, then, were shelves of books. I still have some. A complete set of Dickens. The Cloister and the Hearth, Lorna Doone, Ivanhoe, Westward Ho! (now a school and village in Devon, surely the only example of a place being named after a novel), Wuthering Heights, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Three Musketeers, Vanity Fair. Here, too, on the shelf close to the ceiling, is the complete set of the Modern Home University. Here are two I've taken down at random: Languages: French, German, Latin and The Arts: Man's Quest for Beauty. Again at random, here is a quotation: "Art is not an escape from life; it is escape to life." (An echo of Ruskin?)
Many of the books were bought in weekly instalments and bound at home. Two sets are here, still unbound: Again I've picked two at random. The first is: Wonders of World Engineering, part 17, price 7d weekly. On the cover is a picture of a New York sky-scraper and, inside, a long article on how sky-scrapers are engineered and built. The other magazine is Everybody's Enquire Within — 10,000 Questions and 100,000 Facts. Opening it at random, we find an answer to the question "What is Paddle-Board Riding?" And what is it? Surfing, with a photograph taken in Venice, California, to prove it.
We left Eden when the dam was finished in the middle of the War and travelled to a place Eve could never have imagined: Liverpool, still in the blackout (a few days later I was knocked down by a bicycle as I ran across the road.) My father then worked away from home for the next ten years or so. Navvying as a way of life was over but dams were still being built, though now with heavy machinery and unskilled labour. One dam was in Yorkshire at a place whose name I no longer recall. My mother and I went one summer to stay with him in his lodgings in an old farm house. There was a large pond with the coldest water I've ever swum in. It was said to be bottomless, too, but then aren't they all? At the Weirwood dam in Sussex in the early 1950s he was a walking ganger in charge of several gangs of men.
His last job was at the Pitsford dam in the ironstone (and leather) country of Northamptonshire. He was now the Water Board's inspector, charged with seeing the contractor didn't cheat. Somebody (not the contractor) did, several times, and several times the old man brought the works to a halt until all was put right
We lived in a cottage built originally for the servants of the big house (not all that big, in fact) which was once owned by a boot and shoe tycoon (Northampton was the footwear centre of England at one time.) The cottage was quite isolated at the end of a long hilly lane that led to the village of Pitsford, then still a working village with hedgers and ditchers and road menders and farm labourers all playing dominoes and drinking pints of Phipps ale of an evening in the village pub. (Ale was a shilling a pint back then.) We had a very large, rented, garden with an apple tree. Everything for the house was grown there: potatoes, red and black currants, carrots, all manner of beans, cabbage and rhubarb, swedes and turnips. Beyond one hedge was a paddock, beyond the other a market garden's orchard where you could earn pocket money in the autumn climbing ladders to pick apples and pears. Early one morning my father and I stood in the garden together. "Are the birds singing?" he asked. "Yes, they're very loud." "I haven't heard birdsong since 1915," he said. He'd been deafened by the guns in the last battles fought entirely by Victorians, the Great War of 1914-18.
The winter of 1962/3 was one of the coldest in twentieth-century England. Just before Christmas my mother walked down the lane to take the bus to town to do some shopping. I met her off the bus and carried the shopping bags as we walked together up the first steep hill. It was sleeting hard, coming in streaks out of the growing darkness over the valley. At the top, she called my name. I dropped the bags and caught her as she fell. I dragged her under the shelter of a dank cold clay bank, sleet streaking through the leafless hedge above us. She died. My name was the last word she spoke on this earth. Her husband died of old age a few years later: tired and worn out and wanting to go. He was a Victorian and a navvy in a world which cared for neither.
There was a certain greatness about what the Victorian navvy did. We marvel at the Great Wall of China yet, in the space of a few years, Victorian navvies moved a much greater mass of material with their own bare hands. The Wall was to keep out change; the earthworks to let it in. The opposite of change isn't rest, it is stagnation. And the Victorian legacy still lives in the minds of at least a few. In those two people was a decency and an honesty, a courtesy and a gentleness, which I believe are essential to a proper human life and which they salvaged from a rough and rowdy savagery. We live in cynical times, ready to deny goodness and the best, but those values of honesty and decency were Victorian too. Were they abided by always? Of course not; they were human. But if you look for the highest and not just the lowest, those ideals were embedded there. And people lived by them. Some still do.
Last modified 30 April 2006