Railway Navvies

This book by Terry Coleman shines a light on the private lives of these hard working and hard drinking men, and the – often unfortunate – women who became their partners. These men seem to have had a rather mixed reputation, as I have read of them being romantic characters, in their colourful vests and kerchiefs and plenty of money so were magnets for dizzy young girls in the 19th century, on a par with soldiers only without the patriotism, and probably more long lived.

“The Manchester Guardian of 1846 reported “At the petty session, Mary Warburton, a female about 30 years of age, was charged by Mr Ramsbottom, relieving officer, under the following circumstances: Mr Ramsbottom stated that, about 7 months ago, the prisoner left her husband and 4 children and ran away with an excavator, taking with her a new suit of clothes which she had purchased in her husband’s name, and for which her husband was now imprisoned. the children became chargeable on the township of Tottington Lowe End. The prisoner who had been residing with her paramour at Tidsley Banks, near Huddersfield, was committed to the Salford house of correction for 6 weeks, with hard labour.”

But their living conditions were pretty appalling, with descriptions of them living in crowded temporary lodgings, and spending all their money on booze.A clergyman cashed in on their bad reputation by complaining that his property was near the line so invading his privacy, especially as his daughter’s bedroom so forcing his family to move. Compensation was paid, but the family remained.

“Tales of wife-selling were common. In the 1880s Mrs Garnett said that wives to many years before had been sold openly by navvies, and that one she heard of had fetched a shilling, and another only fourpence. At Woodhead, 30 years before, the going price for a wife was said to be a gallon of beer, but Thomas Nicholson would have none of this. ‘Now I dare venture,’ he said,

“that never such a thing happened on these works as a man selling’s wife for a gallon of beer; but I can tell you what happened – I have paid miners and masons from £8 to £16 on a pay; the moment they had got it, they have gone down to the large towns in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cheshire, and what do you think they have done with the money? Spent it in the filthy dens of those large towns. Aye, in the backstreets among the girls. These men have come back again impregnated with a disease which has cost the [sick] club more money than all the sickness besides. “

Missionaries were attracted to these godless creatures, and claim to have sent away some of the corrupted women who were attracted to the sites, but stuck in windswept moors with no entertainment, what were the men to do?

“It was the custom to talk of women on navy works as fallen women, but most had never known anything else, or had anything from which to fall.It was a hard life. Thomas Fayers knew a navvy’s wife called Old Alice. She told hm she had known many ‘hard doos’ and that the story of her life, ‘would make the best book as was ever written, bar none’, She didn’t write it.

Out on the moors, along the new tracks of railway lines where the tarred huts sprang up, girls were born, grew up untaught, and went early – at 13 or 14 – to live with the navvy men. Whether or not a girl married the man she lived with made little difference. The life was no less hard. All the year round the work went on, keeping house and bearing children in a hovel, and with perhaps a dozen lodgers to look after as well, No wonder, then, that some of the women talked of God, as the missionaries found, only to curse Him for having made them navvy women.

But though there were few formal prostitutes there were the occasional predators among the women. One tough woman, who had lived with a man for a year, sold all his furniture as soon as he left her for a few days to try for better work along the line, and went off with another man. She did not act secretly, but as the missionary said with pride and grandeur, the guilty pari hiring a cab, usual thing on navvy works, to take them off. Some older women were pests wherever they went, trapping young men; it was not unusual to find such women living with women half their age. One woman drove her man to suicide and then, while he still lay unburied, dressed herself in new clothes and went through a mock marriage with a newcomer.”

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