Railway Navvies’ Women

This is again from the fine book Railway Navvies by Peter Coleman:



It is surprising that, amidst this squalour, and against all odds, there were respectable women, if unconventional in their habits:

“kind neighbours, good nurses, who cooked well and sent well-ordered children off to the mission schools, where there were any, women whose lives were otherwise a credit to them, were not married to the men with whom they were living, and indeed their children might have had different fathers. Marriage was just not the custom, but the missionaries were never able to bring themselves to understand that. and where the missionaries and scripture reader and chaplains came and preached a Christian morality in which the ages of sin were hellfire, and thereby persuaded a few of the navvies and their women to enter into Christian marriage as s sort of insurance it achieved little. A navvy had to roam. the circumstances were all against a settled family life. A young couple could marry in church, take a hut on the works, live together, moving with the line, for some years and have 2 or 3 children. The woman lost al connection with her own parents, if they were still alive, and had only her husband, her children, and her shanty house. Then one day her husband came back early and told her he had jacked it, or been given the sack. He had to find other work, and she must wait for hm. He bundled up some clothes, tied up his kit, slung icon his back, and off he went. A trying time for his wife began. If he was tired of her and of supporting he is children he just left her.. But suppose he honestly sight work and hoped to come back to them, or to send for them when he found a new job, they might still have parted for good… For the first 2 or 3 weeks of his wandering his wife knew she was safe the hut where he left her, but she also knew .. the navvy law said no one could live in a hut save the family of a man working on the job. Occasionally if a man was killed doing his work, the contractors made an exception and let his family stay, and the woman could make a living and keeper children by taking in lodges…. So the wife knew that in 2 or 3 weeks she must go. Yet her only means of earning enough to stay alive was to remain in the hut and take lodgers. she never dreamed of going on the parish, because there she and her children would be separated, sh would have to dress in workhouse clothes, and would be deprived of her liberty. On navvy works she had at least freedom of s sort; the workhouse was unthinkable. so she went from day to day down to the works, inquiring after her man. …If show a loving woman she fretted and was wretched; if she was not she saved herself a little anguish. But either way she knew perfectly well what she had to do. When the timekeeper called for the rent at the end of the fortnight he said… ‘I suppose you’e going to enter it this week in so-and-so’s name? So and so was one of the lodgers. The wife would say yes. … The children took the new man’s name, and the neighbours said nothing. “

Some missionaries denounced couples for living in sin, or for serial monogamy; one concerned them for not divorcing, of ra mere £30 It was a lot, but it would be the price of freedom of a good conscience, and a happy home.

“The deserted wife had her furniture to help her towards this. A man has his strong hands; two summers oft spending one useless penny and he might do it. Theory way into the kingdom of God is through much tribulation; take it we must if we are ever to get there.”

When the missionaries got organised in the 1880s, the result was “a few consciences made miserable, and a lot of bigamous marriages. A man married, went on to another works and married again, and so on. s for the women, they were arguably better off under the old system of casual living together. Then, when a man left and did not return, woman could quite properly find another protector, and take herself and her children off to the new man. But if she felt her marriage to be a holy sacrament, what could she do? She could not stay alone in the navvy camp: there was o hut for her there. She could either go to the workhouse or go on the tank after her husband – and that way she oddly very likely end up in a workhouse anyway.

Missionaries warned against young women wearing “finery and sham jewellery” apparently as this made them attractive to navvies such as “Devil-driving George of the Salvation Army, who had disgraced himself … The man was 21 or 22, pale, with o whiskers, and had left Whitchurch, Hampshire, in January in company with his landlady, a stout woman aged 35. they took the poor husband’s watch and clothes, besides about £7, leaving him without a penny and with a quarter’s rent due.”

Women were also advised to lock up their daughters. In June 1888, a paragraph in big type warned all mothers to “beware of Peter (surname not known, called Black Lank) and next year al young women were warned to beware of a married man – ‘a makeshift navvy and not fit to walk in navvy’s shoes’. He was known as Curly, went around as a single man, hand had cruelly wanted a woman at Skipton.”

Wicked behaviour of a wife: Thomas Harris, of Bere Alstone, a respectable steady man, writes: “My wife, after being married 11 years, and the mother of 8 children, went on tramp on September 18 with a man called Cat-eating Scan and took every penny in the house. She broke open even a box our eldest daughter had, and took her money. She took our youngest one with her; but I should like to have that one and all, because she took agains the rest of them, and no doubt but that she will serve it the same as it gets older. But I never want to see her again. The seven I have got are getting on well, thank God.”

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