Riots, randies and women not their wives – the railway navvy: his social and living conditions by Chris and Judy Rouse

Reading branch talk 27th April 2017

Chris and Judy made a return trip to Reading branch to deliver this second part of their presentation on the life of the railway navvy. They started by addressing the common misconception that most railway navvies were Irish. In fact 92% were English, 4% Irish, 3% Scottish and 1% Welsh (the Welsh were primarily tunnellers due to their mining backgrounds). All navvies were outcasts, but the Irish especially so.

Navvies were extremely strong, they carried all their kit with them - pick, shovel, wheelbarrow, food sack and tea bottle. They had an awful reputation and were used as ‘bogeymen’ to encourage better behaviour. Navvies had their own community and developed their own language. They didn’t mix much with the local inhabitants.

During the Crimean War, 1000 navvies went out their and succeeded in building a railway in just 7 weeks to rescue English troops from Sebastopol.

Navvies had a range of accommodation available to them. The worst was open moorland, limestone caves and rocks. Then there were sod huts, which were quite inadequate. Tents were available. Some navvies were lodged at local farms and houses – if they happened to be near the construction site. There were lodging houses but these were overcrowded and the navvies overcharged. It was not unknown for navvies to ‘slope off’ – sneak away without paying for food or lodging. Shantys were constructed. These were ramshackle, crude huts. These too were overcrowded – designed for 80 men, they often slept 120 who paid 4d for a bed, ½d for the floor and 1d for a table. Navvies could stay at inns or public houses. Some were housed in wooden huts with tarpaulin roofs, measuring 24ftx16ft and built by the contractor. These huts were rented by the foreman and his family who sublet to other navvies. Occupants of these wooden huts could be in them for up to 4 years depending on the length of the construction contract. Some made them into ‘homes’ with gardens, and sometimes pigs and chickens. Railways mission lodgings, converted canal boats and, occasionally, cottages were also option for those that could pay.

Contractors sometimes provided shops for the navvies to access, called tommy or tally shops. Local tradesmen sometimes brought their wares to the site (but they did charge higher prices). It was well known that contractors took on contracts at a loss, and made up their money from the workforce via the tommy shop.

Navvies were know to drink 10 pints of beer a day. For every mile of railway under construction, £1000 was spent on beer. As the mens wages were paid to them in the pub, lots of it was spent on drink. A “randy” was their names for a period of merriment (usually on or after payday), which could last 4 days. Navvies played hard and worked hard. Fighting was common, both brawling and prize fights.

Poaching was a common pastime for navvies – it helped provide food for their family. Missionary helpers provided Sunday schools, concerts and reading rooms where reading, listening and game playing occurred.

Women had a very hard life. They were expected to raise their family as well as look after their husband’s and other navvies’ food and clothing.

The Mission Society sought to attend to the navvy community’s needs. They produced a journal which can be a good source of information on marriages, as they were not always recorded in official registers, and for seeking/locating missing husbands or wives.

This was a fascinating insight into a life far distant for the here and now.

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