Navvy Chic

I used this photo for the first fanzine I did, ‘Hang Loose’ back in the late 80s. Growing up in Runcorn, the Ship Canal (The Cut) has always figured large in our collective iconography and the landscape of the town itself has largely been shaped by the Bridgewater and Manchester Ship Canals. Many of us are descendants of the ‘navigators’ or ‘navvies’ who cut the canal and so an interest in the navvy way of life, not only their unique fashions and propensity for brawling but their political and social mores has carried on over a century later. Here are some boss photos of Manny Ship canal navvies at work and play.  

And this is an excerpt from Dick Sullivan’s ‘Navvyman’ published in 1983 by Coracle Press. The riots described may place recent shennanigans into context. Where there are groups of men, boredom and mind altering substances in one place then violence is bound to follow.  

In 1904 I was at Tidworth, building the barracks. You had to be per fumigated before you could start work there and we lodged in Brimstone Bottom. A navvy was killed in the summer-shot in the Ram public house.

(‘Mates!’ cried Mrs Garnett, ‘don’t cross a threshold red with blood!’)

Tidworth, an Imperial Army town, is in the valley of the Bourne, a seasonally wet/seasonally dry tributary of the Salisbury Avon. Every day while the town was being built, the Ram brimmed with drinking navvies, milling and swillicking ale by the bucket in what is now the car park bounded by the brook. Then, one humid morning late that hot summer, work was rained off, and they packed in even tighter.

All morning there was an undertow of violence. A half-blind navvy called McHann engaged in brief pointless fights with barmen and the landlord. The landlord, Arthur Thomas, was uneasy all the time — he carried a navvy-stopping pistol to bank his takings — and that afternoon he closed the taps early. He was counting money at the till when Jukes, a barman, came in dirty from his last fight with McHann. A pewter pot broke a window. Angry men with blood on their faces threatened to dynamite the place. Thomas locked the doors and ran upstairs. ‘I’ve got this for you bastards’, he called from a bedroom window, showing them the navvy-stopper before firing, twice. Jukes followed with a double-barrelled shot-gun which he steadied on the window-sill. Some unknown navvy — possibly McHann — flung a pewter pot which hit the gun barrel, fired the gun, and killed a middle-aged Norfolk man called Shaw (or Sharpe, accounts differ) leaning against a tree, now gone, by the river.

‘I’m pleased you’ve come,’ Thomas told the police when they [124/125] came. ‘You can see how I’m situated.’ Outside was a litter of dented pewter and broken glass. ‘I thought they’d smash up the bally show.’ He was taken, cigarette in mouth and fingers, to Pewsey jail in a brougham.

Thomas and Jukes were freed, their trial stopped half-way through. With them there ended a long, long trail of riot, murder, random bloodshed and mass multi-navvy brawls dating back to the eighteenth century. All public works were blood soaked. Blood dripped, spurted, trickled or just steadily flowed, mainly from accidents, but also from knees, knuckles, hobnail boots, spades and pick helves. Violence was everywhere, casually vicious.

Rioting was endemic in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain in any case. The upper classes were callous, the lower were riotous. People rioted against new machinery and the price of grain, for Parliamentary democracy, against the price of theatre tickets. In the summer of 1795 canal navvies joined bread rioters, unhappy at the price of corn, near Barrow-on-Soar in the Quorn hunting country. A volley ot musket balls stopped them, some of them for good. ‘The brown bread was very good,’ said the Gentleman’s Magazine ‘but this, it should be recollected, was among that newly created, and so wantonly multiplied set of men, the diggers and conductors of navigations.’

On top of that, navvy rioting was often a kind of revenge by people who felt outside the law and outside society. ‘Us behaves to folks according as they behave to us,’ a man once told Anna Tregelles. ‘Tell the navvy dogs the lock-up’s too good for them and us’ll rampage for the fun of giving them the trouble of putting us there.’

On top of that, navvies were often wild men doing hard jobs, hardened by death and calamity all around them. They were also men who lived by their strength and gloried in it. Fighting was a semi-organised sport with them. (Prize-fighting, in fact, was the national sport in the days of the canal men.) In 1805 Ned the Navigator fought and killed Sam Elseworth, butcher, behind the Ben Jonson’s Head in Stepney. Men building the Redmires dam near Sheffield in the 18305 fought in a meadow, still called The Fighting Field, behind the Three Merry Lads. Prize fighting was the Sunday pastime on the Long Drag, and spontaneous rings of men formed wherever navvies were idle. There was even a style of boxing called Toe-the-Line, the rules of which were simple — you faced each other across a line scratched in [125/126] the dirt and took it in turns to fist-hit each other’s head. You couldn’t defend yourself: each in turn was an open target.

At the Llangyfellach tunnel there was a bloke what they called Toe-the-Lme. He used to work all day, stay in a pub till throwing out time, then go and sleep outside on the grass winter and summer. He was a quiet bloke until somebody hit him. He never knew he could fight a fore that.

But even given the tendency to violence, must riots had specific causes. Irishmen to begin with were the common factor in nearly a third of them, either because they undercut wages, because of religion, or because of the resentments between people of different cultures. Drink was a cause of many riots and a factor in most. Tension between navvies and the police caused trouble — not so much full-scale rioting, perhaps, as small-scale affrays in which the police were often badly damaged. A lot of navvies were themselves part-time criminals (if only as poachers and food-thieves) happy to make public works into ready-made hideaways for full-time delinquents.

‘Well, you see,’ a navvy once told Anna Tregelles, ‘it’s one of the ways of the line never to suffer a police to pick a chap off the work: and maybe now there’s a dozen or more on ’em up there,’ he went on, pointing along the unmade railway, ‘as wouldn’t know but the police was after they; so they’d all set on ‘en, and do for ‘en pretty quick.’

(Army deserters were sometimes hidden too — not always successfully. A gunner, recaptured on the Beckenham line in the 1850s, was sent back to his regiment with ‘D’ for Deserter branded on his chest.)

Their Betters were not above using their lawlessness, either, when it suited them. During the 1796 Parliamentary elections, for instance, Lancaster canal cutters were recruited by Lord Stanley’s agent to intimidate the opposition. Any heavies would have done and navvies were heavier than most. ‘We are going on very ill with the work in their neighbourhood,’ grumbled the canal engineer, ‘Not a man has been at work since the Canvassing began &. I doubt it will be the case as long as the Election continues.’

(A clutch of Peto’s men started a riot when he stood for Parliament as a Liberal in Norwich in 1847. They turned up, loyally [126/127] cheering, outside his committee rooms as the polling booths closed. Somebody from a rival party threw a stone. The riot ran into the market square where a gang of navvies, outnumbered, hid in the Cattle Market Hotel. Windows fragmented, mirrors splintered, a man’s scalp was gashed open. Peto won, too.)

Navvying’s last thirty years were riot-free, the first thirty were probably riotous, but the in-between years were like bomb-bursts, particularly during the manias of the 1790s, 1840s, 1860s.

What seems to be one of the earliest recorded canal riots broke out casually in 1794 on the Hereford and Gloucester. Police were assaulted and a navvy called Dyer was arrested. (Perhaps the same Dyer who’d been fired a few months earlier for the idle way he and his men fed Mr Carne’s Machine at the Oxenhall tunnel.) Other cutters were jailed for felony. It was ugly enough to stir the canal committee into paying to have them prosecuted as an example and a terror to the rest. The committee, after all, hoped to live profitably with an unalienated countryside once the navvies had gone. Next year there was a riotous affray, rather than a riot, on the Dearne and Dove about which we know little except it was quickly put down when the ringleaders were snatched. The cavalry, though called out, was never used. Some canal riots seem to have been against authority, others came out of a fellow-feeling with the down-trod, like the time in March 1795 when diggers from the Leicester and Northampton Union attacked a column of the Leicester Fencibles as they escorted a couple of deserters back to town. The deserters deserted again while the Volunteer Cavalry coralled the cutters in the Recruiting Sergeant, a pub in Newton Harcourt, where pike-armed navvies stood at bay, blocking the doors, until the horse soldiers winkled them out with sabres. Among the people arrested were Red Jack and Northamptonshire Tom, ‘two fellows,’ said the Leicester Journal, ‘notorious for being a terror to every country they have resided in.’

Given a choice of fines or jail, the rioters — like most navvies — went inside. Others were offered jail or the Navy.

Some years later, in 1811, a disagreeable shopkeeper in Sampford Peverel was enough to start a riot on the Grand Western in mid- Devon. It’s probably true to say most navvies detested shopkeepers as mean and unmanly creatures and this particular one, called Chave, they found particularly despicable. He had recently bought a shop with a sitting tenant living above it. To scare him away, [127/128] Chave hired a ‘ghost’ to rattle chains and beat drums next door. At dusk one evening in April, the day of Sampford’s yearly cattle market, some navvies who had been idle and drinking for three days spotted Chave on his way home. They followed, jeering all the way, then threw stones at his house. His wife shot a man dead, and hurt another. ‘It’s impossible,’ said the Taunton Courier, ‘not to feel the deepest abhorrence for the proceedings of a savage ungovernable banditti, whose ferocious behaviour we hope will be visited by the heaviest punishment of the law.’

Next year, navvies who were straightening, deepening and widening the River Witham, rioted because a baker cheated them at a pub called the Plough, below Lincoln. They ousted the Plough’s landlord, drank his ale, stole his sign, took the baker’s basket and crossed the river to march on Bardney, armed with cutting tools. One man carried another man carrying the inn sign. In Bardney they threw bread (his own) at the baker and hung the inn sign in a tree. They stormed the Bottle and Glass, rolled out the barrels, staved in the ends, and wallowed in ale. They robbed the villagers. The village crusher hid in the village almshouses until more constables came from Horncastle. One was killed. The Riot Act was read and cavalry, jangling, herded the navvies together. Farm carts carried them to jail.

A few years later, in 1829, Joseph Hekekyan Bey, an Armenian engineer, was in the Wirral where navvies were throwing up a sea-wall to protect the end of the peninsula from sea-erosion. Because they belonged nowhere, said Hekekyan Bey, and because there were so many of them, they thought themselves beyond the law. One day they went in a body to Liverpool races where they started beating up the police and public with clubs until a posse of young bloods and merchants’ clerks rounded on them. Navvies were being arrested as far away as Congleton late into the evening.

At one time when people were paid once a month in pubs, what the newspapers called ‘riots’ were routine paroxysms, regular as neap tides, except they were usually nothing more than mass- brawls involving nobody but navvies and not harming them over much. Like the men who spoiled Mrs Garnett’s Christmas in 1881 when they ‘rioted’ in the American Tavern near the Alexandra Dock (which they were building) in Hull. ‘Oh! What a happy day for England, and for us it would be,’ said Mrs Garnett, ‘if this should pass into a proverb, “sober as a navvy”.’ Or like the fight that broke out on the Leeds-Thirsk railway in [128/129] June 1846. Beer selling in the huts was banned because men spent more time drinking than they did working. They got rid of the drink by drinking it. Drinking it got them drunk. Getting drunk got them fighting, three hundred of them, all mangled together in a meadow of unmown hay on Wescoe Hill in Wharfedale.

One man who was drunk for a week, was stripped by his friends and jumped upon, in fun. ‘Pumping upon him,’ was how the Halifax Guardian put it. After pumping on him a bit, they blacked his naked body with soot and pumped upon him a bit more. They then re-sooted him. By then, though, he was dead.