Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   LOOKING over the palings that skirted the temporary wooden bridge which crossed the "cutting," and along the cutting as far as it had as yet eaten into the hill, the sight presented was not a little curious and interesting. Within a space of a hundred and twenty yards two hundred and thirty stalwart navvies were high busy. Four hundred and sixty arms, brown, hairy, and muscular, were pulling and hauling, and delving and picking, as though the hill they were assaulting were the domain of the avaricious Thomas Tiddler, and every man was determined on having just a little bit more before Tom came raging at them from round the corner. Here, a dozen shining "picks " attacked a great mass of earth, which had been tumbled entirely from above; there, six daring giants were furiously undermining an overhanging piece of prodigious size, with a backward step, however, and a sharp, upward glance, after every malicious dig, lest the enemy should unexpectedly be down on them. On the sloping bank on each side a hundred spades were bobbing up and down at a tremendous rate, and as many weighty clods perpetually flying through the air in their passage to the "mook" trucks, while now and then came the sharp and sudden cry of "look oop !" followed by the dull crash of an earth mass as big as a labourer's cottage, "crowed" down by the " surface men," whose business it is to second the efforts of the underminers.
   Take all this, together with the fantastic costumes of the spaders and pickers-red smocks, blue smocks, white smocks, and no smocks at all, but bare brown arms and chests hairy as the back of a terrier; caps of the woollen "night" sort-green, pink, and yellow, or elaborately barred and spotted with these colours and some others; hairy caps, made of the hide of the cow, the bear, and the badger; tarpaulin and shiny oilskin caps and caps of cloth, worn peak astern invariably-all these various shapes and colours, ever shifting and dodging to and fro, backed by the blue-black clay of the hill, with the engine tearing, and rattling, and whistling, and screaming, and lugging off trucks full laden, or bowling along jauntily over the smooth rails with a seemingly endless tail of "empties " -went to make the curious picture that I saw looking into the railway cutting just as the sober October Saturday afternoon was fading.
   Suddenly was heard the clang-clang of a bell, and its effect on the diggers was magical. Was it Tom Tiddler's bell carried and rang by that gentleman himself to warn them of his vengeful coming? For the moment it seemed so, for the host of pickers, and shovellers, and crowbar-wielders at once abruptly-as though they worked by gas power and some one had turned them off at the main-ceased from their labours. They, however, made no attempt to escape. With a deliberation that contrasted strangely with their almost wrathful energy of a minute before, they proceeded to scrape their cloddy boot soles on their shovel blades, tidily scraping the upper leathers clean with a bit of slate. Then they loosened their leather harness-to wit, the straps that preserved the hitch of their trousers above their mighty calves and the broad brass-buckled belt by which their loins were begirt. Then they shook themselves, and with their woollen caps or the tails of their smocks wiped the moisture from their brows, and from the nape of their necks, and from the great bumps in the rear of their ears, where it seemed specially prone to accumulate. By this time the engine, brought to a standstill in their midst, and seeming to regard these preparations for "knocking off" with its great goggle-eyes full of astonishment, arrived at the conviction that its services were no longer required, and, with a prodigious grunt of contempt for such puny and easily-tired things as navvies, scuttled off, while the diggers, with their rush baskets in their hands and their tin cans clinking against their shouldered picks and shovels, strolled away towards a wooden shanty standing in an adjoining field, and the " cutting," just now busy as a beehive, was silent and deserted.
   It was from the shanty in the field that the bellringing had arisen. It was Thomas Tiddler's erection. So far from being offended at the big-limbed navvies for coming to pick up gold and silver off his estate at the rate of four shillings and twopence a day, he encouraged them, and had been at the expense of rearing this wooden building, and cutting a hole in one side of it through which each man might receive his share of the gold and silver decently and without unseemly scrambling. The business of disbursing two hundred and thirty separate sums of five-and-twenty shillings, taken at its simplest, would appear to any one uninitiated in Mr. Tiddler's methodical ways a rather formidable undertaking; but taken in connection with the endless complications to which each five-and-twenty shillings is liable-"quarters," and hours, and even half hours lost, picks broke, and new shovels supplied, with fines for this, that, and the other, the task becomes appalling. Under Mr. Tiddler's system, however, all difficulties are smoothed away, and the business of paying is rendered easier by far even than giving each man two sixpences for a shilling. Every man is provided with a tin ticket, which bears a number corresponding with a similar one put against his name in the time and pay books. On Saturday the navvy gives in this ticket inclosed in a little canvas bag, highly branded with the number. In the course of the day, and undisturbed in his little office, the pay clerk makes up the account, and his assistant pops the proper sum into each bag and secures it with its string. Come pay time, the navvy army troops past the pay-hole, and as the clerk calls out the number the bag is deposited on a ledge and is taken up by the owner. The tin ticket also serves another purpose. If his work is satisfactory, the navvy finds the ticket in the bag along with his money; if, however, his services are no longer required, the ticket is retained, and the navvy trudges off for good and all. I knew all this beforehand, and idle curiosity led me to loiter on the little wooden bridge over which the navvies must one and all pass, with the view of exercising my sagacity towards discovering the ticketless ones, and observing how the calamity affected them; but they came trooping past, every countenance beaming with serenity and that consciousness of power which the possession of wealth invariably confers, till I began to fear that my sagacity was at fault, scarcely daring to hope otherwise. Presently, however, there came two, both unmistakably doomed to the "sack," which they carried between them with much more fortitude than might have been expected.
   "I don't fret, never fear," said one, "I knowed what was coming since that heavenly ganger, bless his precious eyes, jacketed me on Thursday."
   "Fret! Not much to fret about," replied his companion of the sack. " Why, afflict me with blindness if I hav'nt worked harder in one beatific fortnight in that beatific cutting than I worked in three solid months on the main shore. Come along; I shall be a pot to your pot."
   "Where shall we go ?"
   "Oh ! to the old drum, I suppose." Just then, and as the two sacked ones halted to strike a pipelight against the pailings, three other navvies passed, and, bawling after them, the one who had endured the beatific fortnight exclaimed-
   "What cheer, Harry? See yer bimeby ?"
   "Ay, ay, lad. We'll be up at the old drum, I reckon."
   Where was the old drum ? I was tolerably well acquainted with the signs of the taverns of the locality; but of one known as the "Old Drum" I had not hitherto heard. Clearly it was a place where navvies spent their Saturday evenings, and must be worthy of a visit.
   The British navvy is no ordinary individual. He is not a mere dirt-shoveller. He is a skilled workman in his way, and he is paid as good wages as a journeyman watch-maker; he is a model of strength and physical endurance; he works harmoniously with his fellow-men, and is altogether a most cheerful and hearty fellow. How does he employ his leisure ? What are his means of recreation and enjoyment? Wherever met he would be recognised; for the bare suggestion that he might disguise himself in a black coat, confine his hairy chest beneath a dandy waistcoat, or encompass his great throat by an all-round collar and a fashionable tie, is too absurd to be entertained for a single instant; yet, whoever saw the navvy at a theatre, a music-hall, or working-man's institute? Perhaps he is superior to the two former frivolities, and has no taste for the calm delights the latter provides. Doubtless the "Old Drum" was the navvies' clubhouse, the institution to which he, eschewing all others, resorted, seeking the society of his brother giants, and passing the evening with them in pleasant and intelligent discourse, or disporting himself in such manly amusements as the establishment provided, thereby keeping his muscles in fine working condition. Musing thus, I quitted the bridge and followed my two Drumward-bound friends, my esteem for the British navvy increasing each moment, and I resolved as I walked that if persuasion, or even the payment of a moderate fee, could gain me admittance to the " Old Drum," I would that evening make myself better acquainted with the navvy and his ways.
   Down the lane and into the High Street, past the "Red Cow" and the "Load of Hay;" past even the newly-opened beershop, with its doors wide open and the spick-and-span pots ranged on the counter, and winking most invitingly in the gaslight; past all these, and then a halt at a porkshop, which one of my navvies enters and bargains for a couple of pounds or so of cold boiled leg, while his mate makes a purchase of a four-pound loaf at a neighbouring baker's; and then on again the pair of them, the bread-carrier munching the makeweight piece as he goes. On, past that skulking, dirty pothouse, the
   "Balaclava "---
   No, not past the "Balaclava," but into it. Can this be the "Old Drum ?" Surely not. But yet, as I linger doubtingly, navvies in twos and threes push their way into the house with a purposeful air; and presently, as I get a fair view of the interior, I spy the two who have "got the sack" quite at home on a barrel, with the bread and pork between them, and which they are attacking with the calm confidence of men sure of victory. At the extremity of the bar there is a door, and navvy after navvy enters at it and does not make his appearance again; and as I wait and watch, the identical three, with Harry amongst them-whom one of the pork-eaters had asked, "What cheer?" on the bridge-turn in deliberately, and make straight for theinner door justmentioned. It seemed that my speculations as to what sort of institution the " Old Drum " was, were a little wide of the mark; nevertheless, it undoubtedly was the Old Drum that I had come in search of, and to turn back was not to be thought of.
   The door at the extremity of the bar opened into a largish room furnished with three great tables and a full complement of forms. The floor was bare, as were the yellow-washed walls, as was the ceiling, save for the coating of gas and tobacco-smoke that begrimed it. There was a fireplace with no fire in it, though the evening was chilly. The room was capable of containing fifty or sixty individuals, but at present there were not more than fifteen assembled. On the tables were fifteen quart pots, and fifteen foul tobacco pipes sent forth a blast that made the little ventilator in the corner by the ceiling spin round with a whir like that of a knife-grinder's wheel. As my sauntering costume is of humble sort-consisting, indeed, of an old black wideawake and a coat that was new in the autumn of '61-my entrance provoked nothing beyond fifteen momentary stares, and provided an excuse for fifteen pulls at the beer-pots. This, however, was not my immediate conviction; for so dead a silence pervaded the company as I took my seat as to give me an uncomfortable impression that I was intruding, and should presently be addressed as I once was under somewhat similar circumstances. "Well, do you see anybody here as you wants?" "No." "Do you see anybody here as looks as though he wanted you ?" "I cannot say that I do." "Wery well, then." Nothing so unpleasant happened, however, on the present occasion; and, after the lapse of a minute or so, I was put quite at my ease by two of the party breaking into conversation.
   "How they things do hum "
   "They do so."
   "Wentilator, ain't it ?"
   "Ah, summat o' that."
   Certainly this was not much, but it was very much better than nothing, as showing that my presence was no check on their freedom of speech. For the next two minutes the "wentilator" had it all to itself, when, happily, the entrance of three other navvies, each carrying his own quart, provided material for fresh discourse.
   "Hallo, here's Dick Found your dawg, Dick ?'
   "Bust him, no!"
   "That warn't the one, then, as that chap told you of? "
   "No, it worn't. Shove up further." And the parties addressed having "shoved up further," and allowed the new comers a seat on their form, silence reigned once again, and was only disturbed during the next few minutes by the puffing of tobacco, the sound of sighs that followed breath-exhausting draughts of beer, and the click of the replaced pot on the table. Surely it cannot go on like this, thought I. It's the way with these big men; they are hard to move, but, once started, there is no stopping them. A little more beer will float them, and then we shall have social, scientific, and political discussion in any quantity. But the door swung to and fro, and the company increased to the number of twenty-five, and at least a dozen pots had been replenished, and still the ventilator had the best of it-ten to one, at least. Lord Palmerston's name had not been once mentioned, " universal suffrage " was not even hinted at, the American war news was equally neglected; and even when Franz Muller was brought to table by the speculative observation of "I wonder if it really was that chap as did it ? " no other reply was elicited beyond one of "If as how he did, I hope they'll scrag him;" and then the subject dropped.
   More beer. There was no bell in the room, but the company contrived very well to make the landlord alive to their wants by banging the empty pots on the tables, and continuing to bang them till he made his appearance. By the time every man had drank at least three pots the general speech became freer-freer, but not free, inasmuch as it was restricted to a topic with which they were all well acquainted-viz., beer; about betting pots of beer, and winning them, and losing them, and drinking them; about drinking seven pots within the hour, with the story of a sawyer who had won just such wager in such bare time that he staggered down dead with the last pot in his hand, and the dregs trickling from it. It was, as far as I could make out, about these dregs that the dispute arose; the widow claiming the stakes, and the other party taking his stand on the unswallowed driblet to resist the claim. About good beer and bad beer, one gentleman, in a bison skin cap, stoutly maintaining that there was no such thing as " bad" beer; one sort might be better than another, but bad beer there was none-an argument that was rapturously received, and led to universal swigging and further furious banging on the tables with exhausted measures. More beer and increased freedom of speech. Some talk about the goodness of the cabbage and its frightfully high price; an argument as to the number of miles it was from Yarmouth to Norwich; an animated discussion concerning the comparative merits of "toe-plates" and "clinkers;" about boots generally and the use of dubbing; about a kicking case in which a certain navvy had mortally injured a policeman, and was then lying in gaol awaiting his trial; considering a prisoner's deprivation of beer; on the delights of a drayman's life. More beer. Some high words and a trifling pass of fisticuffs between Dick and the person who had misinformed him about his "dawg." Conversation about dogs-about rats-about drains and drainpipes-about cutty-pipes and "colouring" clays-about soaking one's clay. Tremendous laughter, and more beer.
   Clearly, there was no use in staying any longer. It was nearly eleven o'clock, and everybody was perfectly jolly and cotented. What they had come to the "Old Drum " to seek they had found, and were now at the heart of it. On the whole, the navvy has disappointed me. Judging him from his manner of spending his Saturday night, I would rather be a little lame tailor, with some brain in my skull, than such a big blockhead.