I. THE INDUSTRIAL SCENE, 1842
1. Let us hover in fancy over the industrial scene in 1842, and photograph a stage of the economic conflict which the people of England were waging then with the forces which held them in thrall.
Our photograph shows us great white lines, continuous or destined to become continuous; they are numerous in Durham and Lancashire, and the newest lead up to and away from London. These white lines are the new railroads of England, and the myriad ant-heaps along them are the navvies. In the year 1848 their numbers had risen to 188,000.
What is a navvy and how does he live? The navvy is an inland navigator who used to dig dykes and canals and now constructs railroads. In the forties the navvies are getting 5_s._ a day, and for tunnelling and blasting even more, but they are a rowdy crowd, and many of them are Irish. Said the Sheriff substitute of Renfrewshire in 1827: ’If an extensive drain, or canal, or road were to make that could be done by piecework, I should not feel in the least surprised to find that of 100 men employed at it, 90 were Irish.’ In 1842 they are building railroads, and when they and the Highlanders are on the same job, it is necessary to segregate them in order to avoid a breach of the peace. The Irish sleep in huts and get higher pay than the natives who are lodged in the neighbouring cottages. The English navvy too keeps out the Irishman if he can. On a track in Northamptonshire, ’There is only one Irishman on the work, for they would not allow any other Irishman.’
In the South of England wages are lower and the navvies are less expert. In South Devon ’very few North countrymen; they are men who have worked down the line of the Great Western; that have followed it from one portion to another’. The riff-raff from the villages cannot work stroke for stroke with the navvy. ’In tilting the waggons they could, but in the barrow runs it requires practice and experience.’
The high wages of the navvy are offset by the disadvantages of his employment. He is lucky if he gets the whole of his earnings in cash. In the Trent Valley they are paid once a month, ’but every fortnight they receive what is called “sub” that is subsistence money, and between the times of subsistence money and times of the monthly payment, they may have tickets by applying to the time-keeper, or whoever is the person to give them out, for goods; and those tickets are directed to a certain person; they cannot go to any other shop.’
The huts in which they live are little better than pigsties, and especially bad for regular navvies, who take their families about with them. In South Devon, ’man, woman, and child all sleep exposed to one another.’ On a section of the London and Birmingham Railway fever and small-pox broke out. ‘I have seen’, says an eye-witness, ’the men walking about with the small-pox upon them as thick as possible and no hospitals to go to.’ The country people, the witness continues, make money by letting rooms double. When one lot came out, another lot went in.