Navvies inspired Poems and Songs

part 10 about Navvies


A blog on the Railway Musuem Website

The railways have had a strong literary influence, as a new collection in our archive reveals.

If we think of a railway navvy, a few choice adjectives come to mind. I would hazard a guess that “erudite”, “literate” and “religious” were not among those chosen. However, we have recently acquired an intriguing collection of poetry by self-proclaimed railway navvy, William Garratt, where these adjectives would appear very appropriate.

Book of poetry by William Garratt, a railway navvy. Printed Coventry by Herald Office around 1882.

Inside are written six poems; several are long in multi-part and cover topics on war (Anglo Zulu War and the Battle of Tel El-Kabir), poverty, suffering and homelessness. They are not primitive poems of action – that you might well expect from a man who has laboured hard for his living (compare with navvy songs here), instead they are sensitive, even mawkish, depictions of loss and struggle; of characters beset with hardship and counterbalanced with the life thereafter.

Strangely not once does the author refer to the railways, which begs the question: why then did William Garratt feel it appropriate to add the appellation “a railway navvy” on the cover and title page?

One theory is that William Garratt was a  navvy ministered to by one of the Christian societies that often worked alongside navvy camps. We know through reading works by these missionaries (such as Anna Tregelles’ “The ways of the line“) that part of their role was to teach navvies to read as well as to instruct them in Christian doctrine (Victorian society did not approve of their “degenerate” ways).  In this book Anna describes teaching this navvy, Salisbury (below),  to make significant progress in reading within three months.

Frontispiece from the book, ‘Ways of the line’ A monograph on excavators.

Navvies at Hammersmith station, about 1904. The navvies are probably building the Piccadilly Underground line, which linked Hammersmith to Finsbury Park. The line opened in 1906.


Again from the Railway Museum website

The railways were an important source of employment for agricultural workers made destitute by changes in farming during the early 19th century. Contrary to popular assumptions, Irish workers were always in a minority, making up about 30% of the workforce. Most early navvies came from the north of England, where much of the early railway building took place. Canal digging continued well into the railway era and navvies moved easily between the two sorts of work—but those working on the railways vastly outnumbered those on canals. At the peak of railway construction there were about 100,000 railway navvies. 

The work was arduous—shifting 20 tons of earth was a normal day’s work—not to mention dangerous. Three accidental deaths per mile was considered an acceptable average, but the work was well paid and navvies lived high on the hog. Their wild lifestyle made them a target for the attentions of the temperance movement and evangelical Christians (often the same people) who sought to save them, body and soul.

An example The Navvy Boy

A young man searching for work is employed by a ganger and lodges in the ganger’s house.
The ganger’s daughter falls in love with him and follows him on the tramp.
When I was young and tender / I left my native home
And often to old Scotland / I started out to roam
As I walked down through Bishoptown / A-seeking for employ
The ganger he knew by me / I was a navvy boy
As soon as I did get employ / For lodgings I did seek
It happened to be that very night / With the Ganger I did sleep
He had one only daughter / And I became her joy
For she longed to go and tramp / With her own Navvy boy
Say the mother to her daughter / I think it very strange
That you should wed a navvy boy / This wide world for to range
For navvies they are rambling boys / And have but little pay
How could a man maintain a wife / With fourteen pence a day
Says to daughter to the mother / You need not run them down
My father was a navvy boy / When he came to this town
He roamed about from town to town / Just seeking for employ
Go where he will, he’s my love still / My bonny navvy boy
Now just a short time after this, / Her father died I’m told
And left unto his daughter / Five hundred pounds in gold,
And when she got the money; / Soon I became her joy
For she longed to go and tramp it with / Her bonny navvy boy.

If you have any family pictures or stories related to Navvies please do get in touch

2 thoughts on “Navvies inspired Poems and Songs”

  1. I never really gave it a thought to the collaboration these two organisations really had & what experiences our ancestor’s really sufford whilst going through the traumatic times they had. VERY INTERESTING.


    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment and we are delighted you found this blog post interesting. Yes very tough working and living conditions which are great for creativity to give a “voice” to their issues


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