The Navvy Mission in Thackley

We often have a rosy view of what life must have been like in past centuries.  We assume that villages such as Thackley were havens of peace and tranquillity, but this was not always the case.  The 18th and 19th centuries saw vast civil engineering projects taking place.  The building of canals and railways had major effects on village communities, and Thackley probably had more than its fair share of disruption.  First there was the building of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in the latter part of the 1700s, and then from 1844 to 1900 villagers had to put up with the construction of three railway lines and the building of two tunnels.  First was the excavation of the tunnel for the Midland Railway in 1846, followed in 1873 by the construction of the Bradford, Eccleshill, Shipley line and finally the second Midland Railway tunnel in 1898.  Along with the noise and dirt of the construction there was the major problem of hundreds of migrant workers: the navvies.

The term ‘navvy’ came into general use during the widespread canal building programme in the mid 1700s.  The new canals were known as navigations, and the labourers who built them were known as navigators, or navvies.  When the main canal construction programme came to an end these skilled builders looked for similar work on the building of railways, and the term navvy came to describe any labourer who worked on any large civil engineering project.  Many navvies travelled around the country working on one project after another, while contractors also employed a lot of men from nearby towns and villages close to the construction sites. Large numbers of Irish men travelled to Britain to become navvies but they formed a small minority of the many thousands who worked throughout the land.

Nearly all of the construction work was carried out with pick and shovel and the navvies needed great strength and physical stamina.  Many had previously worked as agricultural labourers and as such were accustomed to hard work.  However it has been said that it took about a year for a navvy to be on top of his job;  a good navvy could excavate up to twenty tons of earth a day.  Not everybody was able to work at this rate and there were many children under ten years of age working alongside them, as well as men well into their seventies who undertook lighter duties.  The hard physical work was relatively well paid and the typical navvy received about 25 pence a day, much better than a factory worker could expect.  However their wages could take some time to arrive, and many companies paid their navvies next to a tavern, often owned by the same company.  Living accommodation was always a problem for the navvies because they were frequently working in remote areas.  They would often try to obtain rooms in nearby villages but there were rarely enough lodgings for all of the men.  The companies frequently provided temporary shanty towns for their workers which were damp, insanitary and overcrowded.  Huts accommodated twenty men who paid one and a half pennies for a bed for the night.  Others saved money by sleeping on the floor for which privilege they got five nights for one penny.  Because they could be breeding places for typhus and cholera the companies eventually began to provide better living conditions.  It was partly felt that improving the living conditions of the navvies would serve as a civilising influence on them and help to curb their immoral behaviour.

Eventually, towards the end of the nineteenth century a concerted effort was made to improve living conditions for the navvies.  This began in 1877 when a Yorkshire vicar, Lewis Moule Evans, started working amongst the navvies employed on the Lindley Wood Reservoir; this led to the formation of the Navvy Mission Society. Throughout the nineteenth century there had been concern about the moral and spiritual condition of the navvies.  Lack of education, poor housing and working conditions conspired to keep the navvies from the civilising benefits of Victorian society.  Religion was seen as a means of improving their manner of living and providing them with a more positive and acceptable role in society.  Although the Navvy Mission Society became a national organisation it was usually left to the local communities to organise and pay for the mission hall in their area.  The missions were generally housed in purpose-built wooden halls or within existing barns or outbuildings.  Inside there were just simple wooden benches and chairs with little decoration apart from religious tracts fastened to the walls.  As well as regular services, readings, and Sunday Schools the missions distributed Bibles and copies of the Quarterly Letter to Navvies. They also provided recreation of an educational nature and organised simple outings.

In the late 1890s the anticipated arrival of over 500 itinerant workers in Thackley to construct the second railway tunnel must have created a high degree of anxiety amongst the residents.  So, when the navvies descended once more on Thackley in 1898 the time and conditions were ripe for the formation of the Thackley Navvy Mission.  The great increase in the size of the population meant that the local police force was overstretched and often found it difficult to cope with the new arrivals, and there were many reports of unruliness amongst the navvies.  With this type of behaviour in mind, in December 1898 Holy Trinity Church parish Magazine announced that the Vicar had been trying for two months to organise a mission, and with help from the Navvy Mission Society, the Midland Railways and the main contractors, Messrs. Oliver and Sons, money had been found.  George Sutton, of the Hunslet Navvy Mission, had agreed to undertake the spiritual oversight of the men, under the supervision of the Vicar[1].  He started his work in December 1898 and a building was soon erected at the bottom of North Street, off Park Road. 

A typical Navvy Mission Hut

It is not known what this building was like but it probably followed the standard pattern of a temporary timber structure and formed the centre for the Mission’s work.  Many navvies found local lodgings but there were also a number of huts built to accommodate others. It is not certain where these huts were situated but they were probably on the area of land that is now the Community Garden at the junction of Ainsbury Avenue, Park Road and Thackley Road.

Possible Navvy accommodation Huts,on Ainsbury Avenue

The Mission Hall was used for religious services on Sundays, held at 11 a.m. and 6.30 p.m, and it was hoped that the men working on the new tunnel would appreciate what was being done for their spiritual welfare, and attend the Services. These services were strictly just for the workers and their families and not for other local residents, because the Mission wanted to avoid conflict with other local churches and chapels.  A Sunday School for navvy children was held at 10 a.m. and 2.30 p.m.  It was soon reported that attendances at the Sunday School were increasing with over 80 boys and girls on the register by February 1900.  However throughout the years there was a constant call for more men to attend. Parents were also urged to ensure their children attended regularly and punctually in order to receive their attendance mark.  Every year the children received gifts on Christmas Eve and every scholar who obtained a certain number of points received an article of clothing provided by the lady supporters.  During the summer months open air services were held.  Mothers were urged to attend Monday afternoon meetings which were timed to end promptly at 4 p.m. to allow the women plenty of time to prepare an evening meal for their husbands.

The Mission planned to hold a variety of meetings and events to attract the workers.  Entertainments such as lantern lectures, ambulance classes and a reading room were provided.  The Mission allowed men and boys over the age of 14 to use the room on week nights and it urged friends of sick or injured workers to report the details to the Vicarage or Mission Room so that they could offer them aid.  The reading room was open most nights of the week for men and boys to read and play such games as draughts, chess and dominoes.  Lady supporters donated illustrated papers and magazines.  A branch of the Band of Hope, a temperance organisation with the aim of teaching complete abstinence, was formed, meeting on Thursday evenings, and throughout the years there were encouraging mentions of men signing the pledge.  Lantern lectures were given on a regular basis with lectures on subjects such as ‘The Life of Our Lord’, ‘The Book of Common Prayer’, and ‘Faith and the Prayer of the Nobleman’.  It cannot be estimated how well attended these lectures were but it is probable that a lecture on the Boer War, with “splendid coloured slides”, held in January 1901, would have been very popular.  Another well attended lecture was entitled ‘Bechuanaland and King Khama, or an ox ride through S. Africa’.  The audience were enthralled and cheered loudly when pictures of the town of Mafeking were shown.  The evening was rounded off with an enthusiastic rendition of the National Anthem.  One event that proved popular was a Service of Song entitled ‘Lost and Found, or Curley York’s Hut’ which was given on Sunday 28th January at 3.00 p.m. in the Mission Hall.  This was a story of navvy life written by the ‘navvy friend’ Mrs C. Garnett about an interesting time in the life of some navvies during the great frost of 1878-9. Every seat was taken by 2.35 p.m. and more seats had to be obtained, the audience being the largest ever seen in the hall.  It was so popular that by the request of several navvies the Service of Song was to be repeated on the evening of 8th February.  Meetings were not only held in the Mission Hall.  There were a series of Wednesday night ‘Cottage Lectures’ at Mrs. Hooard’s [sic] lodging house.  These were reportedly a great success, with the men joining in very heartily in the singing, whilst being very reverent during prayers, the readings and address.

It was not just the workers who were catered for.  Special events were also organised for their children.  In August 1899 a treat was organised by Miss Crompton-Stansfield of Esholt Hall.  Following hymns and prayers 286 children were taken to Esholt Hall in wagons supplied by Miss Crompton-Stansfield and Mr. Sam Thornton of Thackley.  When they arrived they were given a grand feast which was followed by races and games in the beautiful gardens and “a jolly time enjoyed by everybody”.

On January 7th 1899 a Sick Club was started which was immediately popular, as the workers were aware of the many hazards they faced on such a difficult construction project.  Within a fortnight the Mission could announce that they had enrolled 150 members.  The entrance fee was one shilling, with weekly subscriptions of six pence.  Sick workers could receive benefits of twelve shillings for the first ten weeks off work, and six shillings for the following ten weeks. As an indication of the benefits of being a member the Society gave the recent example of a man who joined the club one Saturday afternoon and then had a serious accident the following Monday and was now receiving the 12s. a week in benefit. The capital in the scheme was to be shared out every thirteen weeks, but with each member leaving one shilling in the fund for the quarter. The Missioner attended the Contractor’s office between 5.45 a.m. and 12.45 p.m. each Saturday to collect the subscriptions. If not paid on the Saturday the payments had to be made by the following Tuesday night.

One very practical form of instruction offered was a series of St. John’s Ambulance Association classes. The navvies were given instruction, working through the handbook in a course of lectures led by Dr. J. W. Hainsworth, a local G.P.  To make the lectures viable the Mission needed a class of at least twenty men.  In fact the series of lectures starting in September 1900 attracted over thirty men aged between 16 and 40.  It was noted that the classes used a lot of fuel and lamp oil and the class and friends gave a concert on 6th November to help to defray the costs. The course was followed by an examination at which all those who entered successfully passed and received a certificate. There was a meeting on 31st December when the certificates were presented by the Chairman of the Mission whilst Mrs. Forge pinned on badges.  At the same meeting Dr. Hainsworth and the Mission Secretary were each presented with a beautiful gold mounted and inscribed umbrella from the men.

Towards the end of 1900 the construction of the tunnel was nearing completion and in October 1900 it was noted that many men had left the village.  However there remained 350 men and a large number of boys still employed on the project.  It was thought that navvies would continued to be employed in the district for a long time to come, especially if Bradford Corporation completed its purchase of land in Esholt.  This would lead to the construction of a tunnel from Frizinghall through Wrose Hill and Idle to the proposed new sewerage works.  In January 1901 Miss Weatherhead gave a farewell party for the remaining navvies and their families.  Miss Weatherhead had taken a keen interest in the spiritual and physical welfare of the workers and their dependents and had visited their homes regularly.  An excellent tea was provided which was followed by the dispensing of presents hanging on a very fine Christmas tree.  There was then a short meeting and concert presided over by the Vicar and Mr. Sutton.  The Vicar said that it was great regret that he parted from the excavators and masons.  During the time they had been in the parish “they had behaved as a whole exceedingly well, and personally he felt thankful that some of the families were remaining here, and he would have been very glad if several others he had known had settled down amongst us.  He could only wish that they might remember the teachings that they had received, and that God’s protection might be over them wherever they went.”  Several songs were sung and then Mr. Sutton gave a “stirring New Year’s address on ‘Past, Present, and Future.’  Afterwards Mr. Moorhouse gave an interesting exhibition of pictures with lantern and screen.”  It was reported that the function was very pleasant and gracious and “would remain a touching souvenir in many of the minds of those privileged by Miss Weatherhead’s thoughtful and kindly invitation to be present.”

Although every effort was made to look after the welfare of the workers, with such a large transient population it was inevitable that incidents would take place.  There were several instances of petty theft and violence usually associated with the drinking of alcohol.  One episode in July 1899, reported in the local press, involved a number of prize-fights which took place in the area.  It was reported that the police force was not of sufficient size to prevent “unseemly sights which were to be witnessed in the public streets.”  The Shipley Times reported that “three or four prize-fights were brought to an issue without any member of the constabulary turning up.”[2].

In September 1900 the Shipley Times reported that the work on the tunnel was nearing completion and that many workers had started to leave the area.[3]In January 1901 Thackley began to return to normality.  An entry in the log book of Thackley School noted in early 1901 that most of the navvies had left and the names of several children were consequently taken off the school’s registers.  The workers had become part of the village community and many were sad to see them move on to new projects or return to their home towns and families.  A number of the men remained in the area.  The Census returns of March 1901 show that thirty five men connected with the construction work were still residents in the village. Several had married local girls and decided to make their home in Thackley and the surrounding area, and there are still a number of local people who can trace their families back to these incomers.[4]

Gussie Fink-Nottle

[1] Holy Trinity Church, Parish Magazine. No. 120, Vol. X ,December 1898

[2] Shipley Times and Express 22 July 1899

[3] Shipley Times & Express, 8th September 1900

[4] This article arose from some notes passed on to me by a neighbour. She had photocopies of items which appeared to have been cut from a monthly periodical. On careful checking they seem to have been taken from the Parish Magazine of Holy Trinity Church, but unfortunately relevant copies of the magazine itself are no longer available.

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