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Looking Back: August 1908

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Friday August 17 2018

Looking Back: Scottish Navvy Mission

A 1908 account of the Church of Scotland's outreach to the navvies working on construction projects around the country.


By Francis John Taylor

MANY persons are quite unaware that the migratory tribe of navvies numbers about 10,000 with women and children. They move about from place to place wherever construction works are going forward, such as railways, harbours, canals, reservoirs above ground, and water and drainage pipes below.

Every one benefits, directly or indirectly, by their labours, and civilised life is impossible without them.

Navvies are among the strongest men in the country. Not an uncommon day’s work shows the lifting of 15 to 20 tons of puddle by spadefuls or the wheeling of 60 tons of material in barrows a length of 20 yards.

The old ideal of navvy life was summed up by one of their body as “hard work all the week for a full drink on Saturday afternoon and Sunday.” To this might be added the further delights of dog washing, and hair cutting in the afternoon and fighting in the evening, as the alternative occupations of the navvy’s day of rest.

The whole tendency of hut life may be put down as bad. The huts are dirty, stuffy, and dusty to a very dangerous extent; let the hut-keeper be as cleanly as she will, she can scarcely keep them clean. In summer-time, when works are being pushed forward, the same beds are often occupied both night and day. The condition of the atmosphere, with the perfume of cooking, the breath of forty men, twenty of them perhaps in a drunken stupor, and not a window open, can be better imagined than described. It is surprising that the men are so health as they are.

Yet they are brave, independent, generous, and noble in many of their unwritten laws; for while they would almost kill a policeman who ventured down the line to arrest a mate, they would give their last copper to a comrade in distress; and very few real navvies ever been buried as paupers, and seldom do orphan children find a home in the poor-house.

The navvy was spiritually one of the most neglected members of society; up to within twenty-four years ago he might have said, “No man careth for my soul.” But he is not a hopeless case, and the efforts all over the country to win him for Christ have been most successful. The more I know of him, the better I like him – when he is sober.

Twenty-four years of quiet, unostentatious labour on the part of the Scottish Navvy Mission Society have wrought a great and beneficent change in the lives of these men.

Nowadays almost every large contract has its Mission Hall and Reading-room, and these institutions are the greatest boon to men on public works. During the evenings, and on days that are wet, the men crowd into the rooms, and spend the time in playing games, also in reading magazines and papers. It is a pleasing sight to see men reading the Bible surrounded by their mates, and seldom is a man disturbed on such an occasion.

Many opportunities are afforded for private conversation, and it frequently happens that a visit to the Reading-room is the first step toward a sober, honest and Christian life.

On Sunday a school is conducted for the navvy children, and generally in the evening a Gospel service is held. Men who will not go to any other place of worship will come to their “own room.” One feature of these services is the hearty singing of all present. Once a week a concert or lecture on some social subject is held, and at times the men themselves contribute to the evening’s enjoyment.

The missionaries of the Society are men especially chosen for the work. More than one has been himself a navvy. They are strong in body and mind, in faith and love. Their lives are hard. During the day they have long distances to walk, exposed to all weathers, and till ate in the evening they are at work in the Reading room. Their duties are manifold – visiting the works and huts, short meal-hour talks to the men on the works, temperance meetings, distribution of tracts and suitable reading, Sunday School teaching, Sunday services in the huts and in the Mission Hall, ambulance work, and attendance at the Reading-room each evening. The navvies look upon the missionary as their friend, and it is to him they turn in the hour of sickness and trouble.

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