The first tale in Mr Blackwood is told by the Waterloo veteran, Corporal Costello, and the second by Stumps, the railway navvy. This pairing was intended to echo the first two Canterbury Tales, where the Knight’s tale, much to the irritation of the Host, is followed by that of the oafish Miller. The world of the navvies is a fascinating one. One of the most comprehensive accounts is contained in Terry Coleman’s 1965 book The Railway Navvies. A much earlier account is that of the Rev D.W. Barrett MA published in 1880 and entitled Life and Work Among the Navvies. In his foreword Barrett writes: “This little sketch is written with several objects in view. One is to supply a record of a special undertaking in railway work, and an account of the manners and customs of the ‘navvies’ and railways labourers in general, who are employed in making new lines. Another is to call attention to some encouraging features of the Church amongst them.” Ah, the Church. Barrett, like so Victorian clergymen, saw the navvies as both a challenge and an opportunity. In the navvy encampments, where drink, prize fighting and promiscuity were said to be rife, there were rich pickings to be had by way of conversion and moral reformation. Such efforts were not always welcomed by the navvies, though, to be fair, some clergymen were genuinely concerned for the material as well as the spiritual welfare of the navvies and their families.
A rich visual source for the life the navvies is the work of the artist J.C. Bourne, who published sets of engravings of the building of the London to Birmingham Railway and the great Western. For anyone who has never seen his work, it is well worth a Google. Illustrations above and below.