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By Karen Baker on

Navvy poets. Have you heard of such a thing?

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.
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.

The first page of the first poem
The first page of the first poem

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

Did William Garratt attend similar instruction resulting in this book of poetry? The religious overtones of the poems would certainly suggest this was possible. Another clue perhaps is this inscription on the verso of the title page.

It reads: "A Present to / Miss Elisa Parke / From A Friend/ From America/ With Compliments/ [Harry Yates?]"
It reads: “A Present to / Miss Elisa Parke / From A Friend/ From America/ With Compliments/ [Harry Yates?]”
The inscription appears significant. “Friend” has a capital “F” suggestive of a meaning for the recipient plus it has travelled a long way – from America. Why was this inscription written? Perhaps because the book is evidence of what a navvy can do? Hence why the author mentions his being a railway navvy?  Was Miss Elisa Parke a missionary? Was this slim volume a “thank you” for her work or a motivating reminder of the importance of her perseverance?

The fact that this book of poetry is very rare – it does not appear in any British or overseas library catalogue – is perhaps another clue.  Whoever published it did not print very many copies – or if they did, they have not survived. Were such a few copies made as its chief purpose was as a propaganda tool? Did Miss Parke, and perhaps others, use it as weight to the Powers That Be, to ameliorate the conditions of the poor and continue funding their mission? That is certainly one theory. Another of course is that it is an elaborate hoax, that no navvy did write it. One thing is clear though, that whatever the story of this writer and his book of poetry, there are secrets to unlock here and a rarely heard voice to discover.

To discover William Garratt’s book of poetry for yourself, please request via Search Engine.

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.
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.

 

2 comments on “Navvy poets. Have you heard of such a thing?

  1. Good evening Karen
    I wonder if you can help.
    I am in my 3rd year of a history degree at University of South Wales. My dissertation subject is Navvies.
    I have been researching Anna Tregelles and wondered if you would have information on what railway line in South Wales did she administer ?
    I intend to come up to York at Easter but this query is holding me up at the present time. thanks Jill

  2. You will not be remembered
    For future lives made easier
    By the sweat of your labour
    No statue erected in your honour
    For the canal ways you forged

    You will not be remembered
    For strong sinewy muscles
    That quarried the stone
    For magnificent buildings

    You will not be remembered
    For heavy burdens you shouldered
    Bridges you erected
    Metal rail lines you carried
    Or the furnaces you worked

    You will not be remembered
    On the streets where you lived
    Nor in the houses built for workers
    Torn down as easily as you were

    You will not be remembered
    For the hurt to your body
    Aged before time
    The poverty you endured
    Or the deprivation you suffered

    You will not be remembered
    No markers for your grave
    Will show you once existed
    No signs pointing the way
    To the songs you once sang

    You will not be remembered
    For the tears you wept
    As your children died
    In this land you never called home

    You will not be remembered
    In that greener land over the seas
    Though t’was easier to think upon
    Old times and Irish smiles

    But You will not be remembered
    In the land of mountain and streams
    For the ones you once loved
    Lay dead of starvation
    In that land of plenty
    Unremembered too.

    Kathie Sedgley 2009

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