The Navvy – By Jeff

From The Leader 2 Feb 1889  p. 37.
To the great majority of people who live in houses all the year round, the migratory and sometimes predatory creature who "follows up the lines" is not sufficiently known. He is generally pictured as a man of large frame and abnormally developed muscles, addicted to much beer drinking and fighting, and with whom immediate contact is to be avoided. In remote districts he has been more grossly misunderstood. Tradition, as handed down by the more ancient "muck-flingers," has it that on the approach of a body of navvies good housewives hurriedly driven in pigs and poultry and placed them under cover, and, being ignorant of the manners and customs and diet of the approaching mob, have even been dubious of the safety of the haystacks. Nothing, indeed, I have been assured, could exceed their surprise at seeing that they smoked pipes and drank beer—just like men. This, however, verges on the apocryphal. Even the publican, storekeeper, butcher or baker who has been patronised by the navvies, and is consequently more familiar with them, cannot be trusted to give anything like a correct description of them. He is biassed.

The uncertainty of finding on pay day navvies of a certain class who may have been seen any day for the past fortnight has rendered the tradesman's judgment of little worth. As a navvy, and consequently one of a much maligned class, l am therefore prompted, the more so in view of our increased importance by reason of our union, to make the public more intimately acquainted with us. The "real navvy," who, to use his own expression, was born with a No. 4 (a shovel) in his hand, will work at nothing else, but railway works or other similar extensive undertakings. He even objects to road work as being in the hands of and only fit for "cockatoos." He is the inveterate enemy of the subby," as he terms the subcontractor, and is profoundly suspicious that he cannot or will not pay his men.

Experience has taught him this. Scoops, steam navvies : and all labor saving machines he bitterly condemns. Eight shillings for eight hours is the motto he swears by. He is almost invariably clad in white moles, with knee straps or "bowyangs," is heavily shod, and is popularly supposed to have hair on his chest that would gap a hatchet. He is very conservative and classes all outside his pale as "haymaking blanks." But the real navvy is in the minority. As to a gold-field, so all sorts and conditions of men gravitate to railway works. There you will find the once-while baker, bootmaker, publican, doctor. Men of almost every trade, and profession find their way to these works, and, without exception almost, by the one process of "liquoring up." Once fairly launched on the ocean of public works they lose their identity and become navvies. You learn of their past history and acquirements, probably, by discovering them in that condition induced by "long beers," in which men are anxious to explain "what — fools they have been in their time."

The freedom and the licence of a navvy's life, have irresistible attractions for those who cannot restrain their appetite for strong liquors. Its independence, too, is a great charm. To one who has been hitherto compelled to give a week's, or perhaps a fortnight's, notice to an employer before he could shake the dust from his feet and leave his work, there is a keen sense of pleasure in being able to demand his "time" and to get it without more ado. His ganger; probably, will not so much as ask: him "what's up?" nor where he intends to steer to. He may go where he will. When public works are many and large, as at present, to be thrown out of work is a slight evil.

The steady man, if there be "no show" on the same job will make direct, by rail or coach if possible, for another line. Some will start "on tramp" and probably "do up their stuff " at the first one or two pubs on the way, and others will not leave the job till they are stiff," i. e. penniless. Those latter rapidly degenerate into the "bummer"—the most degraded specimen of the navvy extant. He is always to be seen in or about the public house. You know him at once by the spiritless, bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair and countenance vacuous except for the occasional gleam of hope—of beer—that passes over it as each new customer drops in. He is a tolerably good physiognomist, from his limited point of view. He divides men into categories, those who are good for beer and those who are not. He can sum up his chances of a beer with surprising accuracy, before the visitor has had time to "breast the bar."

The bummer has, in most instances, been what is known as a "good man" in the earlier stages of his career, and has consequently a large circle of acquaintances. Go where he will, he has opportunities of "subbing" one or another of his old pals, or, in other words, of obtaining a few shillings, ostensibly to help him "on tramp." It is hard to resist his plea when he says " I know——well you wouldn't see a - — man go on tramp stiff." "A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind." There are grades even among these most abject types of animated nature. Some work the greater part of their time and, only "bum" after a "bust," when suffering a recovery. Others "bum" persistently and systematically, at all times and in all places. One I have known to "bum" for a month in the township, retaining all the time his last pay untouched. But of the bummer enough.

The metropolitan reader may find him any day in Flinders-street in his native purity. The country reader will see him before the locomotive reaches the nearest township. There is a still more objectionable section of the great mass of navvying humanity. This is the "fly push," the members of which are a cross between the dangerous larrakin and the gaol bird, and with them I class the fighting man, as his proclivities almost invariably bring him within the pale. To have "done trouble," that is to have served a sentence, is to be welcomed into their midst. Their one idea is to work upon "mugs," "flats" and "sujee— ," as they variously term those not of the fraternity. "Turning over a sleeper," is a favorite amusement with them.

The sleeper is not of box or red gum, but is a helpless mass of drunken humanity "pegged out" on the bar floor or mother earth, and the "turning over" leaves him minus his cash and other unconsidered trifles. I witnessed with much interest the tactics of one of those "fly kiddies" at a fight on a camp. He volunteered to act as "picker up " to one of the combatants, and, to do him justice, performed his role in quite a professional style. But in rubbing his man up or down he ascertained that there were a few " rags " (notes) in his pocket. To possess himself of these in one of the intervals of "time," when the pugilist sat down upon his knee, was no difficult matter; and after another round or two he handed the man over to another spectator and retired into the crowd.

Not intending to let him "get away with the stuff," I drew him aside and let him know that I had seen the whole transaction. He attempted to compromise by offering me one "rag;" but finding me firm, he was compelled to disgorge the whole at the conclusion of the fight to the owner, saying that it had fallen out of his pocket during the "mill." His apparent honesty brought more than its own reward in the shape of a "skinful of beer," and probably an opportunity of repeating his attempt with complete success. "Sloping " or "doing a Jerry Diddler," although not confined entirely to the "fly push," is carried out habitually and systematically by these "lads." It is merely clearing out without paying one's bills. Some, possessed of more than common effrontery, will pass the tradesman's door, with their swags on their shoulders, in daylight, and should they be pursued will fight the matter out, either taking or giving a thrashing ; but in either case the result is generally the same. They will not "part,"
i.e., pay. The unwritten laws of the slopers forbid it."

To stand a hiding and then pay is a mug's game." This evil of sloping is unfortunately almost general. Even among the more respectable class are many who look upon the last full pay as their own, and will laughingly tell the storekeeper in advance that he can stand to lose the last fortnight's "tucker." Some of the men, however, have the reputation of never paying, one fortnight's work in a gang sufficing to make them "full of the hole." They justify themselves by the saying "The next man that comes along pays." Habitual and occasional slopers number perhaps nearly one-half of the navvying population ; but the other moiety, to their credit be it said, are as strictly honest as could be wished, except in their dealings with the publican or shanty-keeper. Very few will dissent from the remark, "I blame no man for slipping up a publican."

The landlord is good or bad according to the extent of his liberality in giving beer "on strap," and in giving men on tramp shakedowns for the night. His reputation is made or lost before work on the line begins. The public house, bad as its influence is on the majority of navvies, is harmless as compared with the shanty. The former may be miles distant, but the latter is always with us. Most shanty keepers run a boarding-house in conjunction with and as a blind to their baneful traffic, looking upon it (the boarding house) as a necessary evil. The character of the drink sold, as may be imagined, is of the vilest, horrible adulterations of all kinds being practised. On one occasion being desirous, of securing "a hair of the dog that bit me" on the previous night, I entered a notorious shanty, in the House of Mazes, with a fellow sufferer, who, by the way had also been bitten by the same dog and was equally in need of a hair. Mr. Publichouse was not in the luxurious apartment we entered, so we seated ourselves on a commodious log: before the fire.

There was another "muck slinger at the other end of the commodious log, looking sick and sorry, and, judging from his appearance, he had also been bitten by a dog and wanted a hair or two. He informed us that "the boss" was right out of grog, "but," he added in quite a matter-of-course way, "he's inside making some." And, incredible as it may appear to the abstinent reader, and as it appears to me now, we waited and drank thankfully his vile compound, consisting no doubt wholly of chemicals. It was, however, some sort of a blend, and cost sixpence, so we were satisfied. My mate, however, started "seeing 'em" that night, or to speak more intelligently had an attack of the "blue devils," and pursuing them to the local police-station, remained there.

Many of the shanties are kept by women, widows grass and otherwise. Thus beauty, frail and flash, entices those to whom M'Cracken's host would otherwise appeal in vain. Euchre, the soft strains of an ill-used melodeon and the seductions of "the first set," complete the list of attractions the shanty offers ; and in turn the proprietor pockets the bulk of the earnings of his customers, and in many instances "does the disappearing trick" some night immediately following pay-day, sloping the trades people for an amount that would cover the bills of half a hundred defaulting navvies. It is but just, however, to say that there are some creditable exceptions to the rule that shanty keepers are mere panderers to the vicious tastes and habits of the navvy.

I have known some few boarding-houses to be really well and respectably conducted, but only where no drink of any description was sold. I know isolated instances, too, of the daughters of notorious shanty-keepers passing unscathed through the rough ordeal of life on the lines, and when of sufficient age escaping from their revolting surroundings either by marriage or going to service. But like angels' visits, these exceptions are few and far between. The police are very unwilling to interfere with sly-grog selling, probably owing to their natural repugnance to acting as informers ; but until something is done to check the traffic, there is no hope for the majority of navvies. The proposed licensing of all boarding houses by the union would be an admirable and effectual stoppage to the trade, and by removing the ever present temptation some few, at least, would be brought to better things.

Another of the peccadilloes of the navvy, although not so general as "boozing," is known as "heading 'em." There is almost a certainty of finding a "school" engaged in this engrossing pastime in any large camp. It is simply a rough and ready means of gambling, requiring only a flat piece of wood, called a "kip," some coppers and a pocketful of money. Its name sufficiently indicates its character. Played fairly it is purely a game of chance, but "ways that are dark" have crept into its practice, such as the use of coins with two heads, loaded coins and other "small deceits," and its primal simplicity is gone. Considerable sums are often won and lost on the throw of the coins, and I have seen as much as £50 change hands in a short half hour.

One of the accomplishments of the "flash" navvy is "horse shoeing," so called. To horse shoe properly one requires to have an intimate knowledge of all the most foul, filthy, blasphemous words and phrases known to navvydom. "Horse shoeing " then is merely the pouring out of a torrent of indecent, beastly abuse and insult, for the edification of standers by, and the confusion of the person addressed. That the possession of the ability and effrontery necessary to acquire the reputation of being a "good horse shoer" should be deemed a distinction may and will appear strange to the well balanced mind ; but such is the case.

It has struck me forcibly, in my contact with those men and the lower classes generally, that there is an obliquity of intellect, painfully evident, that leads them to applaud and encourage in others, and to imitate, almost any vicious propensity ; to sympathise with and excuse the convicted criminal; and to take a delight in the misdeeds of the undetected wrong-door. To express a sentiment that would do credit to their sense of right and wrong, they are ashamed. Whether the tendency is inherited or acquired I know not. It is, in any case, very general. Coupled with this crookedness of understanding is another—a class hatred, transmitted, I think, through long generations of dense ignorance and miserable servitude to its present possessors.

It takes the form of an antagonistic feeling against all others in a better way of life than they, and a commiseration for what they consider their own unfortunate position. "The poor man has no show." With a grim humor they have it, "To work hard, and live hard, and die hard, and to go to hell at last, is—hard." The maxim, "The less you do, the better you're paid" meets with general approval, as do all others of similar tendency.

I believe I have now done with my rather unflattering sketches of the weak points of the navvy, and it is but simple justice to say that, although I have tried to represent the peculiar attributes of the more prominent types of these men, my remarks must not be taken to apply to a very considerable section of them whose straightforward, manly character, honesty, sobriety and general respectability will well bear inquiry.

I have fallen across many whose strict adherence to their principles under adverse circumstances, and whose possession of so many manly attributes and virtues have come to me as a surprise and a revelation. Much improvement in the mode of life of our railway makers could and will be effected by means of their union. The total abolition of the shanty and the discouragement and punishment by the union of drunkenness and sloping would in a short time lead to such an increase of self-respect and well being in the majority, of the men that the "flash" navvy and the "fly push " would be forced to hide their diminished heads. Numbering among the heterogeneous mass of navvying humanity scores of men for whose friendship and goodwill I am grateful, I trust that such may be the near result.

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