Shoulders of giants

I’ve been reading Patrick McGill’s “Children of the dead end: The autobiography of a navvy”. McGill worked as a navvy in the 1900s and became known as the “navvy poet”.

It’s a fascinating read, and it made me realise how much we owe to the men who built the railways, canals and towns. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants!

So instead of the usual progress report, I’ll let the navvies do the talking this time. The lines are excerpts from McGill’s poem “Have you”.

Have you tramped about in Winter, when your boots were minus soles?
Have you wandered sick and sorry with your pockets full of holes?

Have you sweltered through the Summer, till the salt sweat scared your eyes?
Have you dragged through plumb-dead levels in the slush that reached your thighs?

Have you worked the weighty hammer swinging heavy from the hips,
While the ganger timed the striking with a curse upon his lips?

Have you swept the clotted point-rods and the reddened reeking cars
That have dragged a trusty comrade through the twisted signal bars?

Have you seen the hooded signal, as it swung above you clear,
And the deadly engine rushing on the mate who didn't hear?

If you want to prove your manhood in the way the navvies do,
These are just the little trifles that are daily up to you.

And if you haven't shared the risk, the worry and the strife,
Disappointment, and the sorrow, then you know not what is life.

PS: The young gent in the left hand foreground is McGill. His book "Children of the dead end" can be downloaded free here, and his poems "Songs of the dead end" can be found here.


  1. Nice post Mikkel. And all in the days before the safety net of a welfare state. Great set of photos too.

  2. Thanks, Chas. Yes McGill tells some terrible stories about the life of a navvy, and the social injustices. He also seemed to appreciate the "free life on the road" though.

  3. Very nice indeed Mikkel but do I spy track with individual chairs and a familiar kit built buffer stop,
    what's the story behind that I wonder :-)

  4. Hi Geoff, well the navvies at Farthing were known for using C+L chairs and bullhead rail, and I do believe they sometimes used Mainly Trains bufferstops :-)

    On the subject of buffer stops, have you seen the new GWR ones currently underway from Lanarkshire Models. Preproduction shots in this RMweb thread:

    I believe there will also be shorter ones soon.

  5. Wonderful writing and photographs, thanks, Mikkel. The link to the book and poems results in a fascinating read. I remember being struck by the rawness of the navvie's life when I read the "Railway Navvies" by Terry Coleman, obviously not a primary source like this, but very telling in it's own way.

  6. Thanks Ian. McGill's "Children of the dead end" (ie the book) is particularly interesting in the second half, I think, including his conversations with "Moleskin Joe". Some wonderful stories and writing there.


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