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Mission Impossible? The Navvies and the Preachers: Part 1

At most of the villages and settlements in which navvies working on the London Extension lived, the Navvy Mission Society provided a mission room and a lay preacher for the benefit of the workmen and their families. The services and Sunday School were intended to provide the navvies and their children with an understanding of the bible and an enthusiasm for the message of the gospel, something of which navvies were thought to be largely ignorant.

Formed in 1877 following concerns for the men working at Lindley Wood Reservoir, the Navvy Mission Society was perhaps the greatest of the organisations tasked with the spiritual welfare of navvies. Ever since the beginning of the railway age in the 1830s, the moral and spiritual condition of navvies had been a cause for concern. In the mid-nineteenth century particularly, the men were seen as immoral, godless creatures with little or no knowledge of the bible, and whose daily life centred on depraved and debauched activities like drinking, gambling, fighting and womanising. However, some people also saw the navvy in a more romantic way. To many, they were primitive men possessed of unnatural strength and endurance - rugged men who were hard and resilient. Their lack of education, and the poor housing and working conditions which they were forced to endure, kept them from the civilising benefits of Victorian society, and deprived the navvies of the self worth and self respect that engenders good behaviour. Religion was seen as something that could help to tame the navvy, and as something that would eventually provide them with a more positive and acceptable role in society.

By the time the London Extension was being built in the 1890s, railway construction was no longer accompanied by large bands of navvies intent on riotous behaviour. Living and working conditions had improved dramatically, as had the moral conduct of the men themselves. Even so, navvies continued to participate in prize-fights and gambling, and the infamous navvy drinking sprees, or randies, had not yet become a thing of the past. And so despite their advances, Victorian moralists still considered the navvy to be ripe for conversion. To this end, the Navvy Mission Society maintained a significant presence throughout the Line's construction.

Inside a navvy mission room at Staverton, Northamptonshire. Located within a disused outbuilding, these premises would have served those navvies at work on Contract No.4 (Rugby to Woodford). Note the biblical texts placed on the walls, and the simple pulpit from which the 'message' was preached.

Inside a navvy mission room at Staverton, Northamptonshire. Located within a disused outbuilding, these premises would have served those navvies at work on Contract No.4 (Rugby to Woodford). Note the biblical texts placed on the walls, and the simple pulpit from which the 'message' was preached.

This simple structure is a purpose built mission room at Helmdon, Northamptonshire. In common with many other mission halls that could be found on the London Extension, the building is not obviously one of religious significance. Only the large text written on the roof proclaims this hut to be a place of worship.

This simple structure is a purpose built mission room at Helmdon, Northamptonshire. In common with many other mission halls that could be found on the London Extension, the building is not obviously one of religious significance. Only the large text written on the roof proclaims this hut to be a place of worship.

A remarkable photograph, taken around 1897, showing the members of Calvert Navvy Mission Sunday School on an outing in Buckinghamshire. With banners flying and a brass band doubtless striking up a stirring tune, this certainly looks to be a rousing occasion.

A remarkable photograph, taken around 1897, showing the members of Calvert Navvy Mission Sunday School on an outing in Buckinghamshire. With banners flying and a brass band doubtless striking up a stirring tune, this certainly looks to be a rousing occasion.