Printout of a story from The Last Main Line:

Mission Impossible? The Navvies and the Preachers: Part 2

The missions themselves were located either in modest, purpose built halls of wood and corrugated metal, or in existing structures such as barns and outbuildings. Inside, the halls were plain and functional. The furniture consisted of simple wooden benches and chairs, and besides a selection of pious extracts that were nailed to the walls, there was little attempt at decoration. This utilitarian approach was both a result of the way in which the Navvy Mission Society was organised, and also of their methods of religious instruction. Although a national institution, it was largely the responsibility of local committees to organise, and pay for, the mission hall in their area. Also, the emphasis centred solely on the attendance and participation of the flock. Therefore the conventions of appearance and formality that applied to buildings and parishioners elsewhere within the Church of England, were not only economically and physically unattainable, but were even undesirable.

As for the missionaries, these were laymen from the working classes, many of whom had been navvies themselves. Doubtless this helped in establishing a bond between the mission and the community, although some missionaries were still asked to give a short demonstration with pick and shovel before they could gain the respect of the navvies! Aside from regular services, readings and Sunday School, the missionaries went about the villages and settlements distributing bibles and copies of the Quarterly Letter to Navvies, the newsletter that expressed the Society's purpose and opinions. They would visit the sick and injured, and help to organise activities which did not focus on gambling and drinking.

It is difficult to be precise about the impact which the Navvy Mission Society had on the families at work on the Last Main Line. Exactly what proportion of the navvy communities participated is unknown, but the halls and services appear to have been well attended, as were the Sunday School outings for the navvies' children. The missionaries seem to have been well liked and respected, and many preachers must have succeeded in reducing the petty crime, drunkenness and bad language that had plagued the navvies' reputation for so long.

This is an exterior view of the modest outbuilding that was used for the Mission Reading Room at Staverton, Northamptonshire. With local committees of the Society mostly having to pay for the halls within their area, buildings such as this provided a practical and inexpensive space in which to house the navvy missions.

This is an exterior view of the modest outbuilding that was used for the Mission Reading Room at Staverton, Northamptonshire. With local committees of the Society mostly having to pay for the halls within their area, buildings such as this provided a practical and inexpensive space in which to house the navvy missions.

A view along the aisle towards an organist practising in the Navvy Mission room at Loughborough. Images depicting the life of Jesus Christ adorn the walls, and the Mission's motto, 'Thanks Be To God' is painted on a wooden shield above the pulpit. These humble surroundings helped to promote the simple, uncompromising message with which the Society hoped to reach their flock.

A view along the aisle towards an organist practising in the Navvy Mission room at Loughborough. Images depicting the life of Jesus Christ adorn the walls, and the Mission's motto, 'Thanks Be To God' is painted on a wooden shield above the pulpit. These humble surroundings helped to promote the simple, uncompromising message with which the Society hoped to reach their flock.

A gang of navvies pose with a missionary (standing fifth right) during construction of the bowstring girder underbridge that carried the London Extension across Braunstone Gate, Leicester. Most of the missionaries were drawn from the working classes, and despite their much valued role within the Navvy Mission Society, these lay preachers were actively discouraged from seeking ordination.

A gang of navvies pose with a missionary (standing fifth right) during construction of the bowstring girder underbridge that carried the London Extension across Braunstone Gate, Leicester. Most of the missionaries were drawn from the working classes, and despite their much valued role within the Navvy Mission Society, these lay preachers were actively discouraged from seeking ordination.