Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the GWR and anonymous Navvies
I am grateful to Peter Griffin and his piece in Stroud Local History Society’s Millennium booklet, “Charles Richardson Helps To Bring The Railway To Stroud”, for giving me the ideas for this piece. Richardson was a resident engineer for the Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway in the early days of the GWR and Peter was given access to his journal.
Richardson first visited Stroud in the spring of 1835, with Brunel; he spent his first night in the Royal George Hotel in King Street. Peter comments that “The evening appears to have been rather lively” - as Richardson’s journal records “… a great row in the house, one man tore the coat off the back of another” – but, nevertheless, Richardson had to get up early the next day to sally forth and commence his duties.
He enjoyed the journey: “…Went in Mr B’s carriage up the valley of Stroud – beautiful scenery all along”; he then went to carry out some levelling and surveying near the mouth of the canal tunnel at Sapperton, but “lost our way by going along wrong road, but came into the line shortly after, and continued levelling along road through wood till we met a man who showed us the benchmark – we walked a little further and met Mr Brunel and rest of party – walked a long way alongside of Canal till we came to Mr B’s chaise.”
His journal also reveals something about the workforce: on the 20th February, 1837, as a consequence of “Disagreement among the men [near Gloucester]. Turned off all Baker’s gang except two …” Then on the 2nd of March, “… Rode to Glos’ter. Paid off nine men and sent Baker, their ganger, to Sapperton …” Then on the 18th March, “… Walked with Brereton to Sapperton. Paid men. Had some trouble with Hurst and other of the men. Short of cash.”
A Working Class Hero Is Something To Be
Everyone knows the name:
Isambard Kingdom Brunel,
And everyone knows that photograph:
The top hat, the waistcoat,
The cigar and the chain-link,
The busy, preoccupied,
Of the Victorian engineer,
The man of his moment,
Proud of his steamships,
And proud of his Great Western Railway -
The dignified certainty of genius,
Knowing that his 120 mile long line
Would run all the long level way
From Paddington to Bristol,
With a mean gradient of just 1 in 1,380,
Just as his drawing board had intended.
But where are the men who built it,
And where are the women,
Who followed the permanent way?
Where are the Fox Talbot portraits
Of the men whose picks and shovels,
Slide rule discipline,
And one hundred deaths,
Carried the line right through Box Tunnel,
So that the sun shone clean right through,
On Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s birthday?
Where is the tribute to their collective anonymity?
A working class hero is something to be.
Navvies and Legerdemain
Two thousand miles of bucket-lift airshafts,
A million men in diseased shanty towns,
Or lost on the tramp in the town or the country,
With no union-pub to rest a wet head,
No Blacksmith’s Arms or Plough in the county,
A damp clay embankment instead for a bed;
Or cutting or gradient, a bridge or a wagon,
A station or brick works, a clay pit or trench,
Or making the running up Sonning Cutting,
A forty foot climb with barrow and earth,
Two miles of running and landslide bone crushing,
With pick and with shovel, gunpowder and shot.
Tunnelling through the mud and the water,
Conned by contractor and ganger and truck,
Calumnied by the press and the pulpit,
We travel today on their muscle and sweat,
And train names today tell of white collar fame,
But who can remember a navvy’s true name?
Their fustian skill and anonymous strength
Built all our lines on their steam power length,
But it’s hard to discover a navvy’s true name,
In railway history’s ledger’s domain.