Birmingham’s furthest outpost: Michel de Certeau and the tactics of Elan Village’s navvies

Construction workers at the Elan Valley project, just prior to the official opening in 1904 (Birmingham Mail)

The Welsh countryside

It’s often presumed that times moves slowly in the countryside. Seasons come and go, and the work changes little. The 1901 census for the rural Welsh parish of Llansantffraid Cwmdeuddwr reveals a mixed picture of rural labour. Farmers, agricultural labourers and their families, born and raised in this parish or the neighbouring Rhayader are in each of the widespread cottages. At Pen-coed (now Nant yr Haidd Farm), 68-year-old John Hamer lives with his wife Annie, he from this parish, she from Rhayader. At Glan-rhyd-wen, on the road out of Rhayader, the spinster Ann Thomas lets out a bed to Owen Roberts, a miner from Anglesey. He might well have been a lead miner – there are wonderful ruins of a lead-mining community further along the mountain road towards Cymystwyth. But not everyone is involved in such stereotypically Welsh activities. At Troed-y-rhiw-felen, high up on the moors, Edward Lloyd’s 19 year old son Thomas is a labourer at the Public Works; at Llanfadog, it’s more obvious still – John Miller and half his eight lodgers are excavators. Navvies.

Navigator, rise up and be strong

Work in progress at Elan Valley (A Walk Around Britain)

The huge workforce of the Elan Valley project mostly lived in the specially constructed Elan Village, but it’s evident from the extent of lodgers in the surrounding area that many spread out from there too. Life was healthy and strong, but strictly controlled in the village, and perhaps these extra boarders found the restrictions too much. In the Village canteen you could only have up to six pints of Alsopp’s Single X or bottled Bass. The traditional navvy would have consumed much more than that during an average work day, let alone evening session, and its no wonder that workarounds were found.

elan valley hotel
Elan Valley Hote [Percy Benzie Abery, National Library of Wales]

Dick Sullivan‘s memoirs of his father’s and grandfather’s navvying, Navvyman, is a useful source for anecdotal and therefore debatable evidence, but much of his book is well-backed-up. In 1897, he and the Montgomery & Radnor Echo record a gang of navvies making their way into Rhayader for Jubilee Day. They ate and drank the entire town’s provision for the festivities… Others stayed closer to home and visited the Elan Valley Hotel – still there, and opened to cater for the navvies’ needs. The hotel even opened its own footbridge over the Afon Elan to counteract the village’s strict bridge rules, and consumption was certainly not limited. In 1895, the Rhayader police charge book records George and Thomas Ward, “charged with being drunk and refusing to quit the Elan Valley Hotel”. Here are tactics, as Michel de Certeau thinks of them. Compared to the careful monitoring and moralistic, paternalistic supervision of the Corporation, the navvies themselves were resourceful and able to evade the rules. They – and the hotel, acting individualistically and contrary to the aims of the Corporation – created their own space out of an apparently formalised space.

I think the municipal pub that so excited various commentators was of limited success. The South Wales Daily News quoted an anonymous official with “considerable experience of the navvy and his method of living” who acknowledged that drinking and drunkenness had not been reduced by the amount expected. The navvy “method of living” will overrule, if you ask those in charge. At other grand civil engineering schemes, a less reformatory and more exploitative approach was taken. The Talla reservoir, built to supply water for Edinburgh, similarly required a railway and a large workforce. John Best of Leith, the contractor who took over the works in 1899, saw fit to build a special platform from the works railway directly to the Crook Inn. After, that was, taking a financial interest in the pub which went on to directly serve a large number of the navigators… (thanks to Pedro Cutler for the prompt on Talla).

The dosshouse

The dosshouse was where new navvies went to be vetted, and we can get an idea of the points of origin for these new arrivals in the 1901 census. The lodgers themselves come from all over England, Wales and Ireland (I’m not familiar enough with Scottish history at the time to know why no Scottish workers were here). There are navvies here from  six counties of Wales and 15 counties of England – the best-represented is Staffordshire, with 6 out of 7 dossers being Black Country born-and-bred. The relationship between workers and expertise in the Black Country and Wales is something that’s begging out for more research. There are also workers born in every part of Ireland, and even one born in Bengal.

The village

evd20a1207In the village itself, wooden homes lined the main road that had been laid out, and these were occupied by a responsible husband and wife, and 8-10 boarding navvies. There are several examples in the 1901 census. At Cwm Elan Mine, 50-year-old John Lewis is the “Navvy Ganger”, responsible for the household alongside his wife Mary, both from Llanyfilin in Montgomeryshire. They had 9 boarders, ranging in age from the 22-year-old crane driver Richard Lewis, to the 60-year-old William Walford, plate layer. 7 of them were Welsh, with the exception of Walford (from Bridgnorth) and  Morris Davies, a general labourer from Chester – border countries.

The Welsh dominance at Cwm Elan is in contrast to the more cosmopolitan mix at No.11 Pengang, where John Starling and his family presided over a mix from across England and Wales. Much as I’d like to make a point about some households being “Welsh only” and how that was an interesting response to liberal policies etc., the life of a navvy is so diverse and wide-ranging in itself, I think that might be a stretch. Take Starling’s own family – he and his wife Jane were born in Worcestershire, but his daughter Polly was born in Nottinghamshire c.1888, George in Chesterfield c.1891, Sarah back in Worcestershire in 1895, then Eliza (c.1896), Clara (c.1898) and Albert (c.1899) in Rhayader. This was a tramping family, but they had found a long-term contract here in Wales and were one of the earlier settler families.

In all, the Elan navvy was probably pretty content with his lot. Despite the outbreaks of boisterous behaviour, John Ward – president of the Navvies’ Union in 1895 – could give a “happy description” of the whole place (South Wales Daily News – Tuesday 12 November 1895). That’s something of a gloss though: perhaps Ward neglected to mention the strike by navvies in March 1894, early on in the scheme, when navvies were being paid 4d per hour, compared to Corporation workers’ 4 1/2d (Montgomery County Times and Shropshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser – Saturday 03 March 1894). I haven’t found any more on this from the newspapers available online at the BNA but I’d love to know how the strike played out – a solitary point of access into and out of the village could play a crucial tactical role here.

“Particularly friendly”

At the more individual end of the spectrum, the limited quarters didn’t always have the moralising affect that was intended. In the South Wales Daily News of 23rd May 1895, for instance, a hutkeeper rather than a lodger was charged with assaulting the local bobby, PC Probert, at the waterworks canteen. The initial idea was that a married couple, acting as gangers, would have a sobering, positive influence on the workers in their care. It wasn’t always successful. In 1898, Thomas and Emma Cumberlidge lived at hut 106 with their lodger, Alfred Ford, who had moved in in October 1897. They had been married over 20 years and had three children, but that wasn’t to stop the “particularly friendly” arrangement becoming a bit too friendly between Emma and Alfred (Montgomery County Times and Shropshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser – Saturday 03 December 1898). Alfred disappeared on the night of 23rd September 1898, and two days later so did Emma, along with £25 and several boxes of possessions. This was supposed to be the fifth or sixth such elopement, a source of scandal and fascination to locals.

The pair were eventually found living as husband and wife at Llandysilio, near the town of Llanymynech, when Emma attempted to transfer some sort of policy. They were arrested and brought to Rhayader by the Works village policeman, Evans, and tried at Builth Wells on Monday 5th December 1898 (Montgomery County Times and Shropshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser – Saturday 10 December 1898). It turned out that Alfred’s real name was Joseph Alfred Meredith, and I suspect him to be the same that turns up on various censuses: born at Welshpool in 1862, his mother was widowed and likely remarried to a Ford; he is labouring at nearby Guilsfield in 1881, then in the coal-mining district of Dawley (now underneath Telford) in 1891, by which time he was married to Maria Hughes, born in Guilsfield.

Alfred/Joseph was acquitted, and Emma fined £2 for theft. Interestingly, the 1901 census records a 39-year-old Joseph A Meredith and wife Emma, a 43-year-old dressmaker born in Gnossal, Staffs, living at Penyvoel, Carreghofa – just outside Llanymynech, and the very same address from which PC Evans arrested them. They clearly went back to their ways and were listed as man and wife – that ain’t necessarily so, of course. There’s even a Joseph A Meredith of roughly the same age registered dying in my very own Stourbridge in 1938, but I’m not fully confident of a link, sadly.

More modern navvies – reconstruction work on the Montgomeryshire Canal at Carreghofa in 1977 [Tony Clayton]

Across the border

As I discovered researching Lawrence Britcliffe, the working population of Great Britain have been far more mobile than you’d give them credit for. Joseph, Emma, Thomas and their colleagues at Elan Valley came from far and wide not so much for a booming economy, a common driver of immigration, but a substantial, one-off contract, part of a life of roving across and around borders. The Welsh border here plays a particularly interesting role – Elan is as far as these characters penetrate into Wales. They otherwise hop between towns like Dawley and Guilsfield, not far from the border, or live in towns almost on it. The navvy’s role had changed, in large part due to social pressures applied by strategists on high – in this case the Birmingham Corporation – but the restless movement of their lives persisted. These reforming attitudes were part of far larger socio-cultural changes (I can see the link to Joyce’s “rule of freedom” here) but enacted at micro-managerial levels, in personal and professional time. Reform, good thing or bad, is always resisted. It’s true here – the roving navvy seems reluctant to pass into the modern world and pushes against it. I’m ambivalent about whether modernisation is always good or always bad, but there’s a big part of me which says good luck to him.

One thought on “Birmingham’s furthest outpost: Michel de Certeau and the tactics of Elan Village’s navvies

  1. Were Birmingham Corporation the first to use “direct labour” on such a vast project, described at the time as the largest piece of engineering work in the world? Industrial relations over the ten year period seem to have been quite good. Contractors only being employed at a distance of three miles from the reservoir, and probably moving further away as time progressed.

    Anthony Burton in his book “Navvies” says…”For all practical purposes, the great age of the navvy ended with the close of the nineteenth century.”

    During much of the time adverts appeared in the papers for navvies and able-bodied labourers for concrete mixing, hammer and drill &c…lodgings Eden Village, Rhayader and neighbourhood. The accident rate also seems to have been reasonable compared to, say, the Manchester ship canal. But worth a mention is the lad of just under 12 who met his death when cleaning a crane while it was in motion. This led to minimum age for crane work.

    I wonder if it was the presence of Staffs folk that led to the discovery of the “Rhayader Hoard” in 1899, consisting of gold and jewelry dating from the 1-2 century AD?

    Liked by 1 person

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