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Shoulders of giants



blog-0068461001385799642.jpgI’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 realize just 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.




The young gent in the left hand foreground is McGill (click image for larger size). His book "Children of the dead end" can be downloaded free here, and his poems "Songs of the dead end" can be found here.

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  • RMweb Gold

Are you sure you weren't Charles Dickens in another life Mikkel.A fabulous piece of narration and modelling.I like the MT buffer stop by the way.

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Definitely on par with Dickens as a story teller!


Brilliant stuff Mikkel.  I worked on building sites as a young man in the UK for an Irish Civil Engineering Contractor (Ground workers).  Whilst H&S and machinery had improved dramatically by the 1980's it was still very hard work.  Those lines about sweltering Summer days, up to your waist in muck and swinging large hammers, picks and shovels under the curses of the Irish gangers hold a lot of resonance for me.  On the flip side there was great camaraderie among us and I made a lot of friends for life.   


That last picture is brilliant - how did you superimpose the figures?

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What a nice entry again. It's a pleasure to read.


Kipling wrote a nice poem called Cold Iron ( our iron railways or the use of iron in common?)


Gold is for the mistress -- silver for the maid --
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade."

"Good!" said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
"But Iron -- Cold Iron -- is master of them all."


Also all those people who earned their money working  with hot and cold (track) iron.

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You've completely knocked me sideways with that Mikkel.


Absolutely blown me away.


I think you've taken the bounds of what the imagination projected onto railway modelling can be to a totally new dimension!

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I'd been looking forward to a new post from Farthing and it's been worth the wait - a really imaginative and creative post!  Apart from the sheer ingenuity of it all, your 3-planker looks so much better than mine!  I must learn how to do weathering, and the grey underframe looks convincing too :)



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Nice one Mikkel, inspirational in many directions. It also puts into context my claims to have been a 'navvy' after a mere two month stint digging through frozen ballast with a pick-axe on a siding in the Midlands...

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Mike, Will - sounds like you've had some interesting firsthand experiences from today's civil engineering along the lines, although I hope it wasn't anything like what it must have been in the 1900s. There's some pretty awful stories in McGilll's book. Interestingly, he seems to think the work on the railways was the easiest kind of labour!

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I can only agree with the previous comments! I'd not heard of McGill, thought provoking stuff.


Another fascinating post!



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  • RMweb Gold

Cheers gents!
I like those lines from Kipling, Job. Especially "Good!" said the Baron, sitting in his hall. Simple but powerful.
McGill certainly didn't mince his words. I couldn't help smiling when I read this in "Children of the dead end":

"I have heard of workers' missions, railway missions, navvies' missions, and missions to poor heathens, but I have never yet heard of missions for the uplifting of M.P.'s, or for the betterment of stock exchange gamblers."

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I think I read this before any comments had been made, no sorry just checked and I completely missed them.  I was shaken, and could not write anything at the time, not because I did not know this sort of thing happened with and to the navvies but the poem brings it to life.  Real people, real stories, real hardship.


Thank you for sharing

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  • RMweb Gold

Very original and compelling read - thanks for rounding off my Sunday with a smile :)

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I agree it's thought-provoking stuff to read McGill's stories and poems. Especially the book which has some horrible stories in it. Interestingly, the poem that I've quoted from (which is fairly long) ends by pointing out that there was a good side to being navvy also, ie the freedom of being "on the road" and how the hardship made life taste stronger. 


I get the feeling that McGill probably romanticised things a bit though. And he got out of the hard life later on: After the war he went on to become a journalist.


I've just realized that I forgot to give some of my navvies appropriate facial hair! Now that Andrew Stadden has embarked on a 4mm range, perhaps we can convince him to do his 7mm navvies in 4mm too!    http://www.acstadden.co.uk/Pages/OGaugeFigureSets.aspx

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McAlpine's Fusiliers


The above is a link to a popular song amongst Irish navigators of the 60's/70's (although it was still being bandied about in the 80's). It was written by Dominic Behan and was about the Irish navvies of my Father's generation.  I agree, McGill would have romanticised things as an older man who 'got out' of the industry - I do!  But the work is really only for younger men - after 35 and you've had it really.  I knew a lot of that generation who died relatively young (around the 60 mark) who tried to carry on with the working and drinking - many of them stayed single and followed the work around the country.  We used to call them the 'long distance men'.  Most of them, though, were very noble, honest and hard working.  


You've really started something off here, Mikkel - a great debate about the value of such people.



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If my Dad were still around to read this I'm sure it would bring a tear to his eye.  Thanks Mikkel, your ability to bring life and depth to something as everyday as tracklaying and fitting buffers is inspirational!

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Mike, thanks for the link to McAlpine's Fusiliers. Intrigued by: They sweated blood and they washed down mud ! I think it says a lot about how hard this work was if you were done by 35. Very sad that so many died relatively early. And devilishly ironic that they helped build a civilisation where we are now so comfortable that we have trouble getting enough exercise.


Alan, glad you liked it, it's just modelling but all modelling is a kind of story telling, I think? It's amazing how much there is to learn from historical modelling about past life and times (and the present!). And the life that evolved around the railways was so rich - and still is to some extent, as evident from the "human dimension" thread.


Wiggo (he certainly got the gold, eh!), the three figures in the last two images are Monty's, here's a shot of two of them unpainted: 




The faces are perhaps not the best in the range, but the poses are very charismatic.  The bloke with the hammer is a modification of the porter on the left below, from Alan Gibson. I changed the position of his left arm and added a hammer. Again, the face isn't too good so I modified it a bit with some putty.



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Hi Mikkel -


Brilliant as usual..  As I read the words I could almost hear the tune...  Maybe not the 'Dublin Fusiliers' - more Ewan McColl's 'Ballad of Accounting'...  And then, of course there is the folk ballad 'Working on the Railway'!





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