If we think of a railway navvy, a few choice adjectives come to mind. I would hazard a guess that “erudite”, “literate” and “religious” were not among those chosen. However, we have recently acquired an intriguing collection of poetry by self-proclaimed railway navvy, William Garratt, where these adjectives would appear very appropriate.
Inside are written six poems; several are long in multi-part and cover topics on war (Anglo Zulu War and the Battle of Tel El-Kabir), poverty, suffering and homelessness. They are not primitive poems of action – that you might well expect from a man who has laboured hard for his living (compare with navvy songs here), instead they are sensitive, even mawkish, depictions of loss and struggle; of characters beset with hardship and counterbalanced with the life thereafter.
Strangely not once does the author refer to the railways, which begs the question: why then did William Garratt feel it appropriate to add the appellation “a railway navvy” on the cover and title page?
One theory is that William Garratt was a navvy ministered to by one of the Christian societies that often worked alongside navvy camps. We know through reading works by these missionaries (such as Anna Tregelles’ “The ways of the line“) that part of their role was to teach navvies to read as well as to instruct them in Christian doctrine (Victorian society did not approve of their “degenerate” ways). In this book Anna describes teaching this navvy, Salisbury (below), to make significant progress in reading within three months.
Did William Garratt attend similar instruction resulting in this book of poetry? The religious overtones of the poems would certainly suggest this was possible. Another clue perhaps is this inscription on the verso of the title page.The inscription appears significant. “Friend” has a capital “F” suggestive of a meaning for the recipient plus it has travelled a long way – from America. Why was this inscription written? Perhaps because the book is evidence of what a navvy can do? Hence why the author mentions his being a railway navvy? Was Miss Elisa Parke a missionary? Was this slim volume a “thank you” for her work or a motivating reminder of the importance of her perseverance?
The fact that this book of poetry is very rare – it does not appear in any British or overseas library catalogue – is perhaps another clue. Whoever published it did not print very many copies – or if they did, they have not survived. Were such a few copies made as its chief purpose was as a propaganda tool? Did Miss Parke, and perhaps others, use it as weight to the Powers That Be, to ameliorate the conditions of the poor and continue funding their mission? That is certainly one theory. Another of course is that it is an elaborate hoax, that no navvy did write it. One thing is clear though, that whatever the story of this writer and his book of poetry, there are secrets to unlock here and a rarely heard voice to discover.