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Navvies spoke in rhyming slang very similar to the famous Cockney lingo

Posted in Historical articles, History, Industry, Interesting Words, Language on Thursday, 28 November 2013

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This edited article about navvies first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 467 published on 26 December 1970.

Railway navvies on Birmingham line, picture, image, illustration

Railway navvies on the London to Birmingham line by Harry Green

Nicknames had their drawbacks. A scripture reader called Dennis, at Worsthorne, appealed to navvies in June 1887, asking those who gave wrong names at the office to carry their proper names and addresses on a piece of paper in their pockets. Mr. Dennis had had a lot of trouble with a man who had been killed on the works. He had given his name as Charles Fisher, and was also known as Reed. He had in his pocket a ticket for a pair of trousers pawned at Skipton, made out to J. Wilson. Eventually his real name was found to be Peter Lendall, from Askham.

Then there was another navvy, the son of a widow, who left home and found work on a line only 12 miles off. He took a new name, was unknown by his old one, and when he fell ill with fever was nursed and then buried by strangers. After he had been away for some time the widow became alarmed and asked a clergyman to help find her son, and they eventually traced the man. But it was too late, and the only consolation the priest could offer the mother was to show her the grave to which her son had been carried six weeks before. Another navvy lost his inheritance because of his nickname. An old man died leaving a considerable sum to be divided among his nephews and nieces. But one nephew had not been heard of for many years – he had become a navvy and adopted an alias, and so could not be traced. When the man did hear of his uncle’s death many years had gone by, he had been presumed dead, his share had been apportioned among the others, and he had lost a thousand pounds.

But the strangest story is that of a navvy called Warren, who had taken the harmless alias of George Brown. In the autumn of 1882 he was working on the Midland Railway, widening the line near Irchester. On 29th August, he was injured by a fall of earth and taken back to his lodgings, opposite the Dog and Duck at Wellingborough, where he died a few days later. An inquest was held, a verdict of accidental death returned, and two days later the man was buried. Then, as the Northampton Herald put it, “an event took place which proved that truth was stranger than fiction.” Under the headline, “A Strange Occurrence,” the newspaper report read:

“Soon after the funeral a man named George Warren, from Kislingbury, presented himself, and said he believed that, from what he had heard, the deceased was his son. He said he had not seen his son for a number of years, but he should know him by a peculiar scar on the breast, received from a scald during childhood, and he expressed a strong desire to see the body. An application was made to the Coroner, but he said he could not interfere. Other officials were applied to with the same result, and at last the grave-digger at the cemetery re-opened the newly-closed grave between 11 and 12 o’clock on Saturday night. The carpenter who made the coffin took off the lid, and the father by means of a ladder descended into the grave, removed the clothes, and there saw the scar which proclaimed the dead man to be his long-lost son.”

Apart from these nicknames, the navvies also had a talent for slang, some of it very like the rhyming slang of Cockney tradition. “Now, Jack,” says one navvy to another, “I’m going to get a tiddly wink of a pig’s ear, so keep your mince pies on the Billy Gorman” – meaning he is going to get a drink of beer and wants Jack to keep an eye on the foreman. If he had wanted something stronger than beer he might have spoken of “Bryan o’Lin,” or, “Tommy get out, and let your father in,” meaning gin.

At the end of a contract one man might say to another, “Well, you’ve jacked up, what’s your little game?”

“I’m going to get my kit and be off on the frog and toad.”

Frog and toad is road; as one clergyman put it, “The motion of the two reptiles is suggestive, I suppose, of a man on tramp.”

Before the man started on the tramp he might blackbird and thrush his daisy roots – black and brush his hobnail boots.

Sometimes this strange language was used to baffle newcomers to the works, who were always good for a joke. So the ganger might say, “Now then, my china plate, out with your cherry ripe, off with your steam packet, and set your bark and growl a going.” This meant, “Now then, mate, out with your pipe, off with your jacket, and set your trowel going.” This is bricklayers’ lingo.

If a man ran short of bricks he called to his mate for more Dublin tricks, if he wanted water he demanded fisherman’s daughter, and if he was drunk he said he was elephant’s trunk. The same clergyman who explained frog and toad surmised that elephant’s trunk not only rhymed with drunk but also indicated, in the capacity of the trunk for sucking up water, the amount of beer the man had taken.

A man who was tired of the long walk he had to make to his work, and intended to get his money and go on to another job, might say, “I can’t stand this Duke of York to my Russian Turk; I shall go and get my sugar and honey and be off to another Solomon.” Solomon meant job.

There was a huge vocabulary of rhyming slang: “bird lime” was time; “Johnny Randle,” candle; “Charley Frisky,” whisky; “Charley Prescott,” waistcoat; “Jimmy Skinner,” dinner; “penneth o’ bread,” head; “weeping willow,” pillow; “bo-peep,” sleep; and “Lord Lovel,” shovel. In another system, which did not rely on rhyme, a shovel was generally called the “navvy’s prayer book.” The earth carted away was called crock or muck, and the men were muck-shifters or thick-legs.

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