Hard Labour

Gnosall’s lock-up dates to 1832 and was designed and built by local architect James Trubshaw of Great Haywood. It’s one of only four remaining in Staffordshire (1). Originally it stood at the junction of High Street, Brookhouse Road and Stafford Street but in the 1960s, Staffordshire County Council suggested that the building be moved to the county museum at Shugborough in order that the junction could be widened. Understandably, the Gnosall WI were keen that the lock-up remain in the village and set about securing a piece of land where it could be re-erected. As if to prove the council’s point about the road being a bit narrow, a lorry ran in to it in 1969 but fortunately didn’t cause enough damage to prevent it being rebuilt on its current site on Sellman St in 1971.

Gnosall lock-up

Gnosall lock-up

Why was the lock-up built in Gnosall in the first place?  The English Heritage Listing says ‘…as a result of rising unemployment and low wages, Gnosall was plagued by unrest and poaching…. with the threat of the Swing Riots, a widespread uprising by agricultural workers in southern England, spreading northwards, it was decided to build a lock-up’. In Stafford Borough Council’s Conservation Appraisal of the area, they attribute it to ‘rising unemployment, poaching and agricultural riots in the south’.

The arrival of canal navigators in the village may also have influenced the decision to build a lock-up.  In November 1829, Aris’s Birmingham Gazette reported that two thousand labourers employed on the Birmingham and Liverpool Canal were living in the village (2). The Gazette suggested that the navigators were responsible for a spate of sheep and poultry thefts in the area and also reported that they ‘advanced from acts of midnight depredation to proceedings of a tumultuous and riotous description in the open day’. The most serious incident that I can find involving the navigators at Gnosall took place in March 1830 when it was reported that a labourer working on the canal was attacked in the Horseshoes pub at Gnosall by two men described as ‘navigators’, as they tried to steal his watch. A judgement of death was recorded against the prisoners, but their lives were spared (2). Apparently, these proceedings so alarmed the inhabitants of Gnosall and the neighbourhood that they applied for the appointment of a large body of special constables and were also ‘desirous that a small military force be stationed in the parish’.

Whilst some navigators may have found themselves on the wrong side of the law at times, the Truck System operated by some of their employers was nothing short of criminal. According to a report in the Staffordshire Advertiser in February 1830, ‘none of his Majesty’s subjects are more imposed upon by the infamous ‘Truck System’ than these said ‘navigators’ who are ostensibly earning large wages under their gaffers but instead of money they receive a ticket to a Tommy (3) shop where they are charged 8d per lb for cheese (which they might purchase with money in Stafford Market for 4d) and bacon, butter, beef, bread and coffee at extravagant prices. The master of the Tommy shop returns the gaffer five percent on the gross amount of his monthly bill’.

Sometimes it was not crime but death which brought the names of the navigators to the pages of the local press. Richard Barnett was injured by a quantity of earth falling on the lower half of his body and died as he was being conveyed home on a cart. In December 1830, the Staffordshire Advertiser reported on ‘The Navigator’s Funeral’. James Wheeler was helping to cut a tunnel through the solid rock when he fell to the bottom of Cowley Quarry in Gnosall and later died of his injuries.  One hundred of his colleagues each contributed one shilling to ensure he had a decent burial and when they discovered his coffin had already been nailed shut, demanded the lid be removed to check nothing was amiss.  Six of the men were under-bearers and the wives of six men supported the pall. Six overseers of the works followed as chief mourners and behind them came one hundred fellow navigators, two abreast. The report noted that whilst the mourners were not wearing black, they were decently attired and looked clean and respectable. The women wore their brightly coloured clothes, the men wore smock-frocks. During the burial, some of those assembled at the graveside expressed anxiety about the security of the corpse and assisted the sexton in filling up the grave. Afterwards, the mourners held a wake at the Roe Buck and the Advertiser expressed sorrow that many of them had stayed out until late and ‘finished up the solemnities of the day with a fight’. However, it also commended the navigators for their praiseworthy practice of not only subscribing towards the funeral expenses of their colleagues but of also clubbing together something out of their wages every week to support the sick amongst them.

Cutting north of Cowley Tunnel at Gnosall Heath, Staffordshire  © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Cutting north of Cowley Tunnel at Gnosall Heath, Staffordshire © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

We are all familiar with the canals that run through our towns and villages, but what do we really know about the men that worked on the Shroppie in Gnosall and elsewhere?  Where did they live? Did they rent rooms or live in makeshift camps on the outskirts of the village? One of the newspaper reports shows that the men were accompanied by their wives, but what role in the community did these women play? Did any stay on after the completion of the canal? How much of what appeared in the papers was based on fact and how much was based on rumour and reputation? The navigators are part of our history but for the most part we seem to have cast them in a peripheral role as hard-working, hard-drinking, trouble-making outsiders. We need to dig deeper than that.


(1) The others can be found at Alton, Stafford and Penkridge. References to other lock-ups in Staffordshire appear in documents and newspaper reports but without further research it’s unclear whether these refer to purpose built structures such as those at Gnosall, or rooms in other buildings used as lock-ups. I understand that sometimes rooms were attached to public buildings such as the town hall and in other places there were rooms in some public houses which were used as lock-ups. This is not to be confused with lock-ins.

(2) I understand that this seemingly confusing sentence handed out by the judge related to the Judgement of Death Act 1823, where judges were given the discretion to pass a lesser sentence on the two hundred or so offences which carried a mandatory death sentence but still had to record a sentence of death.

(3) Tommy was a word for food.

(With thanks to Cllr Kenneth Ingram, Norman and Sheila Hailes and the other residents of Gnosall for their warm welcome and for showing us around the village on such a cold and damp day, More to follow!).

6 thoughts on “Hard Labour

  1. 1831, close to Gnosall…

    “…most spectacular examples of cut and fill are to be found on what is now the main line of the Shropshire Union, but both cuttings and banks suffered greatly from slips during construction. None proved more difficult than the embankment at Shelmore that came to be known simply as The Great Bank. By 1831 there were between 300 and 400 men on the site, and about seventy horses hauling the cartloads of spoil. The more the men piled on the soil, the more the bank slipped. Telford decided he was using the wrong sort of soil, and he brought in different material from another part of the workings. The result was the
    same. All kinds of different methods were tried until the bank was finally stabilised in 1835.”

    History’s most dangerous jobs; Navvies….Anthony Burton


  2. Kilsby Tunnel (around 1837 near Rugby)…

    The village of Kilsby was all but overwhelmed when over 1000 men descended on it to work on the tunnel….Some found lodgings and the Company built 60 brick cottages, but the rest had to make do with living in huts…

    ….Besides the 1250 labourers employed in the construction of the tunnel, a proportionate number of suttlers and victuallers of all descriptions concentrated in the village of Kilsby. In several houses there lodged in each room 16 navvies, and as there were four beds in each apartment, two navvies were consequently in each, the two squads of 8 men alternately changing places with each other as in their work…

    …The word ‘suttler’ may be unfamiliar to readers. The dictionary defines it as one who follows armies to sell provisions, which makes it very appropriate for these followers of the navvy armies. When they did get time off, these hard men were not likely to want to settle for a quiet time in the overcrowded filthy accommodations described by Rawlinson and others. Instead they headed off for The Ox Green pub at Kilsby where, according to Lord of the Manor Charles Bracebridge, they rolled beer barrels out on to the village green and proceeded to raise hell. There were dog fights and
    cockfights on which a week’s wages could be lost…

    ….When they were hungry they would buy a whole animal from a local farmer, carve it up on the village green and roast it on the spot. Fights were commonplace and the villagers, who had been used to a quiet country life, were terrified. Eventually they lost patience with the riotous behaviour and contrived to capture two of the most belligerent navvies and take them to the lockup. They were not there long before their mates broke in and released them. Finally the authorities stepped in and sixteen men were arrested and marched away to Daventry gaol. No one would have wanted to be a resident of Kilsby while the navvies were there but, in spite of the uproar, drunkenness and squabbling, the navvies seem to have done far more damage to each other than they did to anyone else….

    History’s most dangerous jobs; Navvies….Anthony Burton


  3. Pingback: When cycling through Gnosall – Why not explore our wonderful village? | STAFFORD SUSTRANS VOLUNTEER RANGER

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