Wednesday, March 07, 2012

History Corner: Harry Brookes, Musical Navvy

Much of the urban landscape of London - and indeed much that we imagine as the 'natural' surrounding rural landscape - was built by 'navvies', many of them Irish, who dug out tunnels and laid out railways lines and roads with pick, shovel and hammer. In Victorian times in particular their working conditions were generally appalling, and indeed the situation faced by workers on the railway from Lewisham to Tunbridge Wells was used as an example by Karl Marx in 'Capital' (chapter 25):

"We turn now to a class of people whose origin is agricultural, but whose occupation is in great part industrial. They are the light infantry of capital, thrown by it, according to its needs, now to this point, now to that. When they are not on the march, they “camp.” Nomad labour is used for various operations of building and draining, brick-making, lime-burning, railway-making, & c. A flying column of pestilence, it carries into the places in whose neighbourhood it pitches its camp, small-pox, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever & c. In undertakings that involve much capital outlay, such as railways, the contractor himself generally provides his army with wooden huts and the like, thus improvising villages without any sanitary provisions, outside the control of the local boards, very profitable to the contractor, who exploits the labourers in two-fold fashion — as soldiers of industry and as tenants... One example will suffice. In September, 1864, Dr. Simon reports that the Chairman of the Nuisances Removal Committee of the parish of Sevenoaks sent the following denunciation to Sir George Grey, Home Secretary:

'Small-pox cases were rarely heard of in this parish until about twelve months ago. Shortly before that time, the works for a railway from Lewisham to Tunbridge were commenced here, and, in addition to the principal works being in the immediate neighbourhood of this town, here was also established the depôt for the whole of the works, so that a large number of persons was of necessity employed here. As cottage accommodation could not be obtained for them all, huts were built in several places along the line of the works by the contractor, Mr. Jay, for their especial occupation. These huts possessed no ventilation nor drainage, and, besides, were necessarily over-crowded, because each occupant had to accommodate lodgers, whatever the number in his own family might be, although there were only two rooms to each tenement. The consequences were, according to the medical report we received, that in the night-time these poor people were compelled to endure all the horror of suffocation to avoid the pestiferous smells arising from the filthy, stagnant water, and the privies close under their windows'".

The Musical Navvy

The stereotype of the hard working, hard drinking, hard fighting navvy became a fixture of popular culture, but over time so did a more romantic notion of the uprooted peasant carrying with him the culture of his agricultural past, with a twinkle in his eye and the gift of the gab. Among the music hall acts of the early 20th century was Harry Brookes from Lewisham. Mentioned in the Bexhill Observer (1912) he was 'billed as “the musical navvy,” [and] does not belie the terse description. Garbed in the typical attire of the role, with pickaxe on shoulder, he indulges in some humorous patter. As a player on the banjo, mandolin and other stringed instruments, he proves himself a capable master, exhibiting a great deal of skill. He succeeded in eliciting rounds of applause on Monday night for his really clever performance'.

There are a number of photographs in existence of him from 1936. The Getty caption to this one states:  '1st May 1936: Lewisham labourer Harry Brookes (centre) plays the banjo for a group of friends, while a cameraman films them for the Gaumont magazine'. The same image at Corbis is captioned: 'A camera operator films Harry Brookes, who is wearing the trilby, who claims to be the original musical navvy. Mr Brooks used to tour the music halls and he makes his own instruments'

'Harry Brookes, a builder from south London shows off a tiny banjo he has made, believed to be the smallest real one in the world. His hobby is making and playing instruments, and he has appeared on stage as 'the musical navvy':

'Musical navvy Harry Brookes playing his musical pickaxe while a cameraman films him for the Gaumont magazine'.

Anybody know anything about Harry Brookes? Would love to find out more.

(h/t Hutnyk for the Marx/Lewisham quote)

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