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Mrs. Navvy Adams

Thirza Adams nee Radmore


Mrs Navvy Adams.jpg

In his book The History of Stocksbridge, Jack Branston wrote about a colourful local character known as Mrs. Navvy Adams.  She frequented the New Inn at Stocksbridge, and in my book A Drink with our Ancestors, I included her in the chapter about the history of this pub.  Jack did not mention her first name, and in my attempts to find out more about her I unfortunately mistook her for someone else.  And so, in an attempt to put this right, I am devoting this article to her.


Jack Branston wrote that this lady lived on the corner of Victoria Street and Button Row and that she took in lodgers, many of whom worked as navvies on various jobs in the district.  Looking for this lady on the 1911 census, I found a Mrs. Caroline Adams living on Button Row, who had lodgers living with her.  She was the widow of Frederick Adams, who had worked for the Water Board.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.  The real Mrs. Navvy Adams did not arrive in Stocksbridge until after the 1911 census had been taken, and left before the 1939 Register was taken, and as such she “fell through the gaps” in the records, and I missed her.  An easy mistake to make, perhaps, but a mistake nevertheless.  Mrs. Navvy Adams was in fact called Thirza, and she was married to a navvy called John.


Jack wrote: “She herself had a fairly large family, most of the house duties falling to her eldest daughters.  The long kitchen table was scrubbed until it was as white as snow, the flagstones on the floor were very smooth and clean, sandstones being crushed to powder to secure this effect.  Once you had seen this lady, you would never again forget her; she was always very prim and neat, always felt dressed up when she donned her white apron.  At all times she wore a man’s flat cap, loved her clay pipe but puffed away at a briar pipe [a wooden pipe made from briar wood] now and again for a change.”  Jack worked for the Co-op for many years, and he remembered that Mrs. Adams would go in every Monday and ask for a “sixpenny knock-out bag” for her pipe.  This contained all sorts of tobacco that had fallen into the drawer bottom and was a mix of every kind of tobacco including Sweet Crop, Thundercloud, Bruno, Thick Twist, Honey Dew, and Warhorse.  “It was indeed a mixture but nothing came amiss to her,” he added.  She liked a glass of beer in the New Inn, and she joined in most public house games, had a gentle nature and was never unkind or aggressive.


Her descendants have a few anecdotes about this lady.  One tells of how, on that scrubbed table, she had two long canes running down each side, and the men had to put their hands on the table; if anyone reached for their plates before she was ready she’d lift the canes up and they would all get their knuckles rapped.  Another tale is that people could tell whether it was safe to talk to her by looking at which way her cap was turned.  When she wanted the toilet in the pub she used to go into the Gents and hike her skirt up and empty her bladder along with the blokes.  What a woman!


Mrs. Navvy Adams was born Thirza Radmore at New Brompton, Kent, in 1868.  Her husband John Adams was born at Astley St. Mary, Shropshire, in 1860, and they married at Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, in 1886.  John and his family moved around to wherever there was work for a navvy and they took in lodgers wherever they lived.  Thirza also came from a navvying family; the navvies were quite a community and marriages often occurred between families.


Thirza and John had eleven children; Edith (1887), William John (1889; died young), Harry (1891), Minnie (1893), John (1895-1917) (killed in action), Nellie (1898), William (1900), Daisy (1902), Richard (1905-1906), Edwin (1906) and Arthur (1908).  Their children were born in various places as they moved around for work.


The eldest, Edith, was born in the Birkenhead area in 1887, and in 1889 William John was born in a navvy encampment at Hut 24, Thelwell, Latchford, Warrington.  By 1891 they had moved south to Ince, Chester; the census records them at Hut 43, Ince Huts, Ince, with two children Edith and Harry and four lodgers.  John and the lodgers were all working as labourers on the Manchester Ship Canal, which was completed in 1893 and linked Manchester with the Irish Sea, terminating at the Mersey Estuary near Liverpool.  They stayed in this general area for several years until moving into south Wales, and the 1901 census records them at Roath, Cardiff.  John was 41 years old and a navvy, and the couple had six children living with them as well as three lodgers, all navvies.


Daisy was born in the Salford area in 1902, and their next two children were born at Dawson City, Heptonstall, near Hebden Bridge.  Richard was born in 1905 at Hut 2 Dawson City, but he died the following year.  Edwin was born in 1906.

Click on a photograph to enlarge it

A good resource for similar photographs is the Pennine Horizons website; search for Dawson City or Walshaw Dean. 

Dawson City existed from around 1900 until 1912.  This settlement of wooden huts was built to house the many navvies and their families who worked on the construction of reservoirs near Hebden Bridge, and the settlement became known as Dawson City after the gold-rush town in the Yukon in Canada.  The huts housed up to 600 navvies and engineers employed in both the construction of the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs and the Hardcastle Crags Railway.  As well as the huts for the workers, Dawson City also had a hospital, a mission house and a lending library.  


John worked on the construction of three huge reservoirs on the remote moorland above Hebden Bridge.  A five-mile long railway was built from the depot at Whitehall Nook, Heptonstall, to the site of the new reservoirs at Walshaw Dean.   Work was completed in 1912 and the shanty town and the railway were sold by auction in May of that year.  


Dawson City gained a reputation for lawlessness, and the inhabitants of Hebden Bridge soon tired of the men descending on their town to spend their wages on drink and gambling, brawling and fighting.  Not only that, but beer was being sold on unlicensed premises, perhaps in “Shebeens,” as happened when beer was sold illegally from workmen’s huts during the construction of the Langsett reservoirs. 


Mrs. Adams gets a mention in a book called Infamous Yorkshire Women by Issy Shannon.  Ms. Shannon devotes a chapter to Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Nolan, two of the settlement’s most outrageous characters, whom she dubs the “Queens of Dawson City.


The exploits of this “pair of fearsome female cooks,” who ran the lodging houses accommodating the single navies, became part of local legend – although Mrs. Nolan eventually embraced respectability when she moved down to Hebden Bridge to run a café in Crown Street.  To quote Issy Shannon: “Egged on by Dawson City hard men, a novel competition was arranged.  The idea was to find out – to put it as politely as possible – which of the extremely well-built pair had the “largest ladies’ parts.”  Bets were laid and a tin bath was filled with flour, in which Mesdames Adams and Nolan were invited to sit – having first bared their bottoms.  The one who displaced the most flour would be declared the winner.  Perhaps no-one had the courage to announce the result, for sadly it is not known which lady emerged as champion.  Was it bottoms up for Mrs. Adams – and the bum’s rush for Mrs. Nolan?  Or vice versa?  Folk still wonder if the flour was used for baking the next day!


[Shannon, I.  Infamous Yorkshire Women, pp94-96.  Mrs. Adams & Mrs. Nolan: Queens of Dawson City: Hebden Bridge, 1900-12.  Published by Sutton Publishing 2007.  ISBN: 978-0-7509-4746-6

Whilst living at Dawson City, John Adams was in trouble for keeping a dog of more than six months of age without having obtained a licence for it, which was against the law at the time.  He sent his wife to the court to answer the charge.  A policeman told the court that he had visited the Adams’ hut on the 26th October 1904 and found a cross-breed terrier which John said was his.  Mrs. Adams told the court it was a stray and that they had only had it about ten days.  The policeman said they had not said this at the time, and that, when told that he would be reported, Mr. Adams simply said, “All right.”  Mrs. Adams more or less accused the policeman of lying when he said that they had told him the dog was theirs.  She was asked why they hadn’t reported the dog when they found it, and she replied that she had no idea that they were doing anything wrong in keeping it, and they had expected its owner to turn up and claim it.  She said that she had taken the dog around with her, thinking someone might claim it.  They had since given it away.  A fine of 2s. 6d. and the costs 8s. 6d. was imposed, or seven days imprisonment in default.


Two years later, Thirza Adams sued a man for damages when his careless driving killed a dog she owned.  The case went to court in November 1906.  Fred Patchett of the Hare and Hounds Inn, Lane Ends, Wadsworth, Hebden Bridge was sued by Mrs. Adams for the recovery of £14, the value of a dog which was killed on the 5th September [the equivalent of £1,715 today, according to the Bank of England’s currency converter].  Thirza told the court that she had been walking from Hebden Bridge towards Todmorden with her brother George Radmore and her daughter Mrs. Smith, the latter having a mail cart with her containing a baby.  Her dog, a Yorkshire terrier bitch in pup, was walking leisurely behind them.  The defendant’s trap came up pretty quickly, and when plaintiff turned round she saw that the dog had been struck by the horse, thrown over and run over.  The driver refused to stop and shouted, “to --- with you and your dog.”  Thirza had bought the pedigree dog from a man at Dewsbury who was “hard up” the previous December.  Since then she had been offered £8 for it, but she refused to take less than £10, and she valued the pups at 25 shillings each.  She said there was plenty of room for the trap to pass, and there was no one else in the road.  Witnesses were called and the speed of the trap was debated.  Patchett and his witnesses stated that they never saw a dog and did not know a dog had been run over until later that day.  However, his solicitor then admitted that Patchett’s trap had run over the dog.  The judge found in Thirza’s favour and awarded her £12, and costs. 


The last mention of the family at Dawson City was in September 1906 when Thirza was granted a vaccination exemption certificate, which was given after the repetition of the customary formula of conscientious objection.  The British Vaccination Act of 1898 provided a conscience clause to allow exemptions to mandatory smallpox vaccination. This clause gave rise to the term “conscientious objector,” which later came to refer to those opposed to military service.  By the end of 1898, magistrates had issued more than 200,000 vaccination exemptions, allowing those parents who didn’t believe that vaccination was safe, or effective, to opt out.  Parents had to satisfy two magistrates of their objections, but not all magistrates agreed and imposed delaying tactics.  The exemption certificate had to be obtained before the child was 4 months old.  In 1906, the year Thirza was granted her exemption, only about 40,000 exemptions were obtained in England and Wales, a huge drop on previous numbers.  Thirza’s child Richard had died earlier that year at a year old, so she would have been applying for Edwin, who had been born a month or so before. 


The family don’t seem to have stayed until the completion of the reservoirs in 1912, because their youngest son Arthur was born in the Bolton registration district in 1908.  John was probably employed there on the construction of the Delph Reservoir.  In 1907 the township of Longworth was purchased by the Bolton Corporation to build this reservoir. The first sod was cut around June of 1908.

Navvyman cover.jpg

The book Navvyman by Dick Sullivan is well worth a read if you are interested in how the navvies lived and worked.  It can be read online here:

See the bottom of this page for more information 

By the time the census was taken in 1911 the family were living at Hayfield, Derbyshire, just south of Glossop.  John was working on the construction of the reservoirs there, and the census listed the couple with eight children (young Arthur was in hospital in Manchester), and recorded that there had been eleven children, nine of whom were still living, two having died.   


Whilst they were at Hayfield, one of their lodgers was the father of a man called Dick Sullivan.  Dick wrote a book called Navvyman (published by Coracle Press in 1983).  In it, he describes how his father, who became a navvy in 1903, had been working at Patricroft (a village in Eccles parish, Lancashire) before leaving there to go down to Hayfield to work on Kinder Dam, known colloquially as “Muck Dam.”  He had to start at 6am, work all day and all night until 9 o’clock the following morning.  Then it was home before starting back the next day at 6am, filling skips, getting out the foundations of the filter house.  This was an earth dam, constructed to form a reservoir to supply Stockport with drinking water.  The reservoir, above Hayfield, was constructed between 1903 and 1911.  Difficulties with the geology led to a change in design in 1905 from a masonry dam to an earth dam.  A small settlement of workers’ huts grew up, and the reservoir was officially opened in July 1912.


Sullivan’s father referred to Thirza as “Old Mother Adams.”  “Proper navvy people they were,” wrote Dick, quoting his father. “They had two relatives on the stage: the Stoke Sisters. Violin players. Funny how a rough family like that married some decent people. She used to drink like mad, swear like a trooper, smoke an old clay gum-bucket pipe. Good hearted, though.”  Sullivan mentioned some of Thirza and John’s children: “Punch [Harry] got shipwrecked – never was right in his head after that. Then there was Min, a silly, fat bugger.  Then there was Edie [Edith]. She married a decent feller as well, I met them at Ewden after the First War.”  [The italics are where Dick is writing about what his father had told him]


Kinder Reservoir (Muck Dam) was completed 1912, and it is possible that the family then came to Stocksbridge.  Construction on the Ewden and Broomhead reservoirs commenced in around 1913 but was delayed when war broke out in 1914.  There was a village of wooden huts built at Ewden, but the family did not live there.  Instead they lived in a house on the corner of Button Row and Victoria Street.  This could in theory be because the huts at Ewden were not built until after the family arrived in Stocksbridge - the huts were built in about 1914.  It was at Ewden after the War that the Adams family met up with their previous lodger from Hayfield, Mr. Sullivan.  It was at Ewden that Mr. Sullivan met his future wife, herself born into a navvying family, at the Elan Valley dams in mid-Wales.

Ewden Valley huts - also known as the "Model Village" - click on a photograph to enlarge it

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Many of the workers at Ewden had come from Birchinlee (“Tin Town”), a village built by the Derwent Valley Water Board to house the workers and their families who were working on the construction of the Derwent and Howden Dams between 1902 and 1916.  Most of the workers had previously been engaged in the construction of the Elan Valley reservoirs in Wales, where the accommodation was said to be very basic.  A model village was built at Birchinlee with a good infrastructure.  There were workmen’s huts, foremen’s huts and married workmen’s huts.  The latter were decorated to a high standard.  The huts at Ewden were wooden and of quite a high standard. 

Ewden Village amenities - click on a photograph to enlarge it

The family lived at Victoria Road until about 1927 (in 1927 they placed their annual In Memoriam notice in the local newspaper for their son John, who had been killed in WW1, and their address had changed from Victoria Street to “late of Stocksbridge”).  John and Thirza moved back to West Yorkshire, close to Hebden Bridge and their one-time home of Dawson City.  Some of the family stayed in Stocksbridge but others followed them.  Minnie’s daughter’s school logbook records that they left the district to go to Hebden Bridge on the 8th July 1929, which coincides with the work on the dams being completed in that year. 


John died at Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, in 1934.  His death certificate (March 1934, aged 74) gave his occupation as “General outdoor labourer.”


The 1939 Register, which was taken right at the start of World War Two in September records Thirza living with her son Arthur at 9 High Street, Hebden Bridge. Arthur was married to Sarah and they had a young son, John A. 


Sadly, this story has a tragic ending.  In October 1942, at the age of 73, Thirza committed suicide at her home in Halstead Green, Heptonstall.  She was found by her daughter Nellie Cooke.  Thirza had tied two silk stockings around her neck and attached them to the rail of her bed.  Nellie told the inquest that her mother had been in poor health for a long time, and had been suffering from severe stomach pain.  Recently she had got worse, but she refused to have the doctor called in.  She had, it was heard, been depressed, and had dreaded the coming of winter and the [war-time] black-out.  Nellie told how she had gone into her mother’s room one morning and had found her lying by the bedside.  A telephone message was sent to Hebden Bridge for a doctor, and to the police.  Nellie’s husband, Stephen Cooke, a boiler firer, also gave evidence.  Death had occurred, but the body was warm.  The jury returned a verdict “that she had strangled herself while of unsound mind.” 


The Coroner told the woman’s daughter that she ought not to have called Dr. F. J. Dowdall from Hebden Bridge to see the body.  Doctors are already overworked, he said, and to call him to Halstead Green was a waste of his precious time and a waste of the country’s precious petrol.  Thirza was buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall with her husband John.  I am told that the correct procedure at this time would have been to inform the police, who would inform the Coroner.  The police would probably have been using bicycles or have been on foot, not in cars.  

For more information on Thirza and John's family, click HERE.  This includes  John Adams' story (he was killed in World War 1), the wartime experiences of Harry Adams (he was shipwrecked, amongst other adventures) and the story of how Thirza's brother Arthur Radmore lost an eye whilst working as a navvy. 


Dick Sullivan's book is a fascinating read about a lost way of life.  Read about men such as Cat-Eating Scan, Half-Ear Slen, Devil-Driving George, Black Enoch, Peg Legged Devon, One-Eyed Conro, Three-Fingered Jack, Thick Lipped Blondin, Squeezem, Bill Tarpot and Toothless Devon.

Read extracts from the letters published in the Navvy Mission’s Quarterly Letter, with entries such as:


  • Little Darkle, miner (26), black hair and eyes, scar on nose, send at once to your wife, left destitute with three children.

  • Shop Bill please send the week’s board you owe Mrs Leeks and also the money she was kind enough to lend you to buy a pair of boots, but which you sloped off with.

  • Devil Driving George, a youth and a Salvationist, eloped with his raddled, fat, middle-aged landlady and her husband’s clothes. “This George has never been one of our members,” says the CEU, “and never will be: we want no such.”

  • Darkle May was sacked at Dunford Bridge for indecent behaviour with his landlady’s little daughter in her calf length boots, calf-length frock, and thigh length pinafore.

  • Ginger Charlie - Black Enoch's mate - stole Peg Legged Devon's kit, slyly, in Birkenhead.

  • All landladies with young daughters were warned on no account to give Black Lank a lodge.

  • Cat-Eating Scan ran away from Bere Alston with Thomas Harris’s wife and baby. Mrs Harris rifled the eldest child’s piggy bank. Harris didn’t want his wife back, just his baby daughter. “She took against the rest of them, and no doubt but what she’ll serve it the same as it gets older. The seven I have got are getting on well, thank God.”

  • A strong able-bodied ganger ran away with the sick club money from the Saxby and Bourne railway. He was well to be made out, red-faced and splay-legged as he was. And he had a good position with a permanent wage.

  • “To inform Mrs F. Frances, better known as Mrs Johnson, that her husband is dead, who she wanted to put in Preston Workhouse. His son wrote to her from Delph, but the letter came back “not found.”  She is supposed to be living on the Pipe Track with Sand Washing George, if so she can now marry him, and we hope she won’t treat him the same if he falls ill, nor bury him with his boots on.”

  • Bill Tar Pot sloped his landlady at the Rishworth dam and Mrs Garnett warned everybody (mates and landladies) to beware of Half-Ear Slen who enticed a woman from her husband and children on the Great Central. “For shame on such rubbish, as call themselves men! Mates! cry shame on him if any of you see him, he is well to be picked out, he has a high back, crooked nose and bandy legs.”

  • Toothless Devon, with a plastic, good for gurning face and a rich west country burr, left his family to the care of the Wirral workhouse.

Navvies working on the Ewden Dams - click on a photograph to enlarge it; please get in touch if you have any photographs of the workers you would like to share.  has a good collection of photographs of the Ewden and Broomhead reservoirs and their construction, as does; just use the search box facility.

Thank you to Gail Adams Linaker and Ron Adams for their help; Gail and Ron are the great-grandchildren of Thirza and John; Gail’s grandfather was Harry (Punch) Adams (1891) and Ron’s grandfather was their son William Adams (1900).

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