The Story of the Navvy- Railway Archives

part 3 of series on Navvies

A really good few pages on the Navvies on the Railway Archives website

A gang of navvies near Haddenham, Buckinghamshire taken by S.W.A. Newton, the young photographer from Leicester

Although the London Extension owed much of its construction to the use of steam powered machinery, building a railway during the 1890s remained a very labour intensive exercise. Digging cuttings and forming embankments, not to mention the construction of tunnels, bridges, viaducts, stations and goods yards, all required substantial numbers of men with a wide range of skills. Collectively, these men were known as navvies, and they moved with their families to work on engineering projects right across the country. During the height of railway construction in the mid-nineteenth century, more than 250,000 navvies were employed throughout Britain.
The legacy of these travelling communities is all around us: the building of our railways was undoubtedly one of Victorian Britain’s finest achievements. However, despite the navvies’ large contribution to our history, comparatively little is known about their daily lives and experiences. Just as it did when the railways were being constructed, their social isolation and their unsavoury reputation for being fierce, drunken, disruptive and ungodly creates an image of the navvy that is unhelpful when attempting to discover how these people really lived.

Thankfully, S.W.A. Newton, the young photographer from Leicester who captured so much of the Last Main Line’s construction, decided that navvies and their families should form a significant part of his unique photographic record. Using these images to illustrate their story, this section explores where they came from, where and how they lived, their religion and pastimes, and what happened to them after the London Extension was completed.

  • The term ‘navvy’ is now a rather derogatory expression, but from the time the word originated in the mid 1700s until the beginning of the twentieth century, it had a very precise meaning. The term came into existence because England’s commercial canals were known as navigations. When the canals were being built, there was no established corps of what we now know to be civil engineers, and consequently those labourers tasked with building them became known as navigators, or navvies, as they themselves had a greater role in plotting a route for these waterways. When canal construction began to decline, this body of professional excavators found similar work was to be had building the railways. The word navvy followed with them, and the term came to describe any labourer who worked on the many large-scale civil engineering projects undertaken in Victorian Britain.

All parts of the country produced navvies, and although many did travel either alone or with their employers to work on projects right across Britain, contractors also recruited men from the nearby towns and villages close to the construction site. Interestingly, it is often thought that the majority of navvies were Irish, but this is not the case. Large numbers of Irish men did travel to Britain and become navvies, as work was more plentiful and the jobs were invariably better paid, but these represent a minority of the hundreds of thousands of men required for the construction of the railways.

Working mostly with pick and shovel, navvying demanded strength and great physical stamina. A lot of navvies had previously worked as agricultural labourers, and doubtless they were accustomed to hard, tiring work. Even so, it was said that it took up to a year to turn a common labourer into a navvy capable of excavating twenty tons of earth in a day. However, with children of less than ten years old often working as navvies with their fathers and older brothers, and with men navvying well into their sixties and seventies, lighter duties were routinely available.

Navvies working on a tip slope near Swithland, Leicestershire. The photograph is a fine illustration of the large numbers of men required for the Railway’s construction, despite the contractor’s use of steam powered machinery wherever possible. Note the tipping wagons on the right of the picture: it was said that a good navvy could fill eight of these in a single day.

Maintaining an even gradient that would allow the Great Central express trains to run quickly meant that the line could rarely follow the contours of Britain’s undulating landscape. Excavating cuttings and forming embankments were the principal means of overcoming these natural obstacles, and shifting millions of tons of rock and soil from one place to another required thousands of navvies working mainly with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow. By the 1890s, steam powered machinery was used extensively, but most of the work still had to be done by hand. The steam excavators usually made light work of gnawing out the rough shape of the cutting, but men had to follow close behind to shore up the steep and dangerous slopes created by the machines. Navvies would later ‘dress’ the sides of the cuttings and embankments to form even banks of earth.

Large numbers of men were also needed to construct the vast infrastructure of tunnels, bridges and viaducts that were built to negotiate hillsides, cities, roads, rivers and valleys. In common with the professional excavator, the men who built these feats of engineering would also have been considered navvies. It is easy to forget that these were skilled workmen: blacksmiths, steel erectors, brick layers, miners, engine drivers, carpenters and riveters were all essential parts of the workforce that built Britain’s railways. In addition, rock blasting, spoil tipping, ballasting and track laying were some of the routine tasks that might be part of a navvy’s typical day.

For all those employed on the London Extension, working conditions were a marked improvement on those endured by previous generations of navvies. The contractors were established firms who took greater responsibility for their employees’ welfare. Railway construction remained a dangerous business and accidents were an accepted risk of the job, especially when engaged in blasting or building tunnels. It was a long working day, often starting as early at 6.00am, with some men even being required to work during the night. However, the harsh exploitation that typified the railway-mania of the mid-nineteenth century was certainly a thing of the past. Then, the contractors cared little for the well being of the navvies. Men were poorly trained and inadequately supervised and speed, not safety, was the primary concern of their employers. It was said that a man working on the construction of Woodhead Tunnel during the 1840s was at greater risk of injury than a soldier in the field at the Battle of Waterloo!

Viaduct construction at Rugby

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s