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

https://www.railwayarchive.org.uk/navvies

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

The Celtic roots that helped shape Durham by David Simpson- Northern Echo

2nd part on Irish Navvies in County Durham and Consett Area

This time a Northern Echio article by David Simpson- 25th April 2009

https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/history/memories/durhammemories/4320084.The_Celtic_roots_that_helped_shape_Durham/?ref=rss

Extract from the article – full article on link above

Most Irish settlers arrived in Durham following the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Some came via Liverpool; others via Glasgow or the Cumberland ports. The 1840s, 50s and 60s were a period of rapid industrial development in England, and the failure of the staple Irish potato crop lured many Irish to English industrial regions, such as the North-East.

Only Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and London were more significant than our region in terms of their Irish populations.

Many Irishmen settled in the major towns of our region, finding menial jobs or living by their wits as hawkers.

Others were more fortunate, finding work in factories or shipyards.

Another common occupation was in railway construction.

Irish navigators, or navvies, on the railways were once a familiar sight.

Coal mining is said to have been a major attraction for the Irish in Durham but, in truth, Irishmen had little experience of this work in their homeland.

Early Irish settlers generally avoided pit work and were more likely to be found working in new ironworks at places such as Consett, Witton Park or Tow Law.

Such work was a more attractive proposition and, unlike coal mining, was not dominated by men who were precious of their line of work which often passed from father to son.

The HCSW project team would be delighted to hear from people with relatives you may have come across from Ireland and worked in the Steelworks or local area. Any pictures or stories would be great to see

Derwenthaugh Cokeworks

Derwenthaugh Cokeworks

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the site near Swalwell and Winlaton Mill had been that of Crowley’s Ironworks, which for a time was the largest ironworks in Europe.

The coke works opened on the site in 1928. They were owned and operated by the Consett Iron Company.

The works was situated by the dam marking the upper tidal limit of the river, where Swalwell Juniors F.C. now stands. The CPP which washed and blended the coal prior to the coking process stood at the north-eastern end of the site, along with large storage bunkers. A conveyor fed blended coal from these bunkers into another bunker on top of the ovens which in turn fed the charging car.

The ovens themselves were parallel to the A694, which passes the site, and stood on the area of land now occupied by the two football pitches. There were several railway sidings for both coal and coke between the ovens and the road.

The pusher was on the opposite side of the ovens, and the coke was shoved out on the side nearest the road. The quenching tower was at the north-eastern end of the battery of ovens, near the CPP, and the chimney was at the opposite end. Between the ovens and the river were the power plant with its associated boilers and chimneys, as well as the by-products plant. The latter “scrubbed” the gas produced in the ovens, extracting chemicals such as tar and ammonia, which were piped into storage tanks. The gas was then stored in a tall gas holder to the south-east of the site, near the river.


There was a motive power depot nearby to house the locomotives which shunted the extensive network of NCB sidings and lines which served the works and the lower part of the Derwent valley. In the last few years of the works’ existence, these were all diesel locomotives, but prior to this there were a large number of steam locomotives stabled here.

One of them, No. 41, was the oldest working NCB locomotive in the country, having been built for the Consett Iron Co. in 1883, by Kitson and Co. in Leeds, works No. 2509. It was of the Stephenson Long Boiler design, and unlike the ubiquitous 0-4-0 and 0-6-0 side tanks and saddle tanks which served most of the industrial railways of the north-east, it was a pannier tank, (a layout common on the Great Western Railway, but rarely seen elsewhere). Prior to the demise of its fleet of steam locomotives, Derwenthaugh began to receive locomotives from other NCB sheds, either because they had closed, or the locomotive had become surplus to requirements. Nos. 7 and 59 were two such locomotives, easily identifiable as former NCB Lambton system residents from Philadelphia shed by their narrow curved cabs which allowed them to negotiate a tunnel with very limited clearances on the line to the docks at Sunderland.

Over the years the plant took coal from Chopwell Colliery, and in NCB days, from Marley Hill Colliery, via the nearby Clockburn Drift, as well as the opencast mines which operated in the area via the opencast disposal point at Swalwell. The last local deep-mined coal used at the plant came from the Victoria Seam at Sacriston Colliery near Durham. The coke produced was either sent directly to customers by rail, or shipped from a staithe on the River Tyne, which also had facilities for the storage and shipping of liquid tar and creosote produced at the works. When built, the works were fitted with turbo-alternators. Surplus electricity from the coke works was sent to Chopwell Colliery’s power station.Excess gas from the works was sold to the Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company. Initially the alternators’ associated boilers were fired by waste gasses from the coking process, but in 1931 the boilers were converted to fire coal because of an increase in demand for the gas from the Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company

The works were closed in 1986 and the site was gradually cleared and de-contaminated. In addition to the football and tennis clubs on the site of the works itself, the surrounding land (which had been covered in spoil from the Clockburn Drift and waste from the coal-washing process) was cleaned up and landscaped, and is now the site of Derwenthaugh Park.

Source and thanks to Winlaton and District Local History Society

Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/WinlatonLHS/

New website http://www.winlatonlocalhistorysociety.org.uk/index.asp?fbclid=IwAR0NDQNYO2TjrR643fclJgCU3V9XUiQAQTm5zo0I7serrXJsLdcI0N1bIzE

Also see a lovely post from Alfred the Dog and Rob Moran https://www.facebook.com/groups/294426718178876/permalink/824626315158911/

Alan Godfrey Maps

Alan Godfrey Maps based in Leadgate on the old English Martyrs School Site

These maps are invaluable for historians and genealogists. More than 3,000 titles have been issued in this major series of reprints of Old Ordnance Survey Maps of towns throughout Britain and Ireland.

Most of the maps are highly detailed, taken from the 1/2500 plans and reprinted at about 14 inches to the mile.

They cover towns in great detail, showing individual houses, railway tracks, factories, churches, mills, canals, tramways and even minutiae such as dockside cranes, fountains, signal posts, pathways, sheds, wells, etc.. Each map includes historical notes on the area concerned.

We also publish a series of smaller scale Inch to the Mile maps

Facebook link https://www.facebook.com/alangodfreymaps/?ref=page_internal

Link to their website https://www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk/

Link of the “story” of Alan Godfrey Maps https://www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk/history-timeline.htm

Local County Durham Maps including Consett can be found on this link

https://www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk/durham.htm

Video of a conversation with Alan thanks to Gateshead Libraries

John Verker: Free Talk by Dave Griffiths= Mon 24th May 2021 6pm start

Free Zoom Talk by Dave Griffiths on John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort VC

Monday 24th May 6pm start

All welcome hosted by Leadgate Community History Club

Zoom Link below

Topic: John Verker: local? hero? Talk by Dave GriffithsJoin Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82009956122…Meeting ID: 820 0995 6122
Passcode: 330670

For more information on this interesting character see Facebook event for some interesting content

https://www.facebook.com/events/488742152506393/?active_tab=discussion

Leadgate Community History Club website http://leadgatecommunityhistoryclub.co.uk/

My next part of my training by Alan Swinburne

Following my “interesting” training at Templetown Brickworks Lab my next placement was in the General Lab in the Technical Research Department.The TRD was situated at the top of the Canyon Road and in addition to the General Lab it housed The Metallurgical,Water and Refractory Labs,Chief Metallurgists and Chief Chemists Office,Library ,Workshop,Sample Preparation Room and Section Managers Offices.


          It was a completely different working enviroment from Templetown but I still met a number of characters and was given a very good training carrying out chemical anaylsis mainly of steel using “wet” analysis methods.

It was a fairly strict regime compared to Templetown ,you had to ready to start at 9.00am prompt and were not allowed to leave after work until the Lab was tidy and all the valuable items such as Platinum Crucibles were accounted for and locked away in the safe.

I remember on one occasion a crucible was unaccounted for and we were kept in the Lab for about 15 minutes until the crucible was found – in a Senior Chemists laboratory coat pocket!! 

Although the Lab was open plan (see photographs) it was divided into two areas,one area where all the technicians and trainees worked the other where all the Senior Chemists worked,as one the very Senior Chemists was known as Mexican Ed because of his moustash,that area was known as Mexico and very rarely did we cross the ” border “!


Every  day you were given several samples of steel drillings and had to analysis them for a certain chemical element- Carbon,Sulphur,Phosphorous,Manganese or Silicon.Analysis of elements such as Vandium,Copper,Nickel etc were carried out by the Senior Chemists.


In addition to the analysis of steel products the analysis of Blast Furnace Gases was also carried out.


Although we worked Day Shift in the General Lab  we provided cover for the shift Chemists in the Steelplant Lab and there was always an almighty scramble when the Cover Rota went up as not only did you get Shift Allowance but some was classed as overtime,a welcome addition  to our pay packets.


As I’ve said it was a more sedate enviroment than Templetown,but we still had many social and sporting events,it seemed every couple of weeks there was a reason for a social night out mostly in the Stirling Castle for a Stag Night,Leaving Presentation etc.

Also we were always having in house and Inter Department sporting competitions.It was a time when you made great friends,people who I am still in touch with now

We went on holidays together and one work colleague was my Best Man,worked as my Manager when I was in business after the closure and are still good friends 55 years later.

Also several married couples met in the TRD .It was also customary,as it was in all departments, to have a collection and presentation on the occasion of someone getting married or leaving.The third photo shows such a presentation, and the next photograph shows the successful TRD football team which won the inter department football knockout,a very hotly contested competition .

There was very good footballers who worked in the TRD at that time,one of which was Malcom Young who played scrum half for England Rugby team.(bottom left) 

There were several characters in the TRD,but one who was known to everybody was “Wor” Jacky Herdman. As well as being a Chemist Jacky was a farmer and because of my background he always looked out for me.

I spent many hours with Jacky delivering eggs around the works,and the odd turkey or two at Christmas.!.

Jacky also kept a small flock of sheep near the Raven Pub and when they were ready for market he would “recruit” a couple of us,hide us in the back of his van and set off on the pretence of collecting water  samples at the Fell Coke Works.

After rounding up the sheep our reward was a pint shandy in the Raven.

Happy days!!!. 

Jacky farmed at Esp Green and during a particulary bad winter had difficulty getting to work in his van so he came to work on a horse which he “stabled”in the Generator House.

This made the local Press ,see photograph

He liked the odd pint and I was told that on at least on occasion the horse arrived home before Jacky who had an unfortunate dismount after leaving the pub.


It may appear it was all play but no work but I can assure everyone, that the training and responsibily to get things right were very important,and in between the fun times we worked very hard and also still attended day and night classes at  the Technical College, but there was great comradeship through the whole department , a very enjoyable place to work.

The HCSW project team would like to thank Alan for this latest chapter about his working life at the Consett Steelworks

Beamish Museum – A History

The HCSW project team look forward to establishing more links and partnerships with Beamish Museum including working to scan and share items/pictures still to be scanned for the Beamish Collection

Here is a link to a History overview of the museum

History of Beamish

Beamish was the vision of Dr Frank Atkinson, the Museum’s founder and first director.

Frank had visited Scandinavian folk museums in the early 1950s and was inspired to create an open air museum for the North East. He realised the dramatically-changing region was losing its industrial heritage. Coal mining, ship building and iron and steel manufacturing were disappearing, along with the communities that served them.

Frank wanted the new museum to “illustrate vividly” the way of life of “ordinary people” and bring the region’s history alive.
Beamish remains true to his principles today and brings history to life for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Frank passed away on 30th December 2014.

More about Frank on this link http://www.beamish.org.uk/about/frank-atkinson/

A video about visiting the museum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHo6XG4rBx4

Please do comment with your own memories of visiting

Also if you would be interested in working on the “scanning” project please do get in touch

HCSW project team

Consett Heart – an Introduction and request for donations

The HCSW project team are delighted to promote and will be looking to work with/partner with the Trustees – we would also to acknowledge and thank Project Genesis for supporting them to make sure this community asset will be saved and re-opened for the community

From the Facebook page for the group

We are a dedicated group of volunteers who have taken a long term lease on the Old Ambulance Hall, John Street, Consett with the intent of converting it into a Heritage and Arts Centre for the area.

Our goal is to create a centre of excellence that will show off both the creativity and the heritage of our area in equal measure.

The centre will have the potential to inspire creatives, give performances, teach, house micro museums, promote our heritage and so much more. We hope that it will be a place for the whole area to be proud of

Donations Welcome

Consett & District Heritage and Arts are looking for donations to help smarten up the Consett Heart – Heritage and Arts Centre, ready for openning.

Some of the things we are looking for:

1, Paint (All types), brushes, paint pads…..

2, Upgrade to Toilets and vanity sinks, etc.. (fitted would be even better

3, Door locks for internal doors

4, Tradespeople willing to donate time, goods or services

5, Lastly any donation’s of cash are always gratefully accepted.

In short if you think you can help us get the building up and running please get in touch.

info@consettheart.co.uk

Thanks all in advance

Consett Heart

https://www.consettheart.co.uk/

Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ConsettHeart

Twitter https://twitter.com/consett_e

Plate Mill started 1959 opened in 1961

Description from you tube- http://www.oldphotoforum.com/blog​ –

1959 saw the start of construction work on what was the world’s most advanced steel plate rolling mill at Hownsgill in Consett, County Durham, UK.

The huge building was 2.7 million cubic feet in volume and the first plate was rolled there in September 1960.

It was officially opened by Lord Mills in April 1961

3 videos show the builing

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

This part one of a series of Blog posts about the Plate Mills if you have any content, pictures or stories/memories you would like to share please do get in touch with the HCSW project team