John Mitchinson explores the transformational contribution, too easily overlooked, by the labourers who built the country’s canals and railways.

Most mornings I’m possessed by the same thought.

As I board my train in the country and end my journey on a canal towpath, it strikes me that each mile of track, each yard of path, was laid by hand a century and a half ago – the work of men whose names were never recorded.

The construction of the canal and railway network remains the greatest civil works project ever undertaken in this country.

In less than a century, 4,000 miles of canal and 23,000 miles of railway were built, mostly by hand, using picks, shovels and dynamite.

At its peak in the 1840s, 250,000 labourers were employed – the infamous ‘navvies’: an itinerant workforce that followed the work out of the industrial cities and across the countryside, cutting and tunnelling the first great trade and communication network of the industrial age.

It took a year to ‘make’ a navvy and then they would be expected to move 20 tons of earth a day, working like machines.

Who were they?

The name comes from ‘navigators’, navigation being the original name for canal.

A significant minority were rural Irish forced to leave by the famine in the 1840s, but most were English agricultural labourers recruited from the fields the railways passed through.

The increased use of machines by large landowners meant there was less work for them there. A job as a navvy also paid three times as much.

Many stayed on, dragging their families with them. Accommodation was in turf huts or wooden shanties, built and abandoned as the line unfurled. The numbers involved were staggering – 3,000 navvies for five miles of line.

Work on construction of a new railway cutting at Waterford, Northern Ireland

Becoming a navvy was like joining a street gang.

“They wore moleskin trousers, double-canvas shirts, velveteen square-tailed coats, hobnail boots, gaudy handkerchiefs and white felt hats with the caps turned up… They were often known only by their nicknames – Gipsy Joe, Bellerophon, Fisherman, Fighting Jack,” writes Terry Coleman in his book ‘The Railway Navvies’.

Imagine the impact of such a workforce on rural life.

Their settlements were like the gold rush camps in the Wild West: the only thing to spend their wages on was beer – and many contractors paid them in pubs for that reason. If there wasn’t a pub to hand, they built their own ‘shants’. ‘Going on a randy’ was a key part of navvy life.

Most of the work was done by men, but women took on some roles when the men were called away to war

But they were skilled and efficient too. They got the work done.  

It took a year to ‘make’ a navvy and then they would be expected to move 20 tons of earth a day, working like machines.

Death and injury were constants. Some historians estimate three deaths for each mile of track laid. Building the Woodhead tunnel under the Pennines in 1845 yielded a higher casualty rate than the Battle of Waterloo.

Few recognised the navvies’ transformational achievements at the time.

One who did, was the social reformer Elizabeth Garnett, who said of them: “Certainly no men in all the world so improve their country as navvies do England. Their work will last for ages and, if the world remains so long, people will come hundreds of years hence to look at and to wonder at what they have done.”

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