If you have ever read anything about 18th, 19th or even early 20th century construction you may have come across the term ‘navvy’. Navvies are an often misunderstood and under appreciated part of our industrial past. If you want to find out who they were, what they did, and where and how they lived, then keep reading…
What were navvies?
Look around the countryside and you’ll see fantastic feats of engineering: railways that stretch from one end of the country to the other, towering viaducts, long networks of canals, huge reservoirs and vast dams – but someone had to build them all.
‘Navvy’ – short for ‘navigator’ – is the name given to those who worked on improving natural inland rivers used for transport (called navigations). When canal building in Britain took off in the mid-1700s the men who cut them were called navigators too. By the time of the railway, ‘navvy’ had become a name given to any man who worked on a large infrastructure project.
Navvies are intricately linked to industrialism. The infrastructure they built led to Britain becoming an economic powerhouse of Europe, and yet they are hardly thought of, existing in the shadow of the giants of architectural engineering: James Brindley, Thomas Telford, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and more. These were the people that made designs a reality and built the structures which have lasted more than a hundred or even two hundred years.
Who were they?
Navvies were typically working class men from all over England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, who would travel from one project to the next, in many cases moving hundreds of miles away from their birthplaces looking for work. Some even famously worked on European projects like the Grand Crimean Central Railway during the Crimean War. In some cases they brought their wives and children with them, and, if their sons were old enough, they would also be put to work on-site.
Some navvies, rather than travel with families, travelled with groups of other men (called ‘Butty Gangs’). They would agree contracts with constructors and work as a team to complete the task – and if any man among them was not thought to be pulling his weight he would be ejected from the group. They may have worn visually distinctive clothing, sometimes described as a felt hat, square-tailed coat, waistcoat, bright-coloured kerchief, corduroy breeches tied at the knee, and high-laced boots (F.S. Williams, Our Iron Roads).
What conditions did they work under?
This was a time before sophisticated machinery and (most) basic workers’ rights. Labourers were engaged in back-breaking, often incredibly dangerous work. There were countless deaths caused by accident, negligence or even violence. A lot of the time navvies lived in what can only be described as squalor, and outbreaks of disease were common. One report from the East Ward Rural Sanitary Authority in 1874 described overcrowded huts encircled by open trenches used as waste pits, and:
…filth accumulations which everywhere lay scattered on the sodden ground, transforming it into a quagmireThe Penrith Observer, 16th June 1874
Navvies were often paid shockingly low wages, sometimes not even with real money but tokens known as ‘company scrip’. These were only valid in on-site shops owned by the companies they worked for and in which prices were marked up due to the lack of competition. This unscrupulous practice (called the ‘Truck’ or ‘Tommy’ system) was eventually banned in the Truck Acts.
What were they like?
Navvies spent most of their lives engaged in manual labour in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. Obviously hard-working, these men lived by their own standards and tended to look after their own – for example, there are many accounts of men sharing their last coins or food with each other.
Sensationalising Victorian newspapers happily gave them a fierce reputation: navvies were criminal, violent drunks who were a danger to law-abiding members of the public. But this was an enormous generalisation, probably sparked by the fact that navvies did live outside societal norms and engaged in behaviour many Victorians would have found scandalous. But, notwithstanding some outlying cases of truly unpleasant behaviour (the towns of Appleby and Kirkby Stephen were reportedly terrorised by navvies in the 1870s), most accounts simply note instances of fighting and petty theft.
For example, at Crosby Garrett one report noted with surprise (and obvious prejudice!):
Considering the class of men gathered together, they were fairly well behaved, and no serious crimes were committed, but poaching and petty thefts of poultry were rather frequent. Beer had a great attraction for the navvies, which caused a lot of illicit drinking…J. Walker Nicholson, Crosby Garrett, Westmorland.
Of course, there were pubs and brothels at camps, but there were also churches which were gladly and regularly attended. One testimony from Rev. Thomas Clarke, the vicar of Great Ormside who visited the ‘railway operatives’ on the line, in their huts, and preached to them in Helm School on Sunday evenings was that:
…in all his intercourses with them along the commencement of the line he never once was spoken to in a disrespectful manner.The Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser, Tuesday July 23 1873
It should also be mentioned that many were extremely canny. There were many instances of men who started out as manual labourers who rose quickly through the ranks and became major contractors or engineers in their own right. One example of this is Henry Bushby, who is listed on the 1851 census as a Builder’s Foreman in Worthing. In 1861 he was still in Worthing but listed as an “Inspector of Railway Works”. By 1873 he was in Westmorland working as a Contractor’s Agent on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. This was a role in which he was so respected that the people of the village where he was stationed clubbed together to raise £25 to buy him a parting gift and declared that:
Whether they regarded him in his official capacity as engineer on the Midland Railway, or in the private light of a gentleman, a friend, or a neighbour, his character was much to be commended and admired. [And his departure] …would be universally regretted.Penrith Herald, Saturday April 8, 1876
What evidence can be found of their lives?
Documentary evidence: mainly newspaper articles, court documents, personal accounts, photographs, parliamentary records, and laws later on regarding the treatment and rights of navvies.
Physical evidence: while working the men sometimes lodged in local inns or even with families in nearby villages, but often they lived in so-called navvy camps, which were constructed of temporary wooden huts. These camps could be huge, sometimes including amenities like pubs, shops, churches and schools. People might live in these for years at a time. Since they were temporary most were disassembled rapidly after the projects finished, but evidence can still be found – very easily in some cases.
For example, just outside the National Park lies Scar House Reservoir. This reservoir holds 10 million cubic metres of water and has an accompanying dam measuring 71 metres high and 600 metres long. It was built between 1921 and 1936, during which time more than 1000 navvies were housed in a ‘camp’ called Scar Village. And it really was more of a village! It had a hospital, school, shops, a church, sports facilities and more! When the construction was completed the buildings were dismantled for use elsewhere, but the concrete bases on which the timber houses stood are still visible today.
What do navvies have to do with the Yorkshire Dales?
Below are just a few of the projects navvies are known to have worked on in the Yorkshire Dales.
Leeds and Liverpool Canal
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal was built in phases from 1770. The Leeds to Gargrave stretch opened in 1777 and was used to transport goods in and out of the Dales. At Gargrave, five separate wharves, along with warehouses and yards, were built to cope with the amount of trade coming through on the canal. The canal was cut by navvies, and, while finding evidence of any camps is difficult, we do have documentary evidence of men lodging in inns and local houses. A fantastic physical testament to their work in the Dales can be seen at the Aqueduct at Holme Bridge, which is Grade II listed.
Barden Navvy Camp
This navvy camp was used during the construction of the reservoir at the now disused quarries at Halton Moor. All that remains is a series of rectangular earthwork platforms, where the camp huts once sat. There are further possible locations on the south side of the road but these have been rendered invisible by an informal car park.
The Settle-Carlisle Railway (1869-1876) is undoubtedly the most famous construction project in the Dales to use navvies. The line was predicted to cost £1,375,829, but ended up totalling an estimated £3,000,000 (roughly £188,000,000 today). It was the last large-scale project to use traditional construction methods and was awarded in sections to various contractors. Contracts and census data indicate that there were a huge number of navvy camps built along the line. Some were tiny, consisting of only a few huts, while others were astonishingly large, consisting of thirty or more residential huts along with as many amenities as you can imagine. The exact locations of the camps were usually not recorded, and since they were only temporary villages they can be difficult to find. However, this is not always the case.
Moorcock Navvy Camp
Used between 1872 and 1873, and sited close to Garsdale Station, this camp was housed the navvies working on this remote section of the railway. It may have been home to more than 70 people. Earthworks of huts including chimney bases are still visible here.
Jericho, Belgravia and Sebastopol (Ribblehead Viaduct)
Collectively known as ‘Batty Green’ or more commonly, Ribblehead navvy camp, these are the most famous navvy settlements in the Dales. Their location on moorland (as opposed to farmland) means that they have been left relatively undisturbed. Built for the navvies constructing Ribblehead Viaduct and Blea Moor Tunnel, the camps housed around 2000 people in total.
During their heyday, the camps consisted not only of residential huts but of pubs, shops, a school, church, hospital, brick works, stables…the list goes on. In his well-received book on the early life of the railway, Frederick Smeeton Williams painted this evocative picture:
The town of Batty Wife [Ribblehead Navvy Camp] had, when we visited it, a remarkable appearance. It resembled the gold diggers’ villages in the colonies. Potters’ carts, drapers’ carts, milk carts, greengrocers’ carts, butchers’ and bakers’ carts, brewers’ drays, and traps and horses for hire, might all be found, besides numerous hawkers who plied their trade from hut to hut. […] But, despite all these conventionalities, the spot was frequently most desolate and bleak. Though many of the men had been engaged in railway making in rough and foreign countries, they seemed to agree that they were in “one of the wildest, windiest, coldest, and dearest localities” of the world. The wind in the Ingleton Valley in the winter was so violent and piercing that for days together the bricklayers on the viaduct were unable to work, simply from fear of being blown off.F.S Williams, The Midland Railway: Its Rise and Progress, p.490.
The town was in use between 1871 and 1876 – although interestingly a small number of people continued to live there until 1879, after which time it was dismantled, leaving building platforms and tramlines behind. The site is protected as a scheduled monument.
So now you know a bit more about navvies and how they lived and worked. Next time you see a canal, railway or viaduct, spare a thought for the men who toiled to build it.
Baughan, Peter E., The Midland Railway: North of Leeds, (2nd ed., Wiltshire, 1987).
Walker Nicholson, Josiah, Crosby Garrett, Westmorland; a history of the manor of Crosby Garrett in Westmorland, with local custom and legends, (Kirkby Stephen, 1914).
Williams, Frederick S., The Midland Railway: Its Rise and Progress, (London, 1876).
Williams, Frederick S., Our Iron Roads, (7th ed., Derby, 1888).