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Railway navvies in Westmorland: ‘infatuated beings’

Friday 9 April, 2021, by Karen Griffiths

All Westmorland’s nineteenth century railway lines were built using traditional methods and employed thousands of railway labourers during their construction. These men came from all over the country, with or without their families, and had to be housed near to the sections they were employed on. Sometimes they lodged with local families but the large numbers meant that sometimes the railway contractors had to build temporary housing. The so-called ‘shanty towns’ at Ribblehead on the Settle-Carlisle line are well-known but some of those within the project area are yet to be located, such as the navvy settlement at Crosby Garrett known as Balaclava Huts. The site was recorded in the 1871 census and also referred to in the Settle-Carlisle Railway Contract no. 3 (Crosby Garrett tunnel to Newbiggin), but we don’t know where it was exactly. The labourers worked specifically on the building of the tunnel and the viaduct at Crosby Garrett so it can’t have been far from these.

Artist's impression of a railway construction camp at Ribblehead (c) YDNPA, 2021
Artist’s impression of a railway construction camp at Ribblehead (c) YDNPA, 2021

It seems that some of these railway settlements were not kept to the highest standards as this report by a local medical officer into the incidence of typhoid among navvies building the Settle-Carlise line in 1874 makes clear:

“…Of the deaths from typhoid fever no less than five were of navvies, two of whom died in the workhouse. The cause of this malady was, without doubt, attributable to the defective state of the huts occupied by those labourers. I have already expressed to the Board my sense of the difficulties inherent in any efficient inspection or supervision of these places, partly on account of their distant and inaccessible places, which render it an extraordinary task for the inspector to visit frequently and carry out my instructions. This is especially the case with the clusters of huts in the hills and moorland through which the railway is being carried in Mallerstang. The recommendations which I then made regarding the lime whiting, cleansing the open trenches which run along in front of the doors of the huts and serve as receptacles for their slops and house refuse, and the removal of the filth accumulations which everywhere lay scattered on the sodden ground, transforming it into a quagmire, were communicated to the owners and were adopted at the time. But what I have to request your attention to is the very partial and temporary benefit resulting from this impulsive kind of work, only resorted to when matters are at their worst, and the utter impossibility of the maintenance of wholesome conditions without a proper system of periodic and daily scavenging at each of the hut villages. Their occupants cannot be expected to do this work, as their time must be constantly engaged with the wants of the lodgers, ten, twelve, and even fourteen of whom I counted in each of many of the huts; but I consider it to be the duty of the owners who let their huts to their tenants on the condition of accommodating such lodgers also to provide for the cleansing of the surroundings and the removal of refuse. With regard to the preventative treatment of infectious diseases occurring in the huts, I have to remark that the overcrowding which generally exists renders any action of the kind almost nugatory. Hence under the circumstances there are two requirements of urgent necessity; – one of those being the diminution of the number of lodgers, so that there may be at least 300 cubic feet of space per man in the sleeping apartment used in common by them, where 170 cubic feet at present frequently obtains; and the other provision of a place or separate hut for the reception and immediate isolation of infected patients. With regard to the overcrowding I may state that the extremely vitiated air of those sleeping apartments cannot fail to exert obnoxious influence on the health of the navvy, who, doubtless, is enabled to a certain extent to resist the evil by the enormous consumption of substantial meals, and particularly of animal food, which I have often had opportunities to witness.” ‘East Ward Rural Sanitary Authority’ Penrith Observer 16th June 1874

Smallpox was another killer amongst the railway workers and in 1871 a Settle-Carlisle works manager Henry Bushby was charged with manslaughter after one of his navvies died of it after he’d had him moved from his railway hut at Crosby Garrett to the workhouse in Kirkby Stephen (‘Charge Of Manslaughter – Removal Of A Smallpox Patient’, Whitehaven News Thursday 6th April 1871 p.3). The case was dismissed.

Outbreaks of disease amongst the navvies put a strain on local medical services, but we find little resentment expressed, presumably the future long term economic benefits of the coming of the railways outweighed any short term costs.

Westmorland Gazette - Saturday 15 January 1848. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (
Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 15 January 1848. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (

The arrival of large numbers of labourers in rural communities did however lead to a certain amount of alarm amongst the politer members of the local population. Outbreaks of drunken behaviour and thieving were reported in lurid detail in the Westmorland Gazette. The Lancaster & Carlisle Railway was the first to be built and seems to have produced the most outrageous incidents such as the following events from September 1844.

Following the theft of money during the monthly payment in Shap to sub-contractors on the line all hell broke loose as the police pursued the perpetrators. Having caught one, they followed another to Shap…

“…[the three police officers] found the entire village a scene of outrage, confusion and drunkenness. Not a hundred out of four hundred railway labourers were at work. The rest were drinking, fighting, and perpetrating all sorts of disorderly doings. The local constables, as well as the local inhabitants, were perfectly frightened at them, and not without cause…
Among other complaints made of the conduct of the navigators is one that has become general and loud throughout the neighbourhood, that as railway labourers increase, the broods of chickens and flocks of geese and of turkeys very sensibly, though very mysteriously, decrease, and a panic of apprehension has arisen for the safety of the sheep of the district, many navvies having expressed a strong liking for mutton.

“Shap Wells, during Sunday last, was also besieged, and the labourers, not content with the common rooms set apart for customers of their grade, intruded themselves into the hotel, to the great annoyance of Mrs. Gibson, the very respectable landlady, and the terror of the visitors staying at the house, for the benefit of the Shap waters.

“Low Borrowbridge was also a scene of confusion and disturbance during the greater part of Saturday night and Sunday. A number of the labourers having got drunk, and being refused more liquor, broke the windows, doors, and glasses, and proceeded to assault Mr. Noble and his family, and one of the railway sub-contractors, in a most savage manner. Next morning a navvy named Tongue was found in a cow-house adjoining the inn, coolly engaging in milking one of the cows for his own delectation. He was pursued to Kendal, and there given into the custody of Mr. Grossmith [county police officer]….We should not omit to state that Orton was kept in a state of disorder similar to that existing at Shap and Low Borrowbridge, during the whole of Sunday and Monday by the railway labourers.”
‘County Police Lancaster & Carlisle Railway’ Westmorland Gazette Saturday 21 September 1844

Paying all the navvies on a Saturday once a month seemed to be asking for trouble according to this anonymous newspaper letter writer in 1846:

“Sir,- I have for many months past been greatly shocked by the state of our streets on a Sabbath morning after a railway-labourer’s pay-day, ….I have myself counted upwards of twenty of these infatuated beings, on a Sunday morning, in a state degraded beyond the level of the brute creation, many unable to walk, and all cursing themselves and those around them in a manner which shocks the feelings of the most indifferent…Kendal April 29th 1846 CIVIS [citizen]”
‘Correspondence to the Editor of the Westmorland Gazette’ Westmorland Gazette Saturday 2 May 1846

Reports of mass brawls seemed to decline with the building of the South Durham & Lancashire Railway line, but individual fights between locals and railway workers were still being reported such as this one involving the aptly nicknamed navvy called ‘Punch’:

Westmorland Gazette - Saturday 26 February 1859. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (
Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 26 February 1859. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (

Sometimes the railway workers picked fights with each other as was reported during the building of the Settle-Carlisle line at Crosby Garrett in 1872.

“William Cox, navvy, was charged by John Fletcher, ganger on the railway at Crosby Garrett, with striking him with an iron crow-bar, whilst in execution of his duty, on Wednesday last. It appears that some ill-feeling existed between Cox and the ganger, which resulted in the assault in question. Complainant procured a warrant for the apprehension of Cox, which was put into the hands of Sergt. Shields, the officer in charge of the constabulary station at Kirkby Stephen, who arrested him just as he was making out of the county. The Bench took a serious view of the case, and committed the prisoner to gaol for two months with hard labour, without the option of a fine.”
‘Serious Assault at Crosby Garrett’ Westmorland Gazette 7 December 1872

Getting drunk and fighting, was one thing, but theft from the railway contractors was quite another. Firewood seems to have been a favourite:

“On Saturday last, Thos. Dangerfield a navvy, was brought before E. Wilson, Esq., charged by Mr. J. P. Bibby, Police Superintendent, Borrow-Bridge District, with stealing a quantity of temporary sleepers, posts and rails, the property of Messrs. Stephenson, and Co., contractors for the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway. It appeared that on Friday afternoon, the Superintendent, on passing the excavators’ hut at Docker Garths, heard the noise of a saw, and entering the hut from whence the noise proceeded, found the prisoner hard at work sawing a quantity of wood for fuel, which the officer immediately recognised as the description of wood used in the railway works, great quantities of which are constantly stolen and burnt. Under the prisoner’s bed was also found, about half a cart load of what is called oak “cord.” On the superintendent observing that the wood belonged to Messrs. Stephenson and Co., prisoner replied, “It can’t be nobody else’s.” Mr. John King, superintendent of the Works from Oxenholme to Fiddler’s Gill, spoke to the constant depredations of this kind which the contractors were suffering, and declared the wood to be their property. The prisoner was committed to trial at the ensuing sessions.” ‘County Police’ Westmorland Gazette Saturday 20 December 1845

One wonders if local kids might have been getting their own back with this unusual theft:

“A tommy shop at Crosby Garrett reported being broken into when the owner, John Bull, and his family, left it locked up. A box of raisins, three or four bottles of sweets and some oranges and apples were stolen but all items were recovered in an adjoining loft. There is no mention of any arrest or prosecution.” ‘Robbery at Crosby Garrett’ Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser Tuesday 22nd December 1874

The decline in the mayhem by the time the Settle-Carlisle line was built may have been due to the fact that the contractors paid for extra police to be stationed along the line. This must have gone some way to alleviating the fears of local people:

“The Contractors of the Carlisle and Settle Railway have authorised the appointment of two additional Constables, under the 19th Section of the Act, 3rd and 4th Vic. Cap. 88. Ten policemen are now appointed at the exclusive cost of the Contractors. These Constables are at present located on special duty at Scotby, Armathwaite, Lazonby, Culgaith, Kirkbythore, Appleby, Crosby Garrett, Kirkby Stephen, and Mallerstang.”
‘Report of the Chief Constable’ Penrith Observer 10th January 1871

Indeed, when Settle-Carlisle works manager Henry Bushby left Crosby Garrett, the villagers presented him with a gold watch which bore the following inscription “Presented to H. Bushby, Esq., C.E. by the residents of Crosby Garrett and district, as a mark of their esteem for him during the 6 years he has been amongst them engaged in the construction of the Settle and Carlisle Line. March 28th 1876.” ‘Crosby Garrett – Presentation’, Penrith Herald Saturday 8th April 1876.

Records of marriages between railway workers and local women also indicates that not everyone lived in fear of the navvy.

Westmorland Gazette - Saturday 09 December 1848. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (
Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 09 December 1848. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (

With thanks to Lily Mulvey, YDNPA Historic Environment Apprentice for contributing to the research for this blog.

< Previous ‘A Way Through’ blogpost Westmorland’s railways: ‘essential to the continuance of our prosperity’

Next ‘A Way Through’ blogpost How the Railways Changed Tebay by Heather Ballantyne >

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Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


16 Replies to “Railway navvies in Westmorland: ‘infatuated beings’”

  1. Karen Wells says:

    Thank you. Very interesting research, it must have been like the wild west.

    • Glad you found it interesting Karen. At times it must have seemed pretty rowdy to some of the locals although I suspect that there were plenty of sensible hardworking folk in amongst the trouble makers!

  2. Clare Seppings says:

    I read this with great interest. My Great great grandfather, Henry Pemberton, was a navy, in 1871 recorded in Birkett Huts, presumably working on the Burkett Tunnel – a bleak spot if ever there was one. He is in a hut with his wife, Sarah and I think another 10/12 people. We think he was from Portsmouth, but we aren’t sure. What we have lots of evidence of is the report of the accident that killed Sarah and another woman in September 1873 at Raygill. It was reported in many newspapers. My Great grandfather, William Pemberton, was also in the wagon but was thrown clear. He was a teetotaller all his life as a result of the drunkenness he saw in the shanty towns. He then went on to work on the railways in Northumberland then returning to Embasy, near Skipton, finally working as a plate layer at the quarry in Horton-in-Ribbledale.

    • How absolutely fascinating Clare – you’ve obviously done some detailed research there. I was hoping I might be able to do the same for one or two of the navvy families in my project area so may I reference your work on Henry Pemberton, as Birkett is inside my project area? I’d love to know more about the Raygill accident as well. You can email me at

  3. Chris Hampson says:

    Hi KAren, Interesting to read this account of the Birkett Huts. My Mum’s great great grandfather Thomas Briggs lived there in 1871 with his wife Mary and four children aged from 2 to 19 plus three lodgers, all in Hut 12. Like many others they didn’t stay long on the Setlle Carlisle line – apparently labour turnover was huge due to the harsh conditions. Thomas moved on to Cheshire and in 1873 his oldest son John married a local girl and settled there. Thomas and family went on moving around from one railway job to another, eventually ending up at Arlecdon in Cumbria where he worked as a platelayer. Thomas died in Whitehaven in 1890 aged 64. Mary outlived him and appears in the 1901 census – a remakable achievement considering the life she must have led bringing up children in a succession of temporary homes.

    Thomas was born in Silverdale Lancashire, on the West coast. You can trace his working life before Birkett by the birthplaces of his children which include Balderton Notts, Barnard Castle Durham, Barnby upon Don Yorks, Barkston Ash Yorks, and one born in London. His wife Mary came from Beverley Yorks but they were married in Filey whilst he was working on the Malton to Driffield railway in 1850. Several of the times and locations correspond to the construction of tunnels so perhaps this was his preferred line of work – better paid perhaps?

    Thomas seems to have had a relative, maybe an uncle, William Briggs, who also sometimes worked on railway construction and sometimes as an innkeeper. It was probably William who inspired Thomas to take up railway work and also, when he kept a pub in Filey, led to his meeting Mary.

    I hope this is of some interest and encourages you to follow up other families who lived in the BIrkett huts.

  4. Gary Waidson says:

    Very interesting. I have been trying to track down my grandmother’s paternal grandfather, a railway labourer called Henry Goldsmith.

    He turns up in Tebay and marries a local girl, Elizabeth Cowperthaite from Roundthaite, just two months after the 1861 census but I cannot find him anywhere on that census, either locally or nationally.

    His father is not named on the marriage certificate and he signed it simply with an X

    To serve the Stainmore line a two bay locomotive shed was built at Tebay in 1861. I cannot help but wonder if he was part of a crew brought in for that work but cannot establish where they might have been accommodated.

    Elizabeth bears twin just 8 months after the marriage and unfortunately Henry dies suddenly at Lawtland house in 1862 ( The house was later demolished for the building of Lawtland Bridge over the M6 motorway. )

    The Waidson (Wadeson) family served the railway at Tebay for four generations, from Plate Layers to Engine Drivers, coming originally from Clawthorpe, but I cannot get any further back than Henry on the Goldsmith branch.

  5. Ian Thompson Moorby says:

    Interesting to read about the railway workers, my maternal great grandfather was the head of one of the huts in Smardale along with is wife and their child (my grandfather). Been trying to find where the huts would have been in Smardale. Walked along the old railway line a few times but not able to locate the place. My great grandfather was William Thompson and my grandfather John James.

  6. Carl Wood says:

    Karen, in regard to Birket Huts, some of my ancestors were on the 1881 Census for Birket Huts, though they were not “navvies”. The head of the family (Thomas Town) is noted as a farmer of 122 acres with 2 labourers, and my Gt Grandfather (James Wood – step son of Head of Family) is noted as “Farmer”. So I’m wondering what they were doing as farmers at Birket Huts – was the railway completed by then and they were farming the area and using the Huts to live in, or were the huts still occupied and they were farming for food for the navvies?
    Other families on that page were occupied as grocer, a couple of railway labourers, lead miner, and a number of children as “scholar”.

    • What an interesting story and an interesting question. 122 acres is a substantial farm for those days – I imagine they rented out their land to the railway construction company so the huts could be built. Maybe they also supervised the rentals, living on site?

  7. Ruth Mansergh says:

    Hi – I’ve written two books with lots of navvy/ navvie info: Closed Railways and Stations in South Cumbria, and Closed Railways and Stations in West Cumbria.
    I’ve completed a similar title about the Ingleton branch, which has a chapter “News of the Navvies”. I’m about to self-publish it.
    Payment in the pub is an interesting piece of social history, ie where some navvies were paid every nine weeks. There must have been a lot of boozing that night.
    I’ve briefly mentioned Lawtland House – I suspect that was a farm prior to its demolition, rather than a mansion. It existed in 1859 (earliest reference I can find to it).
    Ruth Mansergh

    • Thank you for sharing this – nine weeks really was a long stretch without pay wasn’t it!

    • Gary Waidson says:

      I have a postcard which shows a small house in the position now occupied by the motorway bridge which bears its name.

      The Kendal Mercury appears to have printed a mishearing of the name “Low Close” instead of “Lawtland”.

      Elizabeth Cowperthaite’s father lived at a substantial farm at Roundthaite but she moved to the much smaller Lawtland House and lived on there with the twins for many years after Henry Goldsmith passed away. I suspect there may have been some family friction over the marriage.

  8. Ruth says:

    Hi – Re Henry Goldsmith. The Kendal Mercury of 5 July 1862 says he died at Low Close House near Tebay station. A railway labourer, aged 40. I hope this is of help. Ruth

  9. robert whiteside says:

    this is my 1st cousin 4 x removed George Wayman 1821 ely,Cambridgeshire d 1902 Ely. On the 1871 census 1871 • Railway Huts,Crosby Garrett, Westmorland, England

    Relation to Head: Lodger – Railway Labourer– Before that he was on the 1861 census Hutts,Butterworth,Rochdale, Lancashire, England

    Relation to Head: Head – occupation Excavator (Navvy) with his wife Hannah nee Saberton b 1822 Ely still trying to locate her death between 1861 & 1871

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