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Sultans of the shovel


The Railway Navvies, by Terry Coleman

FANCY a little exercise? Then try this: Take a spade, go into your garden or into a field, and dig a hole 3ft deep, 3ft wide and 36ft long.

As you dig, don’t just put the soil to one side. Lift each spadeful and throw it high over your shoulder. Keep digging. By the time you’ve finished (if you make it that far), you’ll have shifted about 18 tons of earth.

Next day, pick up your spade and dig the same amount in the same manner . . . and the next day and the next, six or seven days every week, month after month, year after year, whatever the weather.

A bit more of a challenge than turning over your vegetable plot, you’ll admit.

But such staggering exertions were the everyday lot of the navvies who dug Britain’s canals in the late 18th century and then built the railways in the 19th century – constant backbreaking labour in conditions so harsh they beggared belief.

No wonder the railway navvies in particular liked a drink or three after work. No wonder they often rioted and wrecked, fought and frolicked as they built the train lines that helped supercharge the Industrial Revolution.

Terry Coleman’s book is a marvellous homage to these rough, tough, profane, illiterate unsung heroes whose sinew, sweat and sacrifice tamed and transformed the British landscape from the 1830s onwards.

Astonishingly – almost incredibly – they did it all with just picks and shovels (a navvy didn’t call a spade a spade) plus the odd application of gunpowder. Although rudimentary steam excavators were available from the early 1840s, they were not considered cost-effective compared to raw muscle power.

Coleman’s excellent book abounds with splendid stories, as well as many startling facts and figures. But its main achievement for me is that it gets down to the nitty-gritty of the navvy’s life – a life which was usually nasty, brutish and short.

Navvying was horrendously dangerous and the idea of health and safety was non-existent. In the early days, it was reckoned that for each mile of rail laid, three men were killed in accidents. By 1914 there were 20,000 miles of line in Britain.

Even if he wasn’t buried by a cave-in, crushed by a wagon, squashed by a piledriver, blown to bits by a premature explosion, mangled by a rockfall, or dropped hundreds of feet down a shaft out of a winched bucket, a navvy rarely reached old age. Most were so worn out they didn’t live beyond their 40s.

‘Navvy’ was a shortened version of ‘navigator’, the name given to the men who had dug Britain’s canals, or ‘navigations’. It carried over into the railway age. Contrary to popular belief, most railway navvies weren’t Irish, they were Englishmen. The first were probably farmhands, lured from the fields by the prospect of better pay.

It took a year of hard slog to turn an ordinary labourer into a navvy. Not all managed to build up the required muscle, strength and endurance, but those who did formed an elite itinerant workforce that was variously respected and reviled.

Although the Stockton-Darlington railway had operated since 1825, it was the 31-mile Liverpool-Manchester line, opened in 1830, that marked the real beginning of the railway age. At the height of the ‘railway mania’ in the 1840s, there were some 250,000 navvies working on dozens of new lines criss-crossing the country.

They commanded high wages, as much as 18 shillings a week in the boom years. But as soon as they were paid, many would blow it all on days-long bouts of drinking, fighting, mischief-making and mayhem, known as going on a ‘randy’.

Navvies often brought terror to towns and villages near where lines were being built. Work gangs were separated by nationality – English, Scots and Irish – but when they met, it was a battlefield. Many violent clashes ended only when a magistrate read the Riot Act and called in the military.

To build a railway, a shareholding company was formed and a chief engineer appointed. He would choose a main contractor to carry out the works, who was charged with delivering the line on time and on budget. The main contractor would parcel out smaller contracts for sections of the line to agents, who in turn would sub-divide the work to other contractors. Often these contracts were again sub-divided, until eventually navvy gangs of about ten men had their designated share of the work.

From the moment the foreman, or ganger, called ‘Yo-ho-ho!’ to signal the start of the day’s labour, to when he yelled ‘Blow-up! Blow-up!’ to end the shift, the navvies would work steadily and silently, sustained by vast quantities of bacon, beef, bread and beer – a gallon a day at least.

Understandably, personal hygiene was hardly their forte. One man made a point of not removing his boots or most of his clothes until they rotted off him, although he did change his shirt once a week.

On remote works such as the notorious three-mile Woodhead Tunnels, started in 1837 high in the Pennines to link Manchester and Sheffield, the navvies lived in squalid shanty towns. On the bitterly cold, rainswept moorland, they built hovels from turf and mud, huts from waste wood and tar paper and even dug caves into banks of earth. Into these ramshackle, stinking dwellings, rife with vermin, cholera and dysentery, many brought their wives and children, or ‘women not their wives’.

The toll as the navvies dug and blasted through the unforgiving gritstone in the foetid, claustrophobic, fume-filled tunnels was dreadful. Out of about 800 working in the tunnels between 1839 and 1852, 32 were killed, 250 maimed and 400 injured. The casualty rate was said to be higher than that of the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Waterloo. There was rarely any compensation from the employer for bereaved families, but the navvies usually held a whip-round.

On many projects, when navvies ran out of cash before the monthly payday, they would be given notes or tokens which they could only use to buy supplies from the contractor’s ‘truck’ or ‘tommy’ shop, where everything was overpriced, the beer usually watered, and the bacon often rancid – tommy rot.

However, despite being cheated and exploited, a navvy could – with providence, sobriety and luck – make his fortune. Some went on to become successful contractors in their own right. Many more lost everything.

As the 19th century drew on and almost every corner of Britain began to be filled with track, work for railway navvies became scarcer. Many ventured to Europe, Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, where new lines were being laid.

By the early 1900s there were still about 100,000 navvies in England, now mainly employed on public works, dams, docks and reservoirs. The railway age was over.

Today, we remember the engineering giants such as Stephenson and Brunel who supplied the brains for the railways, but forget the anonymous men whose brawn made those paper dreams possible. However, the legacy of the navvies remains for all to see, moulded, cut and carved into the very landscape of Britain, albeit softened by time and nature.

As was said of Christopher Wren and St Paul’s Cathedral, the same may be said of the navvies and the levelled hills, deep cuttings, embanked valleys, hewn tunnels, bridged rivers and soaring viaducts they built with their sweat: ‘If you seek his monument, look around you.’

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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