At the dawn of the industrial age, brilliant engineers were designing the first railways. But who took on the hard graft of building them?
That task fell to vast gangs of itinerant labourers, also known as navvies. By 1850 a quarter of a million workers—a force bigger than the Army and Navy combined—had laid down 3,000 miles of railway line across Britain, connecting people like never before.
Who were the navvies?
The word ‘navvy’ came from the ‘navigators’ who built the first navigation canals in the 18th century, at the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution. By the standards of the day they were well paid, but their work was hard and often very dangerous.
Railway navvies soon came to form a distinct group of their own, set apart by the special nature of their work.
They were assembled in huge armies of workers, men and women from all parts of the British Isles and even continental Europe. Many were fleeing famine in Ireland, and some were the ancestors of the 15,000 travellers who live in Britain today.
How did navvies live?
Tramping from job to job, navvies and their families lived and worked in appalling conditions, often for years on end, in rough timber and turf huts alongside the bridges, tunnels and cuttings that they built.
The harsh conditions and communal living meant that navvies evolved a lifestyle, culture and even a language of their own. They gained a reputation for fighting, hard living and hard drinking. ‘Respectable’ Victorians viewed them as degenerate and a threat to social order, but much of the criticism was unjustified.
Despite cruel exploitation and extreme deprivation, the navvies achieved amazing feats of engineering—equipped with little more than gunpowder, picks and shovels.
What was the work like?
In the 1840s there was no compensation for death or injury, and railway engineers like Brunel resisted all efforts to provide their workers with adequate housing and sanitation, or safe working conditions.
The Woodhead Tunnel scandal was sparked by the fact that the death rate among the navvies who built the tunnel (between 1839 and 1852) was higher than that of the soldiers who fought at the battle of Waterloo.
The scandal led to a parliamentary enquiry, but its findings were not acted upon for years.
Although railway work created a sense of pride and identity, hardship and danger were common. Even after the Woodhead Tunnel scandal, railway companies sometimes operated with a ruthlessness that cost the lives of thousands of workers, who were being killed at the rate of nearly 500 a year in the 1880s and 1890s.
Read more about safety on the railways:
Were navvies always men?
To begin with, railway workers were nearly always male—right up until the First World War, when women began to take up roles left vacant by men away fighting. Their roles encompassed many aspects of the railways, from carriage cleaning and operating machinery to ticket collecting and other station jobs.
Migration to the railway towns
Once the navvies had achieved their task and a line was complete, the new railways needed locomotives and rolling stock, and the workers to operate them.
By 1900 over 620,000 people—nearly 5 per cent of the population—worked for the railways. In some larger cities, entire areas evolved to serve the railways, with ancillary workshops springing up to provide parts for major manufacturers in places like Hunslet in Leeds, Gorton in Manchester or St Rollox in Glasgow.
Towns like Swindon and Crewe were so dependent on the railways that they became known as ‘railway towns’.
The establishment of towns like this encouraged migration of workers and their families from all over the country, many travelling long distances to find work on and around the railways. A high proportion of Great Western Railway workers in Swindon had come from furthest away, from birthplaces in the north of England and Scotland—it was in the coalfields of the north that much of the early expertise in railway locomotives was to be found.
Railway towns required workers from other industries too. In the 1860s iron rolling mills were established at the works in Swindon and a new type of skilled worker was needed, resulting in an influx from Wales, where the iron industry was well-established. In 1851, there were only 27 Welsh-born people in the village, but this rose dramatically to 102 in 1861 and 613 in 1871.
What was it like to live in a railway town?
From the temporary, moveable navvy encampments of the early days to the familiar rows of workers' cottages still found in towns around the country, the railways shaped the way people lived—and where—for decades.
Companies in railway towns exercised a strong, paternalistic influence, providing staff with housing, education and amenities. But they also controlled workers and their families with an almost military discipline. At Crewe in 1877, for instance, the London & North Western Railway ordered its workers to vote for company officials in local elections.
While railway towns provided work and a sense of community, over-reliance on one industry left their citizens in vulnerable positions. When British Rail closed some of its works in the 1980s and 1990s, local economies were devastated and loyal railway families felt betrayed.
Shildon, for instance, had a tradition of railway building dating back to the 1820s. When its wagon works was shut down in 1984 over 2,600 jobs were lost, and the town has yet to recover fully from this devastating blow.
How did railway workers improve their lot?
Railway workers formed associations and unions to improve their working and living conditions, or to press for radical social change. Yet company loyalty and the division of labour hindered class solidarity.
Each of the railway trades generated its shared identities, traditions and cultures, which meant that a signalman sometimes felt he had as little in common with a locomotive fireman as with an agricultural labourer.
The effects of this are still being felt today, in the complex and often bewildering industrial relations of Britain’s railways. Guards, station staff and drivers still negotiate separately with employers, and ‘demarcation’ disputes that have their origins in the 19th century cause strikes that frustrate 21st-century passengers.
Are there still navvies working on the railways?
By the end of the 19th century, most of Britain’s railway network was complete and navvies had better food, housing and sanitation. Working conditions had changed too. When the Great Central Railway was built in the 1890s, construction relied as much on steam as muscle power. The number of navvies dwindled, but their lifestyle persisted as they moved to new construction projects, built railways overseas or turned to road-building.
More recently, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link—Britain's first major new railway for over 100 years, now known as High Speed 1—temporarily resurrected the railway navvy. Modern navvies rely greatly on high-tech machinery and there are much better safeguards for their health and safety, but the work is still dangerous—ten workers were killed during the construction of the Channel Tunnel between 1987 and 1993.
History may have remembered the Brunels and Stephensons of the railway revolution—the bright minds and ingenious businessmen and engineers who dreamt of a truly modern transport network. But without the hard work and sacrifice of thousands of navvies, their dreams would never have been realised—these were the workers who built the railways.
Railway identity encompasses class solidarity, company loyalty, a sense of place and pride in the job, and is as important now as when the first commercial railways began to operate nearly 200 years ago. Navvies may no longer be familiar figures, but they were crucial to the foundation of the railways we know today.