During the Industrial Revolution, Britain was completely transformed. It was transformed through technological development: steam, locomotion and railways. It was transformed by millions of pounds of capital backing increasingly ambitious, even audacious schemes. But, more than any other factor, it was physically transformed shovel load by backbreaking shovel load by the navvies.
Navvies, short for ‘navigators’, were the men who actually built the wonders of the industrial age – the canals, railways, bridges and viaducts. Although they forged the path for labour saving technology, building railways was incredibly labour intensive. Railways were not so much built as painstakingly hewn from the landscape; picks, shovels and wheelbarrows were as advanced as building technology got.
At one stage during the nineteenth century, one in every 100 persons who worked in the UK was employed as a navvy. By 1850, 250,000 workers – a force bigger than the Army and Royal Navy put together – had laid down 3,000 miles of railway line across Britain. They came from across the kingdom, but with distinct concentrations from Ireland, Scotland, Lancashire and Yorkshire.