Praising the unsung heroes

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.

Steam power and railway navvies By National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Steam power  Uploaded by russavia) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Thirty miles to the future

At just over thirty miles, the railway between Liverpool and Manchester covered a relatively short distance. But, as the world’s first twin tracked and timetabled passenger railway it signalled the start of the railway age and ushered in the modern age.


At the start of the nineteenth centuries Liverpool and Manchester were fizzing with capitalist energy. Liverpool was well into its ascent as a great port, cementing its place as a leading hub of the British Empire. Manchester was a little behind the curve, developing its role as a manufacturing centre but with its glittering future as Cottonopolis in sight.

The Duke of Wellington's train being prepared for departure from Liverpool to Manchester, 15 September 1830

The towns (they would only be granted city status in 1880 and 1853 respectively) lay just over 30 miles apart in North West England. The burgeoning trade between the two towns was already conveyed via turnpike roads and a network of canals (the Bridgewater Canal, Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the  Mersey and Irwell Navigation).

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Ahead of their time

The arrival of the railway heralded a new age more than almost any other technological development. But the idea of combining fixed paths with wheeled vehicles was much older than the great nineteenth century inventors and the age of steam.

Christopher Woolmer opens his book Fire and Steam, a history of the railways, with this quite arresting story:

“One of the least known facts about Louis XIV is that he had a railway in his back garden. The Sun King used to entertain his guests by giving them a go on the Roulette, a kind of roller-coaster built in the gardens of Marly near Versailles in 1691.”

The Roulette at Versailles - a rather more courtly (and sedate) version of the train

The first passenger service on rails is widely believed to have been the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, completed in 1806. This curious conveyance would be powered by horses and, when appropriate, sails, and carried passengers along the romantic scenery of the south Wales coastline.

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An asylum of railway lunatics

It is now over four years since the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers heralded the credit crunch and the start of the one of the deepest global recessions in history. We are well versed in warning stores of booms, busts and bubbles. The South Sea Bubble and the Wall Street Crash are well known examples of speculative bubbles bursting with catastrophic effect. Less well known, but similarly destructive, was the British ‘Railway Mania’ of the 1840s.

Steam power and railway navvies By National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Steam power  Uploaded by russavia) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

The warning signs were glaring and obvious in hindsight. In 1846, the British Parliament had authorised almost 5,000 miles of new railways. This single year’s allocation would amount to nearly half of the entire modern railway network. Thousands more miles had been authorised in the heady build up to this apogee.

Or perhaps it could be discerned from the vast quantities of capital being sunk into British railway projects during the increasingly frenzied 40s. By 1847, over £40 million had been invested and throughout the decade well over £150 million was raised in capital. This equates to some £380 billion in 2010 terms as an equivalent share of GDP. If all of the railway schemes put forward to Parliament had been authorised it would have needed £250 million of capital to build.

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Makin’ all t’railways cum to York

York, Swindon, Crewe, Derby, Peterborough, Wolverton and Eastleigh are very different places, cities and towns spread across Britain. From ancient cathedral cities to metropolises that barely existed two centuries ago, they all share one thing; they are amongst Britain’s railway towns. 

Railway towns owed their economic success and booming populations to the arrival and patronage of the railways. To be a true railway town, it wasn’t enough to be served by the railways; instead, the railways forged entire communities by concentrating factories, workshops and repair yards in a single location.

Crewe's railway works for the London and North West Railway Company c. 1890 By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It isn’t surprising that the railways had the power to create towns and even cities: by 1900 over 620,000 people (just under 5% of the entire population) worked for the railways. Millions more were dependent on their wages, spending and the ancillary economic growth they brought.

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Steaming into post-war Britain

It was the dawn of a new age for Britain’s steam-powered trains. After years of neglect and underinvestment, the railways would be revitalised and the country would regain its position stoking the furnace of innovation and enterprise. Thousands of brand new steam engines were ordered to haul Britain back into pole position.

Over the next 12 years, 2,500 engines were produced in workshops across the country – literal cast-iron commitments to a belief in the future of steam traction. Streamlined and standardised designs were developed, reducing running costs and improving reliability. Everything was in place for a new golden age of steam.

The glaring flaw in the plan was that it came some fifty years to late. The modernisation plan was launched in 1948, when the rest of Europe was steadily abandoning steam in favour of diesel and electric-powered trains. Whilst war-shattered continental networks were being rebuilt, electrified and modernised, Britain’s railways were patched up and upgraded on the cheap.

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