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.

The navigators were hard working, hard living men who had earned a living and an ignoble reputation forging the British canal network. They were once again summoned to work great feats in unimaginable conditions, heroic labourers with brutish reputations. They were banished to the edge of civilisation whilst they forged the very connections that would create the modern age.

If Hobbes needed a local example of an existence that was nasty, brutish and short, he would have been well satisfied by the navvy. In a world where health and safety regulations were decades away, respite only came in a drunken stupor or a shallow grave.


Ironically, the machine age provided no help to the millions of men called upon to build the railways. The land would be flattened, levelled, cut and tunnelled by hand. Wooden struts and supports, ropes and plain shovels were a pre-industrial solution to this industrial process. A good navvy could shift over 20 tonnes per day.

Living conditions were no better than working conditions. They lived in close proximity to the lines they were building, erecting temporary and shoddy shelters made from rough timber and turf. At best they were housed in shacks thrown up by the railway companies. At worst, they slept in hovels hewn from the topsoil.

This lifestyle attracted and produced a very distinctive group. Christopher Wolmar has described them as: “a special breed of labourer, highly skilled and resourceful, but wild and prone to drunken binges.” Terry Coleman, author of The Railway Navvies, points out that not everyone who worked on the railways earned the distinction of being a navvy:

“They must never be confused with the rabble of steady, common labourers, whom they out-worked, out-drank, out-rioted and despised.”

Sculptures of navvies by the Royal Military Canal Navvies or navigators were the workmen who travelled the country to build the Royal Military Canal at the start of the 19th century. At its height, 700 navvies were employed together with the soldiers of the Royal Staffordshire Corps.

Navvies were an elite if itinerant class who earned their status by performing the hardest and most dangerous jobs: tunnelling, excavating and blasting, travelling with the railway as it was built and living together as a separate group. Wolmar points out that it could take an ordinary agricultural labourer a year to build up the strength to be considered a true navvy.

A turning point in working conditions would come in the building of the Woodhead Tunnel through the Cheshire Pennines. The three mile long tunnel was dug out inch by inch. It was later reported 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. This caused an outrage and led to a Parliamentary enquiry, but its findings were not acted upon for years.

In Dan Snow’s documentary on the railways, Locomotion, they are hailed as “the unsung heroes of the railways”. In fact, they are the unsung heroes of the modern world, having had a hand in building the canals, railways and roads upon which our modern lives and economy depend.