The Campden Tunnel, two miles south of Mickleton, has been called the site of the ‘last pitched battle between two private armies on UK soil’. The ‘battle’ was between rival railway contractors and demonstrated both the fierce, belligerent loyalty of the navvies and their taste for fighting.
Navies played a vital, if not critical role in the development of Britain’s roads, canals and railways. Navvies were described as: “a special breed of labourer, highly skilled and resourceful, but wild and prone to drunken binges.” Terry Coleman, author of The Railway Navvies, develops the theme by warning that the navvies: “must never be confused with the rabble of steady, common labourers, whom they out-worked, out-drank, out-rioted and despised.”
For the promoters, financiers, engineers and owners of the railways, navvies were as indispensible as they were problematic. It could be argued that these high priests of Victorian capital exacerbated or even created their employees’ wildness by keeping them in almost primeval conditions: they were often forced to live in rough shelters hewn from the top soil of windswept, barren moors as they travelled with the railway.
One incident that went further than drunken brawls or lewd behaviour was the Battle of Mickleton in July 1851. Also known as the Mickleton Tunnel Riot, this incident has been interpreted in a number of ways: a pitched battle between thousands of navvies and the forces of law and order, an example of organised labour striking over pay, a minor labour relations problem that spiralled out of control. So what actually happened in Mickleton in 1851?
Mickleton is a village in the Cotswolds, eight miles south of Stratford-upon-Avon. Two miles further south the Cotswolds Line plunges into the Campden Tunnel, taking the railway 875 yards under the Cotswold Escapment. In the twenty-first century, the scene is as bucolic as railway infrastructure will permit; a carefully lined stone tunnel portal is surrounded and topped by trees, wild grasses and meadow flowers.
A very different scene would have presented the visitor in 1851. The railway was ripping a deep, muddy cut through the countryside. Vast heaps of spoil, thousands of labourers and navvies and all of their equipment and crude accommodation ensured that the coming of the railway despoiled a wedge of land either side of the line. This was not the age of the environmental impact assessment and careful, almost clinical engineering; it was more the scouring of the Shire.
Today’s Cotswolds Line was built as part of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway and under the general direction of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Although Brunel was an energetic and obsessive supervisor, he could not oversee all aspects of construction. Certain parts of the line were subcontracted and this is how the building of the Campden Tunnel came to be undertaken by Mr Marchant.
Brunel was unhappy with progress on the tunnel and had stopped paying Marchant. The debt from Brunel reached £34,000, Marchant stopped paying his men and construction ground to a halt. This was intolerable for both Brunel and Peto and Betts, the firm responsible for building the rest of the line. An account from the London Illustrated News of 26 July 1851 tells what happened next:
“At the Worcester end of the tunnel, Mr Cowdery [an agent for Peto and Betts] with 200 men from Evesham and Wyre carrying pickaxes and shovels, met Marchant who dared them to proceed on pain of being shot. He was carrying several pistols.
Mr Brunel, unable to persuade Marchant to move told Peto and Betts men to proceed and take the line. A rush was made, and several heads were broken and three men had dislocated shoulders. A Marchant man who drew his pistols was set upon and his head nearly severed from his body.
Marchant and his men left for an hour and returned with three dozen policemen from the Gloucester constabulary and some privates from the Gloucester Artillery and two magistrates who read the Riot Act. Fights had again broken out and several received broken arms and legs.
At 4 Mr Charles Watson, of Warwick, arrived with 200 men and the Great Western Company sent a similar number to expel Marchant. The magistrates told Marchant’s men to start work and Peto and Betts men to stop work.
Marchant gave in and he adjourned with Mr Brunel to come to some amicable agreement. Whilst they were doing so a small number of navvies again started fighting and one had his little finger bitten off. Eventually Messrs Cubitt and Stephenson acted as arbitrators and work suspended for a fortnight.”
Although enlivened by injuries big (a head almost severed from the body) and small (a little finger bitten off), this account does not do justice to the scale of the Battle. A fuller, historical account is given in Terry Coleman’s book ‘The Railway Navvies’. The epic opening of the battle includes a cast of thousands, including navvies dredged from across the west country, cutlass wielding policemen, pistol waving contractors and reinforcements from the army:
“Navvies were marched up from other parts of the line, from the works of the Birmingham and Oxford Railway at Warwick, and from the Great Western. In the darkness of Sunday night and early Monday morning gangs of navvies awoke village after village as they tramped through, alarming the whole countryside but not stopping long enough to do any damage.
Reports vary, but it seems likely that about 2,000 navvies assembled under Brunel’s command. His idea was to overawe Marchant by an overwhelming show of strength, and to persuade him to hand over the works. At three o’clock on Monday morning the navvies began to close in on the tunnel and the Battle of Mickleton began.”
It seems that little more was achieved other than mass posturing and sporadic acts of violence around the fringes of the main bodies of men. In the greking, small groups of navvies fought until separated or until the violence petered out. In the end, Marchant accepted he was outnumbered and in a hopeless position and he approached Brunel and: “they agreed to refer the whole dispute to the arbitration of the firm of Stephenson & Cubitt, celebrated railway contractors.”