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By Tom Shillam on

Navvies: Caught on the wrong side of the track

Exploring the archives sheds light on the early links between railways and crime.

For our new season Mystery on the Rails we’ve been exploring crime on the railways and how it has inspired writers and filmmakers. In this blog post, Tom Shillam looks at how railways have been linked with crime right from their earliest days.

In the mid-19th century, middle Britain was in the grip of a moral panic. Peaceful, law-abiding communities were being invaded by a new and dangerous species which overturned an essentially rural society – and all in the name of progress.

“These drunken ruffians are a nuisance to everybody, and objects of absolute terror to females, whom they rarely suffer to pass without making some coarse observations”, fumed one irate correspondent to his local newspaper.[1]

Another, more eminent, writer – Charles Dickens – described a typical scene of disruption in Camden Town, a well-to-do rural district in the 1830s whose social fabric was transformed by the arrival of these ‘ruffians’.

“The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond.”[2]

What was causing this profound shock which, if the writers were to be believed, was tearing apart the fabric of decent, ordinary society and threatening moral and physical disintegration?

The arrival of a new breed of man – the railway navigator, or ‘navvy’, on the front line of building the revolutionary railway system that would change Britain for ever. Hard drinking, petty thieving and womanising, they invaded towns and villages, threw all into uproar and then disappeared, moving on to the next ‘victim’. Things would never be the same again.

But what did they leave behind them? And was it all bad?

Dickens saw something emerge from the chaos: “In short, the yet unfinished and unopened railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.”[3]

The towns and villages of Britain were being invaded by teams of navvies. During the railway mania of the 1840s investment in railways boomed and hundreds of new companies sprang up, planning new routes to different parts of the country.

It was navvy labour that ensured the railways were built and – whether they stayed with locals, or built shanty towns from wood and mud – navvies occupied an increasingly prominent place in the Victorian imagination.

‘Working Shaft, Kilsby Tunnel’, 8 July 1837. Railroad under construction. 1997-7410_BTC_353_68

Britain was being modernised, even if it wasn’t much comfort to the first writer, who styled himself an “old soldier” in his letter to the editor of the Lancaster Gazette in 1845, in which he railed against “the gangs of railway labourers prowling about the town and its neighbourhood”.[4]

Navvies’ own voices are difficult to find, but the NRM’s Railway Songs collection is one source. In these verses the navvies are frank about their lifestyle and it becomes clear that prudish Victorian commentators would not approve. The following lyrics are from the song Navvy on the Line:

I have got a job of work all in the town of Bury
And working on the line is a thing that makes me merry
I can use my pick and spade, and my wheelbarrow;
I can court the lasses too, but never intend to marry.

I worked there a fortnight and then it came to pay day
And when I get my wages I thought I’d have a play day
And then a little spree in Clerke Street went quite handy
And I sat me down in Jenkinson’s beside a Fanny Brandy

I called for a pint of beer and bid the old wench drink sir
But while she was a drinkin she too at me did wink sir
Well then we had some talk, in the backside we had a rally
Then jumped over brush and steel & agreed to live tally

They called for liquors merrily; the jugs went quickly round
That being my wedding day, I spent full many a crown, sir
And when me brass was done, old Fanny went a cadging
And to finish up me spree, I went and sloped me lodgings[5]

The navvy, who goes by the name of Happy Jack, depicts an existence fuelled by booze, womanising and irresponsible spending. But it’s too good to be true; why is Happy Jack describing the exact caricature of men like himself that appears in the papers?

The use of the address ‘sir’ indicates that rather than intending to accurately portray his lifestyle, Jack is unsettling a social superior. The tone is one of in-your-face insolence. Keenly emphasising his estrangement from the moral community beloved of Victorians, he describes how he courts “lasses” for fun, bids them to drink, readily “rallies” with and informally marries them (“live tally” meant to cohabit). Having drained the pub dry he then decamps without paying.

Unadulterated navvy voices, then, are hard to recover; Happy Jack’s recollections may well have survived because they succeeded in alarming a middle-class listener, and regardless, Jack wasn’t seeking to portray the lifestyle of a typical navvy.

It’s easy to see how these men came to be greatly feared; in contrast to common labourers who often came from the local area and were a known quantity, navvies arrived as groups of disorderly men from distant parts of the country and lived as an almost alien group within the community.

Living together, working together, drinking together and eventually disappearing together when their contractor moved them on, few opportunities for mutual understanding arose between navvies and locals.

Ribblehead Viaduct Construction c.1870. Navvy camp visible right background. DS130269-102485

But if the navvies couldn’t – for the most part – speak for themselves, social reformers of the time did. In a report by Edwin Chadwick on the atrocious working conditions prevailing at many railroad building sites, a passage from fellow reformer John Roberton describes the navvy settlement at the Woodhead terminus of the Sheffield to Manchester line. The navvies lived in huts they had erected using ‘stones without mortar’, 14 or 15 sometimes lodging together, and had experienced 30 fatal accidents and 140 cases of severe injury during their contract, leaving them so demoralised that many came to work intoxicated.

When a navvy died his family was never compensated: it was a matter of put up or shut up. The tommy shop on the moor – ‘tommy shops’ were shops offering basic provisions established on site by the contractor – charged ‘an inordinate price for every article’ and wages were only paid at long intervals, creating great anxiety. Chadwick argued that the introduction of regulations could stop this barbarity, as it had in previous decades regarding factories and mines.[6]

A Select Committee on Railway Labourers was soon convened and heard evidence. A surgeon from the Sheffield to Manchester line recalled how no contractor made enquiries when men’s limbs were blown away and how no provision was made by the company for accommodation of the sick. Thomas Eaton, one of the few navvies to be called, said there were many careful men who saved money rather than spending it all on booze, and suggested that if paid more regularly – navvies were often paid monthly – the men would happily work for less, as the key issue was the insecurity of the work. The committee concluded that contractors would sympathise with the argument for greater regulation if they operated at close quarters with the men.[7]

The committee proposed more humane dwellings for the men [8]
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, while superiors demonised them and even their employers kept them at arm’s length, Britain’s first railway labourers were caught on the wrong side of the tracks.


[1] “The Naveys,” The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, for Lancashire, Westmorland, &c, September 20, 1845, accessed February 6, 2017.
[2] Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 69.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “The Naveys,” Lancaster Gazette, September 20, 1845.
[5] “Navvy on the Line,” Bargery No. 264,
[6] Edwin Chadwick, Papers Read Before the Statistical Society of Manchester, on the demoralisation and injuries occasioned by the want of proper regulations of labourers engaged in the construction & working of railways (Manchester: Hume Tracts, 1846).
[7] UK House of Commons. Select Committee on Railway Labourers, Report from the Select Committee on Railway Labourers; Together with the Minutes of Evidence and Index, Reports from Committees., vol. 9, sess. 22 January-28 August 1846.
[8] Ibid. Available at NRM Search Engine, Reference PP/1593.

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