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By Ollie Betts on

Ribblehead Viaduct – the real ‘Jericho’

Dipping into the archives, Ollie Betts explores the historical background of the new prime-time 'British Wild West' drama, Jericho.

The first episode of ITV’s new period drama Jericho aired last night [Thursday 7 January 2016], concentrating on the building of the Ribblehead Viaduct in the 1870s – one of the last great Victorian railway construction projects.

The Ribblehead Viaduct under construction – the settlement buildings can faintly be seen in the background to the right of the picture. National Railway Museum Collection.
The Ribblehead Viaduct under construction – the settlement buildings can faintly be seen in the background to the right of the picture. National Railway Museum Collection.

Designed by John Sydney Crossley the Ribblehead Viaduct carried the Settle and Carlisle Railway across the Batty Moss in North Yorkshire. On the edge of North Yorkshire, near the border with Cumbria, the line had its origins in the on-going battle between Midland Railway (who built it) and London and North Western Railway.

In the 1860s Midland’s route to Scotland relied on using LNWR (London and North Western Railway) lines from Ingleton into Carlisle. LNWR would not allow Midland trains to run on their lines, instead stipulating that Midland trains had to disembark their passengers at a station at the end of the Ingleton Viaduct and then make them walk about a mile to the next station to catch a LNWR train as depicted in the first episode of Jericho.

Unhappy with this arrangement, Midland decided to forge their own route to Carlisle and then on to Scotland, hence the Settle-Carlisle line and the need to lift the railway over the boggy terrain known as Batty Moss.

The Ribblehead Viaduct and Jericho Settlement as depicted in ITV’s drama
The Ribblehead Viaduct and Jericho Settlement as depicted in ITV’s drama

What was it like to live and work there?

Navvy work was hard – there was very little construction equipment beyond pickaxes and shovels in this period. The historian Terry Coleman argues that this was the “last great work in Britain executed by navvies” – after the 1870s early mechanical diggers began to be used to aid construction projects.

What equipment there was in 1870, particularly wooden cranes and gunpowder used in blasting, was unstable. Over one hundred men were killed in the construction of the viaduct – a not unusual number for the time. Building the famous Woodhead Tunnel in the 1840s involved 157 tonnes of gunpowder, the pumping out of 8 million tonnes of water, and 27 deaths. The blasting accident depicted in the first episode of Jericho was representative of the sort of incident in which men lost their lives. With very little of what we would recognise now as first aid or safety practices available, construction work was rough and dangerous in the period.

A memorial stone to workmen killed during the construction of the line (in the National Railway Museum Collection there is now a more modern monument at the viaduct)
A memorial stone to workmen killed during the construction of the line (in the National Railway Museum Collection there is now a more modern monument at the viaduct)

Between one and two thousand navvies, and their families, settled into the area in the five years it took to complete the work. The houses were largely made out of wood, with felt coverings to keep out the rain, but newspaper reports record a ‘hospital’ and a mission church.

Life at Jericho, like other navvy settlements, would have been hard. Henry Pomfret, Surgeon on the Sheffield and Manchester Railway in 1846 told a Parliamentary Select Committee that work on a similar moorland environment was hard for families:

I observed that the children seemed to suffer from the dampness of the moor; they enjoyed good health, considering the state of their homes and their habits, and the bleakness of the climate.

The men, as the pictures above show, would have lived in the shadow of the work they were accomplishing.

How much like the ‘Wild West’ was it?

Navvies in the Victorian period had a terrible reputation. As the Master, Mr Thornhill, observed, navvies were often thought to be “mostly villains and rough hands”. They were often a subject of concern for the public, and there were considerable enquiries into their behaviour.

In the 1860s, when St Pancras Churchyard was cleared for the railway the navvies were accused of breaking open the coffins and playing football with the skulls of the deceased as they made room for the railways. The local Vicar wrote to his MP and questions were asked in Parliament. The architect in charge of supervising these riotous navvies? None other than a young Thomas Hardy. Brawling and drinking in the work camps, with each other and with locals. Railway Policemen (the fore-runners of the British Transport Police) had their origins in the dual role of signalmen and navvy-supervisors.

In truth navvies were no more disorderly than many workers. Stories about them were inflated with each telling, exacerbated by stories of heavy drinking and brawling in the camps, and speak volumes about how uneasy Victorian society was with rootless workers.

Elizabeth Garnett, who ran the Navvy Mission which reached out to navvies up and down the country, wrote in 1885:

“They form a great nomadic tribe, numbering tens of thousands, yet so isolated are they in our midst that we see and know but little of them”.

With little entertainment in the camps violence and heavy drinking could occur. At other times, however, more calm pursuits were common. Many navvies taught themselves to read, and instructed their children and those of others, whilst others relied on older folk-song traditions to record their lives and works. We have a collection of these on our website.

How does Jericho compare to reality?

What Jericho does well is evoke the spirit of the camps and the scale of the project. Comparing the images of the real viaduct and camp above with the production shots prove how well the program catches the essence of railway construction in the period. It also captures the rough nature of work and life in the navvy camp and how, at the cutting edge of Victorian engineering and technology, raw manpower, crude huts, and hard lives continued to be vital.

Where it stumbles, and this is admittedly based on only one episode, is in persisting on viewing the Ribblehead Viaduct as a British Wild West. As the ITV Press Release puts it: “rough, rustic and remote, yet with a wild west, carnival atmosphere”. Rough, rustic and remote are well captured, representing the exposed nature of the settlements like the real Jericho, but to try and compare the community to the Wild West represents historical problems.

Navvies were drawn to the real Jericho for a specific purpose – construction work. Whilst many would have been hoping to start new lives, or simply raise money to escape the life of a wandering labourer, very few would have seen the area as a new long-term home. Unlike the pioneers of the West, navvies were not settlers but, as the historian Raphael Samuel put it, “Comers and Goers” and vanished as soon as the viaduct was completed almost without a trace.

20 comments on “Ribblehead Viaduct – the real ‘Jericho’

  1. Interested to read this. My Grandfather was born in Jericho in 1870 and went on to become a railway construction worker himself. His 9 children were all born in different parts of the UK including Glasgow, London and Wales. It must have been a hard life for the wives and children of these workers.

    1. A very interesting connection Mary and suggest you contact the Friends of Settle-Carlisle historian, Nigel Mussett

      Jean Collyer

    2. My great grandmother lived there as a child. Her father was a tunneller. Her mother died in Jerico. She married and the family continued the navvy life. She had 16 children. I remember her well because she lived to be nearly 90.

  2. Most of us who go walking, caving and biking in the Ribblehead area who see this awesome viaduct do not appreciate the extreme hardship these people went through for 5 years or more to build it. My hat off to them.

    1. There are organised tours of this Heritage site identifying the foundation remains. These are led by the Friends of Settle-Carlisle in the summer season – usually Wednesdays. See:

      Jean Collyer

  3. What happened to the settlemet Jericho? Was it disbanded after the completion of the project? Are there any buildings left there today?

    1. All the settlements were removed. The moor reverted to its wild state. However there are quite extensive archaeological remains which are visible. Try to join one of our Heritage Tours organised by the Friends of Settle Carlisle( website) or all links.

      Jean Collyer (Ribblehead Station Volunteer)

  4. Hundreds of railway builders (“navvies”) lost their lives building the line, from a combination of accidents, fights, and smallpox outbreaks. In particular, building the Ribblehead (then Batty Moss) viaduct, with its 24 massive stone arches 104 feet (32 metres) above the moor, caused such loss of life that the railway paid for an expansion of the local graveyard.

  5. My great grandfather came over from Ireland in the 1860’s and found work as a navvy working on the Blea Moor tunnel. He was married with a daughter and 3 sons, and his wife gave birth to 2 daughters whilst they lived there before the family moved on to Queensbury where he worked on the tunnels on the Bradford to Thornton Railway. My grandfather followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a tunnel miner on the railways, with 5 of his 10 children being born in different places in the North of England as he moved round where the work was.

  6. Just watched Jericho and was glad to see that they done a good job with it, was well acted by all involved. Hats off to the producers and all the Technical workers, it was as real as could be. Love the Viaduct and line.

  7. I have just picked up on these comments and contributions. Thank you for these – they all help to fill in some of the personal details of the Settle-Carlisle story, and these are certainly worth recording.
    Such contributions from descendants of those who worked on the line or its construction are always welcome and some are occasionally included in the quarterly magazine of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line.

    With regard to the TV series ‘Jericho’, this was an interesting and at times entertaining drama, very loosely based on the construction of Ribblehead viaduct and (presumably) Blea Moor tunnel, but it should not be taken literally.

    For the record, we have every reason to believe that the real Jericho was located at what became Blea Moor Sidings, on the site of, or adjacent to, the former railway cottages. All traces of the temporary buildings there have disappeared but for some details, see the S&C website (Resources Section), the permanent S&C exhibition at The Museum of North Craven Life in Settle and, of course, the contemporary accounts of the construction. But at least the construction of the viaduct from the northern end was accurate, although it never seemed to rise any higher as the series progressed!

    I suppose the writers/producers can be excused for omitting reference to the many other adjacent navvy settlements, provision of schooling for the children, spiritual welfare, medical facilities, regular burials at Chapel-le-Dale, presence of the local constabulary, the extensive tramway network, the Sebastopol brickworks (actually situated more or less where the fictional Jericho was depicted!), etc., etc. which characterised this thriving community for well nigh six or seven years. It is just so unfortunate that no photographs of the camps exist; there are practically none of the navvies on the entire S&C line either although we do have several of the major viaducts and a few other features, including the use of some of the first mechanical excavators (“steam navvies”) from a contract further up the line.

  8. My great great uncle was born at Sebastopol. His father was a stone mason from Wales. There were six children who all survived to adulthood. Maybe it was too cold for TB? My grandmother grew up in Liverpool and most of her 13 siblings died of TB.
    Is there any way to see this series in the US? Thanks so much for this site. Anne Hyatt

    1. Anne Hyatt. I’ve only just seen your comment on the website. I assume that your great-great uncle was a son of Joseph Lewis and Anne Hardee, who were my great-great-great grandparents. Incidentally, I happen to be going to see the viaduct next week, after waiting some time for an opportunity.

  9. My Great Grandma was brought up in Jericho. My Great Grandad was an Irish Navvi and worked on the viaduct.

  10. I have just finished reading these comments and found them so very interesting . My great great grandad worked on the blea moor tunnel . He was one of the workers who died in 1874 . He was there with his whole family. My great Grandma was 8 years old at the time. Whilst I see from notes and photos there is a memorial stone to those men who lost their lives whilst constructing this Iconic Railway yet there is no mention of their names . Thank you for this site and to the local historians who have given some very positive insight into other facilities such as the schooling and health care etc .

  11. We visited the viaduct last year and also the little church and overgrown grave yard which was a little way up the road where magic the dead from the settlement were reputed to be buried . It was a very sad place.

  12. my great grandad died building the ribble head viaduct .but we dont know wear he was buried

  13. My great great grandmother was born at Ten Huts in Cowgill in 1870. Her father George Plumb was an excavator on the Settle- Carlisle railway. Does anyone know if there are any records of the names of the navies that worked around the dent area. My great great grandmother was born at Barnard Castle. Would her father have worked on the Deepdale or Teesdale viaduct?

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