8. The railway navvies

‘… his navvies consumed on average 2 pounds of meat, 2 pounds of bread, and 5 quarts of ale a day’



U&LR navvies dinner snip

From Carlisle Journal September 4th 1857

In September 1857, after completion of the U&LR, the director John Brogden arranged a dinner and day of entertainment for his navvies; at least 550 men turned up for the event and the men were ‘liberally regaled with ale”. Nevertheless, Brogden apparently gave a speech in which he praised the sobriety of his workers (Les Gilpin, personal communication).

Railway construction was booming throughout Britain in those decades – in Cumberland and the Borders, Lancashire, south Scotland and elsewhere – and  navvies walked from project to project, looking for work. So it is entirely possible that many of the Brogdens’ navvies followed the Company of their ‘respected employer’ to work on the SJR. They would have been joined by local men, often agricultural labourers, and Irish, Scottish and English navvies from elsewhere, gathering together to form ‘a temporary concentration in particular localities, often at spots but before thinly inhabited…’ (Select Committee Report 1846, Railway Labourers and Labourers on Public Works )

The Solway Junction Railway was rather different from other railways in that it was being built in two countries divided by a tidal arm of the sea, and so there must have been two separate groups of navvies. There would have been hundreds of them, as well as joiners, masons, stable-lads and wheel-wrights; some of the men would have brought their families. They arrived together, they worked together, they lived together; there was no escape or respite for the months and years of the construction project.

Where did the men on the Cumberland side live? The villages of Kirkbride, Bowness, Glasson, the nearby hamlets and possibly farms would have been overwhelmed.

Often ‘poor people’ took in lodgers: here’s a fairly typical response from one of the interviewees before the 1846 Select Committee :

“Mr John Baird, the clerk of the peace for Dumfriesshire, examined in relation to the railway labourers at Lockerby.—Is there any special provision for their lodging in the village? —No; they lodge with poor people in the place. What has been the consequence of that? —The accommodation is very inadequate for the increased number of inhabitants, in consequence of the labourers coming amongst them. What is the ordinary population of Lockerby? —Fourteen hundred, and there is added to that upwards of 600, with no additional means of accommodation.  … I know a house with only two apartments, where 21 individuals sleep.”

(Note that a few months previously, the 200 or so English navvies working at Ecclefechan on the Caledonian line in Annandale marched to meet the 200 or so Irish navvies working at Lockerby, ready for a fight and ‘armed with pitchforks, old scythes, bludgeons and bars of iron’. Fortunately, the fight was averted [Dumfries & Galloway Advertiser, November 1845] – but navvies were notorious throughout the country for their fights and ‘randies’.)

navvies ireland mid1850s
Irish navvies, mid-1850s


Returning to the matter of housing: in the 1860s and a little to the South-east, where the Lake District line was reaching out from Keswick to Cockermouth, the Cumberland Paquet  (June 3rd 1863) reported that the benevolent Mrs Jeremiah Spencer  ‘had taken a large house in Kirkgate for the accommodation of the hardy, but oft-improvident railway navvies, many of whom have come to Cockermouth from many distant parts with a hope of getting employment on the new line, but without a coin in their pockets.’ Mr Spencer said his wife ‘would see that they did not want breakfast so long as they kept sober’!

But not all navvies were so lucky. Most lived in huts and shanties and temporary ‘villages’  built by themselves.

In 2008 Channel 4’s Time team excavated the navvies’ village by the Risehill Tunnel, built during 1870-75 in Cumbria along the Settle to Carlisle line. The results were recorded by the Wessex Archaeological Society. The few buildings the team uncovered in the time allotted had stone footings and were constructed of wood. Otherwise, navvies’ shanties were usually of wood and turf, often crowded, with bunks against the walls; often damp and dirty, places where illness could catch hold and spread. By the 1860s the huts were sometimes supplied by the contractor, to whom rent was paid.

The 1846 Select Committee had reported on the unfairness of paying the navvies’ wages only once a month; during that period the men often had to rely on ‘truck’ – payment in goods or tickets which could be exchanged for goods at the truck- (or tommy-) shop which had been organised by the contractor. For men living in the back of beyond far from a town or market, it sounds good sense for the contractor to bring bulk quantities of food and drink to the work- and living-space. But in practice, the tommy-shops extracted a levy, which went to the contractor, and sold over-priced, short-weight and often bad provisions. Pay-day – and real money in the hand – led to alcohol being bought and consumed, and then fights and days off work. A fight amongst Settle & Carlisle navvies started near Eckersley & Bayliss’ tommy-shop (the same Eckersley that was contractor for the SJR?) at Armathwaite in 1870, on ‘big pay day’, and was much reported in the Cumberland Paquet (Oct 25th) and elsewhere.

This is of course over-simplifying the picture – some of the expert witness accounts, and the highly readable book, ‘The railway navvies’ (Terry Coleman, 1965, Penguin) –  give a much wider picture of the life of a navvy in a general sense. And there were improvements: later in the century, a contractor might provide a room so the navvies’ children could be schooled, a preacher to make a weekly visit, and health checks.

The photographer S.W.A. Newton captured the process of building the Great Central Railway from Nottingham to Marylebone in the 1890s, with images of Mission Sunday Schools, boys leading horses, tip-trucks, bands of men with shovels building embankments – and the bare bones of tunnels and bridges and the permanent way: the men are posed, unsmiling figures, but you can also look beyond them to see the conditions in which they worked and lived (in The making of a railway, by L.T.C. Rolt, 1999).

So, what of the SJR’s navvies? It seems to be impossible to find out much about them.

First reference to some smartly-dressed navvies on the SJR comes from the Sod-cutting Ceremony on March 26th 1865, when the ‘silver spade and silver-mounted mahogany barrow for the work of the day, [was] borne shoulder-height by four navvies in the smock frocks, red neck-cloths, and white nightcaps of the order’ . When Mr Ewart MP was ready to cut the Sod, ‘The navvy in charge … said, “I hope as how he will take his coat off before he starts”. With this request the hon. Member good humouredly complied, though the navvy was evidently disappointed that his pupil did not strip to the buff.’ (Carlisle Journal, Friday March 31st 1865.)

Coleman (in The Railway Navvies, 1965, p28) says their dress ‘was distinctive. They wore moleskin trousers, double-canvas shirts, velveteen square-tailed coats, hobnail boots, gaudy handkerchiefs, and white felt hats with the brims turned up. … their distinctive badge was the rainbow waistcoat.’

A month after the SJR’s Sod-Cutting Ceremony the Carlisle Journal  (Friday April 28th 1865), under the heading ‘Solway Junction Railway’, notes that ‘On Wednesday afternoon a band of navvies commenced the formation of this railway in a field on the south side of the Glasgow and South Western railway’.

In October 1867, Whitehaven News reports that ‘in the course of the next 14 days a large body of navvies, masons and other workmen will be collected and placed on the line, with the view of enabling the company, in April next, to open for traffic the portion of it between Annan and Kirtlebridge.’ (Meanwhile ‘not much progress’ had been made on the line between Kirkbride and Bowness ie on Bowness Moss.)

Navvies were still needed in January 1869:

quarrymen & navvies snip

The Abbey to Brayton stretch, Section 4 of the SJR, was a dry section of the track where ballast and sleepers could be more easily laid, an enormous contrast with the long-delayed, wet and difficult work across Bowness Moss.

No description exists of the early stages of construction on Bowness Moss, but Samuel Smiles (in Lives of the Engineers. The Locomotive. George and Robert Stephenson, 1879) gives a vivid picture of the similar challenges, and how they were overcome, for the London & Manchester Railway, L&MR, across Chat Moss nearly forty years earlier.

(p177) “When they reached Chat Moss, Mr. Dixon found that the line had already been staked out and the levels taken in detail by the aid of planks laid upon the bog.  The cutting of the drains along each side of the proposed road had also been commenced; but the soft pulpy stuff had up to this time flowed into the drains and filled them up as fast as they were cut.  Proceeding across the Moss, on the first day’s inspection, the new resident, when about halfway over, slipped off the plank on which he walked, and sank to his knees in the bog.  Struggling only sent him the deeper, and he might have disappeared altogether, but for the workmen, who hastened to his assistance upon planks, and rescued him from his perilous position.  ..[he] floundered on until they reached the further edge of the Moss, wet and plastered over with bog-sludge.  Mr. Dixon’s companions endeavoured to comfort him by the assurance that he might avoid similar perils, by walking upon “pattens,” or boards fastened to the soles of his feet, as they had done when taking the levels, and as the workmen did when engaged in making drains in the softest parts of the Moss.” [my italics]

This is exactly what the navvies would have been dealing with as they cut the drains and cross-drains across the thick peat of Bowness Moss. Such foot-boards were still being used a century later by men hand-cutting peat on nearby Kirkbride Moss.

Only when they reached the slight raise of the drumlin in the centre of the Moss would they hit firm soil and pebbles and stone. Here they would need to dig out a cutting, firming the sides, and using the dug-out material later for ballast. Temporary rails would have been laid as they pushed across the Moss.

On Chat Moss,

“The first thing done was to form a footpath of ling or heather along the proposed road, on which a man might walk without risk of sinking.  A single line of temporary railway was then laid down, formed of ordinary cross-bars about 3 feet long and an inch square, with holes punched through them at the ends and nailed down to temporary sleepers.  Along this way ran the waggons in which were conveyed the materials requisite to form the permanent road.”

The SJR waggons were most likely pulled along the temporary rails by horses (rather than pushed by boys, as on Chat Moss).

The contractor’s office was clearly on the Scottish side of the Solway, as the notice for the final auction of equipment mentions buildings and stables at Shawhill, Annan. Amongst items to be sold were ‘200 earth wagons, with wrought and cast iron wheels; a horsebox; large quantity of navvy barrows.’ Surely there must have been stables near Whitrigg, too, and other buildings for storage of tools and materials on the English side?

Navvies and other trades worked on Bowness Moss for nearly 18 months, walking and squelching to work every day, perhaps occasionally hitching a ride on a waggon.

Throughout that time they would have been eating and drinking enormous amounts of food and drink, for navvies had to be strong, fit men – agricultural labourers who joined up could not, at first, stand the pace. Navvies on the Settle & Carlisle Railway, involved in a drunken fight and death at Armathwaite in 1870, were ‘big brawny Scotchmen, stout uncultivated Lancashire and south country labourers …’ (Cumberland Paquet, October 25th 1870). Joseph Firbanks (contractor for many railways including the Settle & Carlisle) ‘mentions quite casually that his navvies consumed on average two pounds of meat, two pounds of bread, and five quarts of ale a day (quoted in Terry Coleman’s The railway navvies, 1965, p86).

Navvies generally went by nicknames (which caused the police some difficulties in trying to find the Armathwaite killers) such as Tiger, Gipsey, Dagger, Belter, Punch, Portsmouth, Fighting Jack and Fisherman. They worked in close-knit gangs, and sometimes also fought in close-knit gangs.

They were also known for poaching fish and game. The Kendal Mercury, quoting the Ulverston Advertiser, (Aug 17th 1867) – ‘two boats filled with fishermen, navvies &c., singing and drinking ale and on the sand opposite stood a great number of policemen, gamekeepers &c….’ There were deer, hares and wildfowl on the marshes and mosses of the Upper Solway, and fish in the rivers and the Firth – it’s highly likely that the navvies supplemented their diets by poaching.

But by the end of 1869, the navvies had all moved on … and we know almost nothing about them and their living conditions, or their views about Bowness Moss.