Navvies, navvying and English canals (it can be no surprise) were exactly coeval: men who began on the Bridgewater as labourers left it as Navigators, tramping away to spend the rest of their lives digging waterways. 'I've been a canal cutter upward of forty years,' said John Walker in 1801, the first professional navvy we know about. 'I worked upon the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal, and since have worked upon several.' The last canals and the earliest railways overlapped in time and, at a guess, five to ten thousand canal makers overlapped with them. Richard Pearce, who made the crossing, began on the Lancaster canal the year before Waterloo and worked through to the Great Western Railway and beyond. He'd found work pretty easily over the years he said in 1846, though you were better off in the old days.

It's very unlikely canal men worked on the Stockton-Darlington, almost as unlikely they worked on the Manchester-Liverpool (where they were mainly local or Irish), but it's certain they worked on the London-Birmingham where, it was said by Lecount, they were too few to spread their usual havoc.

Twentieth-century navvies thought their canal forebears were fenmen, people accustomed to controlling slow flowing water. Some were, probably, though most must have been farm labourers, picked up when the canal neared them. William Mylne, an engineer who worked on waterways into the 1830s, never hired finished navvies but recruited the rawstock from the countryside. His rustics, he admitted, were slow and awkward but he paid them little and when they grew proficient and ran off to the railways (it took a year a turn a labourer into a navvy) he recruited more.

Like the canals, the railways recruited bucolic hard men when the une neared their parishes, usually men too drunken and disrespectful to be hired by farmers. ('They appeared to me,' said a contractor, [45/46] in the '30s, 'the same as a dog that had been tied up for a week. They seemed to go out of their way to commit outrageous acts.') Farms and the countryside, in fact, were always good recruiting grounds even after navvying became partly self-supplying, particularly in the great agricultural collapse of the '80s.

By the '80s, as well, Cardwell's army reforms were working through and old soldiers young enough for navvying were being released from the colours. They became quite common on public works with their give-away nicknames like Soldier and Gunner. [Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for War, reorganised the infantry into county regiments in which men could serve for six years, instead of lifetime.]

A swarthy navvy called Soldier drew his shilling a day pension in a quarterly lump in Gravesend in July 1883 and boozed it away in his regular fashion, ending foodless, moneyless and kitless in Boston a month later. Joe Chapham took him home and gave him tommy and lodgings, until Soldier robbed his fellow-lodgers of 3-3-8d and stole Jethro Bird's jacket, moleskin trousers, handker- chief and waistcoat (all good). Jethro said: 'He turned out respectable in mv rigs, and has skinned me.' (Jethro had no room to talk — he was later expelled from the Christian Excavators' Union for buying things on credit and sloping.)

Rarer was the upper class drop-out, generally a drunk, often strangely reminiscent of a failed remittance man: failed in that nobody was going to pay him to go to the farthermost colonies and never return. Men like the Oxford double first Mrs Hunter of Hunterston met at the Dairy dam near Paisley. 'Look at that shovel,' said the navvy, a dark middle-aged man, 'I'm actually fond of it, for by tomorrow night it will have earned me ten shillings, and then I can go and have a drink.' 'We have known,' said the Illustrated London News in 1854, 'two surgeons (very drunken fellows) working as navvies.' They also knew of a footman who ran away to navvy on the Lincolnshire Railway, only to suffocate in mud at the New Holland Pier.

Before all that, however, there were two other big navvy-making factors, the new Poor Laws and the Hungry Forties. The trade recession which made the '40s so hungry began throwing thousands of mill hands out of work in the mid-'30s, just as the earliest railways were scrabbling about for labour: out-of-work spinners, redundant weavers, it made no odds as long as they weren't too gaunt to pick up a pick and shovel. Up to fifty thousand unwanted [46/47] hands, it's thought, went straight from their mills to the railways: Manchester-Sheffield, Selby-Hull, Chester-Crewe, Bolton-Preston, Preston-Fleetwood, North Midland, Midland Counties. Many stayed with public works, becoming so good that for a long time a lot of people thought only north-countrymen could be navvies: if your vowels were soft you must be a labourer.

The 1835 Poor Law was perhaps a less drastic way of creating navvies but it was longer lasting. It was meant to simplify the maze of parish-by-parish relief schemes which had grown up, entwining the whole country like clinging ivy, ever since King Henry closed the monasteries and with them their alms for the poor. Things had got into a pretty mess by the 1830s. In 1835 Edward Gulson, who did some prying for the Commissioners in the still un-Unionised parishes of Oxfordshire, reported that rate-receivers lived better than rate-payers. One woman even paid the parish to let her lodge in the poorhouse where paupers ate meat daily. A gang of fit men, paid by the parish to mend roads, played pitch and hustle with the parish's money and took paid leave to go bull-baiting.

The new Poor Law changed all that. The new system was both unified and rigid. At the top it was run from London by paid Commissioners. Locally it was run by elected Boards of Guardians, generally petty tradesmen with a vested interest in being stingy to the poor. Parishes were lumped together into Unions the better to support the new brick workhouses which, like jails, were meant to deter, not attract; to break, not protect. Only the utterly desperate and beaten would live in them.

Some, seeing the game was up, chose to look for work: others were forced to. Many trekked to the new railways. The Guardians in Halstead, in Essex, clashed with their paupers over the winter of 1835-6 when the poor rioted and fired wheat ricks. Some were locked away in the new workhouse, confident that farmers had to give them work if they wanted it. Others trod the tread-mill in the House of Correction. Either way by next mid-summer the poor were broken and were trudging away from their homes. Twenty went to the Southampton Railway.

For a time Richard Muggeridge, the Commissioners' migration officer in Manchester, shipped whole families of southern farm labourers along the canals into the cotton towns. When the Hungry Forties set in, he diversified out of cotton into bleaching, paper-making, and railways. Striplings, he wrote, were no good for railway work: budding navvies had to be young, unmarried, but 47/48] past their unmuscled youth.

At the same time a circular letter sent to the Boards of Guardians alongside the London-Birmingham reminded them that here was a good way of getting rid of their unwanted poor. In response, the Select Vestry at Hemel Hempstead persuaded the railway company to hire a whole gang of its paupers. The Vestry found the tools, but the paupers couldn't find the energy and they all left in a few days. Others, on the other hand, stuck it out, Francis Giles, an ex-canal engineer, was very pleased with his paupers on the Newcastle-Carlisle: with good gangers he'd match them against any navigator. Many became navigators themselves.

At first, when most people thought only north-countrymen were real navvies, most navvies were from the north. By the 1880s, on the other hand, most new navvies were southerners (more men always became navvies than were born navvies.) Roughly eighty per cent were English. Ten per cent were Irish. Five per cent were Scots, five per cent Welsh. This number has been worked out from names printed in the dead and hurt lists of the Navvy Mission Society, 1880-1914. At least three navvies were black. Six-Fingered Jack died in Malmesbury workhouse, aged 79, in the summer of 1902. Another black man, from the Elan Valley dams, died of exposure in the hills above Rhayader in 1897. A third worked on the Ballachulish railway a year or so later.

In 1793 Sir Charles Morgan tabled a motion in the House of Commons which would have banned canal digging at harvest time when navvies were needed to help get in the corn. Most MPs opposed it. 'Mr Dent,' said the Morning Chronicle, 'said there were hundreds of people who came from Scotland and from Ireland, for the purpose only of working in canals, and who knew nothing of corn harvest.' Since Mr Dent says 'hundreds' and the canals were built by thousands perhaps the Irish ten per cent was steady from the beginning. It seems to be true of the first railways. 'On these works,' says the 1841 Census in Ireland, 'it has been supposed by one of the leading engineers in England, that the Irish labourers did not at any time exceed five thousand or one-tenth the whole.'

In 1854 the Illustrated London News made a point of how many Irish soldiers there were and how few Irish navigators. They put it down to the potato eating habit which they thought weakened men too much for navvying. The Irish clung together so that on a few jobs they were either in a large minority or even a small majority. Missionaries complained about it. Two-thirds of the men on the Cray dam near Swansea in [48/49] 1900 were Irish. Three-quarters of those at the Alwen dam a few years later were both Irish and Catholic. Even as early as 1851 twenty-six per cent of the men working around the Knaresborough viaduct on the East and West Riding Junction were Irish. (The rest were English. A quarter of all of them were local.)

Statistics about the origins of people on Pennine Railways have been worked out from the census returns for 1851, 1861, 1871.

Ninety-two per cent were English. Four per cent were Irish. Three per cent were Scots. Only one per cent was Welsh (and most of them were on the Carlisle-Settle line where they totalled nearly five per cent of the whole. Most, probably, were miners in the line's several tunnels). Nearly half the Englishmen were northerners of one sort or another. The eastern counties, the midlands, and the southern counties each contributed around 14 per cent of the English contingent. Only 2 per cent came from the far west of England, though again they congregated in sizeable minorities in a few places: 14 per cent of the Englishmen on the Carlisle-Settle came from the south-west — probably Devon and Cornish miners in the tunnels.

Most Irish navvies were English-speaking Ulster Catholics, a fact not always appreciated even at the time. (The Irish Society once sent Irish-speaking Protestant scripture readers to work among them.) They were different both from the Irish who came seasonally for the sheep-shearing and the harvest, and the Glasgow-Irish who in mid-century were about to become Scots. Most Irish navvies tended to stick to the north, fanning out from their ports of entry, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Burke and Hare, the body snatchers, were both Ulster Catholics who worked on the Edinburgh-Glasgow Union Canal for a short time around 1818. Burke was a labourer's son from County Tyrone. Hare came from Newry and worked on the canal at West Port where a man called Logue had a gang of Irishmen and a lodging house. Logue's wife, Lucky, navvied on the canal as well, dressed as a man. [49/50]

'The land of Donegal is bare and hungry,' said Patrick MacGill who was born there in 1890, 'and nobody can make a decent livelihood except landlords.' His priest, a pot-bellied little man with sparkling false teeth and a taste for good cigars and first class railway travel, put curses on most of his parishoners. Seven curses to begin with, for dancing. 'May you have one eye and it be squinting. May you have one tooth and it be aching.' He used the people's fear of him, said MacGill, to extort money. He built himself a house with a lavatory when nobody else knew what a lavatory was (a place for storing holy water, somebody thought). 'He wants another pound for his new house at once,' MacGill's father once told his family. 'I'm over three weeks behind, and if he puts a curse on me this time what am I to do at all, at all.'

MacGill was 'sold' when he was still a child to a bigoted Orangeman for five shillings a week wages and the same food as the pigs, only less. In 1905 he crossed to Scotland for the potato picking, lost his money gambling, and was too ashamed to go home to Donegal. He met Moleskin Joe, an English navvy. Together they worked at the Kinlochleven dam where MacGill became a writer and gave up navvying.

The Irish were cast out even by the outcast navvy: they were the minority within the minority, the outsiders inside the outsiders. Although they made up only ten per cent of the whole, the Irish were the common factor in about a third of navvy riots. The Irish put it down to bigotry. In 1839 the Liverpool Mercury reported that an Irish navvy called Peter McDonough had been defrauded of his wages at Ellesmere Port by a hagman called Isaac Dean. 'After I was employed by Dean,' McDonough told the newspaper, 'it was often hinted to me that I ought to consider myself a fortunate kind of Irish animal because I was not driven from the place with sticks or stones, as many of my countrymen had been before my coming, for no other reason than being Irish. I witnessed a few of these Irishmen hunts since I came. One poor fellow, who got employment, and began work, was attacked in a dreadful manner; he ran, and was pursued by them with stones, etc. from which he received a severe cut on the head; his coat, after taking from it a case of razors and a comb, they rolled up with hot bricks.'

Prejudice, as well, was the motive the Irish gave for the riot which drove them off the Lancaster-Preston railway in 1859. Michael Donahue, a tall spare man, was eating bread and cheese outside the Green Dragon in Calgate when the mob came. Somebody stole a [50/51] tool from him and beat with a knobbed ash plant. He tried to run away, he told the magistrates. 'I went over a field, and went into a road, and found Rough Lane, and I got tally-ho there. There was another with him in a blue waistcoat. They chased me round the house, and tore my coat and took away my pocket, and my handkerchief with half a sovereign in it. They struck at me, and pulled my coat to pieces.'

Donahue, humiliated and shaken, his coat in tatters, crept away, then made his way to what he thought would be safety in Lancaster. Except Rough Lane somehow got there before him. 'Damn you, why don't you cut?' Rough Lane shouted at him, beating him with his fists.

John Trainor, a stout man with only a slight Irish accent, was lamed at Calgate and limped into the witness box. 'They beat me over my head and body,' he told the court, 'they hurt me very much. I begged for my life, and they ordered me to get up, and I walked with them. If I did not walk fast enough they prodded me on with their sticks.' He was pushed into a crowd of Englishmen, 'Pitch into the bastard,' they shouted. 'What fetched you here?' 'I said we came for work wherever it was. They said they did not allow Irish. They asked me if I would be off the ground, when they were leathering me, and I said I believe I must, as I was not able to work. They said they would not have any of us.'

But there was more to it than pure prejudice. Between the Irish and the Scots it was often religious: Reformation vs Counter-Reformation, Calvin vs Pope by proxy. Money, more often than not, was the reason the heathen English attacked the Irish. The English, said the Liverpool Journal in 1839, entertained a general opinion that they (the Irish) flocked too numerously to their country, and by accepting of a rate of wages below the English standard, reduced their value in the labour market.' 'We are all starving,' the destitute navvy in Cripplegate told Henry Mayhew. 'We are all willing to work, but it ain't to be had. This country is getting very bad for labour: it's so overrun with Irish that the Englishman hasn't a chance in his own land to live.'

(The Irish did have their champions. In 1846 Thomas Carlyle watched navvies on the Caledonian Railway. 'I have not in my travels seen anything uglier than that disorganic mass of labourers, sunk three-fold deeper in brutality by the three-fold wages they are getting. The Yorkshire and Lancashire men, I hear are reckoned the [51/52] worst, and not without glad surprise, I find the Irish are the best in point of behaviour. The postmaster tells me several of the poor Irish do regularly apply to him for money drafts, and send their earnings home. The English, who eat twice as much beef, consume the residue in whisky, and do not trouble the postmaster.')

'As far as my experience goes,' said the Sheriff of Edinburgh, also in 1846, 'in Scotland we have not yet any of the class of people called navigators; they are generally merely labourers, who come for the occasion and probably do not return to that work afterwards.' But though few turned navvy, a lot of Scotsmen did labour on public works in Scotland. The Caledonian Canal was built mainly by Highlanders with only a stiffening of regular navvies from the south. In the 1840s Scotsmen on Scottish railways came from lowland farms and highland crofts, where they went back when the job was done. Just before the Great War many of the gangers on the Kinlochleven dam were bilingual in English and Gaelic. The Gaels went home when the dam was built. (Earlier, they were apt to go at any time: for the herring fishing, the potato harvest, peat cutting. The herring season has been most abundant,' Telford wrote from the Caledonian canal in 1818, 'and the return of the fine weather will enable the indolent Highland creature to get their plentiful crops and have a glorious spell at the whisky-making.')

The Welsh, too, usually only took to navvying when navvying came to them, one result of which was they were normally less violent. They at least belonged somewhere. A scripture reader on the Holyhead line said he'd never seen navvies like them: they never lost even an hour's pay through drunkenness and paid cash for Bibles, even the five shilling ones. 'I've seen in a common labourer's purse,' said the missionary, 'two and three and more sovereigns, and silver.' Most, on the Holyhead line, were miners. Many were monoglot Welsh speakers. Few were illiterate. (At the Vyrnwy dam in the 1880s the store keeper sold twenty Welsh-language books a week, against none in English. Three-quarters of the Vyrnwy men were Welsh.)

Not that they were entirely faultless. On Whit Monday, 1846, James Webb was drinking his quart of ale among a crowd of navvies outside a tommy shop near Bangor on the Chester-Holyhead when somebody suggested, in Welsh, they amputate his bloody ears. They should in fact prune the ears of every English bugger to distinguish them from Welshmen. Webb, after being kicked and [52/53] knocked down, found his ear had been cut, not off, but in two, and he had been stabbed in the head with a pen-knife.

Full-scale rioting broke out there as well one Friday towards the end of May at the beginning of the long sun-dried summer of 1846. Local Welsh labourers, jealous so many Irishmen were employed, drove them out of Penmaenmawr and marched on westwards, clearing the line of Irish until they reached the Llandegai tunnel which runs under Bangor. Half climbed to the shafts, the rest skirted the hill into town, passing the lock-up and the courthouse of the Rev James Vincent, the magistrate. Vincent, who'd scrutinised the rioters with disfavour as he rode from his home near Aber earlier that morning, sent a snatch-squad of constables to arrest a ringleader as he marched by his courtroom window. As the police dragged their leader into the jail-room behind the court, the mob turned on Vincent, hitting him in the face, jeering at him as he read the Riot Act. At the same time the ringleader walked out of his unlocked cell and over the wall, climbing a ladder he found in the backyard. The Durham Light Infantry sailed from Liverpool in steamboats. The mob went back to work. [55/56]


[Note: Full citations for works cited by the name of the author or a short title can be found in the bibliography.]

Walker said he became a navvy on the Bridgewater in Pinkerton's Abstract of the Cause. Richard Pearce spoke to the 1846 Committee. The origins of men on the Liverpool-Manchester is from J H Clapham, An Economic History of Modern Britain: The Early Railway Age, 1820-50. The original source is a pamphlet written by the London and Midland Railway rebutting criticism made in the Octoberober 1832 number of the Edinburgh Review. The pamphlet is called An Answer by the Directors of the L&MR to an Article in the Edinburgh Review. Mylne is from Brees.

The contractor who compared navvies to dogs spoke to the 1846 Committee. That the great agricultural slump of the 1880s was a navvy-recruiter is from an article John Ward wrote for Justice, one of a series called "Sketches of Labour Life," 16 and 23 June 1888.

Soldier and Jethro Bird are from Quarterly Letter to Navvies 21, September 1885. Mrs Hunter and the Oxford double-first is from Our Navvies. The inebriate surgeons and the mud-drowned footmen are from Illustrated London News 30 December 1854. Gulson's prying is from PRO MH 32/28. How the Poor Law drove men into navvying is from the Second and Third Annual Reports of the Poor Law Commissioners — Parliamentary Reports Vol XXIX part i, 1836: and Vol XXXI, 1837. Halstead's problems are from the Second Annual Report, Appendix B, page 242. Muggeridge and the domestic migration scheme are from the same Appendix, page 417. Hemel Hempstead's pauper gang, and the paupers on the Newcastle-Carlisle, are from Brees.

Sir Charles Morgan and Mr Dent were reported in The Times and Morning Chronicle on April 1793. Mr Courtenay was covered only by that morning's Times. The percentage of Irish navvies is from the Census of Ireland 1841, Parliamentary Papers 1843, Vol XXIV.

The paucity of Irish navvies, compared to Irish soldiers, is from the Illustrated London News. Complaints that the Irish took over some jobs are from various Annual Reports of the Navvy Mission Society. The origins of the men at the Knaresborough viaduct are from J A Patmore, "A Navvy Gang of 1851," Journal of Transport History, Vol 5, 1969. The analysis of the whooping cough on the Great Central are from Quarterly Letter to Navvies 74, December 1896.

Census Returns is from D Brooke's "Railway Navvies on the Pennines" in Journal of Transport History, Vol 3, 1975.

Six-Fingered Jack is mentioned in the NL: the black navvy who died above the Elan is from the Montgomery and Radnor Echo. The black man at Ballaculish is from Kennedy.

The fact that Irish navvies were mainly Catholic Ulstermen is from the 1846 Committee. MacGill's experiences are from Children of the Dead End. McDonough's complaint appeared in the Liverpool Mercury 8 Nov 1839. The Lancaster-Carlisle riot is from the Lancaster Gazette 29 September 1838. English navvies' conviction that the Irish undercut wages is from the Liverpool journal 12 October 1839.

Carlyle's preference for Irish navvies is from a letter to Gavan Duffy (dated 29 August 1846) as reprinted in R W Wilson's "Genesis and Growth of the Caledonian Railway" in the Railway Magazine, June 1907.

The Sheriff of Edinburgh spoke to the 1846 Committee. The bilingual Scotsmen at Kinlochleven are referred to in a booklet put out by the British Aluminium Corporation. The recruiting of Scottish labour for the Lancaster canal, through ads. in north of the Border papers, is from the Lancaster Canal Committee Book, 23 October 1792.

Welsh-language bookselling at Vyrnwy is from the NL. The battle of Webb's ear is from the Chester Courant June 1846. The Penmaenmawr and Bangor riots are from the same newspaper, 27 May and 3 June 1846.

Last modified 19 April 2006