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Railway navvies

Although the Railways were designed, paid for and supervised by educated upper-class men, the actual men who built the railways with blood and sweat were a most unusual breed known as navvies.

The term navvy comes from the word navigate, which means "to find a way through or over, to steer a course", which is precisely what these men were doing - finding a way to connect the counties of Britain and improve communication.

The navvies had first come into being during the construction of the canals, when large groups of men were employed to do the heaving lifting and digging. Once railways began to take over from the canals these men soon signed up to work on the lines. Many of the navvies came from Scotland and Ireland but there were navvies from England and Wales too, which often caused great national rivalry between the men. This could sometimes erupt into riots. The navvies working on the Worcester to Hereford line apparently mainly came from Devon and Cornwall.

Customs and characteristics

The navvies were quite a coarse group of men who lived in simple tin or earth huts alongside the railway line upon which they were working. Often as many as 19 men would be crammed into a small hut, with the men sleeping on bunks on top of one another. Some of the navvies would bring their family along with them, but often they were not legally married to the woman they called their wife and sometimes they would have more than one. Navvies had their own wedding ceremony, which consisted of the couple jumping over a broom and then going straight to bed in the same room that their wedding party was being held in.

The dress of the navvy was also distinctive. They usually wore moleskin trousers, canvas shirts, velveteen square tailed coats, hobnail boots, handkerchiefs, felt hats and coloured waistcoats.

Labour and danger

The navvies were known for their strength and as such were given the hardest and most dangerous jobs to do, such as tunnelling and blasting. Many navvies died in the course of building the railways from tunnels collapsing on them, blast powder going off too soon or bridges giving way. On 31st May 1851, two navvies, who had over twenty years' railway experience between them, died in a landslide in Dinmore Tunnel. A third navvy was saved when his wheelbarrow fell on top of him, creating an air pocket. On 21st August 1852, 17-year-old John Morris was killed whilst driving a wagon in the tunnel. He had hit one of the tunnel supports causing a collapse of earth and stone, and this in turn cut the lighting supply to the tunnel. When they eventually found the boy he had a fractured neck.

The work was also back breaking. A typical day's work for a navvy was said to be the filling of 14 wagons with each wagon holding 2.25 cubic yards of muck and being filled by two men. So each navvy would have to lift nearly 20 tons of earth on a shovel over his head and into the wagon each day.

For this work navvies would get paid every month when they were then given a few days off. However this meant that most of the men chose to spend their wages at the local pub, and even if they chose not to go to the pub some local publicans would tour their shanty towns with barrels of alcohol to sell to them at a high price. Sometimes the navvies were even persuaded to take part of their wages in beer. By being given their month's wages in one go the navvies would often end up spending most of it on drink and as a result there would be fighting and rioting in the streets.

An article in the Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club (Diana C.D. Currie, "Improvement in Hereford. A study in the changes in Hereford after Parliamentary Reform", Volume XXXIX 1969 Part III, p. 397) states that whilst the navvies were working on Dinmore Tunnel almost every man in Wellington and Marden was sworn in as a Special Constable to try and keep the peace.

The navvies on the Shrewsbury and Hereford line

In October 1851 the Hereford Times reported that nearly 2,000 men and between 300-400 horses were working on the railway line from Shrewsbury to Ludlow.

On 31st March 1851 the parish census at Hope-under-Dinmore showed that many of the labourers, miners, bricklayers and stonemasons working on Dinmore Tunnel were lodging nearby. Some householders appear to have taken in up to six men; some were young boys aged between 10-14. The census also shows that these men came from as far away as Leicester, Wrexham and Tenby, but there were also local men from Almeley and Monkland.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]