The men and women who built the railways.

Navvies using a brickmaking machine during the construction of the Midland Railway's extension to St Pancras station 1865.
Credit: National Railway Museum

Engineers may have designed the railways, but it was left to vast gangs of navvies to build them – the word ‘navvy’ came from the ‘navigators’ who built the first ‘navigation canals’ in the eighteenth century.

By 1850 a quarter of a million workers – a force bigger than the Army and Royal Navy put together – had laid down 3,000 miles of railway line across Britain. By the standards of the day they were well paid,  but their work was hard and often very dangerous.

They built a reputation for fighting, hard living and hard drinking. ‘Respectable’ Victorians viewed them as degenerate.

The railway navvies soon came to form a distinct group, set apart by the special nature of their work. They were assembled in huge armies of workers, men and women from all parts of the British Isles and even continental Europe. Many were fleeing famine in Ireland, and some were the ancestors of the 15,000 travellers who live in Britain today.

Tramping from job to job, navvies and their families lived and worked in appalling conditions, often for years on end, in rough timber and turf huts alongside the bridges, tunnels and cuttings that they built. In the 1840s there was no compensation for death or injury, and railway engineers like Brunel resisted all efforts to provide their workers with adequate housing and sanitation, or safe working conditions.

The Woodhead Tunnel scandal – where the death rate among the navvies who built the tunnel, between 1839 and 1852, was higher than that of the soldiers who fought at the battle of Waterloo – led to a Parliamentary enquiry, but its findings were not acted upon for years.

The harsh conditions and communal living meant that navvies evolved a lifestyle, culture and even a language of their own. They built a reputation for fighting, hard living and hard drinking. ‘Respectable’ Victorians viewed them as degenerate and a threat to social order, but much of the criticism was unjustified. Despite cruel exploitation and extreme deprivation the navvies achieved amazing feats of engineering, equipped with little more than gunpowder, picks and shovels.

By the end of the nineteenth century most of Britain’s railway network had been completed,  by which time the navvies had better food, housing and sanitation. Working conditions had changed too. When the Great Central Railway was built in the 1890s, construction relied as much on steam as muscle power. The number of navvies dwindled, but their lifestyle persisted as they moved to new construction projects, built railways overseas or turned to road building.

Today, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Britain's first major new railway for over 100 years, has temporarily resurrected the railway navvy. Modern navvies rely greatly on 'high tech' machinery and their health and safety are much better safeguarded, but the work is still dangerous. Ten workers were killed during the construction of the Channel Tunnel between 1987 and 1993.

See also

Background: Class 87