The Navvies: Digging, Drinking, and Fighting

THE MEN WHO BUILT THE RAILROADS were a tough bunch—and they needed to be, as they had an arduous job, carried out in remote areas and often in harsh conditions. They were also at the cutting edge of technology, working in a new industry that had developed its own machinery and working methods. It was a learning process for all concerned, from the contractors and engineers to the men who laid out the embankments and dug the tunnels. Astonishingly, the tracks used by modern, high-speed trains would be quite recognizable to the engineers who built the first lines. After a few early experiments with granite ties and wooden rails, the basic design was adopted almost everywhere in the world—iron (later steel) rails laid on wooden ties, resting on stone aggregate or ballast (see The Track Structure).

For much of the 19th century, laying the tracks was very labor-intensive. A surveyor drew an approximate line on a map after walking the site, then thousands of workers were hired by a contractor. The workers were called “navvies” because they were thought to have the same skills as the navigators who built the canal system a generation earlier. These navvies were proud of their name, but by no means all the workers on the railroads qualified for it. According to Terry Coleman, author of The Railway Navvies, the key book on the history of the navvies, they “must never be confused with the rabble of steady, common laborers whom they out-worked, out-drank, out-rioted and despised.” The laborers came and went, many returning to the farms at harvest time. If they stayed, however, it took a year for laborers to qualify as navvies, who were considered an elite class of worker. To be navvies, they had to work on all the hard tasks, such as tunneling, excavating, and blasting, and not simply shoveling earth; they had to live with the other navvies in camps and follow the railroad as worksites moved along; and they had to match the eating and drinking habits of their fellows—consuming nearly 2lb (1kg) of beef and 9½ pints (4.5l) of beer a day. The navvies came from all over Britain and adopted their own particular dress code. According to Coleman, they favored “moleskin trousers, double-canvas shirts, velveteen square-tailed coats, hobnail boots, gaudy handkerchiefs and white felt hats with the brims turned up.” It was not really suitable garb for such hard, manual work, but it demonstrated style. They were known by nicknames that ranged from the eclectic “Bellerophon” or “Fisherman” to the more common “Gipsy Joe” or “Fighting Jack.”


To some extent, the skills needed to build the railroads were tried and tested. There were similarities with building canals and digging out mines, but in terms of scale, perhaps only cathedral-building compared—although cathedrals took centuries to complete, while railroads took only a few years. The scale and extent of the earthworks alone was unprecedented. The most visible features of the navvies’ trade were bridges and tunnels, but the vast majority of their work consisted of moving enormous quantities of earth. Railroads require relatively straight routes and gentle grades, so the land has to be adapted before the track can be laid. Peter Lecount, an assistant engineer on the London & Birmingham, calculated that building it involved lifting 25,000 million cu feet (708 million cu m) of earth—a greater task than the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Occasionally, new techniques were deployed, such as laying embankments through marshy land, or crossing large rivers with bridges. Worksites commonly had hundreds of men attacking the earth with their primitive tools and hauling the dirt away in wheelbarrows, or by horse and cart on the flatter sections. As railroad historian R.S. Joby recounts:

rough-looking gangers drive their butty gangs to ever greater feats of earth-moving by threats, promises, and, at times, a well-timed kick for the pay of the gang depends on the efforts of the team as a whole.

A great deal of gunpowder was used, the fuse-setters and navvies crouching behind any available cover to shield themselves before returning to prepare the next blast. Safety precautions were minimal and risk-taking was considered manly. Not surprisingly, navvies often died young. In the Kilsby Tunnel on the London & Birmingham, three men were killed as they tried to jump, one after the other, over the mouth of a shaft in a game of “follow my leader.” On the Great Western, a man was told to stop cutting under a large overhang of earth, but he ignored the warnings and was buried alive within minutes. Those who survived the numerous accidents—ranging from unexpectedly large explosions to simple falls and collisions—were soon worn out by the hard work and the excessive lifestyle. The forty-year-olds looked fifty, and the rare sixty-year-olds looked eighty. The sheer numbers of workers involved in railroad-building was also colossal—far greater than in any previous industry. In spring 1847, for example, 169,838 men were working on the railroads in England and Wales, out of a total population of 16 million. Initially, the companies employing these men were small, local concerns, but large contractors soon emerged, employing thousands of navvies. These contractors were powerful men such as Samuel Peto and Thomas Brassey, who built railroads all over the world.


Not surprisingly, navvies were rarely welcome in the towns where they were working. They caused a great deal of disruption, and shopkeepers took advantage of the surge in demand to raise food prices. As accommodation was scarce in the remote places where lines were being built, the navvies slept in huts in filthy conditions, sometimes sharing their quarters with pigs and attracting vermin. They often shared beds—one man sleeping while the other worked—and they were accompanied by a retinue of “many women but few wives,” as one writer put it. As a result, disease was rife. Riots were not uncommon, particularly on payday, or, as sometimes happened, when the navvies had not been paid. In 1866, the village of Wiveliscombe in Somerset, England, was terrorized by 70 navvies demanding beer and bread after the local railroad company went bust. A local resident of a Devon village described the chaos when the navvies found themselves without work after the railroad was finished:

More than a hundred discharged on Monday, and a pretty row there was: drunk altogether and fighting altogether, except one couple fought in the meadow for an hour… the same night the villains stole all poor old xxx’s fowls [and] there is not an egg to be got hereabouts.

Similar scenes were played out in other countries. The navvies may have been wild, but they got the job done, so much so that British men found work on many European railroads. In 1843, Thomas Brassey, a contractor, was commissioned to build the line between Rouen and Le Havre in northern France, and a local newspaperman sent to observe construction was greatly impressed:

I think as fine a spectacle as any man could witness, who is accustomed to look at work, is to see a cutting in full operation with about twenty wagons being filled, every man at his post, and every man with his shirt open, working in the heat of the day, the gangers looking about, and everything going like clockwork. Such an exhibition of physical power attracted many French gentlemen who came on to the cuttings at Paris and Rouen, and looking at these English [actually many were Scottish and Irish] gentlemen with astonishment said ‘Mon Dieu! Les Anglais, comme ils travaillent!’ [My God! The English, how they work!]… It was a fine sight to see the Englishmen that were there, with their muscular arms and hands hairy and brown.

There were often labor shortages in the US, and men had to be brought in from other countries to build the railroads. The construction of the Erie Railroad in the late 1830s and early 1840s coincided with a large influx of men from Ireland who were fleeing the famine at home and were eager to work on the railroad. Unfortunately, the men were from two different parts of Ireland—Fardown and Cork—and the former took against the latter in a dispute over lower wages. In the ensuing conflict, the Fardowners set upon the Corkonians in a series of battles that lasted several days. This culminated with the Fardowners cutting down the rickety structures in which the Corkonians lived, bringing the roofs down on top of them. It is a wonder that they found enough time to build the railroad at all, but construction was unaffected.


In the 1860s, the Central Pacific company was building the line eastward from California on the first transcontinental (see Crossing America). However, the construction was desperately undermanned, due to both a lack of immigrants and the competition from the lucrative mining industry. One of the line’s promoters named Charles Crocker hit upon the idea of taking on Chinese workers, but had to overcome resistance from his worksite managers who thought that these “tiny rice-eaters” could not handle such work. They were proved wrong, however: the Chinese were extremely good laborers and accepted lower pay than their white counterparts, prompting Crocker to organize the recruitment of thousands of men from China. Chinese laborers also worked on the legendary South American railroads, accompanied by the fearsome local workforce, the rotos (see rotos).

In Russia, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1890s (see The Trans-Siberian Railway) also meant that a lot of men had to be brought in from afar. The line, which is still the longest in the world, required huge numbers of workers and had 80,000 enrolled at its peak. The local people, mostly tribesmen, were unwilling or unable to work, and as the line progressed further east into the almost deserted steppe the shortage of labor was acute. Convicts were drafted in, with 13,500 prisoners and exiles working on the line at the peak of its construction. Laborers also had to be brought in not only from European Russia, but from as far afield as Turkey, Persia, and Italy.


This conscription of workers continued throughout the 19th century, after which mechanization reduced the need to mobilize such vast labor forces. Until then, however, the railroads were the work of strong men wielding primitive tools. Their legacy can still be seen, not only in railroads that have since been modernized, but in the embankments and cuttings that remain where lines have been closed. All over the world, the landscape was transformed by their herculean labors.

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