The heyday of the navvy was the era of canal and railway building for a century or so from the late eighteenth century, as infrastructure transformed the money-making potential of British industry.
Many of us have ancestors who were navvies, but in my case Thomas Cowley, who married into my Dennis family, the Gloucestershire man who appears to have migrated to find work on railway and canal construction projects, ending up at Brownhills, then in southern Staffordshire.
Navvies made up a nomadic army of muscular, very fit, hard-working and hard-playing labour. They were expected to shift 18-20 tons of “muck” as they called it, which could be mud, clay or rock, using only picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. To feed this effort their dietary intake was around 8,000 calories daily, about half of which was bread. They would also consume 6-8 pints of beer, which was relatively weak (“small beer”), but safer than drinking water. In an era where the average height of a man was about 5 feet 6 inches (about 1.67 metres) the average navvy stood at over 6 feet (about 1.83 metres) and 15 stones (about 95 kilograms).
Time Team gave the following daily menu:
- Breakfast: 6 slices of bacon, 2 pints of beer, can of condensed milk, tea, loaf of bread.
- Early elevenses: 1 pint of beer.
- Late elevenses: 1 pint of beer, bread and butter.
- Lunch: steak, loaf of bread, 2 pints of beer, tea.
- Late lunch: 1 pint of beer.
- Snack: bread and butter, 1 pint of beer.
- Dinner: steak, boiled potatoes, loaf of bread, 2 pints of beer, tea.
The man who played the role of a navvy for the programme consumed 5 pints of beer. They said he would be paid 3 shillings and sixpence for his day’s work, but the beer, at 3 pence per pint, totalling 1 shilling and two pence, one third of his pay, would be deducted.
The workers were muscular giants for their time and had a weather-beaten appearance. Navvy folk had their own fashions, favouring bright colours, such as mustard yellows, periwinkle blues, and wine reds. They were also viewed with considerable suspicion by the settled communities and this contributed to navvies and their families developing a strong sense of community.
The Canals programme focused on the Manchester Ship Canal, the purpose of which was to connect the mills and factories of Salford and Manchester to the sea. It was constructed between 1887 and 1893. The project employed an average of 12,000 men peaking at 17,000. One innovation was the first on-site emergency hospital and a number of first aid stations: these were dangerous places to work. Thomas Cowley would not have had such luxuries – things we would take for granted today.
The navvy had to be mobile and flexible, but their wages were 5 times those of farm workers. Their bargaining power was the ability to walk away to find another project to work on, known as “going on tramp”. While working some found lodgings in the communities along the route, others would live in shanty towns. In 2008 Time Team investigated the Risehill navvy camp, near Garsdale, high up in the Pennines, which was set up for building the Settle-Carlisle railway, the first such site ever excavated.
What Time Team uncovered was a planned settlement with huts for workers, workshops and an inclined tramway, powered by a static steam engine, to bring in supplies. The huts were of timber on stone foundations, and consisted of three rooms: one for a family, a second for lodgers to eat in, and a third for sleeping. Attempts were made towards homeliness with curtains and pictures from magazines on the walls. But it was a bleak, exposed location, battered by the elements, and the team had to contend with heavy rain and muddy conditions.
Some of the domestic artifacts seemed to be a cut above the average, including some high-end clay pipes, one decorated with a tobacco beetle (they thought), which would have had a metal cap. One pipe fragment had part of an Irish harp and these were made in Manchester by Irish folk. Given the higher than average wages, perhaps it was no surprise that some navvies would purchase some nice things to improve their remote and basic existence. The 1871 census records that the workers were overwhelmingly English and mainly relatively local.
The Manchester Ship Canal was really the swansong of the navvy in Britain, and many moved to Europe and America to find work as those places battled to catch up with British industrial might.
The only hard evidence I have seen that Thomas was a navvy is his occupation as “excavator” in the 1861 census. Circumstantially, he was in places near to canal and railway construction projects in about 1841 (Gloucester-Birmingham Railway), 1848 (Anglesey Branch Canal) and 1861 (Cannock Extension Canal), so it seems likely that his main occupation was as a navvy.
Canals: The making of a nation. 4: The Workers. One of a six-part BBC TV series. Available on Youtube.
Locomotion: Dan Snow’s History of Railways. A three-part BBC TV series. Available on Youtube.
Time Team: Blood, Sweat and Beers. Series 16, episode 8 of a TV series first shown on Channel 4, in which the team carries out an archaeological dig and other research, as well as experimental archaeology. Available on UKTV Play or Youtube.
Note: the TV programmes are rerun periodically on various UK TV channels, such as Yesterday.
The men who built Britain, by Ultan Cowley (no relation), who features in the Canals episode.