The railway navvies

Local people in Victorian times were generally delighted when the railway arrived to connect them with the outside world, bringing untold benefits. Unfortunately, before they could get the trains, they got the navvies who built it and who could prove very disruptive to local life.

The navvies – an abbreviation of navigator as they were the direct descendants of the men who built the canals – were a special breed of labourer, highly skilled and resourceful, but wild and prone to drunken binges. They were not local  but rather would travel around the country working wherever railways were being built which in some periods such as the 1840s and 1860s was pretty much everywhere.  There were at the peak some 200,000 navvies, who did all the hardest tasks on the railways, such as tunnelling, blasting and cutting and left the more menial tasks, such as taking away spoil, to local labourers.

The navvies outdrank, outfought and outrioted the local labourers whom they despised. Cecil Torr, the author of Small Talk at Wreyland published in the First World War, described how his grandfather’s complaints during construction of the line from Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead in Devon in 1864. There was fighting al night and ‘the villains stole poor old Xs fowls…there is not a fowl or egg to be got hereabouts’. It was not all bad though. Torr’s grandfather spoke of one ‘fine built tall like a fellow as you ever saw, and nicknamed the Bulldog’. The fellow slept in a barn, and spent his whole 5s 6d (27.5p) wages at the public house on a Saturday night.  The disruption, however, was short lived. Navvies built railways extraordinarily fast by today’s standards and a small branch line such as this one would be completed in a couple of months after which the contractor, together with all his men, would move on to the next site.

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