Event Factfile -

Navvies

Ingleby Greenhow Village Hall

Illustrated Talk

Thursday 7th November 2013

Malcolm Bisby


This is the second time in five months that Malcolm has delighted the History Group with a very interesting and entertaining talk. The talk was divided into four parts: Background, Statistics, The Life of Navvies and The Reformers.  


    When George Stephenson’s railway became operational in 1829, it was the death knell of canal work and navvies moved to railway construction, but a surfeit of work and competition meant the navvies’ rates of pay were low.

    All of the work was ‘pick and shovel’. Mechanical aids were not in regular use until 1890, although they had been used in America from about 1840. The British navvies were efficient and technically competent. They moved 20 to 30 tons of spoil per day, every day. The best navvies were from Yorkshire and Lancashire. They were employed all over the world and much of the French, German and South American Railways were constructed by British navvies.

    The average life of navvies was 40 years although the oldest age recorded was 86; he dropped dead whilst working. In 1860, The Woodhead Tunnel had 32 fatalities and 140 serious injuries (amputations). There was no medical help from the Companies and the navvies clubbed together to provide surgeons to treat broken bones etc.. There was no schooling and very few had any education and typically only 0.5% could read or write.

    Edwin Chadwick, a barrister, took up the navvies’ cause. He got a Parliamentary Commission to investigate cheating, abuses and health issues. In 1831, an Act, which had only been for factories previously, was applied to Navvies.  This meant that Navvies were paid weekly and eventually resulted in the first Public Health Act (1848) for the control of diseases (Cholera etc.), which were common among Navvies.  

    Gangers led teams of navvies (20-30) who were paid monthly. Monthly payment meant that they were often short of money and the Gangers introduced a voucher (Tommy Ticket) system. This is the origin of Tommy Rot. The vouchers were only redeemable at certain shops, where the beer and food quality was poor. The Gangers received kick-backs from the shopkeepers.

    Spiritual guidance and medical treatment were sparse and there was no schooling.

Sometimes houses were provided but wooden bothies, horse-drawn caravans and self-built houses made from turfs (sod houses) were common. In 1831, an Act, which had only been applied to factories previously, was also applied to navvies.  This meant that navvies were paid weekly (piece work).

Finally Malcolm showed a series of slides illustrating the first part of his talk.