The Great Famine had a range of negative effects on Ireland – starvation, disease, economic turmoil and, notably, a period of mass emigration. Although some of those who were forced to leave Ireland came to the United States, a large number also went to mainland Britain, where they labored to construct the first mass railway network in the world.
Of the 250,000 Navigators, or ‘Navvies’ (in the US, Navigational Engineers) operating in Britain at the height of railway expansion, roughly 1 in 3 was an Irishman.
The life of a Navvy was tough. In return for a very high production target, the Navvies could expect a moderate pay packet, which would normally exceed the wages received by their compatriots in the factories or in other lines of employment. The conditions in which the Navvies lived and worked were often basic and normally dangerous. Many Navvies ended up living in ‘Navvy Cottages’, or wooden shacks close to the stretch of railway line they were building, moving as the work progressed on to other areas of the country.
Unsafe working environments were common. Explosives like dynamite were frequently used with barely a nod to health and safety considerations. In blasting out the Woodhead Tunnels - the longest railway tunnel in the world when it was finished, at 3 miles long - the Navvies used close to 150 tonnes of gunpowder to blow out troublesome spots of rock, and a great number were maimed or killed. Where a career ending injury befell a Navvy, it would not be compensated for, and the widow of a Navvy killed in the line of work could not expect any financial support from her husband’s employers.
Partly for this reason – but perhaps mostly because of being far from home with money in their pockets - the Navvies garnered a hard drinking, hard fighting reputation, living as if each day was their last and causing a ruckus wherever they went.
The discrimination that Irish Navvies received from their English counterparts also sometimes spilt over into outright brawling. This gives us some interesting contemporary newspaper coverage, as various clashes between Irish and English Navvies made the news. One incident was sparked by a 16 gallon drum of beer, another coming about as a result of the Irish drinking in a pub ‘reserved’ for English navvies.
The Irish navvies themselves were rarely the cause of the trouble: the main issue was that the English thought the Irish were a threat to their pay and conditions by working longer hours for less pay, or by working while the other nationalities were striking, common accusations leveled at an immigrant workforce.
Many of those with Navvy ancestors still don’t realise they are related to these remarkable men. Designers may have mapped the routes and engineers built the stock that would travel them, but these Irishmen had a large hand in blasting the routes for the tunnels, building the embankments and viaducts, and making the designs reality using nothing more than brute strength and explosives. These Irishmen were a key part in the building of modern Britain.
To find out more about Irish Navvies in Victorian Britain, visit Findmypast’s newspaper archive today.
For more stories on tracing your Irish heritage from Findmypast click here.