Railway lines in Great Britain are quite diverse and cover vast distances. The building of these lines was mainly done in the 19th century. Back then, technology was not as it is today; hence labor was mostly manual since there were no machines.

This led to the employment of many workers to lay down the railway lines. That brings us to the topic on workers who built railways in Great Britain.

These workers were known as navvies, who were navigators during the construction of canals. They adopted the lifestyles of their predecessors.

The railway constructors were differentiated from the ordinary laborers who usually worked in farms. When work was scarce in the farms, the laborers would switch to other sources of work but would fall back to their usual jobs on the onset of employment.

Let’s have a look at the navvies’ life, their roles, the problems they encountered, and how they led to the growth of towns.

How did Native Navvies Lived?

Navvies were known for their zeal in working no matter how difficult or dangerous the job was. They would move with the railway through the countryside as it was built, unlike the other laborers.

The workers were also differentiated with the clothes they wore. They would wear the same type of trousers with the same shirts, boots and hats.

Majority of those involved in constructing railway lines in Great Britain were mainly from Scotland, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Ireland. Navvies were well known for their courage when it came to dangerous jobs.

Due to the inferior technologies, the constructors used gunpowder to blow up hard rocks which were later removed using picks. This was however dangerous as some workers would be covered with the debris in the event of the blasts.

As a very common attitude, they used to overwork themselves in a bid to make more money as they were paid depending on the work done. This, however, raised death rates during the construction as many were malnourished and drunkards.

Also, these workers were known for drinking, with majority drinking until they passed out. Their lives consisted of days of hard toiling, followed by heavy drinking until they had nothing to spend the next day.

Some were known to be paid using beers instead of cash. This, however, harmed their health, making them prone to diseases and causing conflicts among themselves because of fights and riots after drinking.

These behaviors were adopted as a way of life among the workers and would challenge new navvies before they got used to the kind of life.

Still, on the navvy lives…

Many people were attracted by the constructions and the market associated with these activities. By the year 1850, there were a quarter-million workers engaged in the construction of the British railways.

Many of the workers were escaping calamities such as famine from their motherlands and would indulge themselves in any work they found. They would move with the railway and live in makeshift houses called ‘shanties’ with their families.

They lived in poor conditions and in large communities forcing them to have a distinct way of life. Besides, they developed their own religion and businesses, where they used slang, which would help them communicate without the knowledge of their superiors.

During those days, workers had very few rights. There was no insurance for injuries and deaths as it is nowadays. It’s said that the number of fatalities incurred during the construction was higher than the casualties at the battle of Waterloo.

The number of deaths sparked concerns in the government, leading to an enquiry on the reasons behind. Despite the rising fear, there were no relevant actions from the government.

Despite the immense number of deaths, the navvies never dwindled as there was a fresh supply of workers from the neighboring farms. Even after these deaths, railway companies continued to disregard the health and safety concerns of the navvies increasing the death rate.

The navvies had to form unions to help advocate for their problems. The unions would fight for better working conditions and any essential change they needed. The unions led to the construction companies providing food, proper sanitation and housing.

They also united the workers together since they shared a common agenda. The effect of this made sure the people treated each other as equals no matter the status or rank as long as they were all railway workers.

Role of Navvies to the Emergence of Railway Towns

The navvies were responsible for the emergence of various cities and towns in Great Britain. The workers were thousands and thousands of people who were assembled in one place.

They, of course, needed a source of food and other necessities, and this attracted a lot of merchants with their wares to sell to the workers. They, in turn, made shops and taverns for the working folks, especially in places where there was a lot of work being done; for instance, where they needed to build bridges or tunnels.

Railway construction needed raw materials such as steel and iron. For ease of work and to reduce expenditure, the material factories had to be near the construction site. This led to the establishment of iron mills bringing other workers to the area, which in turn led to the development of towns.

This encouraged the migration of people and their families. Many towns like Swindon and Crewe were created this way and depended on this to thrive.

The inhabitants were also helped by the railway companies in charge to cope with the harsh lifestyles. They provided food, water and education for the families of their workers.

The companies were also involved in overseeing the housing and security for the community. They would settle disputes among the workers and help maintain law and order. This much helped in building the towns to their current greatness.

However, most of the towns built didn’t last long after the completion of the railway line. Towns like Shildon suffered an economic breakdown which adversely affected its growth to date. Many people lost their jobs hence couldn’t afford to live there.

Role of Women in the Navvies

The navvies were mostly men because women were still discriminated against and regarded as housewives. However, after the First World War, women replaced men when they went to fight in the war.

They were, however, given easy tasks like cleaning carriages and operating ticket collection machinery. Women were still used in the pubs where the navvies used to drink every day.

They were also employed in the infirmaries as nurses and cooks. Women were also engaged in the construction companies’ offices to clean and as secretaries. Although women were not regarded as navvies, they played an essential role in the construction process.

Women, as housewives, played an essential role in taking care of their families in the absence of their men. They went through hard times as their husbands would drink every penny they earned, leaving the wives to suffer.

Other women would nurse their husbands after they got injured either at work or in fights. The women whose husbands were maimed were left with the burden of feeding their families and taking care of their other needs.

Problems That Workers Went Through

The navvies went through a lot of issues during the construction in Great Britain. Due to the poor working conditions they were working in, problems were inevitable. The workers would get injured while working or even end up dead.

Besides, due to their large populations and poor living conditions, sanitation was a significant issue. The workers and their families would get infected with sanitation-related diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Since they lived close together, the diseases would spread very fast among the people killing many.

The number of deaths reported were alarmingly, especially those from work-related issues. For instance, if a railway tunnel was to be built, the navvies were used in the digging process. They would use gunpowder to blast through rocks which would make the walls collapse on them, causing deaths and injuries.


Navvies played a significant role in building the railway line as we see today. Although it was not seen as a noble job, it was perceived as a considerable job back then. They were hard workers and great drunkards at the same time.

Although their lives were hard, they would find any excuse to live it to the fullest. We owe to those men and women who sweat for us to have the railway system a lot.