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Friday, 31 December 2010

The Riots and Brawls of the Victorian Railway Navvy

The railway navvies, the men who built the railways, were well known as being thieves, rioters and susceptible to the evils of drink. As railway building progressed, and the number of navvies grew, anti-navvy sentiments were aroused. The London Pioneer of December 1847 distinguished between the ‘open, kind-hearted, civil and hardworking’ navvies of the very early years of railway construction, and the influx of newcomers that they dubbed and ‘inferior race of men.’ A Mr Robinson wrote in an article that “they were so excessively drunken and dissolute, that a man would lend his wife to a neighbour for a gallon of beer, and that it was difficult to conceive a set of people more thoroughly depraved, degraded and reckless."[1]Of course, their demonic status was invariably overstated, however, navvies were in large part responsible for crimes and riots around the nation, and the fact that they moved with the construction of the line, from place to place, must have meant that for many they were a roving band to be feared. Indeed, Terry Coleman, in his seminal book on navvies, reported that communities in Scotland began to live in fear as ‘navvy riots were habitual.'[2]In this blog post I will look in brief at the disturbances that were caused by navvies between 1840 and 1850.

Of course much of the trouble that navvies caused was local and somewhat insignificant. On Thursday 19th March 1846 the The Bradford Observer; and Halifax, Huddersfield, and Keighley Reporter reported that on the Saturday before, in Castlegate, a navvy by the name of Christopher Brown had knocked over an unnamed girl, fracturing her jaw in two places. A William Walker came to her defence and he also was knocked down, receiving a kick to the face from which he suffered a bloodied lip. Both were admitted to the infirmary soon after. However, when on his way back home Walker saw Brown again and was floored a second time. This time Brown did get away with the crime. A police constable was in attendance and took him into custody and he was subsequently committed to two months hard labour.[3]

Yet, on occasion navvies banded together to terrorise local populations. On the 7th March, 1846, John Bull reported that at some point between Saturday the 28th February and the Sunday of the 1st of March a ‘breach of the peace of a most daring kind’ was committed, attended by a murder. Near the North British Railway’s line to Hawick, about 11 miles south of Edinburgh, two navvies were arrested at around midnight as they were suspected of stealing a watch. Soon 300 navvies had gathered, armed with ‘bludgeons, pickaxes, hedgebills &c’ and headed towards the police station to liberate the accused. On reaching it, one of the navvies held a pistol to the sergeant’s head and demanded their comrades’ release. He refused, and subsequently the mob broke open the cell and released their compatriots. In their march towards their workplace, the local Fushie Bridge, they encountered the district constable, Pace, who they savagely attacked leaving his skull smashed open. He died on the Sunday afternoon. Thus, in response to this attack, List, a local police officer, had a force of men put at his disposal and succeeded in apprehending 13 of the rioters in the course of the Monday.[4] Their fate was unknown.

Yet apart from terrorising the local residents, Navvies also had a pinache for antagonising each other. In Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle on June 7th, 1846, it reported under the heading of ‘Saving trouble,’ that two navvies on the construction of the Marley Tunnel in South Devon were ‘resolved to decide a quarrel by a stand-up fight.’ Once stripped and ready to fight, the quarrel was decided by virtue of the fact that one of the men ‘fell down dead before a blow was struck.'[5]

Yet, inter-navvy hostilities were much worse in many cases, with conflict arising from matters of religion, pay and antagonism between different groups of workers. After all, one third of railway navvies were Irish, another third were Scottish and the last third were English.[6] With many Irish Catholic navvies working in Scotland there was bound to be conflict with the Scottish, predominately Protestant and Non-conformist, navvies. As Terry Coleman stated, Irish labourers did not look for a fight, however two things vexed their Scottish compatriots. Firstly, they worked for less pay than local labourers. But in addition the devoted Catholic Irish regarded ‘the Sabbath as a day of recreation on which thy sand and lazed about,’ when the Scots still worked and only required some quiet prayer time and a drop of whisky. Thus, the Irish were attacked and beaten up by their Scottish co-workers. Railway contractors tried to keep Scottish and Irish navvies apart, but to no avail. All the while, British navvies, in Coleman’s opinion, assembled and fought with anyone, although they generally preferred to attack the Irish. These riots were widespread in the 1840s, and fights would sometimes include up to 2000 navvies.[7]

Of course, what was reported in the newspapers were the worst and most notable examples of navvy violence, and I suspect that in many cases the majority of navvies were law abiding, peaceful and hardworking. However, it is clear that on many occasions navvies did fight, did commit crimes, and were a menace where they worked. This said, to what extent this was the case has not been looked at quantitatively, and much research has to be done on the way that navvy communities, which included their families, interacted with their environment. Of course Terry Coleman’s book is a useful guide; however his book is rather anecdotal. Subsequently, this is an area of railway history into which I wish to look further in the future.


[1] London Pioneer ,Thursday, December 17, 1846; pg. 536; Issue 34

[2] Coleman, The Railway Navvies, p.93

[3] The Bradford Observer; and Halifax, Huddersfield, and Keighley Reporter, Thursday, March 19, 1846; pg. 5; Issue 611

[4] John Bull , Saturday, March 07, 1846; pg. 158; Issue 1,317

[5] Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, Sunday, June 07, 1846; pg. 8

[6] Coleman, Terry, The Railway Navvies, (London, 1976) p.93

[7] Coleman, The Railway Navvies, p.93-95


  1. Completely off-topic (I can't see any easy way of emailing you directly)
    Another blog ("London Reconnections") has had a query about the ols LSWR-SER connection through the unrebuilt Waterloo station(s)
    Do you have, or know of, readily-available on-line images of said connection?
    I have a track-plan, but no pictures, myself.

  2. Hi George, the only photo that I am aware of is one in a book I have which isn't great. I am unaware of any on-line images I'm afraid. You may wish to contact the South Western Circle ( as they may be able to help. I think they have quite a few pictures of Waterloo before the re-build digitised.

    Let me know if you find anything.

  3. Odin is a flash tool from Samsung, and we mostly use it to flash custom recoveries and stock firmware on our smartphones.
    Odin For Windows


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