Short for navigators, navvies is the name given to the men who built the railways. The the peak of railway building in the 19th century, navvies accounted for one in every 100 workers and by 1850 there were some 250,000 navvies throughout Britain - their role as part of the Industrial Revolution was pivotal.
Railways would be built by hand using basic tools and equipment such as axes and wheelbarrows. Navvies would typically live in little shanty towns built on the side of the railway line they were working on. For one and a half pennies per night, a navvy could get a bed in a hit that would sleep 20 people, although for one penny they could opt to sleep on the floor for five nights.
A navvy could move around 20 tonnes of earth per day. The work was physically demanding and made all the more difficult by the fact the workers would usually only eat one large meal all day.
The wages of Navvies’ were good compared to standard pay rates at the time; they could earn 25 pence a day, far more than factory workers, although pay did not always come through on time.
Navvies also had a bad reputation for heavy drinking - some towns would fear the arrival of a group of navvies and they would drink lots and become very rowdy. This was exacerbated by the danger of the job, particularly in tunnels where explosions and collapses were common, which aided a slightly careless attitude. Should a navvy die on the job, their widow could receive £5 compensation if lucky.
Nevertheless, British navvies were considered the best in Europe, which meant that those who went to ply their trade overseas could often earn twice as much as workers from other nations.
See also: Trains 1830 to 1900
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