Dick Sullivan, descendent of a line of railway navvies and author of a book about them (see bibliography), wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph to correct some common misconceptions about the manual laborers whose picks and shovels created British railway embankments, cuts, and tunnels. First, he says, thery were not as commonly believed largely Irish but 80% English. Secondly, they were not badly paid.

Uncommon strength was what they had to sell, and work was plentiful: canals, railways, dams and docks in succession. Mostly it was a seller's market.

Many men turned to navvying when the New Poor Law put an end to easy parish handouts (a Victorian dependency culture); others were 12-year men released from the Army with pensions.

My great-grandfather was a Cornish tin miner who took to navvying in the tunnels of the Carlisle-Settle line in the 1860s. Naturally, his son grew up to be a navvy. My mother was born near the Elan Valley dams in Wales in 1900. In 1906, my father chose to be a navvy: the pay was good, there was a glamour about it and, above all, it meant freedom.

According to Sullivan, then, the navvies were the nobility of manual workers, and this explains why Ford Madox Brown depicts them in Work as handsome heroic figures. Digging ditches had a lot more appeal than farm or factory work.

Related Materials


Sullivan, Dick. Navvyman. Coracle, 1983. [full text in VW]

Sullivan, Dick. "Navvying Meant Freedom" Daily Telegraph (7 September 2002). [Passage above sent in by Gerry Newby [gn@blueyonder.co.uk].

Additional Bibliography

Coleman, T. The Railway Navvies: A History of the Men who Made the Railway. London: Hutchinson, 1995.

Kingsford, P. W. Victorian Railwaymen: The Emergence and Growth of Railway Labour, 1830-1870. London: Frank Cass, 1970.

Last modified 9 February 2006