We see our ancestors in censuses and birth, marriage and death registrations, but — unless they appear in newspapers — not much between these milestones. So when I say that some of my ancestors spent time as navvies, I really mean that I know that some of my ancestors worked as navvies, because that is what they were doing when they got documented. They worked on more projects than the ones I know about.

Even with what I know about, when I watch TV programmes about the history of railways in England, I keep shouting, “My ancestors built that!”

Map of Britain. There are circles and numbers that show the places where my ancestors worked. Many are mentioned in the text, but there are some extras. The Powells moved north (1837-1862), James Fraser moved south (1861-62), then James and Sarah zigzagged here and there (1862-1875), which James continued doing after the death of Sarah (not shown after 1878)
Where my ancestors were navvies.

Over the 1800s the massive infrastructure of industrial England was built, with a lot of digging. Canals, railways, roads, docks, reservoirs. And my ancestors worked on several of these projects. They lived in temporary settlements of shacks and huts near their workplace. The men dug, and the women ran lodgings for other workers.

William Powell and his wife Susannah Downing married in their ancestral village of Hadleigh in Suffolk in 1829 and baptised two children there before they set off for a navvying life before 1837. Their next three children mark their progress working on the Eastern Counties Railway, which was intended to link London to East Anglia. Then twin daughters were born and died in 1846 on the Kendal and Windermere Railway, which opened in 1847. The poet William Wordsworth didn’t approve of it one bit.

William Powell either died or the marriage failed, because Susannah turns up with another man and another child on the Ely and Huntingdon Railway in 1849, and on the Midland Railway in 1851, before moving onto the Great Northern Railway. Lots of comments on navvies complained about their casual attitude to sex. By 1861 Susannah had separated from her new partner, gone back to using “Powell” and was with her children and other relatives on the Buxton Extension to the Stockport, Disley and Whaley Bridge Railway.

Black and white photo, We are standing at the bottom of a deep cutting through white rock. 9 men are standing at in front of us, with pick axes. There are two large wheelbarrows and other tools around them. The men are wearing long trousers, white shirts, and caps. Some have jackets or waistcoats.
Digging Dove Holes Tunnel, on the Buxton Extension, c 1861. James Fraser, or one of Sarah Powell’s relatives, could be in this photo. From the Railway Museum.

Many navvies moved around in family groups, as Susannah did. They would move with relatives and friends from one project to another, finding partners within the navvying community. William and Susannah’s daughter, Sarah, my great-great-grandmother, was born in a navvy camp, and died, aged 32, in in the notorious wooden huts built for those who were digging the docks of Barrow in Furness. Her entire life and social network was in navvy camps. She married James Fraser, a Scotsman who worked as a navvy in the north of England for over 4 decades, including a stint on the Settle-Carlisle railway. At first the four surviving children of James and Sarah were cared for within Sarah’s extended family, but there were many other deaths, so James placed them in Clitheroe Workhouse 3 years after the death of their mother, where they spent the rest of their childhood — he had to contribute to their keep. Their daughter, born on the Chorley to Blackburn Railway, married a navvy. My great-grandfather, born on the particularly bleak Smiddy Shaw reservoir, moved to a job in the steelworks of Middlesbrough.

The train tracks are visible to lower left. A drystone wall follows the track. The landscape is rough grassy moorland bog. A terrace of 6 houses is on a small rise above the bog.
View from the train on the Settle-Carlisle line. Photo by AFG, 2009.

The Powells and James Fraser navvied for decades. Other relatives make briefer appearances in navvy camps.

Another great-great grandfather, Hugh Devine was a labourer on the Newcastle to Berwick railway, part of the main line between London and Edinburgh, when his second child was born in Ulgham in 1848.

I think it quite possible that George Bowyer, my great-grandfather, spent time navvying in his youth, and I have not been able to find him in the 1881 census. Two of his brothers were together building a railway at Battersea in 1861. They were 18 year old Silvanus, and 16 year old Aquilla, their stern Methodist father having given most of his children obscure biblical name (George was the exception). Understandably, Silvanus and Aquilla were using the names “James” and “Thomas”. I can imagine why teenage navvies might prefer to be called James and Thomas.

Navvying was tough, with a high rate of death and injury for the workers, and with a high rate of marriage failure. If you could stay fit the money was good, and life in some of the huts was relatively comfortable. Some of my ancestors and relatives did a brief stint navvying before returning to life as a settled labourer, usually in the ironworks. But William and Susannah Downing, and James Fraser, sustained this life for an entire working life and Sarah Powell knew no other life.