The Navvies were the manual labourers working on civil engineering projects that propelled the Victorian industrial revolution.
The term ‘Navvies’ came from a shortening of ‘Navigator’, a job title for those that dug out the numerous canal systems of the 18th & 19th Century. The term was subsequently adopted for manual labourers working on railways, tunnels, drainage and sewage systems, bridges and dams all over Britain and the world.

Family & Home Life

Most Navvies were single men, but some had families who often travelled from job to job with them, living in temporary accommodation. These wooden shacks were lacking even the most basic of amenities or comfort.

Theses temporary villages, called ‘Shanty Towns’ were prone to outbreaks of typhus, cholera and dysentery that could devastate the workforce and cause great delays to the works.
 

Working Life

A Navvy’s working day was long, possibly 10 hours, hard and dangerous therefore work-related fatalities were common, as was injury and infection.
Their employers would often find ways to limit or decrease their agreed wage (which was paid daily) if they were drunk, lazy or belligerent to a foreman. If a worker was sick or injured, pay was also deducted but meal tokens for use in company meal caravans were issued.
Due to the remote locations of much of the railway works, meal caravans accompanied the Navvies wherever they went, but the food was notoriously of poor quality.
It was not uncommon for engineering work to be abandoned during harvest season as Navvies skipped off their usual work for better pay and benefits helping a local farmer with his crops.

Living a hard life for little reward and taking great personal risk, inevitably led the Navvies to search for some relief. Because of the transitory nature of their work, sport or regular hobbies were hard to pursue. Mostly, they took to drinking and brawling – something they were very good at, as the physical power generated from their work made them fearsome opponents.

The work of the navvies was very hard physical labouring because of this needed to eat well.  Their type of work required a decent meal at least once a day. A good navvy could shift 20 tonnes of earth a day!

By the standards of the time, navvies were well paid. They could earn 25 pence a day which compared well to those who worked in factories. 

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