Wednesday, 11 June 2008

A group of railway navvies near Sheffield, Yorkshire

Itinerant photographers were in a good position to take portraits of groups of men working outdoors, particularly those labouring further afield from the main centres.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This roughly trimmed cabinet card photograph from my collection shows a group of five young men who appear to be railway navvies. They are certainly dressed suitably for the job, with rough working clothes and heavy boots. They are excavating a channel which may be a railway cutting, although it could well be for some other purpose, such as a canal. They have picks and shovels, and two of the men are leaning against the skips used to transport excavated material away from the rock face, on the rather crooked rails visible in the foreground.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Andre Hallam has very kindly provided me with a digitally repaired image of this photograph, for which I am most grateful.

Derived from the terms "navigation engineer" and "navigator," the word navvy (plural navvies) was originally used to describe the workers who excavated the earth for canals in the development of the British canal network during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Fortunately, as the great canal-building period was waning, the rapidly growing railway construction industry in the 1830s and later created a huge need for suitable workmen, and navvies filled this need perfectly. Much of the work was done by hand, although explosives were employed when harder rock was met with, particularly in tunnels. (Source: Wikipedia)

Courtesy of the National Museum of Science & Industry and the National Railway Museum

This photograph shows navvies building a railway cutting in a London street in about 1861 (Courtesy of the National Museum of Science & Industry's ingenious web site and the National Railway Museum). The article accompanying the photograph described the navvies thus:
By the standards of the day they were well paid, but their work was hard and often very dangerous. The railway navvies soon came to form a distinct group, set apart by the special nature of their work. They were assembled in huge armies of workers, men and women from all parts of the British Isles and even continental Europe. Many were fleeing famine in Ireland, and some were the ancestors of the 15,000 travellers who live in Britain today. Tramping from job to job, navvies and their families lived and worked in appalling conditions, often for years on end, in rough timber and turf huts alongside the bridges, tunnels and cuttings that they built. In the 1840s there was no compensation for death or injury, and railway engineers like Brunel resisted all efforts to provide their workers with adequate housing and sanitation, or safe working conditions ... The harsh conditions and communal living meant that navvies evolved a lifestyle, culture and even a language of their own. They built a reputation for fighting, hard living and hard drinking. ‘Respectable’ Victorians viewed them as degenerate and a threat to social order, but much of the criticism was unjustified. Despite cruel exploitation and extreme deprivation the navvies achieved amazing feats of engineering, equipped with little more than gunpowder, picks and shovels.
Image courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company and The Warder Collection, NY

The image above clearly shows the working clothes of railway navvies, one of whom appears to be in his mid-teens, somewhere in America, possibly New York (Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company and The Warder Collection, NY), probably taken in the 1890s or early 1900s. Their tools include shovels, spades and a wooden wheelbarrow.

Image courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

This photograph commemmorating the driving of the last spike in the Canadian Pacific Railroad at White Horse, Yukon in June 1900 (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada) includes some railway navvies dressed similarly to those in my photograph. They have rough working clothes, wide-brimmed hats or flat caps, and some appear to be carrying picks and shovels.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The mount of the cabinet card is stamped on the reverse with a floral design in purple ink containing the photographer's name, Albert Dixon, and his location, Midhope Hall, Sheffield. I don't know anything about this photographer, and would appreciate any information about him, or the possible location of the photograph at the head of this article. Also, if you have an old photograph showing working groups in similar or related professions, I would be happy to feature them in a future article on Photo-Sleuth. (Email)

1 comment:

  1. This comment posted on behalf of Simon Robinson, who was for some reason unable to use the Blogger comment facility.

    I know Midhope Hall area a bit, as it's not far from where we live. Given that the photographer was based at Midhope Hall (I can only surmise the place was let to tenants at the time), I would suggest the likely location of the navvies was in the building of the large reservoirs which run almost up to Midhope Hall Lane. These were built all around this side of the city to provide water for the growing population. In one or two cases, trackways for the construction lines (dismantled after the work) survive to this day. I've got a couple of short lengths of narrow gauge rail in the garden I rescued from fields near here... as you do.

    Sheffield was home to a fabulous early photographers called Mottershaw & Sons (M&S) whose early images on postcards are a treasure trove of material; I have a lot in my collection.


    Thanks very much, Simon, for the additional information, which sounds a very plausible explanation.


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