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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)