"In eighteen hundred and forty-four
I landed on the Liverpool shore
Me belly was empty me hands were raw
With working on the railway, the railway
I'm weary of the railway
Poor paddy works on the railway"
(from Poor Paddy on the Railway by The Dubliners https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGO_S_NX5Hg 

It has often been claimed, and the myth has certainly been fostered, that it was the Irish who were primarily responsible for constructing Britain’s canal, rail and road network and many of Britain’s other civil engineering works. An exhibition currently being held at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery details the contribution of Irish construction workers to the rebuilding of the city after the Second World War. The title of the exhibition, “We Built This City,” emphasizes the extent to which even British people are prepared to accept the image of the ubiquitous Irish ‘navvy’ and his feats of Herculean strength and endurance. Although it is patently obvious that the Irish alone did not build Britain’s infrastructure (as will be shown by the statistics below), this perception of the Irish immigrant worker is deeply ingrained within the British national consciousness and has its origins in the more sinister anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice and propaganda that swept through Britain during the middle decades of the 19th Century and which was in particular directed towards the bogeyman figure of the Irish railway navvy, who was viewed as the personification of all that was evil about the Irish.

The original ‘navvies’ were the canal navigators – the army of workers who, during the second half of the 18th century and the early decades of the 19th, dug the network of canals that facilitated Britain’s economic and industrial expansion. Most of these canal navvies were not Irishmen but were local British miners, agricultural workers and especially the Fenmen of the low-lying east of England who had vast experience in redirecting rivers and building dykes to reclaim land from the sea. Irishmen did participate but the Irish at that time were a small community in Britain and many of the Irish navvies were drawn from the seasonal migrants who crossed the sea each year to help gather in the British harvest. The infamous Scottish grave robbers, Burke and Hare, were, in fact, Irish and had worked on the Edinburgh-Glasgow Union Canal in 1818. William Burke was from Urney, Co.Tyrone and William Hare was most probably from Newry.

During the canal building era there were some outbreaks of violence by British navvies and other locals towards the Irish, particularly in the west of Scotland where there was a high concentration of migrant harvesters, which the Irish resisted with violence of their own. These incidents were caused by suspicion of foreigners, racial, or ethnic prejudice and religious bigotry and although the Irish were usually the victims, the perception was created that wherever Irish navvies were to be found, lawlessness and violence would be sure to follow. As serious as this navvy violence was, it would be eclipsed by the violence that would be seen during the years of ‘railway mania’ when Britain’s rail network rapidly expanded and superseded the canals in importance.

After the establishment of the world’s first public steam locomotive-hauled railway, the Stockton and Darlington, in September, 1825, progress was slow in expanding Britain’s railways and by 1830 only 97 miles of line had been constructed. The following decade saw rapid development and by 1840 there were 1,497 miles of line, but the peak years of the ‘railway mania,’ however, occurred in the mid-1840s. In 1845, Parliament authorized the construction of some 4,800 miles of new railway line and the following year another 4,540 miles were authorized. This was fueled as much by profiteering and speculation on the rising price of railway shares as it was on improving the transportation of raw industrial resources and delivery of finished goods.

During these years of steam locomotive development and railway expansion the trickle of immigrants to Britain from Ireland became a torrent of desperate refugees, caused by British maladministration and compounded by a series of failures of the potato crop upon which the poorest members of the population were forced to rely as their main food source. In 1800 there was a general failure of the crop throughout Ireland, while in 1807 frost destroyed half the crop. The population of Munster and Connacht suffered considerable hardship in 1821 and 1822 when there was complete failure of the crop and in 1830 and 1831 there was widespread failure in Galway, Mayo and Donegal. The years 1832, 1833, 1834 and 1836 saw large areas of the country suffer serious loss from dry rot, and in 1835 the entire potato crop was lost in Ulster. In 1837 there were again ‘extensive’ failures throughout Ireland and in 1839 there was a ‘universal’ failure. In 1841 there were potato crop failures in many parts of the country and in 1844 most of the early crop was lost.

Although the 1845 potato crop failure would bring calamitous ‘famine,’ death and the emigration of more than 2 million Irish peasants, the crop failures of the earlier decades of the 19th century had also caused hundreds of thousands of Irish poor to flee across the sea to Britain, aided by the improvement in transport between the two islands with the establishment of steamship services. The first regular steamer service was established between Belfast and Greenock, near the mouth of the river Clyde in Scotland, in 1816 and later that year an irregular service began between Howth and Holyhead in northwest Wales. In 1824 the Dublin Steam Packet Company commenced a regular service between Dublin and Liverpool, carrying deck passengers for 6d (pence) a head, but by 1825 competition across the sea had become so great that rival steamship companies operating between Belfast and Glasgow carried First Class passengers for 2s (shillings) a head while deck passengers were conveyed free of charge! In 1836 the British and Irish Steam Packet Company (the same B&I Line which carried a million Irish emigrants to Britain in the 1950s) was founded and was soon operating a fleet of steamers between Ireland and various ports along the west coast of Britain. It was from these ports of entry that the Irish emigrants fanned out in desperate search of work and many found employment in the construction of the railways that were connecting those towns and cities.

Although the general public called all those engaged in railway construction, navvies, such men were divided into two distinct groups; general labourers, and the true navvies who were the elite amongst railway workers and were paid twice the wages of the labourers. Navvies worked in ‘Butty Gangs’ which were self-governing, closely-knit teams of about a dozen members (in the vernacular of the navvy a ‘Butty’ was a fellow, or member) often led by a ‘ganger.’ Butty gangs, in their distinctive ‘uniform’ of heavy boots, corduroy, or moleskin trousers, waistcoat and neck-scarf (frequently brightly coloured) were divided into runners, trenchers and excavators. They would undertake the most difficult tasks such as tunnelling and would negotiate a wage with railway contractors based on ‘piece-work’ – usually how many ‘sets’ (or railway wagon loads) of earth they could excavate in a day, for which they could expect to receive from 4s-6s. An average daily target for excavators was 14 sets, which was equivalent to lifting 20 tons of earth to a height of 6 feet, and any member of a butty gang who could not keep up the pace was expelled and reduced to the ranks of general labourer, with a drop in wages to only 2s-3s a day. It was the fear that the tens of thousands of newly arrived Irish would undercut the wages of the established navvies that was to be a major cause of conflict amongst the railway gangs, stoked by centuries of religious bigotry and ethnic hatred.

(Right: Navvy 'runners' guiding wheelbarrows up a 'barrow run')

Anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice was widespread in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries, as can be seen from the Gordon Riots of 1780 – the most destructive and violent in London’s history – and the opposition to Catholic emancipation in 1829. The usual loathing of Irish Papists amongst the general population was heightened by their arrival in Britain at a time of economic hardship caused by a post-Napoleonic War slump, loss of jobs caused by increased automation and food shortages brought about by the Corn Laws, which kept grain prices artificially high to maintain profits for British landowners. The extent of ill-feeling towards the Irish immigrants can be judged from the following comments:

“The English entertained a general opinion that they (the Irish) flocked too numerously to their country, and by accepting of a rate of wages below the English standard, reduced their value in the labour market.” (Liverpool Journal, 1839)

“It is a matter, however, of immediate practical importance whether the swarms of Irish labourers who pour into this country should be in any way encouraged when it is too plain that they bring with them a moral and social plague, which cannot fail to produce the worst effects upon the mass of the population.” (Edinburgh Post, April, 1841)

“We are all willing to work, but it ain’t to be had. This country is getting very bad for labour, it’s so overrun with Irish that the Englishman hasn’t a chance in his own land to live.” (Henry Mayhew, ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ - interview with navvy in Cripplegate, 1849, published in The Morning Chronicle)

Occasionally all it took was a relatively minor incident to convert such ill-feeling towards the Irish into violence, and one of the worst outbreaks occurred in Dundee, in 1830, following the death of a Scottish prize-fighter, Alexander McKay, in a fight with an Irishman, Simon Byrne. Unhappy with the acquittal of Byrne at his trial for manslaughter, the Dundee mob rioted against the town’s Irish residents for two days, beating their unfortunate victims with cudgels, wrecking their houses and destroying the Catholic chapel.

Railway contractors were well aware of the likelihood that similar violence would occur between the English, Scottish and Irish navvies and did their best to keep the nationalities apart. Each nationality was assigned its own section of line to work upon, and they generally lived apart from each other and the local communities, in the temporary shanty towns of tin and wooden huts that sprang up near the construction works. In some areas of the country, therefore, almost the entire workforce on a particular stretch of line might be Irish and this helped create the impression, which has lingered until today, that all of the railway navvies were Irish.

In fact, reports from railway contractors, and census data, reveal that there were only large concentrations of Irish navvies in the areas where there was a significant Irish immigrant population, such as northwest England, Glasgow, Edinburgh, the southwest of Scotland and other areas close to the ports of entry. Irish involvement in railway construction was negligible in the eastern and central parts of England, where Irish immigration was uncommon during the 19th century, and although many Irish did settle in the southeast, in and around London, there was a greater variety of unskilled labouring job opportunities there, and so railway navvying could be avoided.

This is confirmed by the 1841 census, which shows that of the 446 men working on the London & Brighton Railway who stated their place of birth, only 1.5% were Irish, whereas 19.6% of the 575 men working on the Chester section of the Manchester & Birmingham Railway were from Ireland. The percentage increased even more dramatically in Scotland, where Irishmen formed 49.7% of the 2,629 workforce on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway. Similar high concentrations of Irish navvies were to be found throughout Scotland during the 1840s. In July 1846, the Hawick branch of the North British Railway employed 1,300 Scots, 1,000 Irish and 20 English. During that same summer there were 3,703 Scots, 822 Irish and 11 English navvies working on the Edinburgh & Northern Railway in Fife, but the increasing demand for labour on this line encouraged an Irish contractor to write to the Bishop of Derry offering to employ some 200-300 men from the famine-struck regions of Donegal. By February 1847, the workforce had increased to 6,245 men of whom, 4,103 were Scots, 2,110 were Irish and 32 were English, and during the final rush to complete this project the number of men employed was 5,680 Scots, 3,144 Irish and 49 English. Of the railway projects in England, one of the highest concentrations of Irish navvies was to be found on the East & West Yorkshire Junction Railway where Irishmen formed 26% of the workforce at the 78-foot-high Knaresborough viaduct across the river Nidd.

The pattern of Irish employment on the railway projects continued during the succeeding decades. The 1851 census shows that only 1% of the 1,975 men working on the ‘Towns Line’ in the east midlands were Irish, whereas they composed 21.3% of the workforce on the Vale of Neath Railway in south Wales, 33% of those on the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway at Alston, Cumberland (north-west England) and 60.3% of the men on the Stirling and Dunfermline Railway. Similarly, at the time of the 1861 census, only 1.8% of those working on the Sevenoaks section of the South Eastern Railway were Irish, whereas 46% of the navvies employed on the Myrthyr, Tredegar & Abergavenny Railway (south-east Wales), 54.5% of those on the Border Union Railway in Cumberland and 68.7% of those on the Coatbridge section of the Edinburgh and Bathgate Railway were from Ireland. The large numbers of Irish working on the Coatbridge section, some ten miles to the east of central Glasgow, is not surprising as this area had the highest concentration of Irish-born residents of any major Scottish town, and was known as ‘Little Ireland.'

Despite the efforts of the contractors to separate the Irish navvies from their English and Scottish counterparts, violent confrontations occurred at many railway construction locations, and, at times, the levels of violence were reminiscent of civil war. Trouble frequently occurred at the end of each month when navvies gathered to be paid their wages, much of which was then spent on alcohol (wages were often paid in pubs), or to pay debts at the company ‘Tommy Shop’ from which navvies were forced to buy their provisions at inflated prices.

One of the earliest outbreaks of fighting took place on the North Union Railway at Penwortham, near Preston, Lancashire, in May 1838, when English navvies and local weavers fought a pitched battle against Irish navvies. At the conclusion of the fighting, in which several hundred people made use of swords and guns, one person lay dead and many others were wounded. In October of the same year, serious rioting spread to the North Midland Railway, where a large force of English railway workers forced Irish navvies off the line between Darfield and Swinton, in south Yorkshire, and drove them toward nearby Rotherham. Fortunately, the Irish were protected by John Stephenson, the renowned railway contractor, who sheltered them in the goods yard of the Sheffield & Rotherham Railway until peace was restored by the arrival of yeomen cavalry and 40 artillery men from Sheffield.

The following year, 1839, some 300 Irish navvies and 250 English navvies employed on the Chester & Birkenhead Railway, engaged in three days of bitter fighting at Childer Thornton, on the Wirral Peninsula. The fighting was only brought to an end by the arrival of parties of troops from Liverpool and Chester. On Easter Monday, 20th April 1840, drunken English labourers at Methley, southeast of the city of Leeds, mounted a raid on Irish navvies working on the nearby York and North Midland Railway to demand further supplies of alcohol and money. Rioting broke out as the Irish attempted to defend themselves, and this lasted until the intervention of a party of London Metropolitan Police armed with pistols and cutlasses. A month later, in May 1840, conflict spread to Scotland where Scottish Highlander and Irish navvies battled each other at Bishopton, on the Greenock section of the Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway. In the wake of the majority of such conflicts it was the Irish navvy who was made the scapegoat, notwithstanding the testimony of honest men such as the contractor, Joseph Thornton, who, in June 1839, told the Wakefield magistrates’ court that the Irish were ‘an inoffensive and hard-working set of men.'

A potentially serious conflict was only narrowly avoided on November 12, 1845, on the Caledonian Railway in southwest Scotland, where English navvies sought to continue a quarrel with Irish navvies that had begun earlier in the year on the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway. A mob of some 300-400 English, armed with pitchforks and scythes, advanced from their camp near Ecclefechan, six miles south of Lockerbie, towards the Irish railway works at Dryfe Water, six miles north of Lockerbie. Although some fighting did occur, major violence was prevented by two magistrates, Mr. Douglas and Mr. Stewart, who engaged both sides in negotiations until police arrived from Dumfries. The English only retired when they received a promise from the contractors that they would still be paid a full day’s wages, but to ensure that peace was maintained, the Marquis of Queensberry sent for a party of 80 militia from Carlisle. That the Irish navvy was the innocent party in this confrontation can be seen from the praise given to their character by the famous philosopher and essayist, Thomas Carlyle, who lived near the English camp at Ecclefechan and who wrote to his friend, the Irish nationalist, Charles Gavan Duffy, in the following terms:

‘I have not in my travels seen anything uglier than that disorganic mass of labourers, sunk threefold deeper in brutality by the threefold wages they are getting. The Yorkshire and Lancashire men, I hear, are reckoned the worst, and, not without glad surprise, I find that the Irish are best in point of behaviour. The postmaster tells me several of the poor Irish do regularly apply to him for money drafts, and send their earnings home. The English, who eat twice as much beef, consume the residue in whisky, and do not trouble the postmaster.’

After attempts by Scottish Highlander navvies to drive the Irish workers from the line at Kinghorn, Fife, in 1846, the local newspaper again praised the immigrants, reporting that, ‘In justice to the Irish labourers, it might be stated that their behaviour in this quarter has been uniformly peaceful.' Despite such comments, it was the Irish railway worker who was demonized by the majority of the British population, steeped in centuries of bigotry and prejudice, and it became common for British mothers to threaten naughty children with tales of how the Irish navvy would come to take them away.

it became common for British mothers to threaten naughty children with tales of how the Irish navvy would come to take them away.

During the first half of 1846, the year that saw 280,000 Irish famine refugees enter Britain via Liverpool alone, three of the most serious episodes of navvy violence occurred, and they are, today, perhaps the best remembered of such riots.

The first of these incidents began on Monday, 9th February, on the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway, near the Cumberland town of Penrith. The contractors had attempted to segregate the rival nationalities, with most of the Irish working north of Penrith, at Plumpton, and most of the English working to the south of the town, at Yanwath. In the middle ground around Penrith, however, both Irish and English were working together and trouble began when a drunken English ganger attempted to force an Irish navvy to drop his pick and use a shovel instead. The Irishman’s comrades then assaulted the ganger who, in turn, called upon his countrymen, who were in the majority, to drive the Irish off the line.

The Irish fled to their main camp at Plumpton to gather strength, and the following day some 500 Irish armed themselves with ‘knives, billhooks, pistols, pokers, sticks, clubs, pitchforks, hammers and other weapons, and marched against the English and drove them out of Yanwath. Despite their desire for revenge the Irish did not ransack the English camp, or burn their huts, which was in stark contrast to the events on Wednesday 11th, when the English, reinforced to the strength of 2,000 men by navvies who traveled from Shap, Orton and Kendal, attacked, looted and burned the Irish camp, leaving one Irishman dead.

The English then invaded Penrith in search of more victims and found 12-15 Irish sheltering in McLevi’s lodging house, and dragged the men out, one at a time, to face a brutal beating from the mob. Peace was only eventually restored by the intervention of three troops of Westmoreland and Cumberland Yeomanry Cavalry and by a Catholic priest, Father George Haydock, who dissuaded the Irish from avenging themselves.

The second incident began on Saturday, 28th February, at Gorebridge, some 10 miles from Edinburgh, when 200 Irish navvies gathered in a pub to receive their monthly pay. Fueled by alcohol, a dispute concerning a stolen watch escalated into violence and a passing district police constable, Richard Pace, was attacked, struck with a pick-axe handle and kicked while lying on the ground. He died from his injuries on the Sunday evening.

The following day, 1,000 Scottish and English navvies marched toward the Irish camp gathering strength from the nearby villages as they advanced. The Irish were waiting for them at Crichton Muir but when they saw size of the opposing force, now numbering 1,500 men, they retreated, allowing the Scots and English to burn their camp and advance further towards Borthwick Castle where more Irish huts were destroyed. The offensive by the Scottish and English navvies was finally halted by the arrival of 60 dragoons despatched from Edinburgh.

The third serious incident took place in May 1846 at Penmaenmawr, north Wales, where construction was progressing on the Chester & Holyhead Railway’s attempt to link London and Holyhead via the Chester & Crewe Railway and Robert Stephenson’s monumental Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait. Local Welsh navvies wrongly feared that there would not be enough work for everyone following the arrival of Irish workers in search of employment, and so 300 Welshmen attacked the Irish, drove them out of Penmaenmawr and cleared the line of Irish as far as the Llandegai tunnel, near Bangor. Although a magistrate read the Riot Act, the local police were shocked by the level of violence and were afraid to arrest the ringleaders without the assistance of soldiers. Urgent requests for military aid were sent out, and the 68th (Durham) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry) was rushed to the area by steamship from Liverpool to help restore peace.

(The railway at Penmaenmawr, north Wales, in 1906. This section of track was the scene of a railway disaster on 27th August, 1950, when the Irish Mail 'Boat Train', carrying 500 Irish passengers from the nearby port of Holyhead, crashed into the rear of a small locomotive that was crossing the main line towards a siding. Six people were killed and 36 injured.)

There were other outbreaks of violence, though on a lesser scale, at various locations during 1846 – the worst year of the navvy ‘civil war.’ The year 1847, however remained relatively free from conflict and the only major outbreak in 1848 was an ‘end of line’ quarrel as work concluded on the Calendonian Railway at Cobbinshaw, some 20 miles southwest of Edinburgh.

The violence was caused by the insensitive actions of the authorities who, after discharging the Irish navvies, tried to persuade them to disperse and leave the area by threatening to burn their shanty town, which was home to some 1,000 people, including the navvies’ wives and children. Enraged by these threats, 300 Irish armed themselves and set out to burn the nearby village of West Calder, which was initially defended by only 8-10 police officers. Scottish and English navvies who were working on other sections of the line rallied to the aid of the police and the villagers, who had also turned out in large numbers, and after some severe fighting they drove off the first attack. As the Irish regrouped and prepared for another assault, a party of 50 cavalry troopers dispatched from Edinburgh arrived, and the Irish ‘army’ melted away.

1849 was another year of relative peace on the railway lines, but, in June 1850, there occurred an outbreak of violence against Irish navvies that equaled in ferocity and bigotry anything that had gone before. The trouble began with another end-of-line pay-off of Irish navvies following the completion of the Stirling & Dunfermline Railway. A drunken fight broke out between two of the navvies in Dunfermline and this became a general free-for-all, with locals and navvies settling long-held grudges.

A mob of some 3,000 Scottish locals, out of a town population of only 16,000 people, then gathered and began to drive out not only the Irish navvies but also those Irish inhabitants who had lived and worked there for years. The mob marched the Irish out of Dunfermline to North Queensferry with the intention of shipping them across the Firth of Forth and out of the county of Fife, while at the same time Scottish miners attempted to complete the ethnic cleansing by attacking Irish miners at Townhill, Halbeath and Wellwood collieries, which were a mile or two to the north of Dunfermline. Fortunately the mob were frustrated in their plans by the arrival of police and a detachment of cavalry from Edinburgh. Thus protected by the military, several Irish did return to Dunfermline, but only to gather their few possessions before evacuating the town for good.

Just three months after the events at Dunfermline, and in response to the rapidly increasing Irish Catholic population in Britain, the Roman Catholic Church re-established its English diocesan hierarchy, on 29th September 1850, something which had not existed since the Reformation. This was met with howls of protest throughout the country and condemned as ‘Papal Aggression’ by politicians and newspapers, which whipped up the general population into a frenzy of anti-Irish-Catholic hatred and bigotry.

As a consequence of this hysteria, a series of anti-Catholic riots began that autumn would continue to break out periodically for the next 20 years before culminating in the widespread ‘Murphy Riots’ of 1867-71. These riots would affect the urban Irish community in Britain, rather than the itinerant navvy, and after 1850 the number of navvy riots fell away dramatically. The final word on the character of the Irish navvy goes to the Member of Parliament, Samuel Morton Peto, who was also a major railway contractor, at one time employing 14,000 men. At the opening of Parliament in 1851, Peto made a speech in which he said of his Irish workers, “I know from personal experience that if you pay him well, and show you care for him, he is the most faithful and hardworking creature in existence …”

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Tags: Britain, Diaspora History, Engineering, Faith, History of Ireland, Labor, Public Works

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on June 13, 2017 at 1:08pm

Excellent article.

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