Build­ing the canals was one of the tough­est jobs. We often hear about the fa­mous en­gi­neers, but what about men ac­tu­ally do­ing the con­struc­tion work?


We often hear about fa­mous canal en­gi­neers, but what about the men ac­tu­ally do­ing the hard work?

One often reads that a canal was ‘built’ by Telford, Brind­ley or some other great en­gi­neer. But often they would draw up the orig­i­nal plans and per­haps visit the site a few times a year – and, in the case of Brind­ley, the canal pro­pri­etors were lucky to see him that often.

The ac­tual phys­i­cal work of con­struc­tion was usu­ally handed out to in­di­vid­ual, in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors, who would ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for build­ing a spec­i­fied length of the wa­ter­way. They in turn would em­ploy the work­men who would do the ac­tual build­ing: there would be skilled crafts­men, such as car­pen­ters, ma­sons and brick­lay­ers, but above all there would be a huge num­ber of labour­ers. Be­cause they built nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­ways, they were orig­i­nally known as nav­i­ga­tors, but that was soon short­ened to the fa­mil­iar ‘navvies’.

A typ­i­cal con­tract on the Ox­ford Canal of 1770 called for John Watts to com­plete a spec­i­fied length of canal at a rate of £350 per mile and to build two ‘Wagon Bridges’ of brick with stone cop­ings for £210 for both. So who were these con­trac­tors? That’s not an easy ques­tion to an­swer. They var­ied enor­mously from the very small con­cerns to ma­jor com­pa­nies, tak­ing work on a whole range of canals at the same time.

A con­tract for the Bre­con & Aber­gavenny Canal, for ex­am­ple, went to a con­sor­tium con­sist­ing of Wil­liam Perry gen­tle­man, Thomas Pow­ell shop­keeper and Wil­liam Watkins, labourer. The first two would have supplied the money and equip­ment and Watkins the ex­pe­ri­ence of ac­tu­ally do­ing such work.

At the op­po­site ex­treme was Hugh McIn­tosh, who had of­fices in Blooms­bury, Lon­don and who de­scribed him­self as “Con­trac­tor for Pub­lic Works”. In 1823 he was given the job of com­plet­ing the Glouces­ter & Berke­ley Canal for a to­tal cost of £111,493 15s 11d: it is a cu­ri­ous fea­ture of con­tracts at this time that they were often es­ti­mated down to the near­est penny – even though, in the event, they might turn out to be hope­lessly in­ac­cu­rate.

The sys­tem suited the canal com­pa­nies, who were spared the ex­pense of pur­chas­ing all the

equip­ment needed for con­struc­tion, had no need to bother about hir­ing men – and did not have to worry about things like pay­ing wages.

There was, how­ever, a down­side to the ar­range­ment. The canal com­pany wanted a wa­ter­way in which ev­ery­thing was com­pleted to the very high­est stan­dard, no mat­ter how long it might take. The con­trac­tor wanted to get the job fin­ished as soon as pos­si­ble: the longer it lasted, the more he had to pay out in wages and the lower his prof­its.

One set of canal records gives a very good pic­ture of the con­flicts that could arise, in this case be­tween the Lan­caster Canal Com­pany and the con­trac­tors, Pinker­ton and Mur­ray. When work be­gan on the canal in Jan­uary 1793, ev­ery­thing seemed to be go­ing very well, with crowds of navvies turn­ing up for the work, and soon cut­ting was go­ing ahead on many miles of ex­ca­va­tions. But soon, trou­bles started to ap­pear.

In their anx­i­ety to push ahead, the con­trac­tors asked to be al­lowed to start on the next stretch be­fore the first was fin­ished: the canal com­mit­tee re­fused. Pinker­ton and Mur­ray had an­nounced they would sup­ply stone from a par­tic­u­lar quarry, but that turned out to be un­suit­able and, as a re­sult, all the ma­sonry work was held up. Worse was to fol­low. The com­pany sec­re­tary wrote a sting­ing re­buke in a letter of De­cem­ber 1793.

“The ‘Come’ are sorry that they have had rea­son to ob­serve that the Gen­eral ten­dency of your Man­age­ment is to get the works hur­ried on with­out re­gard to the con­ve­nience of the pub­lic, the loss of the land oc­cu­piers or the ad­van­tage of the com­pany. You sel­dom pro­vide the nec­es­sary ac­com­mo­da­tions be­fore you be­gin to make the Bridges, and in the ex­ca­va­tions you place your own in so many var­i­ous places with­out ei­ther fin­ish­ing as you pro­ceeed or mak­ing your fence, wall & posts & rail­ing – that the whole Coun­try is laid open to dam­age. This griev­ance which has al­ready caused so much trou­ble and ex­pence is so very ob­vi­ous & so much ow­ing to your ne­glect that the com­pany will no longer suf­fer it.”

The li­tany of com­plaints con­tin­ued through­out the con­struc­tion pe­riod, and the en­gi­neer Ren­nie wrote to sym­pa­thise with the hard pressed sec­re­tary, com­ment­ing: “I am not sur­prised at your be­ing out of pa­tience with P& M. I think it would be a hard busi­ness for Job him­self.”

Of course, not all con­trac­tors be­haved badly: many sim­ply got on with the work in hand. We know about when things went wrong, be­cause those are the events that were recorded: no one wrote to con­trac­tors to say they were do­ing well. The same ap­plies when we come to look at the men who did the hard work, the navvies.

At the start of the canal age, lo­cal work­ers were em­ployed: the Duke of Bridgewater, for ex­am­ple, was able to call on min­ers from his Wors­ley col­liery to dig

his canal. But as more and more canals were be­gun, the men who had worked on the first had de­vel­oped strengths and skills that en­abled them to earn far bet­ter wages than or­di­nary labour­ers.

When the Rev. S. Shaw vis­ited the works on the Bas­ingstoke Canal he found that al­though the con­trac­tor wanted to em­ploy lo­cal men, they were not able to keep up with the ex­pe­ri­enced navvies who had come from other work­ings. The pro­fes­sional navvy had ar­rived.

A con­tem­po­rary ac­count stated that an ex­pe­ri­enced navvy could shift 12 cu­bic yards of earth a day: that’s the same as dig­ging a trench 3ft wide, 3ft deep and 36ft long ev­ery day. And it was not al­ways that sim­ple. In deep cut­tings, there was a prob­lem get­ting the spoil up to the sur­face, so bar­row runs were used.

A bar­row would be filled and then at­tached to a rope, at the other end of which was a horse. As the horse walked away, the bar­row would be hauled up nar­row planks to the top of the cut­ting. The navvy had to bal­ance this load, while keep­ing his foot­ing on the planks, greasy with wet clay. He came back down at a run, with the bar­row be­hind him.

If he fell, which was not un­usual, he had to try and throw him­self to one side while push­ing the bar­row the other way to avoid be­ing buried un­der a heap of earth. The navvies were the high­est paid man­ual work­ers in the land, but they earned their money. The navvies worked hard and lived hard. There is very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion on where they came from, though they were not, as pop­u­lar his­tory has it, mainly from Ire­land, though some were. They re­main anony­mous: when a man was killed in the work­ings, the of­fi­cial re­port couldn’t even find out his name, but merely re­ferred to him as a man from Shrop­shire.

The men got ac­com­mo­da­tion when and where they could. It was only rarely that they had a proper build­ing to live in: an ex­cep­tion was the work on Sap­per­ton tun­nel on the Thames & Sev­ern. There the men were housed in a spe­cial bar­rack-like build­ing which, when work was over, be­came a pub, which it still is to­day, the Tun­nel House at Coates.

Else­where the men had to live in makeshift shanty towns. Un­sur­pris­ingly, they were al­ways out­siders in com­mu­ni­ties where they set­tled, and de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for ri­otous be­hav­iour. One con­tem­po­rary called them ‘un­govern­able ban­ditti’, but as with the con­trac­tors, we mostly hear about their be­hav­iour only when things got out of hand.

Al­though the navvies were paid bet­ter than other labour­ers, there were often spe­cial dif­fi­cul­ties. Some con­trac­tors, in­stead of pay­ing coin of the realm, paid in to­kens that in the­ory could be used in ex­actly the same way. But some­times lo­cal shop­keep­ers and innkeep­ers were un­will­ing to cash them.

This hap­pened at Samp­ford Peverell on the Grand Western Canal in 1811. A crowd of around 300 an­gry men were gath­ered in the vil­lage, un­able to get the money they needed. They came across a no­to­ri­ous lo­cal, Mr Chave, who had been in­volved in a scan­dal in­volv­ing a fake ghost that he charged peo­ple to see, and de­cided to take their anger out on him. Chave was ter­ri­fied, took a pis­tol and fired into the crowd: one navvy was killed in­stantly and an­other fa­tally in­jured. The end re­sult was a ma­jor riot. It was one of the black­est days for ri­ot­ing in canal his­tory.

There were other ri­ots, but they were far from typ­i­cal of the work­ing life of the navvy. In the fi­nal reck­on­ing these were the men who built our canals us­ing noth­ing but their own strong arms, and the sim­plest of tools, just pick­axe and shovel. They did a job few oth­ers could even con­tem­plate, and even fewer would be able to man­age. The canal sys­tem we have to­day is due just as much to their hard work as to the plan­ning ge­nius of the more fa­mous en­gi­neers.

A 19th Cen­tury scene in Du­cie Street Basin on the Rochdale

Work­ers pose for a pic­ture af­ter ren­o­vat­ing Blis­worth tun­nel

At work in Is­ling­ton Tun­nel

It wasn’t just men – brick­layer with lady helper work­ing on a Grand Union bridge

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