Towards an Archaeology of Navvy Huts and Settlements of the Industrial Revolution

Article excerpt

Around any great construction enterprise, whether Victorian railway viaduct or contemporary motorway, there will be a passing scatter of huts and buildings, swept away when the project is complete and the builders have moved on. In the unmechanized age, this meant large numbers of hands and large settlements, which have their archaeological trace.


Until relatively recently the archaeology of the industrial revolution in Britain concentrated on the technology of industrialization (e.g. Buchanan 1972), but since the 1980s there has been increasing pressure to bring this area of study into the mainstream of British archaeological research, with an agenda focusing on broader changes in economy, landscape and society (Clark 1987: 169-71; Crossley 1990: 1-6; Palmer 1990). This note seeks to contribute towards this trend by highlighting the importance of a largely neglected class of site and its potential for gaining further insight into changing social conditions during this crucial period of British and world history.

The navvy (derived from the 'navigator' of the canal age) made up the specialized labour force which provided the muscle power and practical expertise for the great infrastructure projects of the industrial revolution from the later 18th to 20th centuries. As early as the 1790s, specialist contractors probably used established labour gangs for canal-digging (Burton 1972), although the archive sources for this period are poor. By the 1830s navvies had developed into a recognizable sub-culture within the working class, distinguishable from other, so-called unskilled labourers. With a special style of dress, particular forms of language and social and working codes, they tended to live outside mainstream society, moving from contract to contract and living in temporary but discrete communities.

Contrary to popular mythology, only a minority of navvies were Irish, the bulk being recruited from the poorest agricultural and industrial classes in England. They were regarded as folk devils by some contemporary commentators who emphasized their tendency towards violence, a high level of alcohol consumption, spendthrift attitudes and lack of conventional morality. Undoubtedly, their presence near often isolated local communities could be socially disruptive. Other accounts, however, lay stress on the appalling terms and conditions under which they laboured and the extraordinary work output which they achieved (and for which they were rewarded by relatively high wages) (Chesney 1970: 39-47; Coleman 1981; Sullivan 1983).

The sites of navvy camps and settlements, which ranged from isolated groups of huts to small towns housing several hundred people, lie scattered throughout the country, often in the bleaker and more inaccessible upland areas. In the broadest sense they form part of the history of lower-class housing (Burnett 1986). More specifically, however, they represent a rich and untapped source of information about the life-style, living conditions and material culture of the navvy.

Towards a settlement morphology

TABLE 1 presents a generalized model for the social analysis of navvy settlement morphology. It proposes a four-stage overlapping sequence TABULAR DATA OMITTED which broadly coincides with the phases of great construction projects, the canals, railways, reservoirs and roads (Deane 1965: 7580; Dearie & Cole 1969: 229-33; Buchanan 1972: 331-3; Marwick 1990: 117-18). These stages can be outlined as follows:

Period 1 The canal age: the prehistory of navvy settlements 1760s to 1830

Little is known about navvy living arrangements during this period; they were probably a combination of local lodgings, self-built huts and purpose-built dormitories. Huts are recorded on the Stroudwater canal in the 1770s and on the Gloucester & Berkeley canal in the 1790s (Sullivan 1983: 74). Some canal projects, especially tunnel construction, approached the scale of later railway contracts and, sometimes, the contractor provided purpose-built accommodation. …