The Navvies of Standedge

By John Moore

Every Sunday for the past fifteen months during term time I catch the hourly Manchester to Huddersfield train bound for the University of Huddersfield. During this time I have noticed that a number of my fellow train users have a negative perception of the rail network. Their grievances due to the mere five minute delay of the service or the lack of carriages mean they have to stand up. As a non-driver myself, the construction of the railway in the Victorian period has granted me an accessible route into university. Britain’s revolutionary railway system meant that Victorians could explore the country like never before. One train passenger described this free movement in asserting: ‘You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine.[1]’ Without the physical prowess of an estimated 250,000 ‘navvies’ (navigators), these ‘magical’ journeys would have never been made possible.[2]

Between Diggle and Marsden, during my journey, the train passes through the Standedge Railway Tunnels, built between 1848 and 1894. These tunnels enabled a connection between the industrial powerhouses of Manchester, Huddersfield and Leeds during the Victorian era.[3] Huddersfield was a textile forerunner and the Standedge Tunnels permitted the transportation of its produce. Today Huddersfield is a thriving university town. Born into a family heavily involved in the building trade, I personally never fell within the typical mould I was expected to and found I was not cut out for such a demanding role. Nonetheless, my family’s tradition has embedded an appreciation for construction and my historical intuition led me to ask the question: Who were the navvies who built the Standedge Tunnels, and where did they come from?

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 00.15.14

Route of Standedge Railway Tunnels between Diggle and Marsden. Created using Google Maps ©.

I am a navvy bold, that’s tramped the country round, sir,

To get a job of work, where ever can be found, sir.

I left my native home, my friends and my relations,

To ramble up and down and work in various stations.[4]

The ‘railway age’ of the Victorian era was a time of ‘internal migration’. ‘Railway mania’ meant that the creation of a mobile workforce was a necessity.[5] As Britain’s rail network grew the navvies ‘were there one month and gone the next,’ as Charles Dickens put it, as they and their families moved to wherever work was available.[6] Some navvies would have one ‘rambled upon’ Standedge on their travels.

A large number of the navvies located at Standedge would have been Irish. Following the ‘Great Famine’ in Ireland (1845-1852), 200,000-300,000 Irish men and women embarked for England in search of work.[7] Many of the men, skilled only in manual labour, pursued careers as navvies. An example of this happening is the relation of renowned theatre director and Yorkshireman John Tiffany. Tiffany discovered his Irish lineage following a conversation with his father which led to the revelation that his great-great grandfather travelled from Ireland to work at Standedge as a navvy.[8]

Some of the navvies located at Standedge were English. George Middleton was born in Buckinghamshire but unfortunately, like many navvies constructing Britain’s railways, George paid with his life due to his dangerous profession, being hit by a train from Manchester in 1891.[9]

Conversely, David Brooke argues against the notion that navvies’ travelled from all over Britain to work on the railways arguing  that contractor’s primarily sought to recruit men from the region where the work was to take place.[10] Mark Pember provides an example of a local recruit, originating from Denshaw, only a couple of miles from the tunnels. Pember had been working at Standedge in 1891 when a landslip occurred, killing two of his fellow workers; Benjamin Crabtree and Henry Roy.[11]

The locations from where the navvies discussed travelled from to Standedge.  Created using Mapbox ©.

The locations from where the navvies discussed travelled from to Standedge.
Created using Mapbox ©.

Navvies were seldom know by their birth names, often responding exclusively to their nickname. For example, a navvie from the Midlands would often be known as an epithet such as ‘Black Tom’, in that he was from the Black Country. The navvies’ wives and children who often accompanied the men as they travelled the country would also inherit their spouses’ nickname. ‘Black Tom’s’ spouse would have simply been known as ‘Black Tom’s wife’, rather than by her real name.[12]      

During long projects, such as tunnelling, settlements would be erected to house to navvies and their families.[13] At Standedge in 1890, the ‘Marsden Local Board’ met and put forward a proposal to build ’54 new wooden huts, one-storey high’ to house the navvies and their families.[14] The proposal was eventually passed with the likeliness that the huts were constructed in a field on Ainsley Lane in Marsden, where it is believed the navvies and their families resided.[15]

Photos of Ainsley Lane – Location of navvie settlement during the construction of the Standedge Railway Tunnels

Photos of Ainsley Lane – Location of navvie settlement during the construction of the Standedge Railway Tunnels

ITV’s new drama Jericho (2016) pays homage to the navvies who once encountered Yorkshire and ‘came to traverse the country’s least hospitable landscapes.[16]’ Recognition such as this is essential in maintaining the hard-working history of Britain’s navvies. Although the construction trade was not meant for me, I wholeheartedly respect the men who made Britain’s railway system possible and to an extent, allowed me to attend my choice of university.

The Standedge Railway Tunnels.

Located under the Yorkshire Moors between Diggle and Marsden, lies a vast network of underpasses; three railway tunnels and one canal tunnel. The canal tunnel predates the Victorian period, completed in 1811. Nonetheless, the later construction of three railway bores between 1848 and 1894 were aided greatly by the existence by their predecessor. The knowledge gained in building the canal tunnel allowed the engineers of the first railway bore to amass savings of £70,000 during its construction.[17] With the use of strategically placed adits, the railway navvies could remove the debris from within the railway tunnels via barges.

The single-lined central Standedge Tunnel (see fig. 1) was completed in 1848 by the London and North Western Railway. The tunnel is three miles and 57 yards in length. With the first railway tunnel being single-lined, a bottleneck occurred causing regular delays as traffic increased on Britain’s railways. This led to the construction of the South Standedge Tunnel in 1871 (see fig. 2), parallel to its predecessor, also single-lined and exactly the same length. The need for a final tunnel eventually prevailed, which led to the construction of the final double-bored North Tunnel (see fig. 3), completed in 1894. The North Tunnel is slightly different to its prototypes in that it passes over the canal tunnel at both ends. The final tunnel is a mere three yards longer and is the only tunnel at Standedge which is used for live rail traffic today.[18]        

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Why I Chose my Digital Component.

Much of the research I carried out into the navvies of Standedge led to me examining an abundance of nineteenth-century newspapers. The majority of the articles were concerned with the negative side of being a navvie, labelling them as degenerates with a lust for fighting and drinking. Unrest between the locals of Marsden occurred and on more than one occasion navvies were ejected from the local Diggle Hotel due to fighting with one another. Nonetheless, the forming of Britain’s railway network is one of the Victorian’s era finest accomplishments and was made possible by the navvies. The navvies were certainly different to the majority of Victorian society, but so was their line of work; they were a transitory workforce which the likes of Britain is unlikely see again. My own newspaper page pays homage to the navvies whose stories helped form the basis of my work, some of whom paid with their lives due to their line of work. The stories in the source are snippets from the newspaper accounts which I used in my work granting the reader a further insight into who the navvies were, where they came from and where they resided whilst at Standedge. 


[1] Toman, J. (2013). Kilvert’s World of Wonders: Growing up in Mid-Victorian England. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press. p. 99.

[2] Williams, C., (2007). a Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Blackwell.  pp. 233-234.

[3] Grace’s Guide. (No Date Present). Standedge Tunnels. Retrieved from http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Standedge_Tunnels.

[4] Burton, A. (2012). History’s Most Dangerous Jobs: Navvies. Retrieved from http://www.hud. eblib.com. p. 11.

[5] Hewitt, M. (2012). Introduction: Victorian Milestones. In Hewitt, M. (Ed.) The Victorian World (pp. 1-53). London: Routledge.

[6] Dickens, C. (1873). Navvies. All the Year Round, 11 (265), 199-202. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/7909104?accountid=11526.

[7] Donnelly Jnr, J.S. (2012). Great Irish Potato Famine. Retrieved from http://reader.eblib.com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk. p. 325. National Railway Museum. (No Date Present). Navvies: the Men and Women of the Railways. Retrieved from http://www.nrm.org.uk/RailwayStories/railwayarticles /navvies.aspx.

[8] Author Unknown. (2015, July 18). Once more with feeling: a hit comes home. Irish Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/

[9] Author Unknown. (1891, July 2). Local and District News: the Marsden Railway Fatality. The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle. Retrieved from http://find.galegroup.com. libaccess.hud.ac.uk/.

[10] Gourvish, T. R. (1986). [Review of the Railway Navvy: ‘That Despicable Race of Men’]. The English Historical Review101(401), 1012. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libaccess.hud.ac.uk /stable/570719.

[11] Local and District News: the Landslip at Marsden. The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle. Retrieved from http://find.galegroup.com. libaccess.hud.ac.uk/.

[12] Miller, W.H. (1857). A Few Words About Navvies. Leisure Hour: An Illustrated Magazine for Home Reading, (804), 325-327. Retrieved from http://search.serialssolutions.com.

[13] Hey, D. (Ed.) The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.oxfordreference.com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk

[14] Author Unknown. (1890, October 4). Local and District News: Navvie Settlement. The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle. Retrieved from http://find.galegroup.com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk

[15] Huddersfield One. (Date Unknown). Huddersfield Narrow Canal: Tunnel End. Retrieved from http://www.huddersfield1.co.uk/huddersfield/narrowcanal/huddscanalend.htm.

[16] Graff, V. (2016, January 14). The True Story Behind Jericho. Radio Times. Retrieved from http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2016-01-14/the-true-story-behind-jericho.

[17] Unreferenced and Undated Newspaper Clipping. West Yorkshire Archive Service.

[18] Grace’s Guide. (No Date Present). Standedge Tunnels. Retrieved from http://www.gracesguide .co.uk/Standedge_Tunnels.

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