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Not to be confused with Navy.
A "navvy" depicted in Ford Madox Brown's painting Work

Navvy, a shorter form of navigator (UK) or navigational engineer (US), is particularly applied to describe the manual labourers working on major civil engineering projects and occasionally (in North America) to refer to mechanical shovels and earth moving machinery. The term was coined in the late 18th century in Great Britain when numerous canals were being built, which were also sometimes known as "navigations", or "eternal navigations", intended to last forever.


A study of 19th century British railway contracts by David Brooke, coinciding with census returns, conclusively demonstrates that the great majority of navvies in Britain were English. He does, however, state that 'only the ubiquitous Irish can be regarded as a truly international force in railway construction'.[1] By 1818, high wages in North America attracted many Irish workers to become a major part of the workforce in the construction of the Erie Canal in New York State and similar projects; they also participated in building canals in Britain,[2] where by the 20th century they were the predominant workforce.[3]

Migration from canal to railway projects[edit]

Navvies constructing the railroad between Stockholm and Uppsala, Sweden in approximately the year 1900.

The construction of canals in Britain was superseded by contracts to construct railway projects from 1830 onwards, which developed into the railway manias, and the same term was applied to the workmen employed on building rail tracks, their tunnels, cuttings and embankments.

Navvies working on railway projects typically continued to work using hand tools, supplemented with explosives (particularly when tunnelling, and to clear obdurate difficulties). Steam-powered mechanical diggers or excavators (initially called 'steam navvies') were available in the 1840s, but were not considered cost effective until much later in the 19th century, especially in Britain and Europe where experienced labourers were easily obtained and comparatively cheap. Elsewhere, for example in the

"United States and Canada, where labour was more scarce and expensive, mechanical diggers were used. In the States the machine tradition became so strong that [...] the word navvy is understood to mean not a man but a steam shovel."[4]

Working conditions for railway navvies[edit]

Last surviving Navvy Housing in the UK
Wooden huts at the former Edmondthorpe & Wymondham Station, protected as a Grade II Listed Building[5][6][7]

Many of the navvies employed building the railways in England in the early part of the 19th century had to live in squalid temporary accommodations. The navvies working on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway were paid daily and their pay reputedly went on ale, leaving little for food. When the workers were unfit to work, monies were subtracted from their wages and meal tokens were issued. These tokens could be handed in at meal caravans for a bowl of soup and a portion of bread. At first the token was a slip of paper called a "flimsy" because of its thickness. In today's terms it would be similar to a grade called "bank paper". As these tokens could be copied by the forgers, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway supplied its contractors with six-sided food tokens that were surrendered for meals. These were cut from brass and had the initials LMR stamped upon them. This reduced the problems of drunken navvies and eliminated the local farm labourers freeloading from the food caravans. Tokens and a description of their use can be found in the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester.

In the mid-1800s some efforts were made by evangelical Anglicans led by Elizabeth Garnett to administer to the perceived religious needs of navvy settlements, with preaching, a newsletter and charity work.[8] The construction tycoon Morton Peto encouraged religious services for his workforce, as well as providing some social services to the navvy populations.[9]

Contemporary use of the term "navvy"[edit]

  • An excavating machine or steam shovel, as noted above.
  • In Britain, "navvy" sometimes means a workman digging a hole in a public road to get access to buried services such as gas mains or water mains.
  • In Britain, the name "navvies" is sometimes given to members of the Inland Waterways Protection Society and other canal restoration societies.
  • In Australia, the term "navvy" is still applied to railway workers.[10] Some areas of the country, particularly towns and cities along the sugarcane belt of the state of Queensland, still employ teams of navvies on a permanent basis to lay and maintain the state's narrow-gauge cane-train tracks. Whereas Council workers who work on general civic projects advise of their worksites with fluorescent orange "Workers Ahead" signage, navvies use pale blue "Navvies at Work" signs.
  • In British Columbia, "navvy jack" is a common term in construction and landscaping trades and in their respective supply stores for 1/2", 3/4" crushed rock and sand to be mixed with Portland cement to make concrete.[11] The usage derives from "Navvy Jack", by ordinary name Jack Thomas, a former navvy who used a rowboat to mine good-quality gravel from beaches in West Vancouver and infrequently ran a rowboat-ferry for settlers on Burrard Inlet and English Bay.
  • The term "navvy" has also been used with a wide variety of other meanings, such as a synonym for "hitman".[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brooke (1983). Page 167.
  2. ^ Way (1997). Page 94.
  3. ^ Cowley (2001)
  4. ^ Coleman (1968). Page 54.
  5. ^ "Wymondham Heritage Trail" (PDF). Wymondham and Edmondthorpe Civic Society (WECS). April 2009. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  6. ^ "Navvies Cottages Number 2, Wymondham". British Listed Buildings Online. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  7. ^ English Heritage Building ID: 355268
  8. ^ Coleman, Terry The Railway Navvies Penguin 1968 pp176-86
  9. ^ Coleman, Terry The Railway Navvies Penguin 1968 p174
  10. ^ The Navvy. Hempsted, N.C. Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, February, 1998 pp 61-63
  11. ^ "Navvy Jack". Aggregates. Butler Brothers Supplies Ltd. Retrieved October 27, 2011. 


  • Brooke, David, (1983). "The Railway Navvy: 'That Despicable Race of Men'". David & Charles, London. ISBN 0-7153-8449-X
  • Coleman, Terry (1968). The Railway Navvies: a history of the men who made the railways. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Cowley, Ultan (2001) "The Men who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy". Dublin: Wolfhound Press. ISBN 0-86327-829-9
  • Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Dialann Deoraí (Dublin: Clóchomhar, 1968), translated into English as An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile, London: Routledge, 1964. ISBN 1-903464-36-6
  • Way, Peter (1997). Common Labor: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780-1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5522-5.