Browse content similar to The Workers. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
This is the story of how canals changed and shaped our modern world.
Carrying huge volumes of goods and fuel,
they were a stimulus to Britain's great Industrial Revolution.
But they also gave us much more
and their legacy lives on, often in surprising ways.
I'm Liz McIvor.
I've spent my life studying and talking about history
and now I believe it's time to take a different look
at our inland waterways.
In the story of Britain's canals,
there's a chapter that's barely been told.
It's the role of the workers, the navvies,
whose herculean efforts drove waterways across the landscape,
a nomadic army of hard, resilient men,
roaming the countryside, seeking work.
So, who were these forgotten men?
Unreliable heathens who evolved a lifestyle and culture of their own?
Social outcasts with a reputation for hard living and hard drinking?
Or unsung heroes, who used might and muscle to build epic marvels?
These men of brawn with a huge capacity for work
would have one last triumph.
It was this.
A giant project,
hailed as one of the greatest feats of Victorian engineering.
The Manchester Ship Canal.
By the 1880s, Britain had extensive networks of canals,
man-made waterways crisscrossing the countryside for nearly 5,000 miles.
For over a century,
gangs of navvies had been changing the landscape,
working on river navigations from where they took their name,
before moving on to canals and then the railways.
The Big Ditch, as it was nicknamed,
was an enormous project, lasting six years.
It would bring the sea from Liverpool to the inland city of Manchester,
transforming it into a world-class port.
Oceangoing vessels could navigate their way from the Atlantic
and Irish Sea into the industrial heart of Lancashire.
Engineers got the plaudits and the knighthoods
for this deep and wide waterway,
but it was huge gangs of navvies who actually built it...
..men dedicated to the kind of heavy, manual labour
that could be traced back over a century
of canal, road and railway construction.
Initially, they'd join a navvy gang,
or the construction work,
simply because they're fit, strong and healthy
That's the most important thing for navvies at all times.
But once you start working in this line of work,
obviously you acquire all sorts of building skills.
I mean, some of the work they do,
a lot of it is just physical work.
They're just digging trenches.
But there are some more kind of skilled engineering tasks as well,
that they will learn, little by little.
By virtue of being on a construction site,
they'll learn some of the more skilled work as well.
The Ship Canal was the navigators' swansong,
their biggest and boldest achievement.
Even as construction started in 1887, it was proclaimed as one
of the most ambitious building projects Britain had ever seen.
It was led by Thomas Walker,
a civil engineer who'd spent his life working alongside navvies.
He was compassionate
and took an active interest in the welfare of these hard grafters.
But he also knew that navvies had always been feared as bogeymen.
Society regarded the navvies with contempt.
They had an unsavoury reputation for being wild,
disruptive and sometimes ungodly.
A Lancashire vicar described navvies as men who...
"Cheat and steal and drink
"and swear and fight and do all kinds of mischief
"to themselves and others."
The Reverend St George Sargent, working near Lancaster,
didn't mince his words either.
"The navigators were the most neglected
"and spiritually destitute people I ever met,
"ignorant of Bible religion and gospel truth,
"infected with infidelity and prone to revolutionary principles."
In Preston in 1838, a huge fight broke out between
Irish navvies and agricultural workers.
As the local paper reported it, "About 800 drunken men,
"armed with guns, pistols and pikes,
"began a pitched battle which resulted in deaths
"and serious injuries."
There's a common misconception that most navvies were Irish.
When the potato harvest failed in the mid-19th century in Ireland,
agricultural labourers did come to England
to work on canals and railways
and it caused resentment.
I suppose any band of outsiders who comes into a settled community,
that's unfamiliar with their neighbours more than
a mile and a half down the road, are going to be treated with...
looked on with suspicion.
You would have had, I suppose...
vagrants wandering, and beggars, and so on,
for a long, long time around the English countryside.
And suddenly these looked rather similar
but in vastly greater numbers.
And, yeah, there was natural suspicion and mistrust.
I suppose people then went on how they found them
as they worked alongside them.
Here, on the Manchester Ship Canal, only around 5,000 navvies,
a third of the workforce, originated from Ireland.
At the time work started, there was a general hostility towards the navvy,
irrespective of their background.
They, in turn, responded to this alienation
by embracing an identity of their own.
Navvies had always looked different.
One contemporary described their colourful fashion.
"Mustard yellows, periwinkle blues and wine reds were favourites.
"Thick-set boots, velvety moleskin breaches, scarlet waistcoats,
"canvas shirts, white spotted silk neckerchiefs
"and felt hats were the popular choices."
They used aliases and were more often known by a nickname
reflecting their personality or place of birth.
So, you had Warwick Jack,
Soldier, Rainbow Rattie,
the last referring to a one-armed navvy.
For the most part, I think navvies would have been recognisable.
I mean, very often we will have dozens of these workers entering
a very, very quiet community where everybody knows everybody,
so just the sheer fact that there are lots of them
and that they're strangers will make it quite obvious what they're doing.
But even outside that, our navvies will have been very muscular,
very suntanned and weather-beaten.
They'll be going round in pairs
and they'll probably cut quite a distinctive figure.
For navvies who'd come from previous jobs on canals or railways,
starting on the Ship Canal must have been a jaw-dropping prospect.
Even with machinery, the scale of digging would be colossal,
a corridor of excavation 36 miles long,
120 feet wide and 28 feet deep.
Sir Bosdin Leech, a former Lord Mayor of Manchester,
wrote the first history of the canal and reckoned the earth they excavated
would make a wall around the equator six feet high and two feet wide.
A sculpture at Halsall in Lancashire illustrates
the stature of the average navvy,
over six feet tall, deep-chested,
broad-backed and weighing 15 stones.
And that was when the average height of a man in Britain was just
five feet six inches tall.
A navvy could shift all sorts,
from rock and soil to clay and sand.
And everything was simply called muck.
And they could shift extraordinary amounts of muck.
The average navvy would be swinging shovel after shovelful
over his shoulder and into a wagon.
It's thought that they could move up to 12 cubic yards a day.
That's roughly what this pile here represents and it's nearly 18 tonnes.
All that work in just one day.
That sort of physical exercise resulted in large appetites.
Well, looking at all of this on the table, it looks quite inviting,
but is this the sort of food, Jordan, that navvies would have eaten?
Yeah, so this is a very typical diet that a person
working on the canals would eat.
They consumed roughly about 8,000 calories a day, which is
an enormous amount of food.
And just to put that into perspective,
the average man in the UK today, according to the government
guidelines, should consume roughly about 2,500 calories.
A labourer, modern-day labourer, manual work, maybe 3,500 calories.
And an elite athlete, maybe, like, a triathlon,
or a Tour de France athlete, would consume anywhere between
5,000 and 6,000 calories a day,
so that really puts it into perspective,
not only how much they were eating
but how physically demanding the work actually was.
4,000 of those 8,000 were from bread alone.
When we actually look at the bread,
it's very different to the bread of today.
It would have been much more dense.
It wouldn't have been made from refined flour.
And the loaves would have been round, quite brittle,
easy to break and they certainly wouldn't have been sliced.
So, that's quite a lot of beer.
-Is that how much they would have drunk in one day?
-It is, yeah.
Your typical canal worker would have had
anywhere between six to eight pints or bottles of beer a day,
which at first seems quite shocking,
but when we look back to the time when the canal was being built,
water quality was terrible
and drinking beer,
which was relatively weak, was the best way for you to get clean water.
So, was there an alternative to beer?
There was an alternative to beer, which is of course to drink tea,
but when you actually think of the practicality of it,
you would have to find a heat source, you would have to
wait for the kettle to boil,
and then, of course, you can drink it,
so, again, beer would have been the best option to get rehydrated.
And of course, if you wanted to grab a snack as you were going,
you've got the choice of a baked potato from a vendor,
or if you've got a bit more money, you're a gang boss, maybe a pork pie.
Navvies on the Ship Canal were fortunate in that a long-established
and long-despised system of exploitation on the canals
and railways had recently come to an end.
The practice of paying wages in tokens rather than money
was known as truck.
This scheme compelled the navvies to exchange these pay vouchers
in Tommy shops, or food stores, owned by the contractor.
The goods available were generally low in quality but high in price.
Parliament's outlawing of the truck system was finally enforced
the year the canal started, and as the 19th century headed to a close,
other reforms were in place to help the welfare of the working classes.
Although conditions were still hard,
child labour had been clamped down on,
working hours reduced and public health practices adopted.
So, the construction gangs would have been relieved but not surprised
to find an enlightened man in charge of the Ship Canal.
Thomas Walker, from Staffordshire, spent his early career building
a railroad in Canada, where he'd worked side-by-side with British navvies.
They'd been drafted in for their expertise gained
in constructing railways at home.
Walker had also worked on the first section
of the new London Underground.
He'd looked after his men
and his reputation as a good employer followed him to Manchester.
Walker helped establish one of the world's first
accident and emergency services here on the Ship Canal.
It was set up in anticipation of the high toll
of serious injuries to the navvies.
After all, health and safety regulations were in their infancy.
In charge of the hospital service, there was a young doctor
who'd trained as an orthopaedic surgeon in Liverpool.
Robert Jones was just 31 and found he now had 17,000 patients.
He organised hospitals on the route
and a chain of first-aid stations.
The hospitals were the first ever to be set up
to deal purely with accidents and emergencies.
Each was staffed by a resident doctor and a team of nurses
and linked to the construction sites by railways.
Jones, who later became a founding member
of the British Orthopaedic Society, dealt with hundreds of cases.
A navvy's life was dangerous in the extreme.
During construction, there were at least 3,000 accidents and 130 deaths.
It's very dangerous.
Essentially, it's a job that requires men using
just their muscle power to shift a lot of very heavy objects around.
And so men digging out barrel loads of stone and earth
and clay to dig the canal itself.
You've got people lining the canal with stone,
which is in big blocks, mostly.
And you've got men to push the canal through hilly areas.
In all of these things,
there's always the risk of things going wrong.
But the health care wasn't free.
Each navvy had to join a company sick club.
They would take a small amount out of the workers' wages each week.
And that would go towards paying for the services of a doctor.
So if a navvy got injured,
the company doctor would come and help them.
And if they were badly enough injured that they needed to go to
hospital, they could go to hospital.
The biggest loss of life occurred at Ince, near Ellesmere Port,
four years into construction.
23 ballast wagons were accidentally sent into the wrong railway siding.
They crashed through the buffers,
and fell onto a gang of navvies working below.
Six men who were on the train jumped to safety.
But wagons, burning coal and rock crushed the workers below.
Ten were killed.
Another ten had to be dug out by steam crane,
and treated for serious injuries at the field hospital.
Here, at the local church, St James the Great at Ince,
they buried the dead navvies in a common grave.
The construction gangs lived alongside the route,
taking lodgings where they could, or in shantytowns like here.
This is the former site of the aptly named Marshville,
near Runcorn in Cheshire.
It sat on Frodsham Marshes, on the banks of the Mersey mudflats.
Today, sadly, there's nothing left.
Marshville, the foundations are roughly 30 feet below us now.
Ahead of us, there would be the Mission Hall cum community centre.
Just to the left of it would be the shop.
And over on the far side to the left, there'd be all the workshops,
because there was engine sheds and workshops here as well.
Where we're walking now, between the buildings,
they eventually became flower and vegetable gardens.
The navvies on the Ship Canal weren't using muscle power alone,
as their predecessors had on the earlier waterways.
Technology had advanced,
and steam shovels similar to this one were now in use.
The contractor, Thomas Walker, had about 100 of these,
and each could shift three tonnes a minute.
These innovative mechanical diggers were
so efficient that their design hardly changed over the next century.
But they had a curious and unexpected side effect.
Their introduction is said to have caused the deterioration
of the physique of the workers.
As machines supplemented labour,
the days of the giant navvy were numbered.
Steam excavators could chew out the rough outline of a trench,
but men were still needed to shore up the slopes.
And as they dug up more and more material,
it was more difficult to get it to the top of the banks.
For that they developed the barrow run.
This was an extraordinarily risky procedure,
and often resulted in dreadful injuries.
The navvy and a full barrow would, in effect,
be winched up a wooden ramp by a rope that extended over
the embankment and was attached to a pulling horse.
Once at the top, the barrel would be emptied, but to get back down
the slope with the barrow, a man faced a perilous journey.
He pushed it in front of him and used his boots as brakes.
A really experienced navvy could make two runs a minute, but they ran
the risk of breaking ropes, toppling wheelbarrows and slippery planks.
It was such a spectacle that local people used to turn up
just to watch the barrow runs.
Traditionally, navvies were a highly mobile and flexible workforce.
Men would wander around the country between jobs -
"going on the tramp", as they called it.
Wages were comparatively good -
a navvy could earn five times what
a farm labourer would be paid for a day's work.
But they belonged nowhere and had few responsibilities.
The navvies were individualistic,
they were nomadic, because that's the nature of the work,
and that didn't lend itself to unionisation
and where navvies encountered unions,
they regarded them as almost as parasitic as the employers,
looking for money from them and offering very little in return.
A navvy's bargaining power was the ability to
walk off the site down the road and onto another site -
as long as a man could do that, he was a free man.
As the canal headed towards Manchester,
its construction coincided with the emergence of a nationwide
labour movement, fighting for better pay and conditions.
So when one man tried to do what no-one had ever managed before -
organise the navvies into a powerful group -
it seemed like a winning idea.
John Ward was the son of a plasterer.
He'd had no formal education
and by the age of 12,
was working as a navvy on a railway.
He tramped from job to job
and endured all the hardships of navvy life.
On the Manchester Ship Canal, his hands froze to a wagon
and had to be torn free by his workmates.
In 1889, a year that would later be recognised as a turning point
in the history of trade unionism,
John Ward founded the inelegantly named
Navvies, Bricklayers, Labourers and General Labourers Union.
He wanted better wages
and compensation for those who'd been killed or injured.
And he had reason to believe that his new union could become powerful.
Traditionally, unions had represented single professions
of skilled workers such as engineers, printers and carpenters.
They were exclusive, and unskilled workers like navvies
and labourers were kept out.
But two strikes in 1889 changed that stance and marked
a milestone in the development of the British labour movement.
The first was at a gasworks in London
in a dispute over working hours.
800 unskilled workers were organised into a union,
the first time this had ever happened.
The second strike came a few months later.
The Port of London was brought to a halt by casual workers
seeking more pay.
Significantly, both sets of workers won their demands and from then on,
trade union membership grew rapidly across the country.
So Ward believed that the navvies would be fertile ground
for recruitment into his new union,
but before he could get properly organised, fate intervened.
A couple of months after the navvy union was formed,
the canal's main engineer, Thomas Walker, died.
The company cancelled the contract and took over the works themselves.
It would lead to the only recorded incidence of a strike on the canal.
Once the navvies realised the contract had been cancelled,
they saw an opportunity to renegotiate their pay
and downed tools.
The company simply hired more men.
Police had to break up fighting between the strikers
and the new workers.
In the centre of Eccles, just half a mile from the canal,
an angry crowd of 2,000 striking navvies, most of whom were
not in the union, were addressed by one of Ward's officials.
He told them the strike was a mistake and they should bide their time.
With few members, the union didn't have the money for strike pay.
He urged them to join the union, then they'd be able to call
an all-out strike and would be more effective.
The company was more defiant,
telling the strikers they could work or go away, just as they pleased.
Shortly afterward, the strike just fizzled out.
It isn't to say
they weren't organised,
they were terribly organised for their own interests
and they were militant in the true sense of that word
because they were tough men, used to fighting, hard drinking
and so forth and they didn't need a formal trade union structure.
They didn't need branch secretaries, branches, organisers and that sort
of thing, which was the typical structure of late Victorian unions.
In truth, navvies were hard to organise into unions.
They had a powerful sense of freedom and independence.
If they were unhappy, they could move elsewhere,
but they knew that if they did leave,
there would always be someone available to take their place.
In the end, membership of the navvy union could only be measured
in the hundreds.
I think they weren't remotely interested in joining unions
or going on strike. Going on strike was never an option anyway,
because there was always a lot more labour than there was demand for it
and so you kept the job you got until you were tired of it,
bored with it, irritated by someone or something
and then you walked off.
But you certainly didn't attempt to collectivise for...to bargain.
Not in the 19th century - the 20th century's a different story.
The Ship Canal changed Manchester and the navvy's way of life.
Soon after it was opened by Queen Victoria in 1894, work started
on Trafford Park, the world's first purpose-built industrial estate.
The newly created port of Manchester
went on to become the third largest in the country,
linking the city to the rest of the world.
With the canal finished and most of the new rail network
now in place, time was up for the navvy in Britain.
Some continued on the tramp, to Europe and America,
where more railways were being constructed.
But as for the towns they left behind, there was a sense of loss and
perhaps guilt at the prejudices and misconceptions of the humble navvy.
In his history of the Ship Canal construction,
Sir Bosdin Leech wrote,
"People who anticipated their advent with terror
"were sorry when the work was done, for they enriched
"the whole neighbourhood by earning good wages and spending them freely".
An efficient transport system helped to kick-start
the Industrial Revolution.
The canals, railways and the Ship Canal gave the country
the motorways of their age and changed the map of Britain.
But it wouldn't have been possible without an army of anonymous workers.
Elizabeth Garnett, from the Navvy Mission Society,
summed it all up nicely.
"Their work will last for ages
"and if the world remains so long,
"people will come hundreds of years hence to look at
"and to wonder at what they have done".
And she was right - the navvies may be all but forgotten,
but their legacy lives on.