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Where the Navvies Lived: Part 1

The building of a railway required a huge amount of physical labour, and the thousands of men employed to construct the route had to live close to the line. Moving from place to place to work on the large number of public works undertaken in Victorian Britain, many navvies chose to lodge with people in nearby towns and villages. However, navvies had a reputation for being unreliable tenants, notorious for not paying rent and for thieving from their landlords. Also, there were simply never enough lodgings to support the large numbers of men at work in the area, especially when the railway was being built in remote locations where there was no sizeable population. Obtaining suitable housing for the navvies and their families therefore became a significant feature of railway construction. The next two pages of this story describe the development of navvy accommodation.

During the period of railway mania in the mid-nineteenth century, navvies lived in invariably poor conditions. Contractors were reluctant to accept the burden of housing their employees, and where navvies didn't sleep either in lodgings or the open air, they inhabited squalid communal dwellings, or shanties, fashioned from a variety of materials quite often only metres from the line. These shanties were damp, unsanitary, overcrowded hovels with little or no ventilation. They were clearly unhealthy places in which to live, and it was not uncommon for a navvy community to be overtaken by cholera, dysentery or typhus. Following a wave of concern, these appalling conditions began to improve. It was thought that better housing would not only improve the life of the navvies themselves, but would also serve as a civilising influence that would curb their notoriously immoral behaviour. Employers gradually began to accept greater responsibility for the navvies' wellbeing, and by the end of the nineteenth century contractors were obliged to provide their workers with adequate accommodation.

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This is page 3 of Navvies: The Men Who Built The Railways.
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Although navvies were no longer living in these primitive huts by the time the London Extension was built, this watchman's cabin near Upper Shackborough nevertheless provides a good example of the crude dwellings that navvies were forced to inhabit during the mid-nineteenth century. Wood, corrugated metal, mud, stone and lengths of fabric have all been used to construct this temporary shelter.

Although navvies were no longer living in these primitive huts by the time the London Extension was built, this watchman's cabin near Upper Shackborough nevertheless provides a good example of the crude dwellings that navvies were forced to inhabit during the mid-nineteenth century. Wood, corrugated metal, mud, stone and lengths of fabric have all been used to construct this temporary shelter.
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As many navvies had a nomadic lifestyle, their wives and families had to accompany them as they travelled across the country to work on various engineering projects. These four children are posing for the camera beside their hut at Newton Purcell, Oxfordshire.

As many navvies had a nomadic lifestyle, their wives and families had to accompany them as they travelled across the country to work on various engineering projects. These four children are posing for the camera beside their hut at Newton Purcell, Oxfordshire.
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