LOOK around the countryside and you’ll see fantastic feats of engineering: railways that stretch from one end of the country to the other, towering viaducts, long networks of canals, huge reservoirs and vast dams – but someone had to build them all.

Here, on the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s blog, Lily Mulvey, the Authority’s historic environment apprentice, takes a closer look at some of the work of the navvies in the Dales.

‘Navvy’ – short for ‘navigator’ – is the name given to those who worked on improving natural inland rivers used for transport (called navigations). When canal building in Britain took off in the mid-1700s the men who cut them were called navigators too.

By the time of the railway, ‘navvy’ had become a name given to any man who worked on a large infrastructure project.

Navvies were typically working class men from all over England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, who would travel from one project to the next. In some cases they brought their wives and children with them, and, if their sons were old enough, they would also be put to work on-site.

Documentary evidence: mainly newspaper articles, court documents, personal accounts, photographs, parliamentary records, and laws later on regarding the treatment and rights of navvies.

While working, the men sometimes lodged in local inns or even with families in nearby villages, but often they lived in so-called navvy camps, which were constructed of temporary wooden huts. These camps could be huge, sometimes including amenities like pubs, shops, churches and schools. People might live in these for years at a time. Since they were temporary most were disassembled rapidly after the projects finished, but evidence can still be found – very easily in some cases.

For example, just outside the National Park lies Scar House Reservoir. This reservoir holds 10 million cubic metres of water and has an accompanying dam measuring 71 metres high and 600 metres long. It was built between 1921 and 1936, during which time more than 1000 navvies were housed in a ‘camp’ called Scar Village. And it really was more of a village. It had a hospital, school, shops, a church, sports facilities and more! When the construction was completed the buildings were dismantled for use elsewhere, but the concrete bases on which the timber houses stood are still visible today.

Another settlement was Barden Camp. This navvy camp was used during the construction of the reservoir at the now disused quarries at Halton Moor. All that remains is a series of rectangular earthwork platforms, where the camp huts once sat. There are further possible locations on the south side of the road but these have been rendered invisible by an informal car park.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal was built in phases from 1770. The Leeds to Gargrave stretch opened in 1777 and was used to transport goods in and out of the Dales. At Gargrave, five separate wharves, along with warehouses and yards, were built to cope with the amount of trade coming through on the canal. The canal was cut by navvies, and, while finding evidence of any camps is difficult, we do have documentary evidence of men lodging in inns and local houses. A fantastic physical testament to their work in the Dales can be seen at the Aqueduct at Holme Bridge, which is Grade II listed.

One of the most remarkable feats of engineering in the area is the Settle-Carlisle Railway (1869-1876) and is undoubtedly the most famous construction project in the Dales to use navvies.

The line was predicted to cost £1,375,829, but ended up totalling an estimated £3,000,000 (roughly £188,000,000 today). It was the last large-scale project to use traditional construction methods and was awarded in sections to various contractors.

Contracts and census data indicate that there were a huge number of navvy camps built along the line. Some were tiny, consisting of only a few huts, while others were astonishingly large, consisting of thirty or more residential huts along with as many amenities as you can imagine. The exact locations of the camps were usually not recorded, and since they were only temporary villages they can be difficult to find. However, this is not always the case.

Moorcock Navvy Camp was used between 1872 and 1873, and sited close to Garsdale Station. This camp was housed by the navvies working on this remote section of the railway. It may have been home to more than 70 people. Earthworks of huts including chimney bases are still visible.

Jericho, Belgravia and Sebastopol settlements (Ribblehead Viaduct) were collectively known as ‘Batty Green’ or more commonly, Ribblehead navvy camp. These are the most famous navvy settlements in the Dales. Their location on moorland (as opposed to farmland) means that they have been left relatively undisturbed.

Built for the navvies constructing Ribblehead Viaduct and Blea Moor Tunnel, the camps housed around 2,000 people in total.

During their heyday, the camps consisted not only of residential huts but of pubs, shops, a school, church, hospital, brick works, stables…the list goes on.

In his well-received book on the early life of the railway, Frederick Smeeton Williams painted this evocative picture: “The town of Batty Wife [Ribblehead Navvy Camp] had, when we visited it, a remarkable appearance. It resembled the gold diggers’ villages in the colonies. Potters’ carts, drapers’ carts, milk carts, greengrocers’ carts, butchers’ and bakers’ carts, brewers’ drays, and traps and horses for hire, might all be found, besides numerous hawkers who plied their trade from hut to hut. […] But, despite all these conventionalities, the spot was frequently most desolate and bleak. Though many of the men had been engaged in railway making in rough and foreign countries, they seemed to agree that they were in “one of the wildest, windiest, coldest localities of the world.

“The wind in the Ingleton Valley in the winter was so violent and piercing that for days together the bricklayers on the viaduct were unable to work, simply from fear of being blown off.”

The town was in use between 1871 and 1876 – although interestingly a small number of people continued to live there until 1879, after which time it was dismantled, leaving building platforms and tramlines behind. The site is protected as a scheduled monument.

There were many instances of men who started out as manual labourers who rose quickly through the ranks and became major contractors or engineers. One example of this is Henry Bushby, who is listed on the 1851 census as a Builder’s Foreman in Worthing. In 1861 he was still in Worthing but listed as an “Inspector of Railway Works”. By 1873 he was in Westmorland working as a Contractor’s Agent on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. This was a role in which he was so respected that the people of the village where he was stationed clubbed together to raise £25 to buy him a parting gift.