Navvies and the local community
— the experience of the Thirlmere Aqueduct in Westmorland and North Lancashire, 1888-1893

Eleanor Fisher
 JOURNAL 
 2012 
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Some people have a rough idea that the navvy is a sort of human alligator who feeds on helpless women and timid men, and frightens children into fits 1.

Manchester Corporation announced plans to convert Thirlmere into a reservoir and to pipe water for 95 miles to their city in the early 1870s. Local people must have quailed at the prospect of the incursion of large numbers of navvies into their peaceful countryside. Navvies’ reputation in the North West appeared well-earned. Running battles between English and Irish workmen had terrorised the locals during the building of the Kendal to Carlisle railway in 1846. Fighting and drunken antics in the Ribblehead navvy camps on the Settle to Carlisle line were equally infamous from 1870-1875.

The controversy of the building of the Thirlmere reservoir and the northern part of the Aqueduct through the Lake District has been well-documented as a classic early example of the clash between large-scale development and the conservation of delicate and important environments. Equally, the national campaign by the Thirlmere Defence League in opposition is seen as a precursor to the modern environmental movement. Several of its activists, including Octavia Hill and Canon Rawnsley, went on to found The National Trust.

This article focuses rather on the building of the Aqueduct as it fringed North Craven, running down through Preston Patrick, Hutton Roof and Lupton, crossing the Lune close to Caton before skirting the Bowland fells through Quernmore (see map). Formal opposition here was restricted to the landowners affected, and was relatively easily settled once compensation was decided. This line passed through rural areas, scattered farm communities and small villages, although some sections were close enough to towns like Kendal and Lancaster for lodging or weekend ‘sprees’.

The construction of the Aqueduct was a combination of tunnels, ‘cut and cover’ (concreted roofed channels re-covered with earth), and pipework for valley crossings. There are no pumping stations: the gradual downhill flow south is by gravity or siphon, controlled by valves. Manchester Corporation contracted out lengths of between fifteen and twenty miles, passing out full responsibility to each contractor for hiring the 300 to 500 men needed on each stretch, and providing accommodation for those who could not be lodged locally. The Corporation provided a school and hospital near the major camps at Thirlmere, but down the Aqueduct the workmen were dependent on local facilities. The Navvy Mission Society convened a special Thirlmere Committee, with outline plans for missionaries to be provided for the welfare of the men on each section. The Society had strong roots in northern water projects, having been founded in 1874 to support navvies on Leeds Corporation’s string of reservoirs near Fewston.

Navvies’ reputation was built on a combination of fear, disdain and grudging admiration. They were seen as outsiders (often Irish) with an alien lifestyle akin to gypsies, who descended in packs to disrupt community life. They were disorderly hard-living men, well paid enough to indulge their appetite for strong drink and huge quantities of meat. They were given to fighting, petty larceny, poaching and immorality. Yet they were capable of prodigious hours of physically demanding and dangerous work; they tolerated the bleakest of living conditions. Their projects brought noise, detritus and mess, damage to roads and the threat of importation of disease. They also brought economic opportunities for local pubs and shops, accommodation and lodgings, local carters and suppliers. They brought openings for well-paid casual work. Local wages were in fact stimulated through competition for labour: for example, hiring fees for farm servants in the North-West peaked during the Thirlmere construction 2.

The villages of Hutton Roof and Lupton north of Kirkby Lonsdale provide the most vivid vignette of the impact of the Aqueduct. This section crossed Lord Bective’s Underley Hall estate. At the 1878 Select Committee hearing, his agent was clearly apprehensive of the effect on this ‘very fine sporting estate’ of ‘great numbers of navvies coming backwards and forwards to work’. Excavations began in October 1888. The tone of the Parish Magazine was equally apprehensive, but it reported positive relations with the Belfast contractors, whose foremen were living in Hutton Roof. Where navvies lived over that first winter was not so clear, but demand on the Vagrant Ward in Kirkby Lonsdale doubled. It was not until January and April 1889 that the Magazine reported the building of several ‘commodious huts’ for the ‘better accommodation of the navvy workforce’. According to press reports, the large majority in the huts were Irish, young and single, and the 1891 census confirms this, suggesting that the contractor might have brought them from Ireland specifically for the project.

A local Committee was formed to build a ‘Navvies Reading Room’, funded by local, contractor and philanthropic donations. Mr Timson was appointed as Missionary through the Navvy Mission Society. Elizabeth Garnett, the doyenne of the Society, visited the huts and gave ‘an excellent and impressive lecture to the men’. Reading matter was provided by the Religious Tract Society, leavened by newspapers ranging from the Yorkshire Post and the Irish Times to the Navvies Quarterly Newsletter. Weekly musical entertainments, lantern slideshows and singing competitions for navvies were held. Lady Bective, Irish by birth, took an active interest in the men’s welfare, visiting the camp with her daughters. In October 1889 she organised a huge tea for 300 men, followed by recitations from locals and songs from the navvies. The Lancaster Guardian was fulsome in its praise for this ‘good as well as beautiful woman’, and ‘the excellent and even gentlemanly conduct of her guests from the Pipetrack’.

The reality was not quite so straightforward, either for the navvies or the villagers. Just six months later, in October 1889, the Medical Officer of Health for Kendal Rural District checked the ‘commodious’ huts. Rain was driving through the roofs: all the beds were soaking wet. He decreed the huts unfit for human habitation. He wanted to register them as common lodging-houses to have legal powers of inspection, and enforcement. His Committee wavered on such confrontation, and sent him back ‘to point out defects’. Contractors routinely saw the huts as a temporary necessity, and quality and maintenance reflected that. Living conditions were clearly grim, and the men took solace in the Sportsman Inn and Lowther Arms in Hutton Roof and the Plough Inn in Lupton, as of course did local quarrymen and villagers. The men from the adjoining pipeline section to the north, managed by a Liverpool contractor employing principally English navvies, favoured the Nook Inn on the main road close by. Again, this workforce composition is confirmed from analysis of the two Preston Patrick navvy camps at Sarah Beck and Shades in the 1891 census.

In June 1889, the local Vicar, Charles Spedding, petitioned the Kirkby Lonsdale magistrates for a special constable for the villages for the duration of the project. ‘Hutton Roof had been free of larceny, drunkenness and disorderly conduct before the works: now it was just the opposite’. The Vicar had not seen but ‘heard about’ fighting; other witnesses described men lying drunk in the road, and ‘women dragging men into the cottages close by’. The Magistrates only needed to be satisfied that there might be the danger of a ‘riot or tumult’ due to the men: they agreed that a constable should be appointed at the expense of Manchester Corporation. The Parish Magazine reported ‘much satisfaction’. Manchester Corporation’s solicitor riposted that there was no evidence that there was likely to be riot or tumult.

Tensions were high in September 1890 after an Irish navvy was crushed to death by a 2.5 ton section of pipe in a horrific accident in Hutton Roof. After a carousing weekend following pay day, fisticuffs between an English and Irish navvy in the Nook Inn on the Monday resulted in an Irish victory. The efforts of the special constable failed to calm tempers. The English navvies marched up to the Plough in retaliation and a full-scale fight took place in the taproom and the road outside. The Irish fled: three men were left wounded in the bar and an Irishman was found unconscious in the road ‘with critical cuts inflicted by a spittoon’. On Tuesday, a gang of 150 English returned to the Plough armed with staves and stones, but with no sign of the Irish, spent the rest of the day getting drunk and mooching about. Police reinforcements arrived at last from Kendal, disarmed the men and emptied the pubs. By the Wednesday order was restored and the men returned to work. The regional and local press buzzed with reports on the ‘riots’, but no action was reported as being taken against those involved. The editorials roundly blamed publicans for serving already drunk men.

Contention also built between Spedding and the missionary. No services were held at Hutton Roof Church between Christmas and Easter due to supposed difficulties of winter access. Mr. Timson welcomed some of the congregation to join the navvies in the Reading Room, strictly outside the rules of the Navvies Mission. Spedding complained to the Society. They quickly hustled Timson to another posting, but not before villagers had held a presentation party for him, prominently publicised in the Westmorland Gazette. An extraordinarily explicit newspaper correspondence ensued in early 1890 over the virtues of the missionary and the pastoral shortcomings of the ‘Incumbent’. He had not endeared himself to the navvies by allegedly refusing to take a navvy body into church before burial in the graveyard. The next missionary was careful to limit his activities to the men.

The 1891 census hints at a broader picture of village life at the time. Many locals were themselves employed in the lucrative shifts on the Aqueduct. Pipetrack men of both English and Irish origin lodged with village families, boosting incomes, and integrating them to some degree into local life. The huts still existed, but numbers had moderated from the peak early years. The village shop and village pubs are recorded as having a roaring trade, thanks to the incomers. The Reading Room doubled as a Soup Kitchen in hard weather, and Sir John Harwood, Chair of the Manchester Waterworks Committee, donated £10 for the relief of the navvies there in January 1892. Although only 25 out of 400 navvies regularly used the Room for its evangelical purpose, it became a well-used community facility. It continued to serve as a Village Hall until its demolition in the 1980s.

Lancaster newspapers were full of reports of drunk and disorderly navvies in the town centre from 1888, especially in the notorious China Lane area with its concentration of seedy pubs and lodging-houses. Police were overstretched to breaking point, and the Magistrates Court crowded out each Monday morning after weekend ‘sprees’. Edward Dawson, Chair of the Town Bench, and William Garnett, Chair of the County Bench, and local landowner in Quernmore near the pipetrack, applied to the County Chief Constable for extra police, a Lancaster Gazette editorial hinting at Anglo-Irish tensions. The common lodging-houses were permanently overflowing; men were forced to sleep out in stables and outhouses. Demand on the Workhouse casual ward had trebled from normal levels by May 1889.

The contractors had reassured the police that adequate accommodation was provided at Quernmore. Anxious at the pressure on their budget, the Guardians questioned the navvies why they used the casual ward. They insisted the huts could not house the large numbers now employed: they had no choice but to walk over three miles into town at each end of their ten hour day. The disgusting state of the town’s lodging-houses meant they actually preferred the vagrant ward: ‘the beds, they swarm with four in a bed and two of them drunk, it isn’t very comfortable’.

The response to this confusion highlighted the competing interests of different agencies within the town. The Guardians rounded on the Sanitary Committee as regulators of the lodging-houses for allowing their lamentable state. The Sanitary Committee and Town Council attempted to tackle the disruption by focussing major clearance plans on China Lane, rather than the town’s areas of highest mortality and dereliction. The powerful drink trade faction on the Council vied with the Temperance lobby, who accused certain publicans of serving already drunk men, ‘winked at’ by the police. Only the police could firmly displace blame onto outsiders for the steep rise in drink prosecutions at the Brewster Sessions: pipetrack men accounted for 50 per cent of offences. If the navvies could be seen as the catalyst of some problems, they did not appear to be entirely culpable for the chaos which ensued.

The Lunesdale Medical Officer of Health confirmed that the supply of huts in Quernmore was inadequate and highlighted defects in sanitation. Councillor John Brash, a leading temperance supporter who lived in the village, intervened by erecting an additional 64-bed hut in May 1889. The problems were transient: by the Census in April 1891 all sign of the huts appear to have had gone. Brash saw the meeting of extremes in the men, well-behaved and good to deal with when sober, brutes when drunk. This characteristic resulted in the local pub, The Dog and Partridge, being converted into a Temperance Hotel. The Navvy Mission Society struggled to find funds for a missionary here. Despite Council publicity, and an Open Meeting in Lancaster Town Hall in July 1889, only £39 out of the needed £90 was raised, £25 of which came from the Society itself.

The Lancaster Guardian ran a series of articles on each local section of the pipeline in 1889, outlining the extraordinary engineering feats of the enterprise. The journalist seemed apprehensive at meeting the navvies, given the weekly reports in his newspaper. Amazed at his civil and respectful reception, he was overwhelmed at the physical demands and hard conditions they tolerated, particularly in the scant and foul air of the tunnel sections near Quernmore.

Their Aqueduct is still visible, especially where the giant pipes cross river valleys, as over Lupton Beck or the handsome bridge over the Lune near Caton with its solid square valve houses. As you trace the black wrought-iron inspection gates 3 which run down its length through peaceful countryside, it is hard to imagine the toil, the disruption and the hubbub. Only the contemporary newspapers reported the regular accidents and deaths during the construction, and gave any clue to what it meant to local people.

In his official history of the Thirlmere project, Sir John Harwood scarcely touched on the role of the navvies, other than stating that ‘many thousands of workmen had conducted themselves in a most exemplary manner generally’. It fell to Canon Rawnsley to redress the balance in their memory. For the opening ceremony in Manchester in 1894, he composed a pointed Sonnet to the Workman, for ‘Those who live, and those who bled, who brought the Thirlmere Water to Manchester’.

Acknowledgements

United Utilities (Jonathan Dobson, Sustainability Strategy Manager) have been extraordinarily helpful and have supplied two photographs taken during the construction of the aqueduct, that of the tunnelling gang and the cut and cover excavation. We are very grateful for their support and permission to publish these pictures.

Notes

  1. Terry Coleman, The Railway Navvies, p. 27
  2. I am grateful to Dr. Stephen Caunce for this information, derived from the Penrith Observer, 1891-95.
  3. Not to be confused with the black gates on the later Haweswater pipeline constructed between 1935 and 1955, which runs to the east of the Thirlmere track through Westmorland and Bowland, see www.tathamhistory.org.uk/aqueduct.php

Sources

  • Capelli, Tim. The Thirlmere Way (Wilmslow, 1992)
  • Coleman, Terry. The Railway Navvies (London, 2000)
  • Garnett, Elizabeth. Our Navvies: A Dozen Years Ago and Today (London, 1885)
  • Harwood, Sir John. History and Description of the Thirlmere Water Scheme (Manchester, 1895)
  • McFadzean, A. Wythburn Mine and the Lead Miners of Helvellyn (Red Earth, 1987)
  • Mitchell, W. R. Thunder in the Mountains (Ilkley, 2009)
  • Rawnsley, Canon J D. Commemorative Sonnets: to the Chairman and the Members of the Waterworks Committee on the opening of the Thirlmere Waterworks, Friday, 12th October, 1894 (np 1894)
  • Ritvo, Harriet. The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere and Modern Environmentalism (London, 2009)
  • Tyler, Ian. Thirlmere Mines and The Drowning of the Valley (Keswick, 2005)

  • Kendal County Record Office: WDSO 171 Navvies Reading Room, Hutton Roof
  • WDX 1546 Lunesdale Parish Magazines

  • Newspapers: Kendal County News; Lancaster Gazette; Lancaster Guardian; Lancaster Observer; Leeds Mercury; Manchester Times; Preston Chronicle; The Times; Westmorland Gazette
  • Census 1891

ThirlmereAqueductTunnelling.jpg
Tunnelling gang on the Thirlmere Aqueduct
ThirlmereAqueductExcavation.jpg
Cut and cover excavation on the Thirlmere Aqueduct
ManchesterWWmap001.jpg
HuttonRoof.jpg
Inspection gate near Hutton Roof
LuneAqueduct.jpg
The Lune Aqueduct Bridge
LuptonBeck.jpg
Pipebridge across Lupton Beck



ThirlmereAqueductTunnelling.jpg
Tunnelling gang on the Thirlmere Aqueduct


ThirlmereAqueductExcavation.jpg
Cut and cover excavation on the Thirlmere Aqueduct


ManchesterWWmap001.jpg


HuttonRoof.jpg
Inspection gate near Hutton Roof


LuneAqueduct.jpg
The Lune Aqueduct Bridge


LuptonBeck.jpg
Pipebridge across Lupton Beck