Thursday, 18 October 2012

The navvies' graveyard

The search is on for the identity of the 37 navvies buried in anonymous graves marked only by river stones at Elvanfoot.  These navvies (from ‘navigators’, because they came over from Ireland originally to dig our British canal system) died in 1847 of typhus

This sort of typhus is spread by lice in unhygienic, crowded and cold conditions. The navvies in Elvanfoot lived in miserable turf huts.

‘A major epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819, during the famine caused by a world-wide reduction in temperature known as the Year Without a Summer. An estimated 100,000 Irish perished. Typhus appeared again in the late 1830s, and yet another major typhus epidemic occurred during the Great Irish Famine between 1846 and 1849. The Irish typhus spread to England, where it was sometimes called "Irish fever" and was noted for its virulence. It killed people of all social classes, as lice were endemic and inescapable, but it hit particularly hard in the lower or "unwashed" social strata.’ So: it looks as if these particular ‘navvies’ could have come over from Ireland in 1847 because of the famine at home.

Dick Sullivan ( writes: 'By 1846, 200,000 men were building railways of which possibly half would have been labourers doing navvy-like work.  Wherever they went they impacted on unspoilt innocent landscapes like elemental forces, crashing out of a stillness, a hush, caused by expectation of their coming, bursting out like a train from a tunnel, all steam and fire, ferocity and danger. Once the early lines were laid, navvies came spilling in on the railways already built by their own people, cluttering up country railway stations (harassing rustic station masters), choking the highways with bird cages and baggage, prams, clocks, frying pans and bedsteads. Their impact on a tranquil rural population usually enlivened it, frequently debauched it, and always scandalised the ruling gentry. 'The females were corrupted, many of them,' said a contractor of the mid-Northamptonshire villages in the 183os, 'and went away with the men, and lived amongst them in habits that civilised language will scarcely allow a description of.'
The 1846 Committee was particularly worried. What if the marauding habits of the navvy lingered on, endemically, and damaged forever the docility of the rustic labourer? The Deputy Clerk of the Peace for Dumfriesshire already despaired for the moral health of the community.
'In what way?' asked the Committee.
'In the drunkenness of the little boys and the going together of men and women to live without marriage.'
Abandoned mistresses, he almost implied, littered the parish welfare system. Local lads were debauched by drinking, swearing, fighting, and tobacco: boys, said the Deputy, aghast, of twelve and fourteen. And they earned ten shillings a week carrying blunted picks to the blacksmith's shop for sharpening.
And the Queen's peace?
'On pay days,' replied the Deputy, 'I should say the place is quite uninhabitable.'

Essential further reading: The Great Hunger Ireland 1845-9 by Cecil Woodham-Smith Hamish Hamilton 1962

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