The first episode of ITV’s new period drama Jericho having aired last night [Thursday 7 January 2016], concentrating on the building of the Ribblehead Viaduct in the 1870s – one of the last great Victorian railway construction projects. Dipping into the National Railway Museum’s archives, here an exploration of the historical background of the new primetime “British Wild West” drama, as it has been billed.
Designed by John Sydney Crossley the Ribblehead Viaduct carried the Settle and Carlisle Railway across the Batty Moss in North Yorkshire. On the edge of North Yorkshire, near the border with Cumbria, the line had its origins in the on-going battle between Midland Railway (who built it) and London and North Western Railway.
In the 1860s Midland’s route to Scotland relied on using LNWR (London and North Western Railway) lines from Ingleton into Carlisle. LNWR would not allow Midland trains to run on their lines, instead stipulating that Midland trains had to disembark their passengers at a station at the end of the Ingleton Viaduct and then make them walk about a mile to the next station to catch a LNWR train as depicted in the first episode of Jericho.
Unhappy with this arrangement, Midland decided to forge their own route to Carlisle and then on to Scotland, hence the Settle-Carlisle line and the need to lift the railway over the boggy terrain known as Batty Moss.
What was it like to live and work there?
Navvy work was hard – there was very little construction equipment beyond pickaxes and shovels in this period. The historian Terry Coleman argues that this was the “last great work in Britain executed by navvies” – after the 1870s early mechanical diggers began to be used to aid construction projects.
What equipment there was in 1870, particularly wooden cranes and gunpowder used in blasting, was unstable. Over one hundred men were killed in the construction of the viaduct – a not unusual number for the time. Building the famous Woodhead Tunnel in the 1840s involved 157 tonnes of gunpowder, the pumping out of 8 million tonnes of water, and 27 deaths. The blasting accident depicted in the first episode of Jericho was representative of the sort of incident in which men lost their lives. With very little of what we would recognise now as first aid or safety practices available, construction work was rough and dangerous in the period.
Between one and two thousand navvies, and their families, settled into the area in the five years it took to complete the work. The houses were largely made out of wood, with felt coverings to keep out the rain, but newspaper reports record a ‘hospital’ and a mission church.
Life at Jericho, like other navvy settlements, would have been hard. Henry Pomfret, Surgeon on the Sheffield and Manchester Railway in 1846 told a Parliamentary Select Committee that work on a similar moorland environment was hard for families:
I observed that the children seemed to suffer from the dampness of the moor; they enjoyed good health, considering the state of their homes and their habits, and the bleakness of the climate.
The men, as the pictures above show, would have lived in the shadow of the work they were accomplishing.
How much like the ‘Wild West’ was it?
Navvies in the Victorian period had a terrible reputation. As the Master, Mr Thornhill, observed, navvies were often thought to be “mostly villains and rough hands”. They were often a subject of concern for the public, and there were considerable enquiries into their behaviour.
In the 1860s, when St Pancras Churchyard was cleared for the railway the navvies were accused of breaking open the coffins and playing football with the skulls of the deceased as they made room for the railways. The local Vicar wrote to his MP and questions were asked in Parliament. The architect in charge of supervising these riotous navvies? None other than a young Thomas Hardy. Brawling and drinking in the work camps, with each other and with locals. Railway Policemen (the fore-runners of the British Transport Police) had their origins in the dual role of signalmen and navvy-supervisors.
In truth navvies were no more disorderly than many workers. Stories about them were inflated with each telling, exacerbated by stories of heavy drinking and brawling in the camps, and speak volumes about how uneasy Victorian society was with rootless workers.
Elizabeth Garnett, who ran the Navvy Mission which reached out to navvies up and down the country, wrote in 1885:
“They form a great nomadic tribe, numbering tens of thousands, yet so isolated are they in our midst that we see and know but little of them”.
With little entertainment in the camps violence and heavy drinking could occur. At other times, however, more calm pursuits were common. Many navvies taught themselves to read, and instructed their children and those of others, whilst others relied on older folk-song traditions to record their lives and works. We have a collection of these on our website.
How does Jericho compare to reality?
What Jericho does well is evoke the spirit of the camps and the scale of the project. Comparing the images of the real viaduct and camp above with the production shots prove how well the program catches the essence of railway construction in the period. It also captures the rough nature of work and life in the navvy camp and how, at the cutting edge of Victorian engineering and technology, raw manpower, crude huts, and hard lives continued to be vital.
Where it stumbles, and this is admittedly based on only one episode, is in persisting on viewing the Ribblehead Viaduct as a British Wild West. As the ITV Press Release puts it: “rough, rustic and remote, yet with a wild west, carnival atmosphere”. Rough, rustic and remote are well captured, representing the exposed nature of the settlements like the real Jericho, but to try and compare the community to the Wild West represents historical problems.
Navvies were drawn to the real Jericho for a specific purpose – construction work. Whilst many would have been hoping to start new lives, or simply raise money to escape the life of a wandering labourer, very few would have seen the area as a new long-term home. Unlike the pioneers of the West, navvies were not settlers but, as the historian Raphael Samuel put it, “Comers and Goers” and vanished as soon as the viaduct was completed almost without a trace.