A "navvy" depicted in Ford Madox Brown's painting Work

Navvy is a shorter form of navigator (UK) or navigational engineer (USA) and is particularly applied to describe the manual labourers working on major civil engineering projects. The term was coined in the late 18th century in Britain when numerous canals were being built, which were also sometimes known as "navigations", or "eternal navigations", intended to last forever.



Brooke's study of 19th century British railway contracts coinciding with census returns demonstrates conclusively that the great majority of British-based navvies were English. He does however state that 'only the ubiquitous Irish can be regarded as a truly international force in railway construction'.[1] By 1818, high wages in North America attracted many Irish workers to become a major part of the workforce in the construction of the Erie Canal in New York State and similar projects. They also participated in building canals in Britain,[2] where by the 20th century they were the predominant workforce.[3]

Migration from canal to railway projects

The construction of canals in Britain was superseded by contracts to construct railway projects from 1830 onwards, which developed into the railway manias, and the same term was applied to the workmen employed on building rail tracks, their tunnels, cuttings and embankments.

Navvies working on railway projects typically continued to work using hand tools, supplemented with explosives (particularly when tunnelling, and to clear obdurate difficulties). Steam-powered mechanical diggers or excavators (initially called 'steam navvies') were available in the 1840s, but were not considered cost effective until much later in the 19th century, especially in Britain and Europe where experienced labourers were easily obtained and comparatively cheap. Elsewhere, for example in the

"United States and Canada, where labour was more scarce and expensive, mechanical diggers were used. In the States the machine tradition became so strong that [...] the word navvy is understood to mean not a man but a steam shovel."[4]

Use of the term "navvy"

  • In recent history, the term "navvy" has been used in a wide variety of circumstances, most notably a synonym for hitman
  • More recently, in Britain "navvy" sometimes means a workman digging a hole in a public road to get access to buried services such as gas mains or water mains.
  • In Britain the name "navvies" is sometimes given to members of the Inland Waterways Protection Society and other canal restoration societies.
  • In Australia, the term "navvy" is still applied to railway workers.[5] Some areas of the country, particularly towns and cities along the sugarcane belt of the state of Queensland, still employ teams of navvies on a permanent basis to lay and maintain the state's narrow-gauge cane-train tracks. Whereas Council workers who work on general civic projects advise of their worksites with fluorescent orange "Workers Ahead" signage, navvies use pale blue "Navvies at Work" signs.
  • In British Columbia, "navvy jack" is a common term in construction and landscaping trades and in their respective supply stores for 1/2", 3/4" crushed rock and sand to be mixed with Portland cement to make concrete.[6] The usage derives from "Navvy Jack", by ordinary name Jack Thomas, a former navvy who used a rowboat to mine good-quality gravel from beaches in West Vancouver, and who as time went on ran a rowboat-ferry for settlers on Burrard Inlet and English Bay.

Working conditions for railway navvies

Many of the navvies employed building the railways in England in the early part of the 19th century had to live in squalid temporary accommodations. The navvies working on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway were paid daily and their pay reputedly went on ale and porter, leaving little for food. When the workers were unfit to work, monies were deducted from their wages and meal tokens were issued. These tokens could be handed in at meal caravans for a bowl of soup and a portion of bread. At first the token was a slip of paper called a "flimsy" because of its thickness. In today's terms it would be similar to a grade called "bank paper". As these tokens could be copied by the forgers, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway supplied its contractors with six-sided food tokens that were surrendered for meals. These were cut from brass and had the initials LMR stamped upon them. This reduced the problems of drunken navvies and eliminated the local farm labourers freeloading from the food caravans. Tokens and a description of their use can be found in the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester.

In popular culture

  • Alfred Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion is referred to as a navvy.
  • Navvies are referenced throughout George Orwell's fictionalized memoir Down and Out in Paris and London.
  • Gordon Lightfoot used the term navvies in his "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," a song written to commemorate Canada's centennial in 1967: "We are the navvies who work upon the railway, swingin' our hammers in the bright, blazing sun." The song debuted on CBC's "100 Years Young" and later appeared on the album The Way I Feel.
  • Andy Partridge's song "Towers of London" on XTC's album Black Sea is inspired by a Dickensonian perspective of the thankless contribution of navvies to Victorian era London.
  • The first song on Pere Ubu's second album, Dub Housing, is called "Navvy."
  • The Pogues song "Navigator" is based on the life of a navvy.
  • The Genesis song "Driving the Last Spike" describes the life of the navvies.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The Unquiet Dead", the Doctor introduces himself to Charles Dickens, prompting Dickens to reply "Doctor? You look more like a navvy.". In "Destiny of the Daleks", after Romana answers several questions about the chemistry of concrete, the Doctor says she "would make a first class navvy".
  • In the Gaelic Storm song "Don't Go for 'The One'", Tracey McCall is described as having "arms like a navvy and a face like dried fruit".
  • In Brendan Behan's _Borstal Boy_ the protagonist joins a prison navvy gang. see page 250
  • The Bitmap Brothers' steampunk styled video game, The Chaos Engine (1993), includes a playable character called "The Navvie", who is said to have single-handedly constructed the Banshee Boardwalk.

See also

Moore Bridge.jpg UK Waterways portal


  1. ^ Brooke (1983). Page 167.
  2. ^ Way (1997). Page 94.
  3. ^ Cowley (2001)
  4. ^ Coleman (1968). Page 54.
  5. ^ The Navvy. Hempsted, N.C. Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, February, 1998 pp 61-63
  6. ^ "Navvy Jack". Aggregates. Butler Brothers Supplies Ltd. Retrieved October 27, 2011. 


  • Brooke, David, (1983). "The Railway Navvy: 'That Despicable Race of Men'". David & Charles, London. ISBN 0-7153-8449-X
  • Coleman, Terry (1968). The Railway Navvies: a history of the men who made the railways. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Cowley, Ultan (2001) "The Men who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy". Dublin: Wolfhound Press. ISBN 0-86327-829-9
  • Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Dialann Deoraí (Dublin: Clóchomhar, 1968), translated into English as An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile, London: Routledge, 1964. ISBN 1-903464-36-6
  • Way, Peter (1997). Common Labor: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780-1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5522-5.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Navvy — Nav vy, n.; pl. {Navies}. [Abbreviated fr. navigator.] Originally, a laborer on canals for internal navigation; hence, a laborer on other public works, as in building railroads, embankments, etc. [Eng.] [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • navvy — (n.) laborer on a canal or railroad, 1832, colloquial shortening of NAVIGATOR (Cf. navigator) (q.v.) in its sense of one who digs navigation canals …   Etymology dictionary

  • navvy — ► NOUN (pl. navvies) Brit. dated ▪ a labourer employed in the excavation and construction of a road or railway. ORIGIN abbreviation of NAVIGATOR(Cf. ↑navigator) in the former sense «builder of a navigation» (a dialect word for a canal) …   English terms dictionary

  • navvy — [nav′ē] n. pl. navvies [abbrev. of NAVIGATOR] Brit. an unskilled laborer, as on canals, roads, etc …   English World dictionary

  • navvy — [[t]næ̱vi[/t]] navvies N COUNT A navvy is a person who is employed to do hard physical work, for example building roads or canals. [BRIT, OLD FASHIONED] ...a blackened young navvy, swinging a pickaxe in the sweating tunnel …   English dictionary

  • navvy — UK [ˈnævɪ] / US noun [countable] Word forms navvy : singular navvy plural navvies British old fashioned someone whose job is to do hard physical work, for example build roads or dig railways …   English dictionary

  • navvy — n British a manual labourer, unskilled construc tion worker or road digger. Navvy is a shortening of navigator , which was a nickname given to open air construc tion workers engaged in building roads, canals and railways in the late 18th and… …   Contemporary slang

  • navvy — noun (plural navvies) Brit. dated a labourer employed in the excavation and construction of a road, railway, or canal. Word History Navvy is a shortening of navigator, which in the 18th century came to denote, as well as a sailor skilled in… …   English new terms dictionary

  • navvy — n. & v. Brit. n. (pl. ies) a labourer employed in building or excavating roads, canals, etc. v.intr. ( ies, ied) work as a navvy. Etymology: abbr. of NAVIGATOR …   Useful english dictionary

  • navvy — noun (plural navvies) Etymology: by shortening & alteration from navigator construction worker on a canal Date: circa 1834 chiefly British an unskilled laborer …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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