The Navvies are Coming!

Our recent story of a Girls Laundry that was based for a few years in Old West End House, also mentioned the building of the Midland Railway (today’s Thameslink). The engineering work caused immense disruption to the neighbourhood. It changed the face of West Hampstead forever and blighted many people’s lives – we’ve taken a look at how the railway line came to be and the impact the men who built it had on both the local community and the buildings of West Hampstead.

In Dombey and Son (1848), Charles Dickens included a powerful description of the building of the railway line to Euston that cut through Camden Town. Its progress was more destructive than the Midland line but it gives an idea of what the residents experienced.

The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill. Everywhere were temporary wooden houses and enclosures in the most unlikely situations; fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes and tripods straddling above nothing. … In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress.

The Act authorising the Midland line from Bedford to St Pancras was passed in July 1863. The Company began buying land and the track was divided into sections, completed by different contractors. Joseph Firbank was responsible for two sections, around five miles between Kentish Town to West Hampstead (which included the Belsize Tunnel), and on to Hendon.

The line cut a large swathe across Hampstead parish. Along with the excavations came brick making, which was noxious and very smelly. On 27 January 1865, during a snowstorm, the Midland’s deputy chairman laid the first brick on the site of a shaft in the Belsize tunnel. The rails emerged from the tunnel at Finchley Road, where there was a station.

In the early twentieth century the railway created a new entrance to Finchley Road station through an arched entrance and down steps behind a cluster of small shops called Midland Crescent. Some were originally coal company offices where householders could go and order coal, (transported by the railway). In 1990 the shops included a record shop (far left), ‘men’s hair stylist’, café and antique shop (far right). They survived until quite recently behind a hoarding immediately north of the entrance to the O2 shopping centre.

In the early twentieth century the railway created a new entrance to Finchley Road station through an arched entrance and down steps behind a cluster of small shops called Midland Crescent. Some were originally coal company offices where householders could go and order coal, (transported by the railway). In 1990 the shops included a record shop (far left), ‘men’s hair stylist’, café and antique shop (far right). They survived until quite recently behind a hoarding immediately north of the entrance to the O2 shopping centre.

Having passed south of West End village with its cottages and houses centred on West End Green, the line curved northwest under Mill Lane and on to Cricklewood and the Welsh Harp. Extensive sidings were built on either side of West End Lane but there was no local station when the line opened to traffic in 1868. ‘West End’ station was a later addition, opening on 1st Match 1871 in a converted villa on Iverson Road. Access to trains was via a footbridge over the lines. The station was renamed ‘West End and Brondesbury’ on 1st April 1904, but then became ‘West Hampstead’ on 1st September 1905. The new station’s entrance was on West End Lane.

The Midland Railway Company buys local property
Under the Act, the Midland Railway Company was legally required to buy properties that stood close to their line. In West End, there were two recently completed mansions north of the proposed route. John Marrian and William Greenwood were business colleagues and friends. They built their houses on opposite sides of West End Lane; Marrian’s was called Sandwell House and Greenwood’s villa was Canterbury House. The house names recalled the birthplaces of their wives: Louisa Greenwood in Kent and Ann Marrian in Birmingham. A local resident recalled the houses as being ‘in the Italian style of architecture with square towers.’ The two families arrived in 1862 and showed every intention of staying. But when the Midland Railway Act was passed, Marrian and Greenwood were concerned the value of their property would fall. So they took advantage of the fact the Midland was obliged to buy their houses, and left. The properties were subsequently let to a series of tenants.

South of the line, the Midland Railway also bought Old West End House (the mansion used for the Girls Laundry School) and the three villas opposite, on what became Iverson Road. These overlooked the railway cutting and the easternmost villa was eventually converted into the railway station.

Tough men…
It’s almost impossible to visualise today, but the fields on either side of West End Lane, from the Green south to Iverson Road, were more or less on a level until the Midland line was built in a deep cutting. Modern basement excavation has nothing on the hundreds of tons of earth that were shifted by hand. The railway workers were called ‘navvies’, tough, hardworking men who travelled the country, sometimes accompanied by their families. (They were given the name ‘navvy’ earlier in the century when excavating the canals or ‘navigations’ as they were also called).

The muck (the navvy’s word for all the earth and rock) would be removed by wagon; one man could shift 20 tons a day by shovelling over his head into the truck. Where a cutting was concerned, ‘barrow runs’ were created up the steep side of the embankment. ‘Making the running’ was one of the most dangerous jobs a navvy could do and was reserved for the strongest among the workforce. Once it was full of muck, a rope was attached to the barrow and the navvy’s belt, then run up the siding, over a pulley and fastened to a horse. The horse then pulled the man and his barrow to the top of the cutting. A successful run relied on the navvy keeping his footing on the muddy plank and the horse pulling steadily. The return journey was made with the barrow behind the man, with the horse keeping the rope taut as the navvy descended.

Men worked day and night in relays. In 1865 a visitor descended a shaft of the Belsize tunnel. (Some shafts were large enough to accommodate horses, lowered to the tunnel floor to pull wagons). He walked towards a distant light, and after about 80 yards saw a dozen men tearing at the clay, some with pickaxes, others with their bare hands. After 12 feet had been excavated, centre supports were put up and the bricklayers moved in.

Railway building in Camden Town showing the excavation of the deep cutting at Park Village (by John Cooke Bourne, 1836)

Railway building in Camden Town showing the excavation of the deep cutting at Park Village (by John Cooke Bourne, 1836)

Navvies were rarely welcomed and often encountered great hostility from local residents, as they had a well deserved reputation for drinking and fighting. Of course, not all of them were rowdy, but reports of their anti-social behaviour grabbed press attention.

In 1846 a group of Irish navvies were charged with starting a riot during the building of the ‘Round House’, the large railway turning shed at Chalk Farm. Hundreds of English workers were engaged in bricklaying on the site and hundreds of Irish were working near Euston station, (the contractors employed equal numbers of each nationality). The battle between the English and the Irish began with a trivial incident at the Round House gates when an Irishman was refused entry by the policeman on duty. A fight broke out which escalated quickly, and despite the efforts of the police who were called out from several police stations, it lasted three hours. The fight was vicious and bloody and although nobody was killed, many men were maimed and three were crippled for life. Twenty Irish men (but no Englishmen), were arrested and seventeen were found guilty at the Old Bailey and received sentences ranging from three to nine months imprisonment.

During the building of the Midland line in 1867, Hampstead Vestry (the precursor of the Council) received a complaint that; ‘several persons had recently been stopped or interfered with whilst passing along West End Lane, by men having the appearance of navvies, and that greater protection was required from the Metropolitan Police.’

But so far as West End’s experience was concerned, there are no reports of major disturbances. This wasn’t the case further up the line towards Hendon: in 1867, some 300 to 400 navvies ‘took complete possession of the Upper Welsh Harp (public house) and made themselves complete masters of the place, broke the windows and did immense damage.’

The manpower required to build the railways was immense: in June 1865 the Midland advertised for navvies; 500 to 1000 men were required for the Kentish Town section of the line with ‘good wages paid.’ It was in a contractor’s interest to be selective, he needed men who would work both hard and fast. And the money had to be good, to compensate for the poor working and living conditions.

…in harsh conditions…
In an age before Health and Safety regulations there were many accidents. ‘When making the tunnel, from Finchley Road to Haverstock Hill, a man by the name of Dale was working in a shaft at Fitzjohns Avenue when they cut through the Conduit spring and the water rushed in and he only saved his life by clinging to a beam until he was rescued by some of his fellow workmen.’ (No date).

In January 1866 an inquest returned a verdict of accidental death on Charles Austin, age 52. He died when he fell into an unprotected pit at the railway works near West End. There were four shafts, each 30 feet deep, but only two were covered. Charles had worked all night and when he wanted to go home at 5am, found his way blocked by three railway trucks that needed moving. He wouldn’t wait, took another path and fell into the pit. ‘Between four and five feet of water had collected at the bottom. Great difficulty was experienced in extricating him, and when brought upon the line Dr Brown pronounced life extinct from drowning.’ It was recommended the pits be covered at night; the accident took place in December when it would still have been dark at 5am and Austin didn’t see the edge of the pit in time.

Near West End, the main issues centred on the health and sanitation problems experienced by the navvies, the brick makers and their families, including large numbers of children. One old resident recalled the West Enders were unwelcoming: ‘the villagers would not associate with the navvies and not one would take any of the workmen as a lodger.’ So James Firbank built a number of two-room wooden huts in the fields between Finchley Road and Mill Lane. He was one of the better contractors, but it was inevitable that the accommodation quickly became squalid and insanitary. He charged his workers six shillings a week rent, but it’s not clear if this was per family or per hut. In return they got free coal and furniture.

The following information is taken from the Hampstead Vestry Minutes and shows the appalling living conditions of the navvies.

June 1865
The Hampstead parish surveyor inspected 15 temporary huts inhabited by railway labourers in the lower brickfield west of Finchley Road. He reported the huts stood on the edge of two open sewers, but none of the huts had proper drainage or a water supply. Their inhabitants relied on open privies built alongside the sewers. Firbank agreed to provide more privies, better and covered cess pools.

July 1865
It was reported there was; ‘No special disease as yet’ among the ‘great influx of navvies and artisans which the railway operations had brought into the Parish.’

October 1865
Hampstead’s Medical Officer of Health (MOH) informed Firbank that many of the large number of children living in his huts still needed to be vaccinated.

November 1865
Firbank gave notice to the hut dwellers, forbidding them to take in more than six lodgers, (previously eight had been the limit and in some cases more). As a result more accommodation was needed for his workers. So Firbank ‘fitted up four houses on the West End House estate as room tenements for the workmen, their families, and lodgers.’ (These were the Iverson Road properties previously mentioned). Firbank also agreed with the parish surveyor to improve the paths in front of his huts; ‘with a view to the regulations respecting over-crowding and other matters being strictly carried out, a Police Constable from Scotland Yard had been engaged for this special duty.’

January 1866
Overcrowding was still rife among the hut dwellers and in some cases they operated a ‘hot bed system’ where; ‘relays of men appeared to occupy the beds by day that had been occupied by night.’

June 1866
The MOH appeared overwhelmed in the face of so many problems. He reported that; ‘the crowded and ill constructed huts used by the navvies and brick makers still caused him much alarm, and demanded constant vigilance’ but went on, despairingly, ‘One dreaded to touch the huts of navvies and brick makers, and could only hope that some good angel might keep disease far from their doors.’

The ‘good angel’ did not appear and unfortunately small pox broken out in the huts near Mill Lane. The MOH recommended that the ditches and privies near the huts be disinfected.

…but with kind hearts
A resident recalled the help offered by a local vicar: ‘the navvies had a champion in the Reverend Henry Sharpe.’ He was minister of the Holy Trinity Church in Finchley Road, then working from a temporary mission church in Belsize Lane.

‘Both Mr and Mrs Sharpe would go down in the clayey railway cutting and speak to the men, encouraging them and helping them. A great many would get Mr Sharpe to mind a part of their wages, so that it was impossible for them to spend the whole in drink as some of them did.’

The North Star pub on Finchley Road was their watering hole, by choice in this instance. While some contractors insisted their workers take part of their wages in beer, Firbank gave them water and oatmeal. It didn’t stop them drinking: Firbank recorded that on average, one of his navvies consumed 2 pounds of meat, 2 pounds of bread and 5 quarts of ale every day, while ‘he once knew a man to drink seventeen quarts in an afternoon.’

Rev. Sharpe gave the men tea in his church: ‘some of the navvies would say, look at our dirty clothes, Sir. Mr Sharpe would reply, never mind your clothes, come as you are’. He did however provide some washing facilities before they all sat down to tea. On the spiritual side, Reverend Sharpe took the church to the navvies, preaching to them in the Belsize tunnel, 60 feet underground. ‘The roughest among them would not hear one word spoken against Mr Sharpe, for if anyone attempted to do so, they had to expect a very rough time of it.’

In 1867, Reverend Sharpe was presented with a gift by officials and navvies: ‘a handsome pianoforte (the cost of which was 55 guineas) and a music stool, “as a token of their high regard and esteem for his services as chaplain to the company.” ’

After the line opened
Once the line opened in 1868, the temporary huts and cottages were quickly cleared away and the navvies moved on to other jobs. But the April 1871 census shows the Midland Railway was still using the old mansion and two of the Iverson Road houses as accommodation for railway staff and their families; 45 people in all, with the men working as platelayers, signalmen and porters. The third house had become the railway station which had only been open a month and doubled as home to stationmaster Thomas Beswick and his wife.

The Railway Company soon moved its employees out of the Iverson Road houses and rented them to private tenants and the old mansion was demolished. By 1874, the company had built Midland (Railway) Cottages on Mill Lane, 10 small properties perched high above the railway cutting, to help replace the lost accommodation. The 1881 census shows five families had moved there from Iverson Road. In the 1890s the Company built a further 10 houses, Heysham Terrace on Iverson Road, providing more housing for their employees.

Today, Ellerton, a block of flats, occupies the site of the Mill Lane cottages. The two Iverson Road houses were demolished in the early twentieth century. Heysham Terrace still stands, renumbered as part of Iverson Road. The extensive railway sidings on either side of West End Lane have been redeveloped as housing or retail space and West Hampstead station has been relocated – back in Iverson Road!

  • phil

    Fascinating, thanks for this.