Chapter III.

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“Civil engineering is both a science and an art: as science it includes the general principles of mechanics and construction; shows how we may ascertain the strains to which a structure is exposed; the dimensions and proportions which should be given to its several parts so as to be able to resist such strains without injury.  As an art, civil engineering shows how scientific principles may be applied to the construction of works and how used and modified so as to meet the difficulties which constantly arise in practice.  The civil engineer being concerned in almost every kind of construction ought to be a highly accomplished man of science and indeed there are few men in any profession who can command so large an amount of scientific and practical knowledge as the civil engineer.”

Cyclopædia of Useful Arts, Ed. Charles Tomlinson (1852)

Designing and building a road, canal or railway is a matter of civil engineering.  What follows is a brief account of the development of this profession during the age in which our canals and the first of our public railways were built.

Throughout this period ― say 1760 to 1840 ― civil engineering construction was accomplished by the labour of men and animals, occasionally helped by gunpowder.  Design was at first empirical; only as the 19th century progressed did it acquire a scientific foundation, while mechanical aids in the form of steam engines to expel water and to provide motive power only then began to appear in the workings (Robert Stephenson was probably the first to use steam pumps on any scale when, in 1837, he employed 13 of them ― capable of raising 2,000 gallons a minute up some 150ft ― in the Kilsby tunnel workings on the London & Birmingham Railway).  These factors must be born in mind when considering the civil engineering of the time and its remarkable achievements.

In Europe, prior to the 18th century, engineers were almost exclusively men skilled in the construction of fortifications, barracks, roads and river crossings for military purposes. [1]  Although engineering work was also carried out for civil purposes, no identifiable profession had grown out of it.  It therefore follows that there was no recognised professional training with associated tests of competence, neither were there the forerunners of the contracting firms that today undertake civil engineering design and construction projects on a massive scale.

From the 1760s onwards, the success of our first canals in transporting the materials and finished goods of the growing Industrial Revolution gave rise to a demand for more of these new load-carrying highways and for those capable of designing and building them.  In the absence of an established profession, many of those who were to establish their reputations in meeting this fast-growing demand came from trades in which at least some of the necessary skills were inherent in their work.  The trade of the millwright was well represented, which is understandable when one considers the range of skills that millwrights needed to deploy in the course of their work and which could also be applied to the construction of canals.  Designing milling machinery required the ability to draw and read plans, while a knowledge of mathematics and mechanics was necessary to calculate loadings, gear ratios and driveshaft speeds.  Making machinery involved working with wood and iron; erecting buildings, conduits and watercourses involved working with brick, stone, iron and clay.

John Smeaton (1724-92), one of the first recognised ‘civil engineers’.

The best known civil engineers to emerge from the millwright’s trade were James Brindley, famous for his involvement with the Bridgewater and other early canal schemes, and John Rennie, who besides being involved with numerous waterways acquired a reputation as a bridge builder, with the old Waterloo, London, Southwark and Vauxhall bridges to his credit.  Less well known was Thomas Yeoman, a waterway engineer and the first President of the Society of Civil Engineers.  From a slightly later era came former millwrights Sir William Fairbairn, inventor of the tubular bridge, and Sir William Cubitt. [2]  Cubitt, who was associated with numerous waterway and railway schemes, received his knighthood in 1851 for his role as consulting engineer for the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition.  A less laudable achievement of Cubitt’s was his invention of the treadwheel, a form of human-powered engine cum punishment device.

James Watt, whose steam engine came to drive many of the mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution, became a canal surveyor early in his career.  Watt’s background was that of a scientific instrument maker, in which craft he would have been familiar with the design, construction and operation of astronomical, navigational and land surveying instruments, such as the theodolite.  John Smeaton, famous for his rediscovery of the secret of modern cement (lost since Roman times) and for numerous bridges, canals, harbours and the third Eddystone Lighthouse, also trained in this craft.

Numerous civil engineers trained as land surveyors, one of the most notable being Thomas Brassey.  Brassey was among the most important civil engineering contractors in the world during the 19th century, building railways in France,[3] Italy, Belgium, Spain, Russia, India, Argentina and Australia.  Thomas Telford, first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers,[4] originally trained as a stonemason, becoming a civil engineer relatively late in life when he was appointed county surveyor for Shropshire, and Resident Engineer (under William Jessop) for the construction of the Ellesmere Canal.[5]  Telford first established his civil engineering reputation with the magnificent stone and iron Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which continues to carry the canal over the River Dee.

But in any profession, some notable members will emerge from unusual backgrounds.  For instance, James Barnes, who with William Jessop built the Grand Junction Canal, was a brewer, a trade that he continued while working as a canal engineer.  From where he acquired his civil engineering knowledge remains a mystery.  Sir Edward Banks raised himself from the humble station of a day labourer to form a partnership with William Jolliffe to become one of this country’s principal civil engineering contractors.



For most of the canal-building era, [6] there was no governing body to provide a forum for regular discussion, to disseminate best practice, maintain a register of competent people, and set standards and ethics for the profession.  Thus, the early civil engineers learned mostly by experience, supplementing their on-the-job training by collaborating with each other.  The established practitioners also took pupils who became the civil engineers of the future.

Take John Smeaton.  Generally recognised to be the first full-time ‘consulting engineer’, he remains one of civil engineering’s heavyweights, the breadth and depth of his influence being phenomenal.  Smeaton collaborated with, among others, James Brindley on site investigation for the Trent & Mersey canal, with Thomas Yeoman on the River Lee Navigation, and with John Grundy Jnr. in planning the Holderness Drainage scheme.  And through collaboration between his professional descendants, Smeaton’s lineage comes down through the years.  For example, a link can be traced from Smeaton to our last great canal project, the Manchester Ship Canal, which opened in 1894, just over a century after Smeaton’s death:

Smeaton’s pupil, the great canal engineer William Jessop, worked with Thomas Telford on the Ellesmere and Caledonian canals;

Thomas Telford associated with Sir William Cubitt on the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal (Telford thought highly of Cubitt to the extent of leaving him a legacy);

Cubitt worked with Edward Leader Williams on the improvement of the River Severn, Williams later becoming chief engineer to the Severn Navigation Commissioners;

Williams trained his son, Edward Jnr., who became Chief Engineer for the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal.

All this means that the early civil engineers not only worked as professionals, but collaborated in a way characteristic of a profession.  This was to lead, in 1771, to the founding of the profession’s first association ― also the first engineering society in the world ― the Society of Civil Engineers.  Again, Smeaton’s name comes to the fore as one of the seven founding members, whose intention was that practising engineers should dine together periodically so that they might get to know one another, thereby avoiding potential hostility that might arise in their public dealings.  The Society met fortnightly at the Kings Head Tavern in Holborn and encouraged “conversation, argument and social communication of ideas and knowledge”.

Samuel Smiles, in his biography of Thomas Telford (1862), records that the Society:

“. . . . was discontinued in 1792, in consequence of some personal differences amongst the members.  It was revived in the following year, under the auspices of Mr. Jessop, Mr. Naylor, Mr. Rennie, and Mr. Whitworth, and joined by other gentlemen of scientific distinction.  They were accustomed to dine together every fortnight at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand, spending the evening in conversation on engineering subjects.  But as the numbers and importance of the profession increased, the desire began to be felt, especially among the junior members of the profession, for an institution of a more enlarged character.”

These informal gatherings led, in 1818, to the formation of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the chartered institution that now governs the profession in the United Kingdom. [7] Thomas Telford occupied the President’s Chair from 1820 until his death in 1834, and it was he who in 1828 was instrumental in obtaining a Royal Charter.  The older Society [8] continues to this day, but mainly as a dining club of around 50 senior engineers and twelve ‘Gentlemen Members’, the latter including HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.



The Duke of Bridgewater was the only canal promoter to finance a significant canal from his own resources; he also recruited, equipped and managed his own workforce.  The project having absorbed his personal fortune, he then borrowed from whoever he could, even from his tenants and those from whom he purchased land.

For a single promoter to finance and construct public infrastructure on any scale and manage the entire works directly was not feasible in the long run, and the canals that followed the Bridgewater were financed by public subscription.  Each scheme’s shareholders put up the cash, which the canal company might then supplement by raising loans.  The work was then divided into parcels, put out to tender and undertaken by contractors.  Broadly speaking, this meant that three parties became involved: the scheme’s promoters, whose concept it was, who paid for the work and who took ownership of the finished product; the chief engineer, whose role was to translate the promoter’s concept into a feasible design; and the contractor(s), who translated the chief engineer’s design into reality using equipment and a workforce possessing a range of constructional skills.

Of course these lines of demarcation did not mean that each worked in isolation of the others, rather to the contrary.  A scheme’s promoters often took a keen and understandable interest in the mounting cost of the work and the date at which the completed project could be expected to earn revenue.  The chief engineer dealt with tenders submitted by contractors for the work to be carried out, supervised the progress of a construction contract, monitored the quality of the contractor’s work and arbitrated in any disputes between contractor and promoters.  The contractor(s) endeavoured to undertake the specified work at a profit.  There were even cases when engineers acted as contractors, and vice-versa as circumstances dictated. [9]  Negotiations between the three parties [10] often concerned requirements that changed in the course of the contract, the quality of the contractor’s work, overdue payment, and the numerous unanticipated problems that were (and remain) bound to arise in the course of any large-scale civil engineering project.  Sometimes one party interfered in the role of the other, for civil engineering was a young profession and many promoters considered themselves as capable as their chief engineer.  Thus, John Smeaton rebuking the promoters of the Forth & Clyde Canal by whom he was then employed as their chief engineer (1768-73):

“If, instead of making plans, I am to be employed in answering papers and queries, it will be impossible for me to get on with the business . . . . All the favour I desire of the proprietors is, that if I am thought capable of the undertaking, I may go on with it coolly and quietly . . .”

Reports of the Late John Smeaton, FRS (1812)

Engineer and proprietors sometimes came into conflict over who should select the assistant engineers and the contractors for the work, the chief engineer taking the view that such tasks should not be left to laymen.  In situations such as these the views of the promoters sometimes prevailed, but where they were confronted by a strong and highly competent personality, like Brunel or Robert Stephenson, the chief engineer’s view held sway.  A story is told about Sir John Hawkshaw [11] who, attending a promoters’ meeting, was faced with a refusal to pass for payment a certificate issued by him as chief engineer on the basis it exceeded estimate.  When silence eventually fell on the meeting he said, quietly, “Excuse me!  What John Hawkshaw signs, you pay” ― and that was the end of the matter.

Sir John Hawkshaw inspecting the works on the Severn Tunnel (1887).



In the early canal projects, the chief engineer’s activities were confined to the works where, among other things, he was expected to perform the roles of manager and agent for the promoters, acting on their behalf (sometimes under their direction) in the purchase of building materials, the hire of labour, handling land purchases, and placating landowners and others with grievances caused by some aspect of the work, a common problem being damage caused to local roads by the heavy increase in site traffic.

As the building of the canal network progressed, eventually leading into the railway era,  so developed the civil engineer’s role, with chief engineers coming to form a small but distinguished group employed in consulting, designing, directing works and giving evidence before parliamentary committees . . . .

“One of the principal exhibits of a Civil Engineers talent and resources is displayed in the Committee Rooms of the Houses of Parliament, in his examination as a Witness to prove the practicability or the contrary of proposed Public Works, comprising the numerous Railways, Canals, &c. throughout the kingdom.  And as the same individual has frequently to advocate and support totally opposite systems and contingencies, upon different undertakings, much ingenuity is consequently displayed on these occasions ― for instance, where an Engineer appears as a Witness in favour of a Line of Railway with very favourable Gradients, his answers to the questions are always full and explicit, and he states boldly, without fear of contradiction, the great advantages of a level railway, compared with an undulating line, containing long and steep inclinations thereon; but he is not so communicative respecting the means which are taken or the sacrifices which are made to obtain this advantageous run of levels.”

Railway Practice, S. C. Brees, C.E. (1839)

. . . . and often performing two or more of these roles simultaneously.  Much of the administrative work was taken over by the company’s Secretary (sometimes called the Clerk) and Solicitor ― particularly the former ― while the chief engineer came to sit at the head of a team of engineering assistants.  On complex projects, chief engineers were sometimes engaged full time on the works, examples being Marc Brunel on the Thames Tunnel and (by the railway era) George Stephenson on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, while on the London & Birmingham Railway, Stephenson’s son Robert . .

“. . . almost lived on the line, and the first occasion on which he visited the portion in question, after the contracts were let, accompanied by the Secretary and by four or five Directors, was the twelfth time that he had walked the whole distance from London to Birmingham.” [12]

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868)


Robert Stephenson (1803-59), civil engineer.

But in general it became rare for a project’s chief engineer to be on site permanently; instead, his role became one of laying out the route of the canal or railway, designing its main engineering features and preparing the necessary plans and specifications.  He would then hand over the designs to a resident engineer who, acting in the client’s interest, supervised the execution of the designs with assistant engineers under him to supervise the building contractors on sections of the work.  Periodically the chief engineer would visit the works to review progress and deal with any problems that were too complex for the men on the spot to resolve.  This management structure, which reached its maturity under Telford on works such as the Caledonian Canal, would be familiar to British civil engineers today.

A common class of problems that gradually fell to the chief engineer to resolve were disputes involving some aspect of the contract.  Here, the chief engineer came to be regarded as Arbiter, a role in which his independence from the scheme’s promoters, shareholders and contractors was important in establishing confidence in his judgement.  As the great civil engineer John Rennie Snr. put it:

“Engineers should be entirely independent of these connections ― not dabblers in shares [13] ― and free alike of contractors and contracts.”

Lives of the Engineers (Vol. 2), Samuel Smiles (1862)


John Rennie Snr. (1761-1821), civil engineer.

Robert Stephenson appears to have become a past master at arbitration, much to the dismay and financial loss of our learnèd friends:

“From the time of construction of the London & Birmingham Line, when he acted so frequently as arbitrator between the company and their numerous contractors, Robert Stephenson was constantly referred to in the disputes of business men.  He was no good friend to lawyers.  The amount of litigation he prevented by amiable counsel would almost justify his memory being held in abomination in Chancery Lane.”

Life of Robert Stephenson, J. C. Jeaffreson (1864)

And so the more successful chief engineers came to be paid at daily consultancy rates [14] for the time they actually spent on the work and they would, at any time, have numerous projects of different types and in various stages of progress around the land.  In an age when travel was slow and difficult, much of their time was thus spent traversing a wide area and, in the case of canal and railway projects, the entire length of the works themselves.

At the opposite end of the hierarchy to the chief engineer were his ‘pupils’, in effect apprentices.  From the earliest days of civil engineering, the established practitioners took pupils, the term being seven years.  There were no suitable university courses until well into the 19th century and even books on the many aspects of civil engineering did not become generally available until the 1800s.  Pupils learned by experience, generally under the direction of their master, but it was not unusual for one chief engineer to ‘lend’ a pupil to another, who happened to be short of an assistant to undertake some mundane task:

“The younger men, unable to front a public meeting or a board of directors, were in demand everywhere for field work.  Engineers who had pupils to spare, lent them to one another, or let them out on terms of hire agreeable to all parties.  Thus the scene of recollection may readily change from the busy hive of workmen, that filled the great open ditch of the Euston extension [London and Birmingham Railway], to the Derbyshire moors, the Essex corn-lands, or the Norfolk fens.”

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868)

Francis Conder, a pupil of Charles Fox, [15] continues by recounting his experience of being ‘lent’ to John Braithwaite, chief engineer of the Eastern Counties Railway, to undertake some surveying.  And so Conder set off for the fen-lands and to the rigours of overland travel in the pre-railway age:

“After receiving a decorous lecture, as to the exactitude requisite, both in the discharge of his [Conder’s] scientific work and in the control of the expenditure he was about to incur, he set off on the exploration of a portion of this line furnished with level, staff, chain, Ordnance tracings, written instructions, and a very moderate sum of money.  Desirous to give full obedience to the excellent advice which he had received with some awe, he engaged a place on the outside of the mail [stagecoach].  With the advance into Essex the evening mist thickened into rain, and the journey was not half accomplished before the wet began to find its way through the ‘warranted water-proof cap which formed part of the strictly limited wardrobe with which, as usual with most inexperienced travellers, he thought it convenient to travel.”

Arriving at his destination wet through, Conder was about to discover that learning by experience was not confined to stagecoach travel, for he found the area to be surveyed under water:

“On approaching the coast, with the purpose of identifying the few unintelligible lines by which the tracings of the Ordnance Survey (for the real map had not been forwarded with the instructions) indicated the localities to be traversed by the parliamentary section [the line of the railway], not a single boundary or division was discernible.  A long perfectly straight road ran from the verge of the fens proper to the bridge separating that district from the sea-port terminus. . . . the road in question was not shown in the tracings, and the fens were under water.  One broad, unbroken sheet of inland lake was all that was presented to the eye.”

On reporting this to the chief engineer, he received the following instruction, short and to the point: “Set so-and-so to run his level along the road from Yarmouth to Acle, and ****** the Fens!



If honest ― and some were not ― the civil engineering contractor endeavoured to complete the specified work within the time, cost and quality requirements laid down in his contract with the promoters.

The first contractors were roving gangs of labourers who undertook excavations and other tasks at piecework rates, performing the work with their own equipment and sharing the proceeds among themselves in whatever manner they pleased, assuming that the ganger had not made off with them as sometimes happened.

The practice for letting small contracts in this way continued, but in 1767 a significant development took place when a partnership was formed between John Dyson and James Pinkerton, who set up as earthwork contractors and before long were operating on a national scale.  A further step was taken in 1788, when John Pinkerton took on a contract for constructing the entire Basingstoke Canal, [16] thus marking the beginning of the ‘general contract’ system.  However, Pinkerton acquired a reputation for dishonesty and poor quality work, and became no stranger to complaints, rescinded contracts and litigation.  As contractor for the Birmingham to Fazeley Canal, he even went so far as to build a tunnel at Curdworth where a cutting had been specified!  Despite his failings, when he died in 1813 he left an estate valued at £7,500.

Thomas Brassey (1805-70), civil engineering contractor.

Today, there are large, well-established contracting firms and industry standard contracts [17] and arbitration procedures for public infrastructure projects based on a great many years of experience.  But in the canal and the railway-building eras there was little experience on which to base large-scale contracting, resulting in tenders based on guesswork ― sometimes inspired, sometimes not ― about how much a gang could excavate and bricklayers build in a given period.  If the contractor’s estimate erred sufficiently on the side of caution, while remaining competitive, he might earn a fortune; and some did.  It is said that more cash passed through the counting house of the great Victorian railway contractor Thomas Brassey than through the treasuries of half a dozen European principalities.  Said to be self-contained and self-sufficient, Brassey had the gift of being able to cost work quickly in his head and then live contentedly with whatever the consequences might be.  These were mainly unforeseen engineering difficulties and poor cash flow due to promoters being tardy in settling their accounts, but rising labour costs in the course of a long contract could reduce or eradicate the profit margin.  Without adequate contract terms to cover such events, the work might be skimped in an effort to contain rising costs while problems might also leave unpaid gangs and a bankrupt contractor. [18]  In this situation, and in the absence of finding another suitable contractor, the resident engineer was left to complete the job.

Eventually men of outstanding ability arose from these gangs and other sources that had the necessary personalities and experience to organise and direct large operations, and they in turn gradually gained the confidence of financiers who were prepared to back their activities.  Frederick Williams, writing in 1852, summed up the financial burden that lay upon the civil engineering contractor, and for which he required capital:

“In the best-managed contracts, the time for completion, and the fines for exceeding that period, are stated; with the condition that all payments are subject to the engineer’s approval of the work.  The contractor finds tools, labour and materials, gets out all foundations, excavations, centreings, pumping apparatus, scaffolding, fencing and other requisite materials of every description, according to the specifications, plans and drawings, and the instructions that he may from time to time receive from the engineer.”

Our Iron Roads, F. S. Williams, (1852)

While much of the early work continued to be undertaken by numerous small contractors, the general contractor gradually came to dominate.  Two of the firms that rose to early prominence were those of Hugh McIntosh and Edward Banks (from 1807, Jolliffe and Banks).  Both began in the 1790s on small canal contracts, but eventually grew to become capable of handling several large works simultaneously, employing a site ‘agent’ (the counterpart of the resident engineer) to oversee each contract.  Jolliffe and Banks grew into one of the main construction companies of the era, their portfolio including Waterloo Bridge (1817), Southwark Bridge (1819) and the New London Bridge, which was opened by King William in 1831.  Banks was knighted in 1822.

During the railway building era, the partnership of Peto, Brassey and Betts were both promoter and contractor of the Victoria Dock ― the first London docks to be served by rail ― and the London, Tilbury & Southend railway, which the partners ran on a 21 years lease after they had built it.  Thus were sown the seeds of today’s constructional industry.



The promoter, engineer and contractor were, between them, one component in bringing a new canal or railway to fruition.  Theirs was the project’s concept, design and management, and in their own way each carried an element of risk.  The promoter and contractor had a direct financial stake in the project ― would their particular interest in it yield an adequate profit?  And in the case of engineer and contractor, the risk to their professional reputation of failure would inevitably impact on their future earnings.

A construction project’s other and equally essential component was its army of skilled and unskilled workmen.  Digging cuttings, forming embankments and excavating tunnels ― not to mention the construction of bridges, locks, aqueducts and viaducts ― required substantial numbers of men with a wide range of skills.  Collectively, these men became known as ‘navvies’ [19] and they moved with their families to work on engineering projects wherever there was a demand for their labour.  Although many were escaping poverty (and later the famine) in Ireland, contrary to the oft-held belief that the navvies were Irish, [20] they came from all parts of the British Isles and even from Europe.  Out of their harsh working conditions and communal living there gradually evolved a lifestyle, culture and even a language.  They also acquired a reputation for hard living, hard drinking (alcohol probably providing a temporary release from the toil and privation of their daily lives) and fighting, which often led the local communities within which they worked to regard them as degenerate and a threat to the social order.

Although the navvies’ drink-fuelled rioting was not that uncommon, killings were.  In his book Navvyman (Coracle Press, 1983), Dick Sullivan describes the outcome of one such incident, [21] the hanging, by the side of the Edinburgh-Glasgow railway track, of two Irish members of a navvy gang who, in 1840, murdered an English ganger:

“Police and soldiers of the 58th Foot (later the Northamptonshire Regiment) drove up from Glasgow in omnibuses to arrest the whole gang.  Over the next few days they were driven in noddies from the Bridewell to the Sheriff’s Chambers in Stockwell Street for questioning.  In the end, James Hickie, Dennis Doolan and Patrick Redding were brought to trial.  Hickie was transported, the others hanged.

“Doolan and Redding shambled to the gallows, as ungainly in their shackles as quadrupeds made to walk upright, until the chains were struck from their ankles at the foot of the gibbet.  A bishop prayed for them.  Then there was the black hood, then the noose, then the drop that broke their spines with a loud crack in the bright May air.  A young soldier, pale as the hanging corpses, blacked out and fell.”

Strikes for more pay, which occurred from time to time, were sometimes met in a robust manner.  During construction of the Wolverton Embankment on the Grand Junction Canal, a demand for higher wages met with this directive from the Board to the site engineer . . . .

“ . . . . to discharge at all risqué these offenders, and to use his utmost endeavours to bring them to Justice, and to call on the Magistracy and Yeomanry of this County to repress and punish all acts of Outrage and Violence and an illegal conspiracy or combination for increase of wages.”

GJCC Minute Book, 5 May, 1801.

But such a response is hardly surprising in an age when a ‘combination’ of protesters was to lead to the Peterloo Massacre.

Despite their way of life, it was the navvies who carried the gruelling physical burden of construction work, usually in appalling conditions, with a life spent at other times (when not on the ‘tramp’ between jobs) living in rough timber and turf huts alongside the bridges, tunnels and cuttings on which they worked.  It was inevitable that such conditions would foster disease, and outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and typhus were not uncommon.  Sometimes navvies were able to lodge in nearby towns and villages, but even where suitable accommodation lay nearby, their reputation for thieving and not paying the rent made them undesirable tenants.

Of this community, the ‘skilled’ element comprised the masons, bricklayers and blacksmiths.  The products of the masons’ and bricklayers’ crafts are well preserved in their many surviving stone and brick bridges, viaducts, etc., alas, now sometimes abandoned.  As for the blacksmiths, they sharpened the picks and chisels, and hammered out new tools from wrought-iron.  They also shod the horses, fettled the wagons and ― as the nearest to a mechanic on site ― kept the pumps in working order.

It is, perhaps, inaccurate to refer to the other element as ‘unskilled’, for it took up to a year to turn a common labourer into a navvy capable of excavating 20 tons of earth in a day.  It was they who dug the thousands of miles of our canals and railways using the standard tools of their trade, the pick, the shovel and the wheelbarrow, helped along by horse and cart.  When not digging, other tasks that formed part of a navvy’s typical day were rock blasting (using black powder), spoil tipping, puddling, ballasting and laying railway track.  For this they were comparatively well paid, a good navvy earning up to 30 shillings a week, three times the wage of an agricultural labourer.  But it was dangerous work and the risk of accidents was an accepted part of the job, especially when blasting rock or building tunnels (by candlelight), which were vulnerable to collapses and to gas explosions.  The contractors cared little for the wellbeing of their men, who were poorly trained and often poorly supervised; driven by the principle that ‘time costs money’, speed rather than safety was their main concern.  It was said that a navvy working on the construction of Woodhead Tunnel during the 1840s was, as a percentage of the workforce, at greater risk of injury than a soldier at the Battle of Waterloo.

When the canal and railway-building eras eventually ended, there was more work for the navvies, especially during the Victorian period with its impressive record of constructing new docks, dams, roads and public buildings.  British navvies also acquired a good reputation as a workforce abroad, many going on to work on European railway projects where their capacity for unremitting toil earned them twice the pay of the indigenous labourers.  Some went further afield to North America, were high wages attracted many Irish navvies to the construction of the Erie Canal in New York State and to similar civil engineering projects.  Many later found jobs in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Essentially, the navvy was a short-lived product of our industrial expansion and engineering achievement.  Just as canals and railways were vital to the progress of our Industrial Revolution, it should not be overlooked that the work of the navvies ― shifting millions of tons of soil and rock from one place to another ― was also crucial to the development of Britain as an industrial nation.

[Chapter IV.]




The term ‘civil engineer’ first appeared in Mortimer’s Universal Director in 1763 in which Smeaton and Yoeman are both listed as ‘Surveyor and Civil Engineer’.

Not to be confused with the civil engineering contractor, William Cubitt (1791-1863).

In France, the entire Western Railway from Paris to Rouen and Le Havre was paid for with British capital, engineered by Joseph Locke, built by Brassey and supplied with locomotives and most of its components by British manufacturers.  Overall, between 1830 and 1871, Brassey is estimated to have built 5% of the world’s railways.

The Institution of Civil Engineers was formed in 1818.

Now the Llangollen Canal.

1760 to 1840.

Originally the ICE represented all branches of engineering, but as specialism developed, other institutions were formed, such as the Institutions of Mechanical (1847) and Electrical Engineers (1871).

Renamed the ‘Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers’ in 1830.

These were usually in circumstances where the contractor had failed financially or had been dismissed, and the work was taken over directly by the engineer; or in the other case, where a contractor had taken on a contract to construct an entire project.  In civil engineering today, the . . . .

“. . . . basic interaction between Engineer and Contractor, for example, has mutated over the last hundred and fifty years from ‘master and servant’ to a simple collaboration between two specialist contributors. The boundaries of the traditional interactions have also moved in response to the same pressures to improve. In earlier times, for example, contractors made none of the decisions about what was to be built and all the decisions about how it was to be built. Now we have developed operational and commercial relationships which will enable the boundary between design and construction to be placed anywhere that preferences might dictate on a particular project and even varied between different parts of the same project.“

The Extraordinary History of Civil Engineering Management, Dr. Martin Barnes, ICE 1999 Smeaton Lecture.


. . . . which sometimes became acrimonious and ended in litigation.  Brunel’s dictatorial approach to contractors resulted in many disputed claims being taken to court, the most complex taking 29 years to settle ― in the contractor’s favour.

Sir John Hawkshaw FRS (1811-91), English civil engineer.

. . . while the ever-dedicated Brunel is said to have walked the 200 miles of the Great Western Railway while surveying the best route for that line to follow.

Rennie felt it essential that a chief engineer’s independence could only be achieved if he had no financial stake in the undertaking.

Telford was paid five guineas a day as chief engineer on the construction of the London to Holyhead Road (now the A5); full time assistant engineers on the same project received a salary of around £200 per annum.

Later Sir Charles Fox, civil engineer and contractor, at that time a sub-engineer of the London & Birmingham railway.

Completed in 1794, the canal connected Basingstoke with the River Thames at Weybridge via the Wey Navigation.

It was only after World War II. that the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors agreed on standard conditions. In 1945 they adopted a standard form of contract modelled on that used by the Metropolitan Board of Works, and originally developed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette for constructing the major sewer projects and the Thames embankments in London during the 1860s.

An example was Thomas Townshend, contractor for the Tring railway cutting on the London & Birmingham Railway.  In 1837, he was caught by an increase in labourers’ wages that left him bankrupt.

The term ‘navigator’ initially applied to both boatmen and labourers.  It was coined in the late 18th century in Britain when numerous canals were being built, which were also known as ‘navigations’.  However, the name ‘navvy’, denoting a labourer employed in the construction of a canal or railway, does not appear until the 1830s (OED).

Mostly true of the 20th century navvy until recently, when Eastern European labourers came to Britain in considerable numbers.

Reported in The Times, 15th Dec., 1840 (et seq.) and 19th May, 1841.



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