The Railway Navvies

Work started on the Didcot/ Newbury stretch of the new railway in 1878, with the arrival of the navvies being recorded by the rector, the Rev Richard Hooper, in his parish diary.

The navvies moved from building one railway to the next, some singly, some in family groups. The census for the year 1881 shows that originally they came from all over the British Isles, including several from Wales, though oddly enough none were from Ireland. In all, about 171 people, of whom 110 worked on the railway, moved into this small agricultural community of 241 people. But by this date, quite late in the railway building age, the organisation was in place. Twelve temporary Railway Huts were built down the valley, starting up at the top of the Lynchway, near the present Prospect Farm, and finishing down in the village on Pound Lane at Butler’s Farm, which was also a Coffee Tavern for the navvies. The Railway Huts mostly housed a married couple with their family, and several single labourers. Some of the skilled men stayed in cottages in the village, the chief engineer lodged at Prospect House.

What was the impact of this invasion on the villagers? Nowhere in Richard Hooper’s diary or anywhere else is there any indication of bad or drunken behaviour. The general impression is of a highly experienced workforce getting down to the masssive and dangerous task of creating the railway, including digging the cutting and building the embankment with fairly primitive machinery and sheer physical labour. In all it took them only three years to complete the Upton stretch of the track – by December 1881 the camp had been abandoned and the last of the navvies had moved on.