Chronology:   Bargery Number Main Themes:
1830-39  335  
1840-49  263; 264; 313; 598  
1850-59  224  
Uncertain  306; 513; 524;   


The Songs

Most of the songs in this section were printed as broadside ballads. The style and content of the items of uncertain suggest that they were created between 1840 and 1859.

Although the Irish were always in the minority (about one in three of railway navvies) the songs in this section show a distinct Irish flavour. The Irish tended to work together and retained their traditional song making and performing culture long after the social disruption of the Industrial Revolution had all but destroyed the oral folk-song tradition in England.

Historical Background

The first railway workers to appear in popular songs were the navvies who built the railways. At the height of railway making their were two hundred thousands of them. One railway surveyor observed that ‘one feature which strikingly distinguishes the construction of railways from that of canals is the employment of the surrounding agricultural population’.

Railways were an important source of employment for farm workers made destitute by the invention of the threshing machine and the enclosure of the common land where they had formerly kept livestock.

The work was arduous – shifting 20 tons of earth was a normal day’s work; and dangerous – 3 accidental deaths per mile was considered an acceptable average; but it was well paid and navvies lived high on the hog. Navvies worked in gangs each led by a ganger. Good gangs were highly valued by contractors and moved around the country from job to job. Young men far from home with money in their pocket are always likely to spend a good deal of it on drink and women, and their songs give due attention to these pleasures.