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1838: Lawless railway workers

Updated: May 22, 2022

Navvies in southern Ireland in 1905.

The Brighton line attracted a tough breed of construction workmen called 'navvies'. They inherited this name from the 'navigators' who built the first navigation canals. While the Brighton line was being built July 1838-July 1841 the locals often had to be on the guard when they were around. The Railway Museum's website describes this tough breed of men as follows:

Tramping from job to job, navvies and their families lived and worked in appalling conditions, often for years on end, in rough timber and turf huts alongside the bridges, tunnels and cuttings that they built.

The harsh conditions and communal living meant that navvies evolved a lifestyle, culture and even a language of their own. They gained a reputation for fighting, hard living and hard drinking. ‘Respectable’ Victorians viewed them as degenerate and a threat to social order, but much of the criticism was unjustified.

Despite cruel exploitation and extreme deprivation, the navvies achieved amazing feats of engineering - equipped with little more than gunpowder, picks and shovels.

Inevitably considering, the number of men employed, there were some bad apples amongst them. And the towns and villages along the route suffered from minor crimes and an element of lawlessness, and Cuckfield was no exception to experience this and court cases at the Petty Sessions resulted:

Thomas Harris and John Wymark, two railway labourers, charged with stealing four bushels of potatoes, the property of Thomas Willatt, were committed for trial. Harris was also committed to take his trial for stealing a pick, the property of Samuel Briggs, railway contractor. [Sussex Advertiser, 14 December 1840]

Rector robbed

John Robinson, of Lindfield, labourer, was convicted in the penalty of £1 and costs for having; on the 26th October 1840, assaulted the Rev. James Hamilton, Rector of Ardingly, and in default of payment was committed to Lewes House of Correction for twenty eight days.

Watchless watchman

George Bonser and Charles Archer, of Balcombe, railway labourers, were committed for trial at the Adjourned Sessions, for stealing a silver watch, the property of Evan Owen, a night watchman at Balcombe Tunnel; and also for stealing another silver watch, the property of George Biggs, of Balcombe Tunnel, railway labourer. [Sussex Advertiser, 16 November 1840]

The flood of itinerant workers connected with the line brought problems to the area. An account of navvies who working in a Yorkshire location will have paralleled the scenes experienced in Mid Sussex:

Much beer and blood began to flow in the Street on Saturday nights and Sundays. Drunken brawls,

revellings and revilings, drink-sodden navvies sprawling in the gutter, tramps sleeping in barns,

tramps threatening timid housewives for a crust, tramps massaging their Stinking feet at the and village drinking trough in defiance of the notice which said: 'This water is used for drinking purposes, and must not be polluted. By Order.' Never since the time of the Danes had our village suffered such an invasion. Hen-roosts were rifled, orchards robbed, and private enclosures raided with impunity. [From Frederick Kitchen', Brother to the Ox]

When the line to Lewes was being built through Plumpton the village suffered the same fate:

On September 29th, 1846, Henry Turner 37, labourer on the railway, stole trousers and a silk handkerchief, together worth 7/6d. from James West in Streat. Three weeks hard labour resulted. He was lodged with Mr Hemsley in Street.

On October 13th George Mills, labourer on the railway, was charged with setting wires to take game in Warningore Wood, Chiltington. He was fined 30/- and 14/- costs. [Sussex Weekly Advertiser, September 1846 -February 1847]

Check out this Cuckfield story about the attempted murder of a constable by a railway worker-who was saved-by the bravery of a woman:


'Brother to the Ox; the Autobiography of a Farm Labourer', by Frederick Kitchen, 1940, reprinted by Caliban Books, Partridge Green (1981). Also on Google Books

Plumpton information from: 830-1880 by Prof. Brian Short, University of Sussex, 1981 published by the University.

Photograph: A cutting at Gracedieu near Waterford in the County Waterford in the south-east of Ireland, 29 August 1905.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.



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