Navvies working on the Manchester Ship Canal

Courtesy of Peel Archives
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London


The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy
Ultan Cowley (2001)

“In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the relationship between British employers and Irish Labour was essentially symbiotic”

“Until the carnage of the First World War it was widely recognised as being statistically more dangerous to be a navvy than to be a soldier.”

“The Irish on the Manchester ship canal, as far as the author could ascertain, numbered upwards of five thousand, or just under one-third of the Labour force of sixteen thousand men.”

“There were fears that the ‘wheat fed population of Great Britain could be ‘supplanted by the potato fed population of Ireland’”


Songs of a Navvy

Patrick Macgill (the navvy poet) (1911)


When the last, long shift will be laboured, and the lying time will be burst,

And we go as picks or shovels, navvies or nabobs, must,

When you go up on the scrap-heap and I go down to the dust,

Will ever a one remember the times our voices rung, When you

were limber and lissome, and I was lusty

and young?

Remember the jobs we’ve laboured, the heartfelt songs

We’ve sung?

Perhaps some mortal in speaking will give us a kindly thought –

“There is a muck-pile they shifted, here is a place where they wrought.”

But maybe our straining and striving and singing will go for nought,

When you go up on the scrap-heap, and I go down to the dust –

(Little children of labour, food for the worms and the rust,)

When the last long shift will be laboured and the lying time will be burst.

Available free online:


Men of the Moment

Interviews with Salford residents who worked as navvies on the MSC
Courtesy of Salford Museum and Art Gallery Library