Whilst sitting in the garden of a public house called the Navigation Inn at the weekend, enjoying the autumn sunshine and watching the barges go by on the nearby canal, I mused as to why a pub in such a location would have the name Navigation. Surely there aren’t many navigational skills required on a canal? Don’t you either go up, or down?
What I didn’t know then, but a short time with Professor Google has informed me, is that canals were sometimes known as navigations. During the late eighteenth century canals/navigations were built throughout England as a more efficient method of transporting goods than a horse and cart. Digging out the canals required intense manual labour and those undertaking this work were known as navigators, or navigational engineers. But not for long: the term was soon shortened to navvy.
It was hard physical work. The pay was poor, but at least it was regular. By its very nature
it often took a man away from his family, and sometimes his homeland, with primitive sleeping quarters, and limited after-work entertainment.
It was also thirsty work. Not surprisingly, a number of public houses sprang up in areas where canals were being dug and, again not surprisingly, navvies took themselves off to them of an evening, soon gaining a reputation for drunkenness and unruliness. A far cry from my genteel drinking companions in the Navigation Inn gardens last Sunday.
By the 1830s canal transport was giving way to the speedier railways, and navvies turned their attention to railway line construction. The term navvy was still used in England (and often still is for road builders). But in America, where labour costs were higher, navvy was more often the term used for a steam shovel. The manual workers on the railways there were called gandy dancers, and a popular theory for the origins of that term was the coordinated movement of the line of men using a special tool (gandy) in unison to knock a line into place.
Some people think the term navvy has Irish origins as there were many Irish navvies in the twentieth century. But during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the majority of workers on the English canals and railways were English. There are however plenty of genuinely Irish words that have come into use in English, as I will explore in next week’s blog.
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