The Blaydon and Conside Railway – A Navvy’s Life

This fascinating article, dated 9th September 1865, by a Special Correspondent of the Newcastle Chronicle, looks at the lives of the navvies encamped up the Derwent Valley during the building of the Derwent Valley Railway which opened on 2nd December 1867. Although the article mentions “Rowland’s Gill”, it is referring to the stream of that name, not the village, because in 1865 there was no village – just the Towneley Arms and one or two farms. It would be 5 years before Cowen Terrace was built, 3o years before the first houses on Lintzford Road, Orchard Road and Strathmore Road were planned and 35 years before the first houses appeared down the “Bottoms”. 

Incidentally “Conside” was the old name of “Consett”. The old form was already out of favour by 1865 and had disappeared  completely by the end of the 19th century.


A special correspondent of the Newcastle Chronicle gives an interesting account of the domestic life and habits of the “navvy,” as he appears encamped on the Derwent.

The housing of the navvy is perhaps as novel as anything pertaining to him. When the work lies near large towns there is not much difficulty in getting lodgings; but when it is in thinly populated districts, where visitors are not often seen, and where the invaders may be as numerous as the inhabitants of the district, a bed, or even a share of a bed, is not so easily obtained, and then huts have to be built for the accommodation of the men., who, though hardy enough, would still find sleeping in the open air in this changeable clime rather too much for even their iron constitutions.

Up the Derwent, the mass of men are lodged at Swalwell, Winlaton Mill, Winlaton, Burnopfield, Ebchester, and at Consett. At these places the houses are, in many instances, much more crowded than would be allowed in licensed lodging-houses in the town, but that is very often the case even in Newcastle, where others than navvies are the occupants, and where house room is not so scarce as it is at present on Derwentside. As supplemental to the village accommodation, huts have been built at several places up the line for workmen. At Swalwell several wooden cottages have been erected. They are built of sawn deals, and are very warm and comfortable. These are situate on the spot in which it proposed to erect the Swalwell station, and are superior to others which the men have erected for themselves higher up the line. There are also two rows of these humble habitations near Gibside , in the valley close below the viaduct, which there crosses the Derwent. They are pleasantly situate, almost beneath the shadow of Gibside Hall, with its “gaily-checkered, heart-expanding view.” As one gets further up the line, the style of architecture becomes depreciated, and just as the line crosses the turnpike road near Rowland’s Gill some huts are built of timber with the rough bark outside. In the Gill itself here is also one of these rude habitations, but it has a most picturesque appearance . It looks like a scene from the “far west” – a bit of backward life. It is nearly half-way down the steep sides of this romantic Gill, which is

Full of fresh verdure and unnumbered flowers,
The negligence of Nature, wide and wild,
Where undisguised by mimic Art, she spreads
Unbounded beauty to the roving eye.

A little further on, however, there is something more romantic still. Near the bridge which crosses the Derwent on the road to Burnopfield, three or four turf huts are erected, and a like number are found a little further up the line, on the opposite side of the stream. These settlers, like the monks of old who built our cathedrals, have an eye for the picturesque, and know a good situation when they see it. The best spots in the valley have been selected for these temporary dwellings; and their occupants through the glorious summer weather this year have been luxuriating amid scenes which even the most favoured of town-dwellers can only enjoy for a short time as a matter of recreation and pleasure.

If the wooden huts remind one of Canadian or Australian life, the turf huts look like a bit of “ould Ireland,” and to most of the people in the neighbourhood will be quite a novelty. The sides of the hut are made of turf – thick sods of grass about a foot square – built up between a framework of rough-hewn timber taken from the adjoining wood. The framework of the roof is composed of branches of the fir-tree with the twigs lopped off, over which are placed smaller branches of other trees, with all the leaves on them, and above all turf is placed with the grass uppermost. At one end, or in the middle – as the building consists of one or two rooms – a fire-place of brick is erected; but without grates, as wood burns better from the hearth than in a grate; and there is plenty of firewood to get. A small frame of glass is inserted in the thick, earthy walls, and supplies light to the interior of the building, but it is only supplementary to the door which is usually open. The door is made of a few rough deals nailed together. The interior of the building is as rude as the exterior, nearly all the materials of the furniture and furnishing being found on the spot. The floor is composed of puddled clay, which makes a hard, solid floor. The ceiling is the rough beams and the leafy branches of the trees, between which the “roots of daisies” are seen. The rooms are from 12 to 18 feet long, and from 9 to 12 feet broad. The walls are about six feet high, but, of course, the room is much higher inside, as these rustic dwellings have, like most ecclesiastical structures of the period, “open timber roofs.”

The furniture and furnishings are neither from Deane, of London, nor Dunn and Co. of Newcastle. As the house itself is an illustration of the building art in its infancy, so the furnishing is a display of house carpenter craft in its first step towards the elegancies of this age of veneering. The modern hair-seated chair, with balloon back, is represented by a few four-legged stools of rough sawn timber, which will, however, last a good deal longer than many of the polished hair or moreen covered seats. A stout, rough deal table, represents kitchen, dining, loo, and work table; and a raisin box, fastened with its bottom against the wall, does duty as book shelves and dressing table. A few shelves of plain deal, facing the door, answer the purposes of cheffioneer, delf rack, cupboard, pantry, larder and wine-seller. The room itself, of course, is kitchen, dining hall, parlour, and bedroom, everything but scullery, and that is a shelf just outside the door. A number of beds, of course, depends on the number of sleepers; but small as the rooms are, each house can take in a few lodgers. In one hut there were four beds – three down one side, and one at the end of the room. In this hut there were seven lodgers, besides the owner of the establishment. The beds were not lofty four polers, nor tudors, but some thing like berths in a ship, about four feet wide, and made of rough hewn timber, cut from the adjoining wood. Three persons will sometimes sleep in one of these beds. In one of these huts, where there was a family, the fire-place separated the lodging-room from the family apartment; and in a corner, a rudely fashioned box served as a bassinet for its hardy little occupant. Such is a inventory of the household goods of a hard-working people who are now roughing it in the bush, in the dells of the Derwent. A rough, but hardy and healthy mode of living. It may seem strange that so many should be crowded into one room, but these people are better off than many in the towns. There may not be the requisite number of cubic inches for each sleeper, but they are surrounded with fresh air; and whatever gets through the chinks in the doors or in the apertures of the rudely constructed hut, is not the close and pestilential atmosphere of a tenanted house or a narrow lane, but fresh, untainted air, which may be laden with the perfume of neighbouring bean fields, the scents of woodbine, or the delicate odour of “the eglantine moist with the early dew.”

This sort of life may appear to be only one remove above the life of a savage; but it is much like what has been lived everywhere where the arts of civilisation could not be fully adopted, since the time “when Adam delved and Eve spun.” It is the kind of life that Englishmen are leading now in every quarter of the world where they are acting as the pioneers of civilisation and commerce. And this life is not without its pleasures. Such people have only a tithe of the “ills that flesh is heir to” in large towns, and at higher occupations. These men hardly even know that they have a stomach, except when they feel its cravings – for dyspepsia is unknown to them; and their children are just as healthy. And children are born and reared in these huts. In one of them a youngster first saw the light of day through the end of the turf hut which had not got its gable in when the cry was raised that a man child was born. And mother and child did as well in their clay-built apartment, and with the kindly assistance of neighbours, as if they had had the best accoucheur in the town, a monthly nurse, and all the comforts and attention which wealth and station can command. And this is not the only addition to the population which has taken place in the huts. In some cases the children are very numerous. In one hut there were three children, the eldest about seven years old, an intelligent-looking girl, with respectful manners. She was housekeeper while her mother went to the store, and she had to take care of her younger brothers, baby being with mamma. The boys were healthy, stout little fellows, sunburnt, and of the colour of the clay upon which they were rolling – of he earth, earthy. Their clothing did not encumber them; and their feet had never been encased in any other skin than their own. They were merry, bright-eyed, curly-headed little fellows, that paddled in the burn, or chased the butterfly the whole day long. Navvies in embryo – perfect pictures of health, strength and hardihood. Bless their little hearts, there was as much of humanity in them as in any of us; and so there was in the next door neighbour, who was old enough to be their grandmother. She had roughed it with her husband many a year; but had a kind heart. She was a Mrs O’Hara, or O’Flanaghan, or some such name; she kept lodgers, and was one of those handy people who can turn their hands to anything, and are always ready to do a good turn for their neighbours. Mrs Smith, the Englishman’s wife, at the hut up the way, “hadn’t got out yet,” and she had been doing her bit washing for her, and was then ironing the clothes – a slowish process with a small iron, heated at the dying embers of a wood fire. She apologised for the little disorder which prevailed in the house, courteously offered the best seat in the dwelling, and with a little pride said they had another house, at some unpronounceable place, and had left their furniture there. As she ironed away she discoursed on the advantages of cleanliness, remarked on the trouble she sometimes had when a lodger brought more with him than she had bargained to take in; and said she never allowed a fresh lodger to enter her beds without giving him a clean shirt to put on. When they had been on tramp, she said, there was no knowing where they had been, and everyone knew that traveller got strange bedfellows – a little bit of wisdom and motherly forethought in the woods. It was Saturday afternoon; and a clean change from top to toe was laid on each man’s bed; clean fustian trousers and smock frock being the Sunday clothes for those who did not sport a cloth suit on Sundays and holidays. There were some little attempts at decoration. In one or two of the huts paper hangings had been pasted over the rafters, and this gave the place a light and cheerful aspect. In another hut, the portraits of Chambers and Kelley, from some of the illustrated papers, were pasted up over one of the beds, showing the aquatic proclivities of the occupant. At a third hut, the occupier seemed to be a great bird fancier; a number of cages hung at the door, and the songs of the feathered race from warmer climes blended with those of the “innumerous songsters of the grove” in which the ornithologist had pitched his tent. There was no rent to pay; and this, perhaps, accounted for the absence of the “gintleman that pays the rint,” for Pat had not got his pig at any of the stations up the line, and the grunt of the porker was not therefore added to the many other sounds of animate and inanimate nature which charm the children, from “the blackbird whistling in the thorny brake” to the

“Babbling brook,
Whose murmurs soothe them all the live long day.”

The cuisine department of these rural abodes is necessarily simple. A kail-pot and kettle are the chief kitchen utensils, and in these, suspended from the hook which hung down the chimney, the frugal meals were cooked. The sin of gluttony is, from obvious reasons, not chargeable against these denizens of the woods and the wilds. Indeed, it is really amasing, considering the nature of the work and the application they give, how little these men often subsist on, making one almost believe in Urquhart’s theory that we over-eat ourselves, and that one meal a day is sufficient. A slice of bacon between two thick slices of bread will often be the mid-day meal of men who do the hardest physical labour. It may be washed down with a drink of cold tea, or a draught from the nearest brook or stream, but not often with anything stronger unless they are working near a public-house. Half-an-hour is sufficient for the single course and the dessert – the pipe; and then, if the day be fine, a nap is sought in the golden sunshine, a bush sometimes forming a soft couch, where the navvies lie – like Bottom, on “pressed flowers” sleeping with fairies sent by Titania to attend him; and fanned with the slender leaves of the “laybirch” or the leafy branches of the magnificent sycamore. While the navvy is often confined to bacon, he occasionally flavours it with a little game. He will not refuse to receive a rabbit that leaps into his arms, and he may occasionally come across a partridge which he will knock on the head, even before the 1st of September, and without a license. Jugged hare is not unknown to him, and at times it would be difficult to describe the contents of the “kail pot” as it simmers above the blazing faggots, a curious mixture of vegetables, and fish and fowl.

The navvy sometimes adds a little to his income by the labour of his children when they get up. The children of some of the workmen on the Derwent line find employment at the brick works near the Pont Burn, where some huts are also erected. This is a most delightful spot, and the huts overlook

“The green valley, where the silver brook
From its full laver pours the white cascade,
And babbling low amid the tangled weeds,
Slips down through the moss-grown stones with endless laughter.”

These scenes will not probly afford as much pleasure to the rude workers, who all the day are labouring amid such sylvan beauties as are found up the Derwent, as they do to people who “all the the year round” gaze on brick buildings and dusty streets, rendered dingier by the smoke overhead; but even the most untutored mind finds a charm in the grandeur and beauty of nature.

But the navvy’s life is not all sunshine. There are cold, raw days; there are places where he works up to the knees in wet; and the cold bleak winds from the moorlands often nearly freeze him. At times, too, he has to leave the cheerful light of day, and burrow like a mole for hours together through the hills whose tops are covered with the purple flowers of the heather and the golden blossoms of the broom. And wherever he is he is sure to have hard, laborious toil, which is but poorly requited; and to which he is to be attributable much of the coarseness and fierceness of his nature. His labour is necessary, and some of his are necessary evils arising from his circumstances; but yet some of the advantages of civilisation might be taken to him. And to those who have a mission to preach the Gospel to the poor, there is a fine field for labour among the navvies at Swalwell, and other places up the Derwent. In the adjoining valley, Archdeacon Prest, with his usual activity and zeal, has sent a clergyman to minister to the workmen on the Team Valley line; and perhaps some zealous Churchman or Dissenter may act the part of the good Samaritan to the hard working men of the Derwent.

8 thoughts on “The Blaydon and Conside Railway – A Navvy’s Life

  1. Thanks Brian, another very interesting piece of local history.
    Should it have been Blaydon and Consett?
    The ‘no rent to pay’, could simply be that as the men had built their own dwellings the company could not demand any rent.


    1. Hi Ray – Consett was known as “Conside” until the end of the 19th century.
      It’s the part of the sentence starting at “for Pat had not got his pig at any of the stations up the line …” which is puzzling. What has Pat and his lack of a pig got to do with the rent-free nature of the accommodation?


  2. A fascinating read! Thanks.
    I think the above comment re. “no rent to pay” seems very plausible.
    Consett is recorded as Conside in “The Boldon Beuk”. I don’t know when the change came about.
    ‘Con’ originates from a similar old word for hill.


  3. Ray & Judith – I’ve removed the question as it seemed to be causing confusion, and I’ve also added a note about the Consett/Conside issue.


  4. Hi Brian – a fascinating insight into the short working life of my 1st cousin 3x removed George William Ghent. He was ‘lodged’ near Ebchester while working on the railway construction in 1866. The Newcastle Journal, dated Wed 07th November 1866 reported George’s death as follows:
    FATAL RAILWAY ACCIDENT.-An inquest was held last evening at the Durham Ox Inn, Cattle Market, before Mr. Hoyle, coroner, on the body of George William Ghent, sixteen years of age, who resided at Broomhill, near Ebchester, and who died at the Infirmary, on Monday, from injuries received on Saturday. Deceased was employed on the Derwent and Conside Railway, in course of construction; and on Saturday, whilst “braking” some waggons near Blaydon, he slipped his foot and fell upon the rails, and the wheels of one of the waggons passed over his legs, inflicting the injuries which resulted in his death on Monday. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidentally killed.”
    I hope you find the information of interest and should you have any further information on George, I would be interested to receive it. Kind regards Ray


  5. A very interesting article – bringing the creation of the “Blaydon & Conside Railway” to life. I loved walking the line after closure when all the infrastructure: stations, sidings, signals, etc., were intact. What a route for a heritage steam railway this would have been! Closure was a bit early for that, though. Second best use is, of course, as the Derwent Valley Walk. I can just remember the sounds of locomotives climbing towards Lockhaugh Viaduct, whilst walking down Clockburn Lane, from Sunniside to Winlaton Mill.


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