AskDefine | Define navvy

Dictionary Definition

navvy n : a laborer who is obliged to do menial work [syn: drudge, peon, galley slave]

User Contributed Dictionary



from the navigation canals upon which these workers first toiled


  1. a laborer on a civil engineering project such as a canal or railroad

Extensive Definition

Navvy is a shorter form of navigational engineer (USA) or navigator (UK) and is particularly applied to describe the manual labourers working on major civil engineering projects. The term was coined in the late 18th century in Britain when numerous canals were being built, which were also sometimes known as "navigations". Canal navvies typically worked with shovels, pickaxes and barrows.


Many navvies were immigrants, as manual labourers of low social standing and training requirements often are in relatively affluent societies (compare the Chinese coolies on the US railroad construction), and were mainly Irish. By 1818, higher wages in North America attracted many of these immigrants to move again. They became a major part of the workforce in the construction of the Erie Canal, in New York State and similar projects; as well as building canals in Britain.

Migration from canal to railway projects

The construction of canals in Britain was superseded by contracts to construct railway projects from 1830 onwards, which developed into the railway manias, and the same term was applied to the workmen employed on building rail tracks, their tunnels, cuttings and embankments.
Navvies working on railway projects typically continued to work using hand tools, supplemented with explosives (particularly when tunnelling, and to clear obdurate difficulties). Steam-powered mechanical diggers or excavators (initially called 'steam navvies') were available in the 1840s, but were not considered cost effective until much later in the 19th century, especially in Britain and Europe where experienced labourers were easily obtained and comparatively cheap. Elsewhere, for example in the
"United States and Canada, where labour was more scarce and expensive, mechanical diggers were used. In the States the machine tradition became so strong that [...] the word navvy is understood to mean not a man but a steam shovel."

Use of the term Navvy

In Australia, the term "navvy" is still applied solely to railway workers. Some areas of the country, particularly towns and cities along the sugarcane belt of the state of Queensland, still employ teams of navvies on a permanent basis to lay and maintain the state's narrow-gauge cane-train tracks. Whereas Council workers who work on general civic projects advise of their worksites with fluro orange "Workers Ahead" signage, navvies use pale blue "Navvies at Work" signs.

Working conditions for railway navvies

Many of the navvies employed building the railways in England in the early part of the 19th Century had to live in squalid temporary living accommodations. The navvies working on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway were paid daily and their pay went immediately on ale and Porter, leaving nothing for food. When the workers were found not to be fit enough to work, monies were deducted from their wages and meal tokens were issued. These tokens could be handed in at meal caravans for a bowl of soup and a portion of bread, or whatever else was on the menu. At first the token was a slip of paper called a "flimsy" because of its thickness. In today's terms it would be similar to a grade we call "bank paper". These tokens were illegally copied by the forgers of the day, and many a farm worker got a free meal because of this. To eliminate the risk of this fraud, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway supplied its contractors with six-sided food tokens that were surrendered for meals. These were cut from brass and had the initials LMR stamped upon them. This reduced the problems of drunken navvies and eliminated the local farm labourers freelegging from the food caravans.
Tokens and a description of their use can be found in the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester.



  • Way, Peter (1997). Common Labor: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780-1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5522-5.
  • Coleman, Terry (1968). The Railway Navvies: a history of the men who made the railways. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Dialann Deoraí (Dublin: Clóchomhar, 1968), translated into English as An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile, London: Routledge, 1964. ISBN 1-903464-36-6

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

blue-collar worker, breadwinner, casual, casual laborer, common laborer, day laborer, digger, dredge, dredger, driller, employee, excavator, factory worker, flunky, free lance, free-lancer, full-time worker, groundhog, hand, industrial worker, jobber, jobholder, laborer, laboring man, menial, migrant, miner, moiler, office temporary, proletarian, roustabout, salaried worker, sandhog, sapper, self-employed person, servant, steam shovel, stiff, temporary, toiler, tunneler, wage earner, wage slave, wageworker, worker, workgirl, workhand, working girl, workingman, workingwoman, workman
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