What the Railway Navvies did for Benfleet.

Plague pits, Cholera and Fisticuffs

They brought Cholera to Essex, they opened up plague pits; they fought with locals; they poached and they robbed. The arrival of the railway navvies to south Essex affected the locals almost as much as the railway itself.

The ‘navvies’, (after the ‘navigators’, who had dug canals throughout England in the 18th century), were to spend the years 1854 to 1856 constructing a railway from London to Southend, via Tilbury. A few local men were hired to earn between 2/9d and 3/3d (14p to 16p) per day constructing the line now known as C2C. Some recruits were Irish, refugees from the potato famine; Others had left farmwork following poor harvests; some were married and brought their families with them, but most were single and far from home.

The Arrival of the Navvies

In the villages along the proposed route, locals dreaded the arrival of the railway workers. Described by the Essex gentry as “godless, immoral, blaspheming drunken strangers “, villagers suspected them of pilfering from gardens and orchards. Though every village harboured the odd ‘ne’er-do-well’. These brawny, beer-drinking labourers with strange accents were ”furriners”, living within, but not of the village. Different and therefore feared.

The men shifted abode along the line as the work progressed. Some boarded in local cottages, others lived in prefabricated huts. When the line reached Leigh, the navvies, led by the aptly named ‘Fisty’, began raiding the Leigh pubs at night and drinking the locals’ beer. This came to a swift end after a fight, which was spoken of with glee right up to the 1960s. On this famous night Fisty was invited by the fishermen to meet the Leigh champion, Snikey Cotgrove. After a tremendous fight, each combatant noisily supported by stalwart mates, Fisty was defeated and the Leigh beer saved.

At Benfleet the navvies dug up ancient reminders of Viking raids. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that about the year 893 AD, a Viking chief, Haestan built a fort at Benfleet and from there, “ravaged the kingdom”. But the English stormed the fort and “broke up all the ships, or burned them”. The railway navvies, when constructing the bridge at Benfleet, found many skeletons around the charred prows of ships. Whatever they were, they remain to this day where they lay.

Cholera Outbreak in England and Europe

Still at Benfleet, in 1854, an outbreak of Cholera hit England and Europe. In those days when the cause of the disease was not generally known, local people said the navvies had started the epidemic by unearthing a plague pit.

Reverend Heygate, vicar of St Mary the Virgin Church, South Benfleet wrote in 1860 that “the Cholera came like a thunderbolt to Benfleet”. One man, the Reverend John Cook, vicar at the time, worked tirelessly and alone with all those stricken, regardless of country, position in life or beliefs.

Heygate wrote of Cook’s care of the navvies, describing how he “visited the sick and dying from week’s end to week’s end. There was no office so loathsome, but he himself executed it. Cook with his own hands carried, removed cleansed and returned again the vessels required in such a disease”.

Today we can hardly imagine what Heygate describes as “the effluvia in a room occupied by several of these coarse men, labouring under a nauseous sickness as Cholera”. But as doctor, nurse and priest, Cook stayed with the sick and dying, night after night.

The Church registers tell a grim tale of the burial, by Cook, of 40 in one month, many younger than 30. Cook’s own health suffered as a result and he died in 1859 aged 47.

Poaching, Stealing and Neglect

Despite their reputation, very few court cases involving navvies have come to light. One was caught poaching. Another, with two previous convictions was given 12 months hard labour for stealing two cotton handkerchiefs. Navvie William Lane’s wife was reprimanded for neglect at an inquest at Grays on the death of their I5-month-old daughter who was found by a neighbour “burnt to a cinder” on wasteland.

London to Southend on L.T.S.R. for 2/6d

The L.T.S.R., when completed, had a significant effect on the area, especially Southend, which for a while became a fashionable seaside resort. Londoners soon took advantage of the cheap fares – London to Southend and back for 2/6d, (12 and a half new pence) and the growth of cheap seaside holidays began.

Some navvies settled in Southend and even established their own Churches. Some may still have descendants in the area. Though they built the railway, including all stations and bridges and their presence was keenly felt for a time, no photographs, diaries, letters or memoirs belonging to the men have been found. The navvies can be glimpsed only through evidence left by others.

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