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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Shropshire

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Canal boat
Canals built for leisure and trade

© Courtesy of the Llangollen Museum
The Whixall Moss Gang

The original “navvies”

In the early days of canal building, there was no precedent so navvies had to learn excavation skills on the job. The first navvies to work on the country’s first canal, the Bridgewater Canal completed in 1761, were untrained labourers. Once a navvy had gained experience, he became a valuable commodity, and was very sought after by contractors who had secured canal construction jobs. This demand for experienced navvies led to the formation of a migrant workforce, which travelled to whichever location had work, and where the best rates of pay for that work were being offered. In a plan for work on the Caledonian Canal, Thomas Telford and William Jessop explained why navvies could demand higher wages:

“As canal work is very laborious, they must give such Wages… as will be the means of procuring and calling forth the utmost exertions of able Workmen;”

It was on the back of the navvies’ strength and endurance that Britain’s canal and railways were formed.

In the 1790s, canal building levels became frenzied, and the large migrant workforce which had developed attracted controversy and criticism. In his book, ’The Canal Builders’, Anthony Burton estimates that the population of navvies stood at 50,000 by the end of the 18th Century. Relations between the workforce and local population were often strained, with frequent outbreaks of violence and public disorder.

Horse and canal boat
Horse pulling the canal boat
© The Waterways Trust/British Waterways Archive
The poor relations were attributed to the navvies’ itinerant situation which excluded them from the local community. This feeling of isolation encouraged abandonment of morals and decency, leading to frequent clashes and rioting. The Sampford Peverell Riot of 1811 is one example of the disputes that occurred between contractors and their hired navvies. Anger at the token system of payment led to rioting and violence in the small community by men working on the Grand Western Canal. One newspaper’s description of the navvies as “savage ungovernable banditti” conveys the unpopularity of the nomadic workforce amongst local residents.

In this respect, the Whixall Moss Gang differed fundamentally. This team of navvies were employed continuously in the maintenance of one stretch of canal and therefore enjoyed a higher level of job security. As Jack Strange says, “it was a job for life”. Why was the Llangollen Canal running through Whixall Moss so precious and why did it merit this special attention?

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