Railway Children, Four Generations

We often forget how brutal the links between cities, towns and villages were to make and how heavily they impacted on those who made them.

I was reminded of this very sharply recently when one of the trees I was working on unearthed four generations of railway excavators, or ‘navvies’ as they used to be called.

It started with a family that had very strong ties in the Mansfield/Pleasley Hill area of Nottinghamshire. Rooted there for hundreds of years, Frederick Powell was a noticeable outsider when he married into the family in 1886 at the age of 21. In the 1891 census he lists his place of birth as ‘Not Known’ – something that really caught my eye in this small town community. Later, on the 1901 census, he gives it as Melling Moor, Lancashire which again is intriguing as he’s miles away from home.

While I researched the rest of the family I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Frederick and want to know more about where he came from. I had no luck tracking down a birth record for him but struck gold with the 1881 census. Taken five years before his marriage it revealed just how he’d come to the Pleasley Hill area, he was working as a railway labourer. And not just working on the railways, living on them too with an address that clearly said ‘Railway Hut’. And there with him, a large number of siblings all listed as being born in Hartlepool and his widower father, William, who gives his place of birth as Huntingdonshire. All the adult men in the family were railway labourers.

Navvies near Sheffield, Yorkshire

This was the key I needed to piece the story together and follow the Powell line back further.

Frederick was born to William and Elizabeth in Lancashire in 1865 but the family lived a very transient lifestyle. Elizabeth was from South Shields, Durham and William had met her while working on a railway line nearby, they married in 1856. Within two years their first child had been born and they were on the move. Over the next twenty years their nine children are recorded as born at Falstone in Northumberland, Chapel Frith in Derbyshire, Melling Moor and Backbarrow in Lancashire and, for one child, simply ‘Westmoreland’. In between the children’s births the family are recording on the census at Kielder in Northumberland and Dent in Yorkshire.

Dent – Highest Railway Station in England

To give a snapshot of this lifestyle, these are all remote and bleak places to live and work. Pay was poor, the huts were temporary, alcohol flowed freely, local presses record fights and tragic accidents and there would have been a outlawish feel to the navvies’ camps. The family are recorded on the census returns as living in huts with several lodgers, all other men working on the line. Dent station sits on the Settle-Carlisle line, and is now the highest mainline station in England. There would be no shelter from the wind and rain outside the hut and it’s four miles to the nearest village. There are long tunnels here cutting through the moors and hills, some of the last to be hand dug. This was hard labour.

Frederick though, appears to have been a runaway. His mother Elizabeth died between 1875-1881, the oldest she could have been is about 40 years old. The family moved onto Nottinghamshire, living in railway huts at Pleasley Hill in 1881 where Frederick was now a 16 year old railway labourer like his father and two brothers. Frederick appears to have opted out of the lifestyle though, while the rest of his family moved onto Carlton he stayed in Pleasley Hill, married and settled as a coal miner. Presumably he was used to hard work and working in the mines at least meant the roof over his head was a bit more solid and food was marginally better.

Frederick’s oldest sister, Elizabeth, married another railway man and continued the lifestyle for another generation.

But at the beginning of the post, I said four generations and William, his children (including Frederick) and Elizabeth’s children only make three. To find the fourth we must look back to William’s father.

1841 census – William Powells, senior and junior

William was born in 1834 and on the earliest available census of 1841 his father, William senior, is also recorded as an excavator – in fact the family are living at a navvies camp at Padam’s Green in Essex. During his lifetime William worked in at least eight counties across the country. He didn’t know any other lifestyle – he was born, bred and buried alongside the tracks.

It should also be noted 1841 is very early for this work as railway excavators which gives rise to the tantalising possibility that William senior had worked as a canal navvie before and just switched what he was digging for…

Sixty years of rain, mud, blood, sweat and poor quality beer. And one hell of an adventure for a genealogist tracking the paper trail across the counties and years.

It’s not the story the client was expecting but I think it will give them something to think about next time they’re out walking in the Yorkshire Dales.

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