The story of how Britain’s railways came to traverse the country’s least hospitable landscapes is not a dry lesson in 19th-century history. It is, in some ways, our Wild West. Like the frontiersfolk sweeping across America at the same time, the Victorian construction workers were taming the wilderness and creating the template for a modern nation. And yes, there were horses by their side, as well as saloon bar shacks where they could slake their thirst.
Here’s how it worked. Imagine you need to get a railway line across a large valley. The train company buys the land and, virtually overnight, it plonks an instant “city” (a shanty town of prefabricated wooden huts) in the middle of nowhere to house the workers who will build a viaduct.
And here’s what’s most amazing. Once the building work is over, every piece of the shanty town is dismantled, every last piece of wood is scooped up, and every person leaves. The caravan moves on to the next place – ready for a new shanty town to arrive and then disappear.
This is what happened for real at Ribblehead, in the Yorkshire Dales, 17 miles east of Morecambe, between 1870 and 1875.
It’s not known how many of these settlements – which often housed 1,000 people at a time – were created in Victorian Britain, but there were scores of them across the country and each was self-sufficient. They had pubs, boarding houses, sometimes a school, church, post office, library and hospital. Even the thousands of bricks that the men used to build the viaducts and bridges were made in brickworks on-site. (Every shanty town also had a supply of “dolly mops” – on-site prostitutes.)
ITV’s period drama Jericho, which stars Jessica Raine, is named after a real shanty town that grew up to build the Ribblehead Viaduct that still stands today, 100ft high, spanning 24 arches and carrying train passengers and freight from Leeds to Carlisle and beyond.
At its peak, 7,000 navvies were working on the line, nearly 1,000 of whom lived in Jericho and surrounding settlements – making the temporary towns much bigger than the nearby villages and hamlets of today. Yet not a single wooden hut remains.
“It’s strangely magical that a town appeared from nowhere and then disappeared again over-night,” says Jericho’s writer, Steve Thompson. There are, he says, a few tiny signs at Ribblehead of some of the buildings’ foundations, “but other than that, you’re just aware that a town was there – and that it vanished. That’s really peculiar and strangely poetic.”
Less mystical is the danger the men faced every day. Health and safety had not been invented as a workplace concept – industrial accidents were commonplace. Yet the biggest killer was not misadventure but disease. One smallpox epidemic at Ribblehead killed 80. Meanwhile, the dirty drinking water was perhaps the most dangerous element of the building site – which helps explain why “beer was drunk for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” according to Thompson.
Whole families died and were buried, often in unmarked graves. A plaque at St Leonard’s Church in the hamlet of Chapel-le-Dale is dedicated to “the memory of the many men, women and children resident in this parish who died through accident or disease during the construction of the Settle to Carlisle Railway”.
Thompson explains: “Death was ever-present. It was part of the rhythm of their lives. People could go to work and not come back that night.”
Tony Freschini, a retired rail engineer credited with saving the Settle-to-Carlisle line when it was threatened with closure in the late 1980s, brings home the achievement of these builders: “You look at the line and you can’t help but be impressed by what these people did in about six years. Today you wouldn’t get a motorway built in that time. And yet they did it all those years ago on horseback and brawn. It’s not bad, is it?”
Jericho continues on ITV tonight (Thursday 14th January) at 9.00pm