Ribblehead Navvy Camps Earthwork Survey



Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority




The Settle to Carlisle Line, constructed between the North Yorkshire Dales and Cumbria by the Midland Railway Company, was the last main railway line in Britain to be built mainly using manual labour. In October 1870, work commenced on the construction of the viaduct at Batty Moss in Cumbria, now commonly known as the Ribblehead Viaduct, together with a tunnel at Blea Moor just to the north. In order to accommodate a workforce in such an isolated and often bleak location, the company constructed a series of temporary camps for the workmen (or ‘navvies’) and their dependents. The names of nine of these camps are known: Batty Wife Hole or Batty Green, Sebastopol, Inkerman, Belgravia, Jericho, Jerusalem, Jordan, Salt Lake City, and Bleamoor or Tunnel Huts. By the time of the 1871 Census, over 900 people were employed on this part of the line, and the population of the navvy camps in this area was probably around 2000. At that time, the main settlement at Batty Wife Hole had 74 houses, a hospital, post office, public library, mission house, day and Sunday schools, shops and public houses, together with Company offices, stores, stables and a brick-works. However, when construction was completed, the navvies and all those dependent upon their wages moved on, and the buildings were either salvaged or left to decay. Today, the viaduct is surrounded by open moorland grazing and the only traces of the former thriving community are slight earthworks amongst the grass and heather.

In 1995, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority commissioned NAA to carry out archaeological work in response to the erosion of this fragile heritage resource by increasing visitor pressure on the area. This comprised an earthwork survey and historical documentary research of two areas that covered the three most affected navvy camps, namely Batty Wife Hole, Sebastopol and Belgravia.

"The results of the project provided considerable insight into the organisation, function and society of these temporary navvy settlements that extends well beyond that provided by contemporary sources."

The earthwork surveys recorded the outlines of a considerable number of buildings and other features. At Batty Wife Hole, structures appear to have been zoned, with terraced houses, probable commercial buildings and what were interpreted as ‘civic’ structures grouped in distinct parts of the settlement, and the hospital located in isolation to the east. The non-domestic structures appear to have had stone foundations, presumably with wooden superstructures, and were better preserved than the domestic buildings, which were presumably entirely made of wood. At Sebastopol, most of the identified remains related to the brickworks, while the terraced housing at nearby Belgravia faced the quarry and limekiln that had supplied the mortar for the construction work. These works were connected to the various construction sites by an elaborate network of tramways, and a locomotive shed was sited at Sebastopol. Apart from the organised terraced housing at these settlements, presumably provided by the railway company, isolated structures in peripheral locations suggested an element of ‘urban sprawl’ as the population outgrew the accommodation.  

Beyond providing a record of the extent, nature and condition of these remains, the results of the project provided considerable insight into the organisation, function and society of these temporary navvy settlements that extends well beyond that provided by contemporary sources. The survey also provided a firm basis for future management and protection by the National Park Authority of this important but fragile heritage resource.

A fuller account of the results of the project can be found in:

Cardwell, P., Ronan, D. and Simpson, R. (2004) ‘An archaeological survey of the Ribblehead navvy camps’, in White, R. F. and Wilson, P. R. (eds) Archaeology and Historical Landscape of the Yorkshire Dales. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper 2. Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 195–202.

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