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Canal Archive: Bridging the Years

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By Hand and Shovel

At its peak over 16,000 men and boys were working on the Manchester Ship Canal, including specialist workers and men operating the various machines employed on the project.

The general name given to many of these workers was 'navvies'. The term is believed to have derived from the word 'navigators' - used to describe men who worked on rivers and other waterways to make them navigable.

Navvies travelled around the country looking for work. They carried with them a bad reputation, with many communities being wary of their arrival, fearing drunkenness and violence. However, it seems this fear was largely unfounded, with reports of most navvies being hard working and law abiding.

The navvies worked for long hours in very difficult conditions. They had to contend with all weathers, including heavy rain and severe frosts. The work was also dangerous, with risk of serious injury or even death. Armed with shovels, navvies filled their barrows with extracted soil, working deeper and deeper into the ground, digging the Big Ditch.

The following pages will look at some of the methods used by the navvies, including specialist techniques and systems employed to facilitate their work.

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This is page 1 of Digging the Big Ditch.
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A navvy with a barrow

A navvy with a barrow
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