Navvy's head, detail from Ford Madox Brown's Work, 1852-1865

The word 'navvy' was first used to describe people who improved the waterways or 'navigations'. The word derives from 'navigators', the people who originally built the canals. Navvies built other types of navigation as well, such as railways, roads, and in this case, clean water or sewage pipes.

Navvies had to be very strong as they would move up to 20 tons of earth in a day. They worked in groups and were very loyal to one another. Navvies were better paid than ordinary labourers, but they also faced greater risks. Accidents or even death were commonplace.

Beer-drinking was also common among navvies. This was often due to a lack of clean water, but it gave cause for concern to some well-meaning middle class women who campaigned against the drinking of alcohol. People had differing views about navvies: some understood the necessity of their hard work, whilst others saw that they were often left suffering and forgotten.

Ford Madox Brown was one who recognised the importance of the navvies’ manual labour. He paints the navvies to reflect his his thoughts: the hero of this painting is the central navvy, in the prime of youth and beauty. There is also an Irish navvy (who would have emigrated to escape the potato famine), a selfish old bachelor navvy, a strong navvy who loves beer, and a young navvy who has been spared a life behind bars because he has been taught the virtues of hard work.