‘The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts, They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts, They never drank water but whiskey by pints, And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights.’
‘Navigator’ The Pogues
The above lyrics by The Pogues describe a group of men who were responsible for shaping the industrial landscape in the late 18th and 19th centuries. These men known as navigators or navvies for short were often amongst the poorest in society and would follow the work wherever it went. The work was often dangerous and the job unregulated meaning working conditions were hard and dangerous. Most of workers were of Irish and Scottish descent and their expertise was sought after. These bands of men often travelled en masse to countries were new railways or canals were being built.
In 1824, Norwegian Minister of Finance, Jonas Collet, began looking into the possibility of building a railway in Norway. This got the ball rolling and in 1854 the private Christiania to Eidsvoll track was opened in order to relay timber into Oslo (Hendriksen 1996). A few years later work began on the Smaalensbanen, which provided transport from Christiania to Fredrikstad. The same people would probably have worked on these two projects and many would have by now made Norway their home.
Many of the men whom operated and repaired the trains lived and worked in Christiania, in particular Grønland, Gamlebyen, and Leiret. Indeed Norway’s first train driver, William Graham, came from England, lived in Gamlebyen and is buried in Gamlebyen gravlund.
What of the navvies though, where did they live? The answer is: we don’t know. It’s possible they got jobs as engine polishers or took other menial tasks and remained in Christiania. However it’s more likely they followed the job until it was completed, camping out in rough shacks along the length of the railway line before moving on to the next job in some other country.
The song above paints a picture of the navvies as an unruly but tough workforce, drinking on the job, but getting the job done. In 2014 these words were brought to life in a tiny glimpse when a Scottish cap badge was found in the backfill of the soils forming the railway embankment at the eastern side of Klypen, close to Saxegården in Gamlebyen, Oslo. This badge type is very common and was used throughout the 19th-century and indeed is still used today. It was made of a base metal and would have belonged to an ordinary man. The mid- to late 19th-century context and its inclusion in soils relating to the construction of the railway may provide a tantalizing insight into the itinerant workforce who built these embankments and cuts in Norway in the not too distant past.
Written by field leader Mick Derrick.
Hendriksen, G K, 1996 Tog, mennesker og miljø i Gamle Oslo – og Norges første lokomotivfører i Mennesker, miljø og kirkeliv i Gamlebyen Oslo Hospital kirke 1796-1996. Gamlebyen historielag.