Sheviock and the shock of the excavators

Sheviock is a small and relatively obscure parish on the coast of south-east Cornwall. Undisturbed by the main currents of history, it relied on farming for centuries before tourists and second homes began to infiltrate its quiet villages and hamlets. However, in 1861 it was probably a lot livelier than nowadays.

The largest occupational group in that year was, as expected, engaged in farming and farm labouring, which accounted for almost a third of men of working age. But Sheviock was more diverse than many other farming parishes. The usual quota of craftsmen was present, as well as some fishermen and mariners with a good number of men employed in brick making. More strikingly, the second largest group comprised 35 excavators and railway labourers, who made up 15 per cent of the parish’s labour force. Excavators, more often known as navvies, were simply labourers digging out the ground for construction works. The presence of the railway labourers suggests this was related to ongoing work on the new Cornwall Railway line, which was actually just over the parish boundary to the north.

Who were these labourers who had temporarily boosted the population of the parish in 1861 by 17 per cent? The stereotype involves hard-drinking single and footloose men from far afield descending on a locality to the horror of the inhabitants. In reality, 14 of the 35 excavators and railway labourers in Sheviock had been born in Cornwall, almost all of them local to south-east Cornwall. Six of the rest hailed from Devon while the other 15 came from a variety of places from Yorkshire to Ireland to Norfolk.

Age distribution of Sheviock’s navvies in 1861. The median age was 28.

Just over a half of them were married or widowed, with all the railway labourers married men. The latter were also noticeably older than the excavators. Most of the railway labourers were in their 30s, while half of the excavators, more likely to have been taken on temporarily, were in their 20s. the youngest was 17, the oldest 56.

One of the four Sheviock children in our database had a connection with this temporary influx of workers. Benjamin Rockett had been a shoemaker, originally from Devonport but in 1851 living in Liskeard. He seems to have moved back to Plymouth but then been attracted to labour on the railway and he and his family had moved to Sheviock.

One of his daughters was Elizabeth, born in 1850. She married John Hornbrook in 1869. John was from Antony in east Cornwall, but after their son was born the couple moved to London where John joined the metropolitan police. Elizabeth’s stay in London was short, as she died in Hackney in 1874, aged just 24.

Railway workers in 1906 demolishing a bridge at Saltash, up the line from Sheviock

One thought on “Sheviock and the shock of the excavators

  1. I never knew what navvies meant – thought it was a name for people in the navy – so thank you so much. The link is amazingly interesting, a tremendous read. It is really scandelous that Brunel and co cared nothing for the rights of their workers and only their name and their glory remains. Reminds me of a wonderful poem by Berthold Brecht.


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