Read the story of how the Canal & River Trust came to be
Work for us
We have vacancies across all of our waterways and in the offices, museums and attractions that support them. We're one of the UK's biggest charities and we take pride in everything we do
If you're thinking of getting in touch then please take a moment to look through these pages as we probably have the answer on our website
Planning & design
All you need to know about planning and design on our canals and rivers
Find a winter mooring
Find a cosy section of canal to hunker down in this winter
10 reasons to take up canoeing
It's a great way to get fit and explore our waterways at the same time
Share the Space
Take a look at our common sense guide to sharing the towpath
Find a place to fish
From reservoirs to club-managed canals and river stretches - find your nearest place to fish
Get your free guide
Download your free guide today and start exploring the waterway nature near you
Download your free guides
You've nine free days out guides to choose from - where will you go first?
Find a walk near you
Are you ready to ramble? Find a waterside stroll or a satisfying hike along our beautiful canals and rivers
Take a look at our upcoming events here.
Find your favourite waterway
With over 95 canals, rivers, reservoirs, docks and navigations, find out more about your favourite waterway
Something for everyone
Help us make a difference and have fun along the way. Find your perfect volunteer role today
Join our team
Could you join your local Towpath Taskforce team and help us to keep our canals looking lovely?
Desmond Family Canoe Trail
If you're aged 16-25 and would like to get involved with this exciting project, please get in touch
Could you be a volunteer lock keeper?
Find out what's involved with this popular volunteering opportunity
We love and care for your canals and rivers, because everyone deserves a place to escape.
While the great canal engineers have their place in history, Abigail Whyte celebrates the navigators who made their vision possible.
Our work is hard and dangers are always nearAnd lucky are we if safely through life we steer;But still the life of a navvy with its many changes of scene,With a dear old wife, is just the life,That suits old Nobby Green.
from History of the Ship Canal Vol 2 by Sir Bosdin Leech (1907)
Work for a navvy was hard indeed; shifting tons of soil and rock day in, day out, cutting their way through the earth with the simplest of tools and the hardiest of spirit. While Thomas Telford, William Jessop and James Brindley can be admired for their revolutionary vision, it's to the hardy navvy we owe our gratitude for the thousands of miles of waterway we enjoy today.
In the days before canals, many of our inland rivers were used to transport raw materials, such as coal, limestone and timber. These stretches of navigable river were known as navigations. Engineering work was undertaken to improve the navigability of these rivers and when commercial canals began to be constructed in the 1700s, the men who built them were known as navigators. Over time this was shortened to navvies.
Their work involved literally cutting their way through the earth creating channels, using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Once a canal channel, or 'cut', had been dug, the navvies then lined it with 'puddle' (compressed wet clay) to make it watertight and they'd pack it down hard by driving sheep and cattle down the canal.
In the early days of canal building, many navvies were local farm labourers, no stranger to hard toil but unaccustomed to the mammoth task of moving enormous amounts of earth and blasting solid rock with dynamite. It was dangerous work resulting in serious injury, loss of limbs and even death. The Marple Aqueduct in Greater Manchester alone cost seven lives.
Experienced excavators were a valuable commodity, sought after for their skills all over the country. But their nomadic lifestyle occasionally earned them an unsavoury reputation. In many cases they were put up in temporary ramshackle accommodation near their work site, living on the fringes of society, drinking heavily and clashing with the local community.
One famous band of navvies were the Whixall Moss Gang, the longest serving group of navvies in history, employed to work on the same stretch of the Llangollen Canal from 1804 right up until the 1960s. Their job was to continually build up the canal banks along the Whixall Moss stretch to maintain sufficient freeboard (distance between the water and top of the bank). They worked a 48-hour week in all weather.
This continuous work in one location was a rarity among the habitually-wandering navvies and when the birth of the railways dawned on British soil, many of these hardened labourers lent their muscle to building the rail tracks that stoked the fire of the Industrial Revolution, formerly kindled by the canal system. The labour involved in constructing these railways was just as back-breaking and dangerous, if not more so.
But it was the canal builder that was the original navvy. Next time you're enjoying a leisurely cruise or stroll along your local canal, spare a thought for old Nobby Green and his pick axe and shovel. It was tough, sinewy folk like him that made it all possible.
Tunnels, cuttings and more
The navvies are responsible for many of our most amazing Places to visit
Explore your hidden world
There's a hidden world of canal history just waiting to be discovered
You're reading Waterfront, the online home of our supporters magazine. If you want to be the first to find out about out latest news and features then become a Friend of the Trust. We'll send you regular emails telling you all about our colourful canals and rivers and much more.
Become a Friend today