Ribblehead Viaduct – the human story
I’ve been researching the Ribblehead Viaduct and the Settle to Carlisle Railway line for the section on Ribblesdale. It’s a fascinating story but what intrigues me most is not so much the statistics – how many miles of track there are, how many viaducts, the number of tunnels dug through the Pennine hills, the huge workforce – 6,000 people – or the 7 years to complete the line.
What really interests me is the human drama behind the construction. What do I mean?
Big company rivalry
Well, first there was the Board Room battles. On one side, the ambitious Midland Railway Company, determined to expand their market by offering their customers a route up to Scotland. On the other, the London and North West Railway Company, one of the main players in the lucrative Anglo-Scottish market, owner of the main East Coast line to Carlisle.
Phrases like the LNWR being ‘unhelpful’ to the Midland as they tried to move their passengers beyond Ingleton, the Company’s northern-most station, must hide a wealth of spats between the companies. I wonder how much the travelling public suffered. Possibly not much, but I suspect there was a good deal of uncooperative behaviour between the staff of the rival companies, with furious letters and meetings at all levels of management, with the LNWR finding all sorts of ways to make life difficult for the competitor trying to muscle into their territory.
A change in strategy
By 1865 the Board of the Midland had enough. A new strategy was devised. They would build their own line, and it would go through one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Thus their passengers would enjoy not only a fast route north, but also the visually stunning Yorkshire Dales and Cumbrian countryside together with the drama of viaducts passing over glacial valleys and tunnels blasted through the huge Pennines.
That decision, however, had far-reaching consequences not only for the company but for all those people who were to be involved in the construction work – the 2nd human element of this story.
Work on the line started in 1869. The first stone was laid on the longest viaduct, across Batty Moor (now Ribblehead), in October 1870. At the peak of activity, some 2,000 men worked on this viaduct. And hundreds died during the 4 years it took to complete the engineering marvel. Hundreds! This was a construction, as was the whole line, built almost entirely by men without the assistance of machinery.
Imagine the scene. Wooden scaffolding surrounding the growing columns, intertwined with ladders, hundreds of men climbing like ants over structures, pulleys slung at all points, men dragging on ropes, buckets swinging, stones being faced, cement being mixed in vast quantities, the deafening hubbub of men shouting, hammers on stone and orders being barked.
On the moor below, the growing shanty town of Batty Moss created it’s own sounds and smells. The area became large enough to support schools, a hospital, post office, library, shops, mission houses, schools and public houses. So, there must have been women in the village and children too.
The hospital would have been over-worked, that’s for sure. Fatalities, during the building work on the railway, was put in the hundreds and disease was rife. The vast majority of the deaths occurred on the Ribblehead Viaduct over a 4 year period. I haven’t found out exactly how many died but ‘hundreds’ would mean a minimum of 200 deaths over 4 years, 50 a year, 1 a week. My guess is that the actual figure was much higher.
Compare this with the building of, say, the famous Golden Gate Bridge in California which was built over 4 years from 1933-37. 11 workers died.
Many of the ‘navvies’ on the viaduct died while at work, in falls and other terrible industrial accidents. It was highly dangerous work. But to make matters worse there were deadly outbreaks of smallpox and regular fights which sometimes ended in death.
So, when visiting Ribblehead, walking past the towering, gray structure or rattling over it on the train, spare a thought for those tough 19th century men who, in chasing a living, risked life and limb for us to enjoy the fruits of their labours. The Churchyard at nearby Chapel-le-Dale had to be extended to accommodate those for whom the gamble failed.