Ribblehead Viaduct – the human story

The sun over Ribblehead Viaduct.

The sun breaks through over the Ribblehead Viaduct. Photo by chantrybee.

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.

Batty Moss

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.

  1. Pete Fawcett
    Pete FawcettJanuary 4,16

    This is a very good description of events surrounding the building of the railway. It is amazing it’s taken until now for it to come into the wider public domain. There isn’t a lot of publicc records about this subject. But I am sure there is more to be found. In newspaper reports, archives and bits and pieces jut waiting to be found. Nice photo. Pete.

    • yorkshire dales trail
      yorkshire dales trailJanuary 5,16

      Thanks, Pete. It is a great story around a marvelous piece of engineering, albeit with a staggering toll in human lives and injuries. And it is a great photo but I cannot take credit for it. That goes to ‘chantrybee’ on Flickr who kindly made it available under the creative commons license.

  2. Pete Fawcett
    Pete FawcettJanuary 4,16

    I see the ITV series baced on Ribblehead begins on January , 7th 2016.

    • yorkshire dales trail
      yorkshire dales trailJanuary 5,16

      I wasn’t aware of a new TV series based on Ribblehead but I will certainly check that out. Cheers.

  3. mick green
    mick greenJanuary 14,16

    good report, life was cheap then ? shocking number of deaths

  4. Liz and Paul Scott, Kenya
    Liz and Paul Scott, KenyaFebruary 6,16

    We are watching an exciting series called Jericho on ITV choice, the first episode tonight 6th Feb. 2016. It is on DSTV. We are sure it must be about Ribblehead Viaduct but there is very little info. That is why we appreciate this article about it. We have visited it twice when visiting the UK.

    • yorkshire dales trail
      yorkshire dales trailFebruary 10,16

      Hi Liz and Paul. Thanks for visiting my site and for the comment. Jericho is, indeed, a story around the building of the Ribblehead Viaduct, named Culverdale Viaduct in the series, I understand. I missed the first episode but will certainly try to find it.

  5. Catherine Rose Slater
    Catherine Rose SlaterSeptember 24,17

    I have just finished watching the TV series Jericho I’m looking forward to visiting the Ribblhead Viaduct area enjoyed reading your article about it. It must have been A horrendous lifestyle for everyone who worked and lived there.

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