How they built the Settle-Carlisle railway: A - Foreword and Introduction

Foreword to this extract
By Mark R. Harvey

In 1989, the well-known author W.R. Mitchell published a book entitled “How they built the Settle-Carlisle railway” (published by Castleberg in 1989, reprinted in 2001). The text of this book consists almost entirely of contemporary accounts relating to the construction of the Settle-Carlisle Railway (including the associated Hawes Branch) between 1869 and 1878. These accounts provide a fascinating insight into the construction process and the lives (and deaths) of the construction workers (often referred to as 'navvies') and their families.

On 20th March 2014, Dr Mitchell kindly granted Mark Harvey permission to reproduce these extracts in full and to integrate them into the SCRCA Project database. The extracts have all been uploaded (see the 'Section Menu' below) and they will be integreted into the relevant SCRCA Project pages as and when time permits.

The introduction that follows was written by Nigel Mussett on February 16th 2017 and it explains how he and Dr Mitchell gathered together these contemporary accounts during the 1970s.

I would like to take this opportunity to formally thank both Nigel and Bill for collecting this invaluable material and for permitting me to use it for the SCRCA Project.

Introduction to this extract
By Nigel J. Mussett

W. R. (Bill) Mitchell had a passion for the Settle-Carlisle railway and was particularly fascinated by the legends surrounding the army of navvies who built the line in the period 1869 - 1876 (or 1878 if you include Contract 5 - the Hawes Branch). He was an obvious choice for one to be included on the Centenary Committee, established by the then Settle and District Civic Society in 1973 to plan and coordinate the celebrations leading up to the Centenary of the opening of the line to passengers.

By way of a precursor to the Centenary, it was decided to stage an exhibition at Gallery One in The Shambles in Settle featuring shanty town life and to this end Bill Mitchell, Bill Brocklebank and myself were tasked to provide material for the exhibition. At that stage we only knew of a few first-hand accounts of the construction period and so we decided to examine the contemporary accounts as reported in the local press, a primary source which seemingly had been little researched. The Librarian at Lancaster City Library was particularly helpful in allowing us unhindered access to their bound copies of The Lancaster Guardian and Westmoreland Gazette for the years in question. Permission was also given to us to photocopy relevant pages.

From the regular accounts which reported on the progress of construction, especially along Contract 1 from Settle Junction to Dent Head, we were able to build up a detailed almost week-by-week summary of the railway works. The newspapers also reported other incidents associated with the Settle to Carlisle project such as recreational events in the camps, accidents and criminal activities amongst the navvy community. It seems that local magistrates were kept busy dealing with a wide variety of offences as well as issuing licences to the many landlords who supplied liquor to the navvies.

A small commemorative booklet entitled "The Railway Shanties", devised and written by Bill Mitchell, and summarising our research up to that point, was produced as a souvenir of the exhibition in April 1975. Bill Mitchell and I continued our intensive research for many months after this and in 1976 The Dalesman published our jointly-authored year-by-year account of the construction along the entire line entitled "Seven Years Hard" 1. The title had been taken by courtesy of Peter Baughan from his monumental history "North of Leeds" 2.

Research then continued for several more years, aided by the generous renewal of our British Rail Lineside Passes which enabled us to look more closely still at historical sites as well as examining the flora along the entire length of the line right up to Petterill Bridge Junction.

So far as I remember, neither Bill nor I continued at Lancaster Library after 1976, but Bill continued to use the results of our researches in a number of different forms, one of which was his book entitled “How they built the Settle-Carlisle railway” 3.

Introduction to the printed book
By W.R. Mitchell

When the Settle-Carlisle railway was opened in 1876, a writer in "The Westmorland Gazette" urged his readers to stand back and look at the structures.

"The traveller over the line will miss some of its greatest beauties by his inability to see the bridges and viaducts on which it is carried . . . Nearly all these are remarkable for their great height; and, although they are extremely simple in design, the tapering upwards of their lofty piers adds a very pleasing elegance to their simplicity. They have all been designed by Mr. Crossley and constructed under his immediate superintendence."

This book . . . takes the newspaper scribe's advice. The compiler then rummaged among the records of the 1870s to recreate the story of its construction, using extracts from contemporary reports. Navvies by the thousand were mustered in the north-south valleys of Ribble and Eden, and in the high fell country lying between, and much hard physical toil went into the enterprise. Making the Settle-Carlisle also called for specialists in civil engineering and for equipment that was somewhat more complicated than a shovel. The Settle-Carlisle, being among the last of the great British railways to be built, could benefit from technological advances that had been made since the pioneering days of the 1840s.

Key to contemporary sources

The initials following each extract were in Dr Mitchell's original text and they indicate the contemporary publication from which the text was obtained. The initials have the following meanings:

Chambers's Journal.
Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser.
Lancaster Guardian.
F.S. Williams's "Midland Railway" 1877.
Wildman's Almanac (Settle).
Westmorland Gazette.


1: Mitchell, W.R. & Mussett, N.J.: "Seven Years Hard: Building the Settle - Carlisle Railway", Dalesman Books (1976).

2: Baughan, Peter E.: “North of Leeds: the Leeds-Settle-Carlisle line and its branches”, Roundhouse Books (1966 ), reprinted by David & Charles (1987).

3: Mitchell, W.R.: “How they built the Settle-Carlisle railway”, Castleberg (published 1989, reprinted 2001).

Series Links

The other pages in the series "How they built the Settle-Carlisle railway" can be accessed via the following links:

Section menu for contemporary accounts and memories