The edible dead
The glory that was York
Town of tin
Editor Simon Denison
Town of tin
Bill Bevan explores the ghostly remains of a Peak District navvy-settlement, which was designed for workmen employed to build two dams in the early 20th century
The Upper Derwent is one of the majestic valleys of the northern Peak District, located where the gruff gritstone shoulders of the southern Pennines are carved deep by the River Derwent. For over a century it has been a popular destination for walkers and tourists. Most are attracted to the apparent 'wilderness' of the conifer-skirted high moorlands or to gentle rambles around the three reservoirs, taking in views of the Derwent and Howden dams which dominate the valley with their Gothic style towers.
The road along the western side of Howden Reservoir is particularly popular, shaded by mixed-wood plantations which are particularly evocative in autumn when the spruce and beech turn many hues of yellow and orange. Birdcalls and grazing sheep add to this tranquil, rural scene.
Few people realise, however, that amongst the trees survive the shadows of a remarkable early 20th century village which was home to over 2,500 people and that the road they are on was once a bustling high street.
On first glance these traces are difficult to discern and easily overlooked, the trees effectively camouflaging the subtle and even not so subtle structures. Some of these, such as the huge earthen terraces which were created as level foundations for the whole of the settlement, are so big that they are often assumed to be part of the 'natural' surrounding landscape. Smaller remains - the shallow depressions, concrete floors and brick fireplace foundations which represent the traces of buildings - are difficult to see because they are easily masked by vegetation. Even the two main streets are hidden under the present metalled valley road and a dirt forestry track.
Through systematic survey of these remains the Peak District National Park Authority has rediscovered the site, the ghost town of Birchinlee, which was home to the navvies who built those dams between 1901 and 1914. What is remarkable is that so much survives of a village comprising corrugated iron and weatherboard buildings which was only occupied for 14 years.
How effectively hidden yet well-preserved the site was is highlighted two 'finds' during the survey. When dirt of the forestry track was removed the well-preserved gritstone cobbled street was exposed underneath. Similarly when rhododendron bushes standing next to the road were cut back, a 3m-deep stone-lined hollow with a doorway was rediscovered which turned out to be the beer cellar of Derwent Canteen. Even the forestry manager responsible for the site for the past 40 years knew nothing of each site.
Almost the whole of the village's layout can now be reconstructed from the results of the survey and a unique archive of contemporary photographs held by a retired pharmacology professor, Brian Robinson, whose mother was born at Birchinlee and who this year published a history of the settlement (Memories of Tin Town: the Navvy Village of Birchinlee and its People, Northend, 2001).
Birchinlee, known locally as Tin Town because of the corrugated iron, was built by the Derwent Valley Water Board as a result of two intertwined late 19th century social developments. One was the idea of 'model settlements', which were built by more philanthropic employers such as Cabdury and Lever to produce better-motivated and efficient workers through well-organised social surroundings. The other was public concern over the poor welfare and lax morality of navvies resulting from poor working and living conditions.
Homes for workers
By the late 19th century, the directors of major construction projects were required by law to provide adequate accommodation, health care, spiritual and other services for their workers. This was the result of the raising of public awareness of the living conditions of navvies at a much more notorious construction site in the middle of the century. The scant archaeological remains of the workings of the Woodhead railway tunnel, situated high in the Pennines just north of the Upper Derwent, indicate how bad conditions were. In 1846, following a campaign of public information generated by social reformers, a parliamentary select committee was called in to investigate and found epidemics of cholera and dysentery, insanitary conditions and poor or non-existent accommodation, no adequate health care, and other forms of exploitation. The numbers dying or injured from accidents and disease was so high that one parliamentary observer likened the scale of casualties to the results of a small battle.
The Select Committee recommended that the living conditions of navvies should be adequately provided for. This was not only seen as a welfare issue but also as a civilising act in much the same way as missionary work to Britain's recently acquired colonies. As a social group, navvies had come into existence at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, first building the canals and turnpikes of the 18th century, then the railways, dams and other large constructions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As a result of their itinerant nature, navvies were perceived as being morally adrift Ð stories of drinking, brawling and womanising being widespread Ð and a threat to communities living near where navvies were at work. Social reformers believed that carefully designed settlements would curb many of these excesses, help to civilise the navvy and improve his workrate.
The Derwent and Howden dams project had the provision of workers' housing included in its Parliamentary Act of Consent and the resulting Derwent Valley Water Board appears to have carried out its obligations with energy and efficiency. Tin Town was built on farmland above the projected high-water level of Derwent Reservoir at a location midway between the two dams and close to a water supply. It was laid out on planned, formal lines based both on functional engineering grounds and the belief that settlement organisation could improve morals and behaviour. The Board attempted to recreate, on a much smaller scale, the well-known model settlements at Bourneville and Port Sunlight. Housing comprised dormitories for single men, smaller huts for married men with families and separate huts for foremen all arranged in formal rows separated by trackways. The mass of accommodation was for single men and this was grouped into two main regimented blocks at the southern and northern ends of the settlement. The earlier practice of using the gang-foremen as hut-keepers was dropped to avoid bullying and favouritism, and subsequently foremen were provided with separate dormitories, one of which was located conveniently to overlook the village coal store. Along the west of the village were the married quarters, the buildings opening onto their own streets and so partly secluded from the single men's dormitories.
Because the buildings were constructed from 'temporary' materials the traces that survive are scant. Their archaeological footprints comprise shallow hollows and low-lying supports created to raise the buildings above the ground surface and therefore represent only the partial outlines of the original buildings. Interestingly the original plans show the buildings supported and made level by brick piles grounded in the sloping valley side. This design was obviously rethought because the survey identified three huge terraces running along the contour one above the other to create level ground, in itself a massive engineering task.
The range of services provided for the village was impressive. There was a school and mission room, post office, shops, drinking canteen, bath-house, recreation hall, a police station with a cell, and garden allotments. Two hospital huts Ð for infectious diseases and accidents Ð cared for the sick. Industrial accidents suffered by Tin Town residents included falling off the dams, collision with trains, rockfalls and similar disasters, but only about 15 workmen were killed over the 14 years of construction compared to nearly 40 on similar works at the Woodhead railway a few decades earlier.
Water was piped from a small reservoir created by damming Bank Clough, waste was incinerated and sewage disposed into a treatment plant through covered drains. Ironically, some of the most prominent remains today are those of the outside toilets. Originally hidden behind the backs of the dormitories, their stone-revetted platforms stand out near to the road and were the main feature which visitors identified while we were working on the survey.
The architecturally impressive recreation hall Ð a single-storey building, like the others at Tin Town, but with a high pitched roof with decorated gables and a small tower Ð was placed at the physical centre of the village and was conceived as the social centre. It was surrounded by a sort of village square and most of the shops, the post office and the bath-house, so its very presence would have symbolised the community cohesion of the settlement. Immediately up-slope from the hall was the school, another impressive building, with the schoolmaster's house next door.
The canteen proved the most controversial of all the facilities provided for the village. It was a bar which was purportedly provided to balance temperance with the navvies' need for a drink after work. The first landlord attempted to uphold sobriety by limiting the number of drinks a navvy could have, but was harassed so much that he quickly left. The second landlord read the situation much better after being thrown out of his own canteen for refusing to serve a drunken navvy. After that the canteen became a dedicated drinking hall, much to the annoyance of the local temperance society. Its own railway platform (served by the line taking construction materials up to the dam), a deep-cut rolling-way to facilitate moving beer barrels into the cellar, and the cellar itself all survive in good condition. The canteen seems to have been popular enough to warrant two phases of expansion, marked by surviving lynchets and wall foundations outlining the original and later buildings.
To the south were the police station and policeman's house, village inspector's house and the missioner's house. The original construction plan of Tin Town show these houses distributed through the centre of the village near to the married quarters. However, the survey identified their foundations in a group on the southern edge of the village Ð based mainly on contemporary photographic evidence creating a mini-suburbia for the 'officers' of the village. Not only did this create a physical and social separation from the navvies but also placed the police station at a strategic location overlooking the approach road to the village, ensuring that all visitors could be monitored from within.
One event that, on the face of it, seems to indicate the social success of the village was the conversion of the police cell into accommodation from lack of use. However, all societies define and deal with crime in their own way. At Tin Town the village policeman recorded how he sorted out brawls in the canteen by taking the combatants to a nearby field to finish it off without injury to others.
Tin Town certainly is an unusual archaeological site but it is not unique. Navvy settlements have entered into local folklore, with many reservoirs and railways having their own 'tin towns' known to local residents. A small number have now been surveyed, as archaeologists come to realise the value of the remains of our more recent past. As well as Birchinlee these include part of the Woodhead Tunnel site and that of the Montgomeryshire Canal, Wales. However, the locations of many dating from the early days of the Industrial Revolution through to the 20th century lie unrecognised, hidden by vegetation and forgotten.
ACCIDENTS AT WORK
While industrial accidents were much rarer on the Derwent and Howden dams than earlier big construction projects, they still occurred and were meticulously recorded by the Derwent Valley Water Board.
On 25th January 1908, a man known by the name of John Smith, a navvy employed on the waterworks, was walking through a tunnel in the Howden Dam, when he was overtaken by a locomotive, knocked down and severely injured in the legs, body and head. Help came quickly but he died before reaching the hospital. The inquest was held at the Recreation Hall where evidence of identification was given by a Mrs Ashby, of Walkley, near Sheffield, who said the deceased was her husband whom she had not seen for 12 years. His name was Ashby, not Smith.
On 15th October 1908, a mason named Preece was working at a stone a few feet from the north side of the dam. Despite seeing that a stone was being lifted near him, he walked directly underneath it when it slipped out of the nips and fell, killing him.
On 16th February 1910, a workman named Albert Wilson was walking along the railway to join his gang who were commencing work at 2pm. He had a dog with him, and just as an engine with wagons was passing, the dog ran between the rails, and Wilson, in attempting to save it, was killed.
On 15th November 1910, Thomas Viner, a labourer employed by the stone crushers, took a short-cut on his way to the latrine. He climbed some fencing, slipped off a plank and fell against the flywheel of the stone crusher. His head was badly injured by the machine and death immediately followed. (BB)
Bill Bevan surveyed the site of Tin Town for the Peak District National Park Authority Archaeology Service with assistance from Landward Archaeology.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005