Commemorating the Unknown Navvy

Last week difficulties on the railway line found me spending rather a lot of time at Gerrards Cross station, where I spotted the chap pictured here.

A bit of research told me that it was a statue commissioned in the 1980s to commemorate the “Unknown Navvy” – it stands for all the people, particularly men, who built the railways. The idea of an Unknown Navvy is reminiscent of the Unknown Soldier, and perhaps reflects that fact that many people throughout history have died while building the fundamental infrastructures that we rely on today. There’s also something in there about celebrating the “Common Man” who so often goes unremembered.

When you contrast the Unknown Navvy with the more common commemorations of the great engineers that can be found at railway stations, there are some common themes to draw out. Samuel Smiles was a widely read biographer of the early engineers Рand he promoted some of the attributes that we now think of as stereotyping engineers. They were hard working, self-starting and often self taught ordinary men.

In most cases they had to make for themselves a way; for there was none to point out the road, which until then had not been travelled.

(Smiles, S. 1861. Lives of the Engineers. Vol. 1 London: John Murray p2.)

Smiles did have a vested interest in pushing these virtues and highlighting their success – he had also published a very successful Self-Help book, but whatever his motivations he was very influential in shaping the sense of what an engineer is. They were people who typically earned a position in society, rather than already starting in a position of privilege.

For a long time in this country engineers have tried to dismiss their ‘oily rag’ image. Unfortunately historically we’ve spent a long time writing biographies of great engineers who started out brandishing their oily rags and climbing, through hard work and perseverance, up from there. It’s doubtful how truthful this image is, particularly when we look at the motivations of the authors in question, but stories have power and the weight of history can be a hard thing to shake off.

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