A new series, Jericho, is ITV’s replacement for Downton Abbey. Set in the 1870s, the action centres on an isolated shanty town in one of the Yorkshire moors’ valleys.
Thousands of navvies arrived to build the Settle to Carlisle Railway Line and the Ribblehead Viaduct. Navvies got their name as manual workers building the never ending navigations that were the canals.
The shanty town is overlooked by the viaduct its inhabitants have come to work on. The real-life Jericho consisted of two lines of huts and a pub in a rock-roofed hole.
Some 6,000 workers spent seven years building the section of the line shown in the series. No one knows for sure how many died in the process.
The church at the nearby Chapel-le-Dale had conducted an average of three burials a year until construction on the line began. Between May 1870 and May 1878, 247 bodies were interred.
In the 1840s starvation in Ireland and Britain pushed people to work on the lines. A third of navvies were Irish. In the 1870s, farmers displaced from the line and soldiers returning from imperialist wars swelled the ranks of roaming workers.
The experience forged the shape of the British working class. Divide and rule was used to try and undercut wages.
From the 1850s there were repeated attempts to organise unions.
By the end of the century the Navvies’, Bricklayers’ Labourers’ and General Labourers’ Union argued, “The Class War leaves no room for invidious distinctions, craft jealousies, or unorganised forces.
“The workers of each and every occupation must combine or starve.”
The workers of Jericho haven’t got organised yet.
But in one refreshing move for a costume drama, Jericho has black actors in it. Ralph Coates (Clarke Peters) is the new American foreman. The character is based on a real navvy, a man called Six-fingered Jack.
The eight-part serial is photographed with an epic eye. It emphasises the emptiness of the land.
A good Western theme fills that land, with men and women inventing and enforcing their own rules.
And the Wild West/Yorkshire conceit is fine—the problem may be the curse of the bad Western stereotypes.
Jericho is in its early stage but there is little nuance in the characters.
We were introduced to—the proper widow, the decent chancer, the benevolent drunk, the evil drunk, the madam with a heart.
We were simpler folk 150 years ago apparently. There was a bit too much of every sentence starting “reckon”, to remind you it was in t’north. And building a Victorian viaduct is a remarkably clean affair.
But the story of those who built the infrastructure of Britain is worth telling. Whether Jericho will do their story justice is so far unclear.