During half term, I visited Ribblehead viaduct, a crucial section of the Settle-Carlisle railway in the beautiful yet unforgiving North Yorkshire landscape. I have often visited this impressive structure as much of my family live in surrounding areas, however this time, I was inspired to research how such a remarkable thing was built and what life was like there deep in the Victorian era.
Designed by John Sydney Crossley, the viaduct stretched the Settle and Carlisle railway across the Batty Moss. In the 1860s, the route to Scotland from the Midlands relied on using the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) lines from neighbouring village Ingleton into Carlisle. However, the LNWR refused to allow the Midlands trains to run on their lines, and instead insisted that passengers on these trains had to disembark at a station at the end of Ingleton viaduct and walk over a mile to the next station to embark the remainder of their journey on an LNWR train. Disapproving of this unreasonable arrangement, the Midlands decided to create their own route to Scotland via Carlisle but needed to suspend the tracks over the massively boggy and uneven terrain surrounded by the 3 peaks mountains, now known as the Batty Moss, creating Ribblehead Viaduct.
By July 1870, foundation excavation was underway. At this time, very little construction equipment beyond pickaxes and shovels were invented. Other equipment was unstable; gunpowder used for blasting, and wooden cranes were both dangerous. The risky construction claimed the lives of over 100 men and injured multiple others. Several shanty towns were established around the construction site on the unrelenting moorland, which housed between 1000 to 2000 navvies (railway builders) who helped construct the viaduct. These towns were given evocative names; Sebastopol and Inkerman, in reference to the Crimean War, Biblical names such as Jerusalem and Jordan, and Jericho, inspiring ITVs period drama which casts light on the workers who endured the back-breaking tasks and ruthless conditions. It is centred on the “community that will live, thrive and die in the shadow of the viaduct they’ve been brought together to build”. These towns also accommodated a small hospital, shops of various tradespeople, a post office, a public house and day and Sunday school. Although this may sound almost idyllic, the area was consistently desolate and bleak, and many men agreed they were in “one of the wildest, windiest, coldest and dearest localities’ in the world”.
Thanks to the 1871 census (which occurred in the very early days of construction), we know there were 74 buildings there with a population of 342. Labourers and their families travelled from far and wide- 34 different countries of origin are listed on the census. Since construction took approximately six years, the population grew to around 2000 at its peak. Not only did people lose their lives during the perilous building, an outbreak of smallpox also affected many lives.
The viaduct now stands proudly at over 400 metres long, and 32 metres (104 feet) tall, following a lateral curve, convex on the west, with 24 arches each spanning 13.7 metres. It is built of limestone masonry, some of the blocks weighing 8 tonnes, and used in total 1.5 million bricks.
Overall, I find it incredibly impressive that such a structure was built with such little equipment; the men who worked on the viaduct were unbelievably brave, and what was been built is striking.