The Infamous ‘Navvy’

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The infamous navvy
The three areas that formed our ‘Old East Leeds’ (and still do) are: Cross Green, Richmond Hill and East End Park. These three areas are neatly divided into three by two great gashes of railway cuttings. To the north dividing East End Park from the other two is the main Leeds/Selby railway line.

‘click’ on pictures to enlarge.


Built originally as long ago as the 1840s it was so deep that it was firstly built into a tunnel – one of the first tunnels to admit passenger traffic. Later it was opened up to an eighty foot plus cutting with six bridges of varying types. When you look over the retaining walls you see a 60 degree slope followed by a fifty foot vertical drop, with express trains shooting along the bottom. This was far too dangerous for even our notorious local nutters to contemplate a descent. But it did not deter them racing across the bridge parapets on the way to the Princess Cinema, one on one parapet at one side of the road and another on the parapet at the other side, when a fall would have surely meant certain death. The thought of it makes you cringe. Sensibly they have now put pointed top stones on the wall to render this practice impracticable.
I have been told, although I cannot authenticate this, that a guy being pursued thought vaulting over the bridge wall – thinking it was just a common or garden wall – would facilitate his escape. Some say his fall was fatal others that he only broke his legs and his back (only!)

The other cutting built in 1899, which spurred off the main line at Neville Hill and ran on between the Glencoe’s and the Fewston’s on one side and the Copperfield’s, Cross Green’s and St Hilda’s on the other side, on to Hunslet Goods Yard and then over the hills and far away to join the main London line. This cutting was colloquially and affectionately known as ‘The Navvy’. The Navvy at about fifty feet deep was still dangerous but not as deadly as the Selby line cutting, you would be maimed rather than killed should you fall all the way down unless you fell from a bridge, then you would be surely killed. But like all dangerous places it attracted us lads like a magnet and provided an adventure playground for us. It had five bridges with brick parapets and one – the one that allowed the paddy train to traverse across The Navvy to disgorge its coal at the coal staithe in Easy Road – this bridge had metal, horizontal, rail barriers that daredevils including sometimes girls, would dangle over and use as a trapeze. Not unnaturally, this acquired the name ‘The Monkey Bridge’
It became a sort of badge of courage to at least once descend the Navvy and stand on the lines (not many trains came along this cutting). Yes, I have my own virtual badge. The beauty of The Navvy was they were a number of quite easy descents that had developed names, Ginner Rock, The Town Hall Steps if you could get down the first vertical twenty feet in some places you could hurtle down the last part on screed. One descent, a bit more dangerous, was ‘The Devils Drop’ on the Glencoe side of The Navvy. This one meant you had to descend with your back to one wall and your legs to the other side like descending a chimney. Some got into more mischief by pinching the wooden blocks that secured the rails for their bonfires. The Glencoe kids had a game where they set a can on the line and then fished for it from a bridge with a magnet on a long string. Of course there were many cases of broken arms, shoulders and legs; lads would usually tell their mams they had done it in some other way as nobody was allowed to officially play in ‘The Navvy’.
The construction of these two great gashes into East Leeds has long past living memory and all is calm again but can you imagine the disruption to life in the area when they were under constructed, the deep cuttings being dug out by hundreds of navvies (I suppose that’s how our navvy got its name?) and carted away by horse and cart. Where did they all live for those years while the digging was going on and where did all the spoil go? I suppose it’s lucky that with railways no sooner is a cutting completed than they come to a place where the railway needs the spoil to construct an embankment.

The Devil’s Drop


There is a famous tale – which I know to be true – that one daring but foolhardy lad, David Wilson, jumped all the way down The Navvy for a bet – I think it was near to the old Bridgefield Hotel – for a bet, six pence and some comics. He broke his arm and to add to the chagrin it is said that he didn’t get the sixpence or the comics but he got much more, he is remembered as a legend – look I am writing about him here although David is long gone from this world, how much is that worth, to be a legend? If you’re looking down, Dave, congratulations you jumped the navvy, you’re a legend!
The Navvy is still there, old East Leedsers come back to look down and remember their daring doo’s. The ‘Town Hall Steps and Ginner Rock’ are overgrown now; no lads climb down there today. ‘elf and safety have now totally encased the Navvy and the bridge parapets with great pointed metal railings that would probably damage a lad more than the Navvy itself.
But this only emphasises the great freedoms we had in the forties and fifties that are denied to our counterparts today. Now they have only virtual adventures on iPods and Xboxes!

See also March 2014 ‘The Glencoe Railway Children’.

Happy New Year to all our readers.

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3 Responses to “The Infamous ‘Navvy’”

  1. Doug Farnill Says:

    Thanks Peter, I think you should strike a medal, issue one to yourself, for having dared the Navvy, and award others to all those who earned them by their daring. Posthumous ones too, for those who have led the way. Much less exciting, at the end of our street, Glensdale Terrace, was “the Railway Wall”, constructed out of big bluestone blocks with a coping stone on top, which guarded the main NE line. We were allowed to climb up the wall (about 4-5 feet in those days) to look over to do our trainspotting, but we were forbidden to drop over onto the other side which had a narrow bit of flat before the cavernous drop to the railway lines. I did not earn a medal, never ventured onto the lines, always being a bit of a coward when it came to heights, but I did venture over the wall onto the flat bit a few times. As a 6 or 7 year old kid at the time, I was always fearful that a policeman would come and knock on our door because someone had shopped me. Happy New Year to all, and thank you Peter for this monthly reminder of the good old days.

  2. Eric Says:

    This great yarn is sure to bring back memories to many of sorties into the “Navvy” & even the “Cut”
    Our usual entry & exit was from the Bridgefield car Park , alongside the bridge which , as you said, involved slithering down the last few yards of a well worn path. Just at the bottom, there under the bridge was a small pond which was home to a number of red bellied newts which were a little bit of a novelty.
    It was also possible to slither into the Leeds/Selby cutting close to the bridge on East Park Parade , at least from the East Park Road side , not so sure about the Pontefract Lane side.
    Oddly enough , I don’t remember names being given to the various access points , where were Ginner Rock & The Town Hall Steps ?.
    My guess is that they were further down towards Cross Green.
    Neither do I recollect the Bridgefield access point having a name.
    Good start to the New Year Pete

  3. Edward Blackwell Says:

    Thanks Pete another great tale, I remember the coal staithe on Easy Road and had many visits to the East Road Picture house, I had an Auntie who lived on Clarke Row, and one of our Daughters lived in the Copperfield’s area for a spell, and the end of her street overlooked the old Paddy line. I’m familiar with the Bridgefield Pub and the Paddy Train, but I lived in the the East End Park area of East Leeds, and the Cuttings you refer to were more in the Cross Green area, so I’m not familiar with the Monkey Bridge and the Navvy, however I did find the details very interesting, and I can visualise the area from the map and the details. I take my hat off to all the lads who braved the Navvy. Be interesting to find out what still exists in that area, I’ll probably finish up on the motorway to Sheffield as I did last time I tried to navigate down there.

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