British Foreign Policy 1815-65

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The Crimean Railway

Instead of attacking Sevastopol while it was still weak, the British and French commanders decided to make a camp at Balaclava from which to launch a siege of the city and fort. The Allied armies arrived at Balaclava on 26 September 1854 and the first bombardment of Sevastopol took place on 17 October.

The British camp was seven miles from the harbour at Balaclava and there was only one road between the two places. After the British army had stripped the countryside bare of firewood and food, everything was brought from the ships in the harbour, to the camp. This also included artillery shells, ammunition and other supplies. The path - it could hardly be called a road - was not wide enough to allow the passage of carts so everything had to be carried by pack animals or men. As the weather worsened, so the surface of the path deteriorated until eventually it became virtually unusable. The storms in November merely compounded an already poor situation.

Men starved; horses starved. Supplies were slow to arrive at the camp and the great storm of 14 November 1854 made conditions unbearable. The total lack of winter clothing and huts, the inefficiency of the commissariat and the appalling conditions made defeat of the British army highly likely. Into this disastrous situation stepped unlikely "knights in shining armour": three railway contractors - Brassey, Peto and Betts.

Sir Morton Peto, by this time an MP with all the "right connections" announced that a railway was needed to connect the port of Balaclava with the military camp. Brassey, Peto and Betts offered to build the railway at cost price and to supply all that was necessary in terms of men and materials for the building and running of it. Their offer was accepted by the government, on the understanding that all the railway personnel were civilians and would not come under military authority.

The advertisement for men appeared on Saturday 2 December. So many men applied for work that the employers were able to be very selective about those whom they chose; all the vacancies were filled by the end of Monday 4 December. Brassey, Peto and Betts took on

250 platelayers, navvies and miners  
practical assistant engineers
10 gangers  
Chief Engineer (a man called Beattie)
20 bricklayers/rough masons      


carpenters' foremen

Also employed for the benefit of the workers were
10 enginemen and fitters  
4 timekeepers   1 Scripture reader
1 Chief Clerk      
1 draftsman     Source: Terry Coleman, The Railway Navvies (Pimlico, 2000)

Many of the men who were employed on the Crimean railway had already worked for Peto or Brassey in Canada or on the Grand Trunk Railway so they had first-hand experience of working in adverse weather conditions. They needed that: the winter in the Crimea was killing soldiers and the pack animals faster than any weaponry that the enemy could use. The newly employed railway builders were offered a high rate of pay: 5/- to 8/- a day, depending on the job, with all food and clothing provided. The return passage to the Crimea was also provided by the employers.

The plan was to build a double line of track from Balaclava harbour to the camp seven miles away on the Heights; from there, there would be single tracks laid to each of the batteries which had been established. Four or five stationary engines were to be used to pull the trucks, using wire ropes for the task.

On 21 December 1854, some 54 railway builders sailed from Birkenhead for the Crimea on board the Wildfire. The employers had bought and fitted out the ship with cabins and berths for their workers. Four ships were bought for the dangerous job of taking men and materials to the Crimea; Peto's "North of Europe Steam Navigation Company" loaned a further 19 ships for the job.

Each man was issued with the following items:

painted bag  
pair of long waterproof boots
painted suit  
pair of fisherman's boots
coloured cotton shirts  
pair of linsey drawers
flannel shirt (red)  
blue cravat
flannel shirt (white)  
blue worsted cravat
flannel belt  
pair of leggings
pair of moleskin trousers  
pair of boots
moleskin vest lined with serge  
strap and buckle
"fear-nought" slop (fearnought was a thick woollen fabric; "slop" was ready-made clothing)  
bed and pillow
pair of mittens  
woollen coat
rug and blanket  
pair of grey stockings
pair of blankets  
lbs of tobacco
        Source: Terry Coleman, The Railway Navvies (Pimlico, 2000)

So much for the men and their safety and comfort. There were also the materials to be shipped to the Crimea, for the building of the railway. These comprised

1,800 tons of rails and fastenings
6,000 sleepers
2,000 tons of other goods including fixed engines, cranes, pile-drivers, trucks, waggons, barrows, wire rope, picks, crowbars, craftsmens' tools, portable stoves and revolvers.

The men arrived in February 1855; it took them ten days to build themselves a hutted camp and also to construct the first five miles of the railway line. In the process, the navvies demolished the houses near the post office in the town of Balaclava because the site was wanted as the terminus of the railway.

As work progressed, the railway was worked by horses walking on planks that were specially laid between the rails to give them a foothold, and also by fixed engines and eventually by locomotives shipped from Britain. The navvies laid a quarter of a mile of track each day after the middle of March 1855; by the end of March, the line had reached its farthest point. After another ten days, all the single tracks to the various batteries had been laid. In total, there were 29 miles of line.

It was estimated that the railway carried 112 tons of food and forage each day, plus shot and shell for the soldiers and artillery, plus a whole variety of other supplies. The building of the Crimean railway made life much less difficult for the troops who were fighting the war, but - true to form - the Commissariat refused to let the railway operate except during "office hours": 8 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Despite this, it was possible for the army to receive regular supplies without the soldiers having to carry everything from the harbour, as well as fighting the enemy.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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