English Heritage revives ancient Edwardian navvies in Roman town | Roman Britain

HHis name was Surtees Forster and he is pictured with his bucket directly in front of what was by any measure a sensational Roman find. It was in 1907. Nine years later he was dead, killed on the Western front at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

The harrowing story of Forster and other ‘forgotten’ workers will be told by English Heritage in a new exhibition at the Roman town of Corbridge on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.

Much is known about the excavations at the site from Edwardian times, but until now little was known about the boys and men who carried out the heavy physical labor.

A colourised image of Edwardian workmen Billy Nicholson and Robert Henry Guy at the Corbridge excavation. Photography: English Heritage

the curator Frances McIntosh said she was always struck by the people in the grainy black-and-white photographs moving tons and tons of dirt to allow the excavation. “I always wanted to know their names,” she says. “These are forgotten and forgotten men because they were workers, they were in unstable and short-term contracts. They were workers, agricultural workers, masons… but the excavations could not have been done without them.

McIntosh sent copies of photographs to parish councils, contacted Facebook groups and used local newspapers to help find the names of people in the photographs. So far, she has managed to name 11 men and get in touch with the families of three of them.

The photographs have been colorized and will be displayed – outside in the ruins themselves – in the hope that other names can be found.

“You look at black and white photographs and forget things were in color, just like you forget there was color in the Roman world,” McIntosh said. “You arrive at a Roman site and see yellow, gray or brown stones, but in reality the buildings would have been much brighter. You are looking at a black and white photograph from the Edwardian era; it was not like that the life, it was in color.

unknown boy with buckets
‘Someone has to know who he is.’ English Heritage is keen to identify all Edwardian workers at Corbridge. Photography: Historic England

Forster was one of the men identified. In the photo, he looks tiny in front of one of the most sensational discoveries – a stone lion attacking a goat, now known as the Corbridge Lion. Forster had just left school, and around him were the workmen who helped him find him.

The sense of accomplishment is evident. “We know from the memoirs of one of the supervisors that the men were really proud of the work they were doing. When they first arrived they thought it was another job, but that has changed. They were men who worked in the brickyard, they were miners, they were gardeners, they became really proud of what they were doing,” McIntosh said.

A colourised image of Edwardian laborers at work in Corbridge.
A colourised image of Edwardian laborers at work in Corbridge. Photography: English Heritage

The men took part in excavations to uncover artefacts that now make up one of Britain’s most important Roman collections. Corbridge began as a Roman military fort and evolved into a civilian settlement, which was the northernmost town in the Roman Empire.

Another striking photograph shows a boy happily holding about six baskets. “It’s such a beautiful picture,” McIntosh said. “I really think someone has to know who he is, surely. I desperately need someone to recognize him.

Extraordinary Exploration: The Edwardian discovery of Coria is located in the Roman town of Corbridge on Hadrian’s Wall.

Comments are closed.