English Heritage brings to life Corbridge Roman town’s lost Edwardian navvies

Exhibition identifies 11 of the forgotten labourers who uncovered Corbridge Roman town on Hadrian’s Wall

His name was Surtees Forster and he is pictured with his bucket directly in front of what was by any standards a sensational Roman discovery. That was in 1907. Nine years later he was dead, killed on the western front at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

The poignant story of Forster and other “forgotten” labourers is to be told by English Heritage in a new exhibition at Corbridge Roman town on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.

Much is known about the Edwardian-era excavations of the site but until now little has been known about the boys and men who did the punishing physical work.

2 Edwardian labourers with spades
A colourised picture of the Edwardian labourers Billy Nicholson and Robert Henry Guy at the Corbridge dig. Photograph: English Heritage

The curator Frances McIntosh said she had always been struck by the people in the grainy black and white photographs who moved the tonnes and tonnes of earth to allow the excavations to happen. “I’ve always wanted to know their names,” she said. “These are men forgotten about and overlooked because they were the working men, they were in unstable, short-term contracts. They were labourers, agricultural workers, brickies … but the excavations could not have been done without these guys.”

McIntosh has been sending copies of photographs to parish councils, contacting Facebook groups and using local newspapers to help find the names of the people in the photographs. So far she has managed to name 11 men and make contact with the families of three of them.

The photographs have been colourised and will go on display – outside in the ruins themselves – in the hope more names can be found.

“You do look back at black and white photographs and forget that things were in colour, the same as you forget there was colour in the Roman world,” said McIntosh. “You come to a Roman site and see yellow, or grey, or brown stone but actually the buildings would have been much brighter. You look at a black and white photograph from Edwardian times; that’s not what life was like, it was in colour.”

unknown boy with buckets
‘Someone must know who he is.’ English Heritage is keen to identify all the Edwardian labourers at Corbridge. Photograph: Historic England

Forster was one of the men identified. In the photograph he looks tiny in front of one of the most sensational finds – a stone lion attacking a goat, today known as the Corbridge Lion. Forster was just out of school, and around him were the working men who helped find it.

The sense of achievement is obvious. “We know from the memoirs of one of the supervisors that the men were really proud of the work they did. When they first came they just thought of it as another job but that changed. They were men who worked in the brick factory, they were miners, they were gardeners, they became really proud of what they were doing,” McIntosh said.

A colourised picture of Edwardian labourers at work in Corbridge.
A colourised picture of Edwardian labourers at work in Corbridge. Photograph: English Heritage

The men were involved in excavations uncovering objects that now make up one of the most important Roman collections in Britain. Corbridge began as a Roman military fort and evolved into a civilian settlement, which was the most northerly town in the Roman empire.

Another striking photograph shows a boy cheerfully holding about six baskets. “It is such a great image,” said McIntosh. “I really think someone must know who he is, surely. I’m desperate for someone to be able to recognise him.”

• Extraordinary Exploration: The Edwardian discovery of Coria is at Corbridge Roman town on Hadrian’s Wall.


Mark Brown North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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