Ratajätkät: Rautatienrakentajien kokemukset 1857–1939

Kalle Kallio

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisMonograph


Construction of the Finland’s first railway began in summer 1857. This doctoral thesis concentrates on navvy experience in Finland 1857–1939 with three research questions: what sort of experiences navvies had, why did they develop the way they did, and how was their community of experience made? This book can be defined as material-based labour history. With a balanced approach, navvy community is described from different points of view.

Building of railways started rather late in Finland but the network expanded quickly in the late nineteenth century and early 20th century. The state built most of the Finnish railways. This era of rapid construction came to an end during World War II which was also a turning point for navvy experiences. Railroads offered work for thousands of men and in 1880’s occupational group of professional navvies was born. At the time, they were already recognised as navvies (ratajätkä in Finnish). Tough work and travelling around the country were most characteristic for their experiences.

Construction technology developed in many ways during those 80 years covered in this research. New tools, machines and methods influenced navvy experiences as well. For example, spades, explosives, transportation and rails improved repeatedly. In the nineteenth century, railroads represented the highest level of engineering and innovations like dynamite, concrete, rock drill or excavator were first used at the railway lines. However, technology did not develop in a straightforward way but erratically, carefully and cost-efficiently.

Construction sites were communities formed by thousands of men, comparable to the biggest factories of the time. Railroads were constructed by an industrial organization which also took care of issues like discipline, work safety, and healthcare. As time passed and society advanced, life on the line also changed. In the 1850’s, corporal punishment was normal, and managers were engineering officers with a military background. Until the end of nineteenth century, men worked twelve hours a day but in less than three decades working hours shortened to eight.

Men worked in smaller gangs on a piecework basis. Young, strong, and single men were able to save some money, but life was harder for those with a family. For many men, navvying comprised just a short period in their lives. But managers also tried to hold their experienced employees and kept fathers occupied all the year round. They formed the core of the navvy community and their sons learnt the trade as well. Common and shared navvy experiences portray constant migration, small salaries, expensive food and lodging. Unemployment and national crisis caused the worst situations. In this research, subsistence is studied not only with statistical methods but also as a culturally constructed experience.

Itinerant life strongly influenced the everyday life and labour culture of the navvies. Housing was poor but the work influenced clothing and heavy diet as well. Belongings were scanty because all the property had to fit in one or two wooden boxes. In this thesis, also narrational material is used to study navvies’ spare time and communal life. For instance, markets on a payday, sitting in the reading rooms and building workers’ meeting halls were characteristic experiences for navvies. Some men grew to be well-known personalities on the line and posthumously “Lapatossu” even became a national celebrity.

Local communities were influenced by the construction in many ways. Railway brought employment, rental income and increased the demand of foodstuff and timber. On the other hand, new people with strange habits broke traditional communities. Problems like village fights, unwanted dating, and bootlegging crimes were common. Besides these, political disagreements augmented at the beginning of twentieth century after many navvies became supporters of the socialist movement. In this research, also labour markets, political history, strikes and unionisation are thoroughly examined. General strike in 1905, civil war in 1918 and fascism of the 1930’s influenced the railway construction as well.

Navvy experiences belong to the industrial phenomena. Railway construction put people on the move, and they offered paid work especially for the boys from poor, countryside families. Even if the work on the line was heavy and salaries small, still their life turned out better than it used to be. Railway work put the bread on the table and offered enough freedom to come along on your own. Navvies had the opportunity for social rise, marriage and maintaining a family. However, appeal of the navvy life declined during the interwar period.

In the construction sites, strong masculinities, muscular powers and risky working habits were respected. Navvies did not share all the norms of the society and itinerant worker was often suspected for his amorality. Boasting, class hatred and solidarity were typical reactions of men trying to get along in harsh conditions far from home. Rootlessness and loneliness affected everyday experiences and undermined their prospects. Once a while, the society tried to enlighten and improve the bad navvy habits, but circumstances on the lines did not get much better before the Second World War.

History of the Finnish navvy has not been comprehensively researched before. This doctoral thesis is based on analysis of extensive historical sources and connected to international studies of navvies. The source material is systematically collected from eight railway lines, including judicial records and local newspapers. In addition, plenty of material from state employer’s archives, technical literature, labour movement papers, oral histories and even contemporary novels is used. The thesis continues the traditions of the Finnish railway and labour histories but opens up an interesting perspective on the history of experience as well.
Original languageFinnish
Publication statusPublished - 2022
Publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Publication series

NameSKS kirjat
ISSN (Print)2323-7392

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