Blog: Matthew Rosier

The artist on creating Navvies, a community-led public art
commission headlining the annual Lightwaves Festival

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Between 1887 and 1894, around 17,000 labourers helped dig the Manchester Ship Canal. They were called navigators, or navvies. From their labour flowed the city of Salford, Greater Manchester’s industrial success, and eventually the Salford Quays development and MediaCity – the site of my artwork recognising the role of the navvies.

It is estimated by the Navvies Union that up to 1,100 navvies died digging the Manchester Ship Canal. Such was the level of injury that field hospitals were pioneered here before being rolled out during the First World War. These men, often accompanied by their wives and families, migrated from all areas of the UK, alongside thousands from Ireland, who in particular faced extreme prejudice. Living in squalid shanty towns and often paid in ale, these men were brutalised and shunned by the society they were building.

When I was invited to Salford Quays by the outdoor arts festival Lightwaves, I was most struck by the stark contrast between this glistening development and the communities surrounding it, many of whom used to work at the docks or were even related to the men who dug it. As I learnt about the scale and audacity of the navvies’ story, I knew theirs was one I wanted to tell through my artwork. More than this though, I wanted their story to somehow help connect this site to those who may have lost touch with it.

The artwork, a co-commission from Mediale, Quays Culture and MediaCity, is formed around the action most synonymous with the navvy: digging. Together with a group of volunteers from Salford Loaves and Fishes, we planned, dug and planted a community garden in the heart of MediaCity, opposite Pret. This labour was filmed from above, to become an audiovisual artwork projected into the Manchester Ship Canal to launch Lightwaves 2022. Accompanying this is a musical composition by composer Hayley Suviste, featuring the voices of the community group and performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, arranged by Dan Whibley.

Navvies working on the Manchester Ship Canal, which took six years to complete. Lawrence Hannan is in the centre of the ditch, wearing a dark waistcoat and neckerchief. Photo: National Maritime Museum

As the planning of the garden got underway, I received an email that I’ll never forget. Cath and Ellen, two sisters raised in Irlam, told me that the man in the centre of an archive image we’d used to publicise the project was in fact their great-grandfather Lawrence – the anonymous, smartly dressed man in a trench, who’d been staring back at me for months.

Lawrence Hannan left Co Mayo, Ireland in the late 19th century, bound for England. Apparently, he was so seasick on the trip across the Irish Sea that he announced he would never go back unless they built a bridge – a promise he would keep. After working on the Manchester Ship Canal as a navvy, Lawrence married a local woman, Sarah Berry, and established a farm on Chat Moss in Irlam, which survived until very recently. It felt like fate that as we were planning our navvy community garden, which would produce vegetables for the Salford Food Bank, that Lawrence, his farm, and his great-granddaughters entered our lives.

This project aimed to redress the power imbalance of the Manchester Ship Canal’s construction

The inescapable truth that emerged through this project are the contemporary parallels: the names and sacrifices that are never remembered; persistent, insecure and, in much of the world, deadly working conditions, demonisation of a brutalised migrant labour force, and rampant food insecurity. More than anything, this is what is echoes in the voices of the navvies community group.

In a small way, this project aimed to redress the power imbalance of the Manchester Ship Canal’s construction. Peel Holdings, owner of MediaCity, granted us use of this piece of land and has supported the project financially. The BBC Philharmonic, a jewel of our cultural establishment, has literally played homage to both the navvies and community group. And perhaps most importantly for me, the names of those involved in the digging this time have their names inscribed on a plaque.

I’d like to thank: Loaves & Fishes for creating this project with me and leading it into the future; Lightwaves Festival, part of Quays Culture, for supporting a project that would reach beyond the festival boundaries; Mediale, the project producer, for supporting me on every step of the journey; MediaCity and Wrights Landscaping for facilitating the project; and Historic England, whose grant funding aims to helps tell stories of working-class history. Together, this unlikely and brilliant alliance has done that.

Navvies launches on 1 December as the headline artwork of Lightwaves Festival 2022 and runs until 10 December at Huron Basin in Salford Quays. The community garden will be open indefinitely, tended to by volunteers from Salford Loaves and Fishes with the support of Wrights Landscaping. For more information visit

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