April 17, 2012, by Sarah Colborne

Tin Town: village of the dam builders

Plan of tin town at Birchinlee

Derwent Valley Water Board plan of Birchinlee Village, Derbyshire; September 1914

One of the most exciting finds amongst the water archive material I am cataloguing for the Water Records Project, is a series of significant architects plans for various buildings which formed the ‘Tin Town’ at Birchinlee, Derbyshire. When work started in 1901 on the construction of the Howden and Derwent Dams, the Derwent Valley Water Board (1899-1974) set up this temporary village to house the workers and their families. Huts were constructed with galvanised corrugated iron sides (hence the nickname), and by 1909 the population of the village reached a maximum of 967. A few remnants of the village can still be seen today.

During the period of the construction of the great public works such as railways and dams, groups of nomadic workers known as navvies, would travel huge distances looking for employment, sometimes ending up sleeping rough near construction sites. The 1899 Derwent Valley Water Act stipulated that the Board should provide sufficient and sanitary accommodation for the workmen they employed and considerable thought went into providing an environment which would foster moral behaviour! 

Canteen at Birchinlee Tin Town

Plan of the canteen, c.1900-1914. Derwent Valley Water Board minutes record a dispute with the Temperance Movement over the existence of a bar in the village









Huts were provided for families, whilst single men were housed in small groups with the ‘ganger’ and his family. Other buildings included a school, shops, bath-house, police station, canteen, and recreation hall. Unfortunately we do not have any photographs in our water collections to show the sumptuous interiors of the huts, which were decked out with pot plants, ornaments and family portraits, but many have been reproduced in the book ‘Birchinee: the workmen’s villlage of the Derwent Valley Water Board’ by Professor Brian Robinson, whose mother grew up there. If anyone knows how to get in touch with Brian Robinson, we would love to speak to him!

Photograph of Derwent Dam, Derbyshire

Derwent Dam, Derbyshire; construction started in 1901.

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