Local newspaper stories recounting the construction of... Queensbury Tunnel

Local newspaper stories recounting the construction of… Queensbury Tunnel

Diary of accidents, incidents and events

Reports on the construction work

A walk through the works

A walk over the works

Bradford, Thornton and Keighley Railway

Great activity is now being displayed in sinking the shafts of the great tunnel for this railway close to Queensbury, and half a dozen of the eight shafts have been already begun. On Wednesday an engine and boiler arrived at Beggarington to be used in connection with a tramway at Black Hill for raising and lowering trucks for conveying the earth to the new station at North Bridge. After mill-losing, large numbers of visitors proceed every evening to watch the progress of the works. At Strines’ shaft the accumulation of water has necessitated the sinking of another shaft lower down in order to carry it off.

Saturday 25th July 1874: Halifax Courier

Sharp practice on the Bradford, Thornton and Keighley Railway

The contractors for the above line, being restricted to a certain period for having it completed, the responsibility of it being ready in time has fallen chiefly on the managers of the heaviest portions at Clayton and Queensbury, where the tunnels are being pushed forward with the utmost possible despatch.

Last Thursday the manager on the Queensbury side received intimation by telegram that a semi-portable engine, to be used in sinking one of his shafts, would be sent from Leeds by traction engine on Friday night, and would arrive in Bradford early on Saturday morning. A party of men, and a supply of water, were accordingly sent to meet it at the last-mentioned place, but on their arrival no engine was to be found. Afterwards it was discovered that the manager on the Clayton side, having got wind of its approach and being unwilling to miss such a prize, had gone at a still earlier hour to intercept it, and had diverted it to his own use.

The Queensbury manager, however, who was at a stand for want of his engine, was naturally dissatisfied with the arrangement, and having viewed the ground and laid his plans overnight, went to Clayton yesterday, while the coast was clear, taking a large body of men and sixteen horses along with him, and brought away the missing engine to its proper destination at Beggarington, where it arrived at 4pm.

Monday 17th August 1874: Bradford Observer

Fatal accident at Queensbury

On Saturday evening a fatal accident occurred on the Halifax, Thornton and Keighley Railway, at No.1 Shaft near Beggarington, Queensbury. The shaft is being sunk for driving the tunnel under Queensbury in connection with the above railway, and is worked by a semi-portable engine. The iron cage had been raised to the mouth of the pit, which had also been covered up, when for some unexplained reason the engine-tenter, William Saddle, started his engine, and drew the cage up to the pulley, where the rope broke, setting free the cage, which broke through the wooden doors at the top of the shaft and fell to the bottom, striking three men who were down at work. One of them, Richard Sutcliffe, a sinker, aged thirty, of Range Bank, Halifax, was struck on the head and instantly killed. Two other men, named John Price and Thomas Dyson, masons, were also severely injured. They were taken to the Halifax Infirmary, and Dyson is reported to have died since. The inquest will be held tomorrow at the Royal Oak Inn, Ambler Thorn.

Monday 12th October 1874: Bradford Observer

Accident on the new line

On Wednesday morning, as a heavy railway truck, loaded with iron rails, was being drawn up the incline, on the works of the Great Northern Railway at Royd Hill, the last link of the chain broke at the end of the strong wire rope to which it was attached. The truck was near the brow of the hill, and on being released soon acquired such velocity that it flew into the air, where it discharged its cargo, and alighting on the wheels, the rebound of the springs caused it to turn a somersault into a small reservoir. The man in charge, who was seated on the chain when it broke, dropped down to the ground and escaped unhurt.

Saturday 16th January 1875: Halifax Courier

Extraordinary robbery near Queensbury

On Saturday afternoon a well-dressed man, named Barney Kelly, arrived at the Malt Shovel Inn, Ambler Thorn, Queensbury, and inquired for lodgings, stating that be had lately come from America and was going to work at No.2 shaft on the new tunnel of the Great Northern Railway. Two labourers accompanied him from Halifax in order to carry his trunk, which was brass bound and very heavy, and was left in an adjoining room while the party spent about an hour drinking in the tap room of the inn. They left together, and the two labourers immediately returned for the trunk, which they were seen carrying through Shibden Head about five o’clock.

The owner on finding it gone raised an alarm, and applied to the neighbouring constable, but nothing was heard of the trunk until early on the following Monday morning, when it was found rifled of its contents in a field close at hand. Among the articles left behind in the field were part of a revolver and a number of bullets, a return “passage” to America, two pairs of Wellington boots, a green sash and harp, supposed to be the insignia of the Fenian brotherhood etc.

The owner states that the trunk originally contained greenbacks, and property to the value of £50, and threatens the landlady of the inn with an action for recovery. The robbers were traced as far as Great Horton, but have not yet been come up with.

Thursday 11th February 1875: Bradford Observer

A dangerous fellow

At the West Riding Court, Halifax, on Saturday, Robert Bell, an engine-tenter, for whom Mr Storey appeared, was charged with being drunk whilst at work on the previous day. Major Ormsby stated that the defendant was in charge of the shaft in connection with the Beggarington tunnel, near Queensbury, on the Halifax, Bradford and Thornton line, now in course of construction. This was about midnight on Friday, and he was drunk. One of the managers called for a policeman, and the defendant was taken into custody.

There were five men in the shaft at the time, and owing to the defendant being drunk they had a narrow escape of being killed whilst ascending the shaft. Mr Storey submitted that as the defendant was not drunk in a public place, he could not be convicted for that offence. The defendant was discharged; but we understand that a summons is to be taken out against him under the Master and Servants Act.

Monday 15th February 1875: Bradford Observer

Bone setting extraordinary

About ten o’clock yesterday morning, a labourer on the works of the Great Northern Railway at Queensbury, while unloading a truck on the incline at No. 4 shaft, got his foot caught by a balk, and fell backwards across the wire rope. Several of his companions, who ran to his assistance, finding him insensible, and thinking, from the position in which he was lying, that his neck was dislocated, immediately took hold of him by the head and shoulders, and by main force pulled it back again. They state that they distinctly heard the bones give a loud “crick” on being replaced. He still remained unconscious, and after being carried home, was attended by the company’s doctor, Mr John Fawthrop, but revived in the course of a few hours. One of his legs was also badly twisted and grazed by the fall.

Thursday 25th March 1875: Bradford Observer

Accident on the new line

On Tuesday, several trucks, three of which had been “spragged”, were carelessly left on the slope of the incline by the workmen at Royd Hill, on the works of the new railway, and started off downwards and were smashed to pieces at the bottom.

Saturday 12th June 1875: Halifax Courier

Very dangerous

Yesterday two gentlemen were driving through Queensbury in a two-wheeled vehicle, and at Hill Top where the tramway crosses the Denholmegate Road, a man suddenly seized the horse’s head and held it back, otherwise the gentlemen would probably have been killed, for loaded waggons came along and passed over the crossing at great speed – they would in all likelihood have crushed the occupants of the vehicle. It really is too bad that so little protection is afforded to the public at this place. What are the authorities doing?

Saturday 19th June 1875: Halifax Courier

Accident on the new line

About seven o’clock on Wednesday morning a labourer on the works of the new line of railway at Netherton, John Swires, known as “Punch”, was run over by a locomotive coming down the incline. For some unexplained reason he failed to get out of the way in time although the driver whistled. His right leg was taken off below the knee, and also the toes of his left foot. He was lifted on to the engine and carried to the Halifax Infirmary, and died there on Thursday.

Saturday 3rd August 1875: Halifax Courier

Gunpowder accident

On Wednesday evening a workman named John Fisher, a native of Wakefield, was engaged in drawing an unexploded charge of powder in No.4 shaft on the works of the Great Northern Railway, near Queensbury, when it exploded and injured his face and eyes, so that he had to be led back to his lodgings by his companions.

Saturday 10th July 1875: Halifax Courier

Fatal accident on railway

On Sunday morning another fatal accident occurred on the Bradford and Thornton Railway, near Queensbury. About half past nine a plumber, named Henry Ingham, of Denholme, aged 37, was killed whilst employed in No.4 shaft. He and a companion were repairing some piping which was out of order at an altitude of 30 yards from the bottom (the shaft being altogether 90 yards deep) when, in leaning over the tub, Ingham overbalanced himself and fell to the bottom into the water, which is five or six yards deep. His dead body was recovered soon after.

An inquest on the body was held by Mr Barstow on Monday, at the New Dolphin Inn, when the overlooker of the works stated that ropes were kept for the safety of men working in the shaft, and that if they did not use them it was their own fault. Verdict – “Accidental Death”.

Saturday 31st July 1875: Halifax Courier# Indecent assault by a navvy

James Nuttall, a navvy employed on the Halifax, Bradford and Thornton Railway, and residing at Queensbury, was charged before the borough justices, on Thursday, with committing an indecent assault upon a young woman, daughter of the woman at whose house he lodged. The assault, which took place early the same morning, was proved, and the prisoner was sent to gaol for six months, with hard labour.

Saturday 14th August 1875: Halifax Courier

Another fatal accident on the Halifax, Thornton and Keighley Railway

Shortly before nine o’clock yesterday morning, a banksman, named Sutcliffe Hodgson, aged twenty-seven, and residing at Priestley Hill, near Queensbury, was killed under shocking circumstances at No.1 shaft on the works of the tunnel near that village for the Bradford, Halifax and Thornton Railway.

The landing stage on which he was standing at the time of the accident had been drawn back from the mouth of the shaft, and the catch not having been put on, it slipped back about eighteen inches, causing him to fall headlong down the shaft, which is forty-four yards deep, into the tunnel. He was killed instantly. About seventeen feet from the bottom some scaffolding was fixed, a plank of which he broke in his fall, and those who went to his assistance had to go round by the adjoining shaft in order to get at the place.

The body was taken up in a fearfully mangled condition, the head having been knocked quite flat, and many bones broken. It was carried to his house at Priestley Hill, where its arrival caused considerable excitement in the neighbourhood, to which his family also belonged. He leaves a young wife, to whom he was married quite recently.

Thursday 2nd September 1875: Bradford Observer

Narrow escape on the new line

About eight o’clock on Monday morning two pipe fitters named John Weatherall and George Wright, had a narrow escape from drowning in No.2 shaft of the working of the new line of railway near Queensbury. They were descending the shaft to their work, and it is believed they were being lowered by the brake as the tub in which they were standing was sent down into five or six yards of water at the bottom. One of them climbed up the rope, but the other man being a heavy man went down with the tub. He managed, however, to escape with a ducking as they were immediately drawn up.

Saturday 11th September 1875: Halifax Courier

Accident on the new line

About nine o’clock on Monday morning, a labourer named Joseph Gibson, employed as a platelayer in the tunnel for the Bradford, Thornton, and Keighley Railway near Queensbury, was severely injured in the head and body by a large stone which fell from the roof or from one of the trucks near which he was working in the dark. The blow on his head was so severe as to penetrate the skull and cause the brains to protrude. He was removed to Halifax Infirmary.

Saturday 18th September 1875: Halifax Courier

Land slip – narrow escape by forty men

On Wednesday morning, an accident, fortunately unattended with any very serious results, occurred at the mouth of Queensbury tunnel, Hole Bottom. By the incessant rain of the two previous days, the ground had become so sad and heavy that the timber, which supports the roof of the entrance to the tunnel, gave way, bringing down a large quantity of earth, which completely blocked up the entrance.

About forty men were at work at the time, and Mr Albrighton, inspector of the works, accompanied by Mr Slater, tunnel steward, had barely got far enough into the tunnel to escape being crushed. Every effort was at once made by those working on the outside to rescue the men from their dangerous imprisonment, and in a short time a small opening was affected into what is called the top heading. Through this the men were drawn one after another, all luckily escaping unhurt. Already, the air had begun to feel very bad, and in a short time suffocation must have ensued.

Saturday 23rd October 1875: Halifax Courier

Dreadful accident near Queensbury – two killed and four injured

Yesterday morning, at about twenty minutes to four o‘clock, a very serious accident happened on the Bradford, Thornton and Halifax Railway, near the Ovenden end of Queensbury tunnel, under Royd Hill, by which two miners, named Henry Jones and John Gough, were killed, and four others injured.

It appears that the works in this tunnel are being pushed on with great vigour, three shifts of men being employed, each shift consisting of about twenty men. At the time named, the men had fired a number of “shots”, and were returning to their work under the impression that all the blasts had exploded, when they found that one of them had missed fire. The two men, Jones and Gough, immediately set about withdrawing the shot, when it suddenly exploded, and they were instantly killed, and four others were more or less injured. One of them, John Rowley, the most severely injured, was removed to the Halifax Infirmary, where it was found that he was suffering from a compound fracture of the arm and injuries to the head.

Mr Albrighton, the inspector of the works, was quickly on the spot, and rendered every assistance to the unfortunate men. The bodies were removed to the Olive Branch Inn, Catherine Slack, to await an inquest.

Wednesday 8th December 1875: Bradford Observer

Navvies’ supper

On Saturday evening a supper was given at the Olive Branch Inn, Ambler Thorn, to the foremen and carpenters of the Halifax, Thornton, and Keighley Railway, Ovenden end. The edibles were ample and excellent, and all did justice to the same. Mr Albrighton, the inspector to the company, was unanimously voted to the chair, and opened the proceedings after supper with a song, followed by proposing the health of Her Majesty the Queen and all the Royal family, and afterward that of Mr John Shaw, the agent of the line, coupling the same with the contractors, Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss. During the evening songs were sung, and some of the company indulged in dancing. The health of the chairman was drunk, also that of the host and hostess, and after a thorough and enjoyable evening, the company dispersed shortly after ten o’clock.

Saturday 5th February 1876: Halifax Courier

Another railway accident

Another accident of a serious nature happened last Wednesday to a young man, named Isaac Dealey, employed on the Halifax, Thornton, and Keighley Railway. It appears he was engaged near the Ovenden entrance to Queensbury tunnel, in pressing home a dynamite cartridge with a wooden rammer, when, it is supposed, on account of too violent pressure it suddenly exploded, injuring the man most severely about the head and face. He was conveyed to the Halifax Infirmary where he now lies in a dangerous condition. It is to be hoped the frequent accidents resulting from this highly explosive substance will teach the men to be more careful in dealing with it.

Saturday 12th February 1876: Halifax Courier

A strange whim gratified

When the construction of the Queensbury branch of the Halifax, Thornton, and Keighley Railway first began it was found necessary to pull down several of the houses at Hole Bottom, which obstructed the line of route to Thornton. In one of these houses an old woman, named Sarah Warburton, had lived all her life, in fact the house had been in the occupation of the family for upwards of ninety years.

In front of the house grew an old plane tree, out of which the old woman said it had always been her intention to have her coffin made; and she threatened the manager (Mr John Shaw) that unless he granted her this favour, her ghost should haunt him all his life. Accordingly, the coffin, which has for some time been made in the workshop at Holmfield, was conveyed across the hill by means of the tramroad to the house of Mr John Sharp, there to await the old woman’s decease; so that she may now enjoy in prospective the pleasure of going to sleep in the cherished old tree.

Saturday 4th March 1876: Halifax Courier

Another accident on the line

Another accident happened at the Halifax, Thornton, and Bradford Railway on Sunday evening. It appears that fitters having fixed an additional pipe 9in long and 12in bore to the pump in connection with No.4 shaft of the Queensbury tunnel, had taken out the spear rods by which the pump is worked, to make the necessary addition to their length.

Two men named George Waite and George Parker were engaged in lowering them down again into the shaft by the aid of a capstan, when the weight (about four tons) overpowered them, and Waite was whirled violently round three or four times by the handle of the capstan, and then thrown off. When taken up it was found that one leg was broken below the knee, the bone protruding through his dress. In a short time a conveyance was procured, and he was removed to the Halifax Infirmary. Parker after being taken once round was cast on to the metals of the adjoining tramway fortunately not much worse.

Saturday 18th March 1876: Halifax Courier

Fatal accident in the Queensbury Tunnel

Yesterday, an inquest was held by Mr Barstow, coroner, at Armstrong’s Hotel, Bradford, respecting the death of Richard Jones, who died from injuries received while at work in the Queensbury Tunnel on the Bradford, Halifax and Thornton Railway. The deceased, who was thirty-three years of age, went under another name upon the works – a custom not uncommon upon navvies.

On Monday last he and two other men were at work at the Hole Bottom end of the tunnel, and after firing some shots the deceased returned to the place to clear away a loose piece of rock which was in the way of another drilling. For this purpose, he used a “pick”, and after working at the stone for some little time, his companions called to him to come away or the stone would be upon him. Their warning came too late, however, for as Jones was making his escape the stone, weighing about 4cwt, fell upon him, and crushed him terribly.

Assistance being readily at hand the unfortunate man was extricated, and sent to the Bradford Infirmary, but he died on arriving in the neighbourhood to Lister Hills. After being seen by Dr Lee, whose surgery was close at hand, the deceased’s remains were taken to the dead-house at the Workhouse. Several of his fellow-workmen were called, but no blame seemed to attach to anyone, except perhaps the deceased himself, and the verdict arrived at was “Accidental death”.

Saturday 3rd June 1876: Bradford Observer

Railway accident near Queensbury

A serious accident occurred on Monday, a little after noon, to a young man named Thomas Mann, employed at Hole Bottom, near Queensbury, on the Halifax, Thornton and Bradford Railway. It appears he was recklessly playing with a dynamite cartridge, when it exploded, and blew away the forefinger of his left hand, and the thumb of his right hand from the first joint, besides badly damaging two other fingers, and injuring one of his eyes. He was immediately removed to Mr Fawthrop’s surgery, where his wounds were dressed.

Wednesday 14th June 1876: Bradford Observer

Narrow escape at Queensbury

On Saturday last, sixteen men employed of the Halifax, Bradford and Thornton Railway, near Queensbury, narrowly escaped being killed. It appears that at noon sixteen of the navvies working in Hole Bottom left off for dinner, and got into an empty truck which was being drawn along the tramway towards Queensbury. This tramway is laid over the hill on which Queensbury stands, in a line with the shafts which had been sunk for the excavation of the tunnel, and at most of these shafts a stationary engine is fixed to pull the trucks up the inclines.

In this case a locomotive engine was “spragged” about 500 yards up the incline – which is very steep on the Queensbury side – and was winding onto a drum the wire rope to which the truck was attached. The waggon was drawn up in safety, but the rope being wound up a little too far, the buffers of the waggon bumped the engine, and the rope hook was jerked out. The waggon at once set off down the incline, increasing its speed every moment. The men jumped out, and fortunately escaped with a few bruises. The waggon continued its course, ran off the rails, and turned over and over until within a very short distance of the cutting at the mouth of the tunnel, where several men were working. A dog which the men had with them remained in the waggon when the men jumped out, and was killed. The waggon was much damaged.

Several accidents have happened at or near this place. On Wednesday last the engine was coming from Queensbury to one of the shafts. The brake was put on to bring it to a stand, but, the rails being slippery, it continued its course down the incline, and ran off the rails. The engine-driver jumped off and escaped uninjured.

Monday 10th July 1876: Bradford Observer

Accident in the tunnel

On Tuesday morning, one of the men employed in the tunnel at Hole Bottom met with an accident while at work. It appears in traversing the scaffold on which the masons work, he unwittingly stepped on the loose end of a plank, which tilted and caused him to fall into the bottom of the tunnel. He sustained severe injuries about the head and back, and one arm was badly crushed. He was conveyed to his home in Wheatley, where he is progressing favourably.

Saturday 5th August 1876: Halifax Courier

Fatal result of an accident

On Thursday morning, a young man, named Llewellyn Jones, died at Queensbury from injuries received on the Halifax, Thornton, and Bradford Railway. Deceased was employed as a miner in the tunnel at No.2 shaft. On the morning of the 17th inst, he commenced drilling a hole which had been left by the men on the night shift in ignorance of its being charged, when it exploded and severely injured him about the right arm and face. He was assisted home and medical aid obtained, and up to Tuesday last appeared to be progressing favourably, when lock-jaw set in, and all the efforts of the medical men proved futile, the deceased expiring on Thursday morning in great agony.

Saturday 26th August 1876: Halifax Courier

Another accident

On Monday, a serious accident happened to a mason named James Hollins, employed on the Halifax, Thornton, and Bradford Railway. It appears he was engaged in picking up some wedges from between the locomotive and some empty waggons, which were standing just inside Queensbury tunnel at the Netherton end, when the engine driver, having previously whistled, started the engine, and Hollins was caught between the buffers and severely crushed. He was taken up helpless, and conveyed across the hill by means of the tramway to his residence at Slave Row, Queensbury. Mr Fawthrop, surgeon, was immediately summoned. Very slight hopes are entertained of the man’s recovery.

Saturday 23rd September 1876: Halifax Courier

Another man killed on the railway

An inquest was held at the Granby Inn, Queensbury, on Tuesday, before Mr Barstow, coroner, on the body of a miner named Frederick Goulding. Deceased was employed in the railway tunnel at Hole Bottom, and on the 31st ult. was standing near an empty truck whilst a large piece of rock was being rolled down from the top heading, when the stone unexpectedly struck the waggon, and crushed Goulding between it and a piece of timber supporting the roof. Assistance was immediately rendered, and deceased was conveyed to his lodgings at Granby Feld. He succumbed to his injuries early on Friday morning. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death”.

Saturday 10th February 1877: Halifax Courier

Sudden death

A man named Pengrove, a navvy on the new railway at Queensbury, but who resides at Sowerby Bridge, died suddenly on Wednesday. He went into a beerhouse and complained of being unwell; he stayed some time, and then a friend offered to go home with him, but they had not gone many yards before Pengrove exclaimed, “Oh, I’m dying”. He was taken back to the house, and died at once. He was a weak and ailing man.

Saturday 14th April 1877: Halifax Courier

Serious accident on the line

Another accident happened on Tuesday evening to one of the navvies employed on the Halifax, Thornton, and Keighley Railway. He was working on a scaffold in the tunnel at Hole Bottom, when he slipped and fell to the bottom, a distance of about seven yards. He received very severe injuries about the head, arms and ribs, and was taken to the Infirmary at Bradford.

Saturday 19th May 1877: Halifax Courier

More victims

A very serious accident happened on the Halifax and Thornton Railway on Tuesday afternoon. It appears that a young man named John Cunningham was employed in the Netherton cutting as brakesman, and was attempting to “sprag” a number of waggons, when he missed his footing and fell across the rails. Several persons working at a short distance observed the accident and hastened to the spot, when it was found that the waggons had passed over both the man’s legs, completing severing them from the body a little above the ankle. The injured man was immediately placed in an empty waggon and conveyed down the Ovenden line to the Halifax Infirmary, where he lies in a precarious condition.

The same day a man named Captain Pickles, of Shelf, platelayer, was killed on the same line. He was assisting three other men to take a bogie loaded with sleepers through the tunnel at Hole Bottom, Queensbury, when several of the sleepers which projected over the bogie struck an upright pillar which supported the roof of the tunnel. The roof fell in and the deceased was struck on the back of the head by a plank weighing about half-a-ton. His right leg was also broken in two places, and he was otherwise so severely bruised that death was instantaneous. The other three men on seeing the danger at once ran away, and, with the exception of one of their number, who was knocked down and slightly injured, they escaped unhurt.

Saturday 23rd June 1877: Halifax Courier


William Murray, a labourer, fell while at work in the new tunnel at Queensbury, the consequence being that some of his ribs were badly crushed. He was taken to Halifax Infirmary.

Saturday 18th August 1877: Halifax Courier

Railway accident

Last Saturday morning another accident happened in Queensbury tunnel, by which two men named Herbert Evans and John Newstead received severe injuries. It appears Evans, who is a bricklayer, was preparing to come down from the top scaffold on which he was working, when he missed his footing and fell to the bottom, a distance of nine yards, sustaining serious injury about the spine. A labourer going up the ladder at the time, with a piece of timber on his shoulder, was so startled by the occurrence that he let the timber fall and hit Newstead, cutting him badly about the head and face. Both men were brought out at No.3 shaft, and conveyed to their lodgings. Medical assistance was immediately sent for and they are both reported to be progressing favourably.

Saturday 3rd November 1877: Halifax Courier

Sudden death

On Wednesday morning a young man named William Mitchell, whilst engaged in tipping trucks near the Netherton cutting of the Halifax, Thornton, and Keighley Railway, was seized with a sudden giddiness and fell down insensible. Medical assistance was immediately sent for, but without avail, as life was extinct in a few minutes. The body was removed to the Malt Shovel Inn, Ambler Thorn, and after medical examination a certificate was given stating that death had resulted from an apoplectic fit. About a month since, deceased, who is an unmarried man, was subject to a similar attack, from which he rallied.

Saturday 1st December 1877: Halifax Courier

Accident in the Queensbury Tunnel

On Tuesday afternoon, a mason named John Dyson, employed in the tunnel, met with a serious accident. He was engaged walling the side of the tunnel, near the bottom of No.3 shaft, when a quantity of earth and stone fell from the roof, alighting upon his head and shoulder, which were seriously bruised. His left arm, which was extended over the wall, was severely broken and cut. He was conveyed to the Halifax Infirmary.

Saturday 8th December 1877: Halifax Guardian

Railway accident

During the night of yesterday week another accident happened in Queensbury tunnel, by which two men were injured. Happily the injuries are not of a dangerous character. It appears that a number of men were working in the tunnel on the night shift, when the supports of the roof above them gave way, and let down a quantity of earth. One of the lumps struck a man named Ellis, and hurt him severely in the ribs. He was conveyed to his lodgings, and medical assistance obtained, and he is reported to be progressing favourably. Another man living in Great Horton had one foot badly injured.

Saturday 2nd February 1878: Halifax Courier

Another accident on the railway

On Wednesday, Thomas Mark, an excavator, employed at the Queensbury Tunnel, had his thigh accidently broken through some earth falling upon him. He was conveyed to the Halifax Infirmary.

Saturday 9th February 1878: Halifax Guardian

Serious accident, yesterday

Another accident of a very serious nature occurred yesterday at the tunnel under Queensbury, to an excavator named Thomas Williams. He is a Welshman, and whilst working in the tunnel a piece of rock fell upon him, and severely injured him. He was conveyed to the Halifax Infirmary, and it is feared his back is broken.

Saturday 23rd March 1878: Halifax Guardian

An interesting gathering

On Wednesday last the traveller who might have ascended the hill from any part to the summit at Queensbury would have reason to suppose that something out of the usual way was taking place there, the fact being that the contractors and sub-contractors of the new line of railway, now nearly completed, had resolved to celebrate the completion of the Queensbury tunnel by treating the whole of the men employed on the works to dinner, which was provided in a large tent erected on the ground adjoining No.5 shaft. It was certainly such a sight as is not often seen, to behold upwards of 300 men of this class dining together.

The dinner was served in an excellent style by Mr George Wood, of the Great Northern Hotel, Thornton, and the amount of consumption may be imagined when it is known that he provided 400lb of beef, 65lb mutton, with tongues, veal, hams etc, in proportion, together with 27 stones of vegetables.

On the cross table were Mr Isaac Woodiwiss, contractor; Mr Jas Albrighton, the inspector, who had the honour of laying the first stone and last brick in the tunnel; also the following sub-contractors – Messrs Wm Williams, James Barton, Josh. T Garner, Normanton Greenwood etc, Messrs J Hatton, Dennis Yates, H Green, of Queensbury, and Mr Bennett, the engineer, and Mr Walker, cashier for the works.

During dinner the Thornton Brass Band performed selections of music, and dancing, cricket, and other games were freely indulged in by the men until dusk. In the evening the grounds presented quite an animated appearance, the company being largely augmented by the villagers, the number of persons on the ground being estimated at 2,000.

Saturday 3rd August 1878: Halifax Courier

The Bradford and Halifax and Thornton Railway

The new line of railway between Bradford and Halifax will, it is expected, be opened for traffic (goods and passengers) during October. A passenger train, containing officials, has left Laisterdyke, passing over the line through Horton, Clayton, Queensbury Tunnel, Ovenden etc to North Bridge, Halifax, and then returned. This was for an inspection preliminary to the visit of the Government inspector.

The stations on the railway are fitted up in a very superior style, and the Greet Northern Company, to whom the line to Halifax and Thornton belongs, have provided for any amount of traffic that may fall to their share. The full scheme will not be completely developed until the branch from Thornton to Keighley is made, and then passengers from Huddersfield, Halifax etc can proceed to Keighley and the north without going through either Leeds or Bradford.

Saturday 5th October 1878: Leeds Times

The railway

On Tuesday and Wednesday the Government Inspector of railways, Major General Hutchinson, made the final examination of the new line between Bradford and Thornton, previous to the same being opened for passenger traffic, which the company announce for Monday next.

The inspector, who was accompanied by Messrs Fraser, engineers to the Great Northern Company, Mr Isaac Woodiwiss (Benton and Woodiwiss), the contractors, Mr Wm Bennett, the contractors’ engineer etc, proceeded off Tuesday morning from Bradford station slowly along the line by Great Horton, Clayton, Hole Bottom, and forward to Thornton; the ponderous embankment crossing High Birks, and the large string of viaducts crossing the Thornton Valley, taking the particular attention of the surveying party.

On Wednesday the party commenced their survey at North Bridge, Halifax, proceeding along the line to Holmfield, making a minute inspection of the Queensbury tunnel. At the close they were conveyed to the commodious hotel adjoining the Thornton station, where a sumptuous repast was provided by the host, Mr Geo. Wood, for about 30 of the inspecting party, and the company and contractors’ officials.

General Hutchinson handed to the engineer his certificate of the satisfactory completion of the line from Bradford to Thornton. We are informed that some alterations are necessary at the Halifax end ere that part of the line can be opened for passengers.

Saturday 12th October 1878: Halifax Courier

The railway

The new line between Bradford and Thornton was opened on Monday for passenger traffic, and the event appeared to excite considerable interest amongst those resident in the immediate route of the line. The trains were well filled.

The first train left the Great Northern Station at 7.45 on Monday morning, amidst the reports of fog signals. A large crowd of people had assembled at the stations between Bradford and Thornton. General admiration was expressed as to the manner in which the line had been constructed, and the ride was greatly enjoyed.

Amongst the officials and others who accompanied the train were Mr W West, passenger superintendent; Mr D West, locomotive superintendent; Mr Piggott, signal inspector; and Mr Woodiwiss, the contractor of the line.

The Halifax section was also opened for goods traffic the same day, a train being despatched there from Bradford at seven o’clock, the new line thus affording the Great Northern an independent access to Halifax.

Saturday 19th October 1878: Halifax Courier

Diary of accidents, incidents and events

Reports on the construction work

A walk through the works

A walk over the works

Local newspaper stories recounting the construction of... Queensbury Tunnel

The Buckinghamshire Herald reports on the… Watford Tunnel collapse

Awful occurrence at the London and Birmingham Railway

Thursday morning week the town of Watford, and the country for many miles round, was thrown into a state of the greatest excitement and alarm, in consequence of a report gaining rapid circulation, and which, unfortunately proved too true, that one of the shafts of the tunnel of the intended railroad to Birmingham, which runs through the Earl of Essex’s estate, at Russell Farm Wood, about two miles beyond Watford, had fallen in, and been attended with an immense sacrifice of human life. In the course of a few hours thousands were drawn to the spot, and the scene that occurred is indescribable. The wives and families of those who were employed about the works might be seen running to and fro in a state of frantic despair, ignorant which of them had been bereaved of their husbands.

The following are the fullest particulars that our reporter has been able to obtain. The shaft in which this lamentable affair took place is situated amidst Russell Wood, a very picturesque spot, and the approach from Watford would lead few to expect that the line of the Birmingham railroad was 80 feet below the spot. The shaft in question, one of the four in this length of tunnel (1,700 yards), is termed a gin-shaft, and has been sunk about 90 feet below an elevated platform erected for the purpose of removing the earth. The shaft has been very lately sunk, and two nine-feet lengths of tunnel had been bricked, the third being, it is stated, just mined and ready for the bricklayers. The shaft was about to be bricked on Friday morning, between 5 and 6 o’clock, by a party consisting of five bricklayers and six labourers, who composed what is termed the night gang; and had the appalling event taken place a few hours afterwards, the morning gang would have been at work, and the loss of human life must have been awful in the extreme. As it is, it is impossible to state correctly the number of victims that have fallen by the dreadful catastrophe, as not one out of the number that was at work is left to tell the dismal particulars.

In loosening a portion of the wood work previous to bricking the shaft, it is supposed the earth gave way and buried the unfortunate men, carrying the whole of the wood work with it. When the earth fell a horse and gig were partly buried beneath, and it was with great difficulty the horse was extricated, and it was discovered that the poor animal had sustained much injury. Fortunately however the man attending to the gin heard some of the earth in the shaft fall, and, feeling the ground under his feet giving way, he made a precipitate retreat, and providentially escaped, while a dog that was lying by his side was buried with the earth.

The falling of the immense quantity of earth into the shaft has caused an abyss of about 35 feet deep, and about 40 feet in breadth. It presented a fearful appearance, and it was with the greatest difficulty that other accidents were averted, from the imprudence of the surrounding inhabitants in gratifying their curiosity. The names of all the unfortunate sufferers we have not been able to ascertain, but it is known that among them are Mr Barker, the sub-contractor; Mr Jordan, inspector of the brickwork; and Benson, a miner, all of whom have left wives with large families to bemoan their loss.

The men must be buried upwards of 80 feet below the surface of the earth, and although 60 men are actively engaged in digging out the bodies, it is probable that six or seven days will elapse before they are extricated.

About half-past 8 o’clock on Friday night, it was reported to the timekeeper of the shaft, that in driving the heading way of the tunnel from the next shaft, the groans of some of the sufferers were heard. He immediately went to the spot, and found that the men employed in digging had actually introduced themselves into that part of the tunnel which was bricked over, and got hold of the gin-rope, but were unable to find any of their unfortunate fellow workmen.

In the course of Friday the Earl of Essex and Lord Clarendon expressed the utmost concern for the sufferers. Lord Clarendon benevolently stated his intention to provide for their wives and families, and a liberal subscription was entered into by the inhabitants of Watford.

Illustration showing a train at Watford Tunnel, around 1840.
© National Railway Museum and SSPL (Reference 1997-7409_LMS_396)
(from NRM website, used under Creative Commons licence)

(From the Standard of Monday)

The following report of this lamentable occurrence has been forwarded to us by the Secretary of the railway company – London and Birmingham Railway, Office, 83, Cornhill, July 18.

Mr Creed presents his compliments to the Editor of the Standard, and encloses the copy of a report of the Directors of the London Committee, who attended at Watford yesterday to investigate the circumstances connected with the late lamentable accident at the tunnel – London and Birmingham Railway, Watford, July 17.


Information having been received from Mr Buck, the superintending engineer of the works of the London and Birmingham Railway at Watford, that an accident, attended with loss of life, had occurred at the new shaft near the observatory on the tunnel, Mr Solly, the Chairman of the London Committee of Directors, accompanied by Mr Tooke, Mr Rowles, and Mr Calvert, Directors, Mr Creed, the Secretary, and Mr Stephenson, the engineer of the company, immediately left town for the purpose of investigating the circumstances connected with the accident on the spot.

It appears from the information which the Directors have collected –

  1. That the summit of the shaft at the base of the tunnel is a depth of about 100 feet.
  2. That two nine-feet lengths of the tunnel had been bricked to the south of the shaft, and one nine-feet length to the north, and that another nine-feet length had been excavated from the crown of the tunnel to the springing of the arch, the brickwork of which was not commenced.
  3. That the shaft had been sunk in chalk throughout its depth.
  4. That the bricklayers had nearly completed the arch of the shaft length of the tunnel ready for the reception of the cast iron curb at the time the accident occurred.
  5. That Mr Cropper, sub-contractor for the brickworks was in the tunnel at 11 o’clock on Wednesday night, when everything appeared secure.
  6. That at half-past five in the morning of Thursday, Thomas Jordan, the overlooker, and nine men (as enumerated below), being at work, the man who attended the gin heard a cry of “ware”, that the ground fell in at the same instant, and, so suddenly, that his dog was buried in the abyss, the gin and gear carried down, and that he only escaped by being entangled in a part of the machinery above ground.
  7. That the candles of the men at work on the length of tunnel in the next adjoining shaft on the north were blown out by the rush of air through the heading, or drift way, when the ground fell.
  8. That on an examination of the tunnel, by the heading or drift way, it is found on the north of the shaft to be filled up, and that on the south side the brickwork has been very little injured. That portions of the remains of four men who were crushed, and are completely dead, can be observed on this side, but that the attempt to extricate the bodies through the heading, would be attended with the certain loss of more lives.
  9. That the ground must have fallen in upon the men who were standing upon planks, close to the crown of the arch, so suddenly, that not one of them had time to save himself by the heading, although within 18 feet of it, and that the mass is so enormous, as to leave no hope of any individual having escaped with life.
  10. That the contractor, with the concurrence of Mr Stephenson, is sinking a shaft of the breadth of the tunnel, as the only practicable mode in the loose state of the soil of working safely to the bottom.
  11. That it will be the end of next week before the bodies can ne extricated.
  12. That the individuals engaged on the works on the shaft having all perished, the proximate cause of the calamity can only be conjectured.
  13. That it appears probable there existed a fault in the chalk immediately adjoining the shaft, and that the crust of chalk yielded to the pressure of the superincumbent gravel at the moment of some support being withdrawn.
  14. That there does not appear to have been any want of attention to their duties on the part of those engaged on the works.
  15. That, however deplorable the loss of life on the present occasion, it is some consolation to know that, as far as can be ascertained, only one man has left a widow, and but one other, Jordan, the overlooker, who was a widower, two orphans.

With reference to the works, it may be added that the event will not have the effect of delaying the period assigned for the completion of the tunnel.

By order, R Creed, Secretary

An early view of the tunnel’s grand south portal.
© Forgotten Relics collection

Names of the men who were employed on the shaft: Thomas Jordan, overlooker, widower. Thomas Evans, bricklayer, unmarried. Sylvanus Rubings, ditto, ditto. John Clarke, ditto, ditto. William Byrd, ditto, ditto. George Platt, ditto, ditto. Thomas Winmill, labourer, married. James Darvill, ditto, unmarried. Another labourer, name unknown, ditto. James Barker, foreman, miner, ditto.

Saturday 25th July 1835: Buckinghamshire Herald

The Late Accident at Watford

After more than a month of incessant exertions on the part of Messrs Harding and Copeland, the contractors for the Watford line of the London and Birmingham Railway, and a vast number of labourers who were relieved every twelve hours, the bodies of some of the unfortunate men, who were buried under more than eighty feet of earth, by the sudden falling in of the shaft in Russell Wood, Levesdon Green, Watford, in this county, have been dug out. Early on Saturday morning the miners were enabled by crawling between the interstices made by the fallen timbers, the see the legs of some of the sufferers, and to know that before many more feet of the gravel and chalk had been removed (the distance from the surface being about eighty-four feet) they would come to the bodies. The greatest interest, as may be anticipated, was consequently excited, and many persons from Watford, and the whole surrounding neighbourhood, including several scientific and practical men of the county, were present during the later period of the day.

At three o’clock in the afternoon an extended hand presented itself to the view of the bystanders, on the side of the opening opposite to that which the first eruption of the gravel is supposed to have taken place. The body on being cleared was found in a sitting posture, with the head thrown back; it is presumed the poor fellow was looking upwards at the moment he met his death, have heard the cry of “ware” from the men at the top of the arch; his face was crushed and the legs broken.

The first body taken out was lying on one of the bars, a piece of timber about six inches in diameter. He was in a horizontal position, with the whole weight of the gravel upon him; his hands were extended and his knees bent up. The third body was found in the immediate vicinity of the others; it was discovered his bowels had burst by the sudden pressure of the timber upon him. The fourth sufferer was lying amongst the centres, much crushed by the gravel. The fifth body was found with the head fixed fast in one of the centres in a downwards position. The sixth was lying with his back upwards and his left hand bent under him.

The strata in which the whole of them were found was gravel and sand, which it is probable came from the vein of gravel and sand on the side which led to the accident. About twelve o’clock on Saturday night a seventh body was also found. The whole were as quickly as possible placed in coffins, which were ready on the ground, and conveyed in a hearse to Watford.

The names of the men dug out are thought to be John Betts, a bricklayer; Wm. Byard, Silvanus Rudings, Thomas Windmill, Joseph Darvill, Bartlett Scones and James Corrie. Several of their relatives were in the shaft when the men were dug out (in which they assisted), but they were scarcely able to recognise a feature, as decomposition had taken place to such an extent as to render positive and perfect recognition almost impossible, the dress of the deceased men forming the only clue to identity.

In 1938, an LMS 5P5F class 4-6-0 locomotive leaves Watford Tunnel.
© National Railway Museum and SSPL (Reference 1997-7409_LMS_8627)
(from NRM website, used under Creative Commons licence)

F J Osbaldeston Esq, the county coroner, on being informed that some of the bodies had been taken to the Watford poorhouse, from fear that any delay in their interment might endanger the health of the inmates, issued his warrant for holding the inquest at one o’clock on Sunday, intending then to swear the jury, receive evidence of identity, and to allow the bodies to be buried, and then adjourn the inquest. With proper promptitude he repaired to the spot early on Sunday morning, to collect such information by a personal inspection as would enable him satisfactorily to conduct the inquiry. On his arrival there he found several from Watford, from whom he learned the fact of the bodies been placed in the engine house, a place so far removed from the workhouse ass to prevent infection, and that there was great probability of the other bodies being shortly got out. He therefore postponed the inquest until such time as the whole were extricated.

The opening made for the purpose of getting at the bodies is timbered all round, it is about forty feet square, and goes to a depth of eighty-six feet. The number of men constantly employed in the excavation is stated to be forty, and the timber used in the shoring is valued at £1,000. The subscription of behalf of the widows and relatives exceeds £300 and, no doubt, other sums will be raised when their case comes to be properly investigated by the committee, of which the Hon and Rev W Capel, rector of Watford, is at the head.

Vast numbers of respectable people on Sunday visited the place. At four o’clock on Sunday afternoon the church wardens of Watford permitted the relatives to see the bodies. The scene was one of those so truly said to be better imagined than described. Darvill was identified by his widow, Betts by one of his family, who spoke to his dress; Thomas Windmill was identified by means of his shoes, Rudings by his widow who fainted away on her seeing her deceased husband; a sister of Bartlett Scones identified him, and the other two bodies were not recognised.


On Monday, at noon, a jury met at the Essex Arms, Watford, before Mr F Osbaldeston, coroner, to inquire into the cause of the death of Thomas Jordan, Joseph Barker, Thomas Evans, Silvanus Rudings, John Betts, William Byard, Thomas Windmill, James Darvell, and Bartlett Jeans, nine men killed by the falling in of a part of the tunnel forming in Russell Wood, near Watford, on the line of the London and Birmingham Railway.

The coroner having briefly explained the law relating to deodands, the jury proceeded to take a view of the bodies, which were lying in the engine house. They presented a most sad spectacle.

William Dixon, a lad of 14, deposed that he was descending the gin (a horse pulley) at the shaft in Russell Wood on Thursday, the 16th of last month. The men were down the shaft at work, of whom witness only knew the names of Jordan Rudings, Byard and Windmill. Jordan went down between 5 and 6 o’clock that morning. He is the overlooker, and Barker (another of the men down) was foreman of the gang. Rudings and Barker had been up that morning and had gone down again two or three buckets before Jordan. In about ten minutes after Jordan went down, witness heard the cry of “Ware” and immediately the whole shaft fell in. Witness was himself very near being killed. The shaft closed at the top. Neither Jordan or Barker had a saw when they went down.

William Tell was banksman on the morning of the accident. Ten men were down the pit at the time. After speaking to the time the men went down, he proceeded to state that it was his duty to stand at the mouth of the pit to let the materials down. About three o’clock the men called out to him not to send any more bricks until they had finished the part they were at work upon. When the pit fell in witness had got hold of one of the posts, and saw a man run across the pit. It was about twenty minutes to six o’clock. The whole fell in from the bottom to the top in less than two minutes. Witness had not time to look round him, and he could not say which way the man ran. He ran away in consequence of a noise he heard in the bottom of the pit, like the shooting of gravel out of a cart. The whole of the machinery of the gin was broken, and the horse was got out with great difficulty alive. The pit gave way at the bottom. The gravel ran in from all sides. Witness before the accident had assisted in digging out the tunnel, looking towards Birmingham, the gravel is on the right-hand side, and the chalk on the other.

Examined by Mr Buck – witness helped to get the shaft length out. One side is gravel, the other side chalk. Witness knew there was gravel, because they had to put up boards to prevent it running. The first length of the tunnel was arched over before the men began the second length. A bar is put along the chalk which rests on the brickwork at one end, and on a prop at the other.

The tunnel’s south portal, as it looks today.
© Chris/British Listed Buildings (used under Creative Commons licence)

John Cropper deposed that he was the sub-contractor, under Messrs Harding and Copeland, for the whole of the tunnel and shafts on the Watford line of the London and Birmingham Railway. Witness had to do all the brickwork. On the 16th of July the extra shaft fell in. Witness was at home at the time of the accident, but had been down the shaft the night before, at about eleven o’clock. At that time the bricklayers were bricking up the tunnel close to the shaft. About six yards on either side had been done. There was about ten feet space between the two brickworks. The space of the tunnel is 24 feet, and they had bricked when witness was down about three feet above spring of the arch. It had been previously secured by bars. On the right-hand side of the Birmingham side the soil is chalk; the other gravel. In the shaft length there was about eighteen inches of chalk in front of the gravel. In the shaft length the chalk ran for about twenty feet from the crown of the arch, proceeding upwards. Everything was safe when witness was down, and he had no reason to apprehend the least danger. Witness had known Barker some years and had worked with him at the Leicester tunnel; he was an experienced miner, as was also Jordan. Witness had worked in the tunnel on the previous night and had helped to get the centres up. Witness had never been told that the shaft was unsafe, and he never believed it to be so. There is four feet distance between each centre; one of which is placed in the middle of the shaft, and two others at four feet distant on either side. When the brickwork is completed at one centre, we strike the centre, and carry it onto the next. The bars are struck at the brickwork comes on, if they are in the way of the work. The bars are pieces of oak, about 13 feet long by 7 inches diameter, used to support the chalk until the brickwork is put in. Sometimes they are struck, and sometimes not. Since the accident, witness had been down the tunnel; the soil that fell in consists of chalk and gravel, of which there was none in when witness left the night before. In striking a bar the chalk might be broke, and if the gravel was so near the bar it would cause it to rub in. The bars rested on the chalk; there was no gravel visible in that length. He did not know how thick the chalk was. As a practical man he should have hesitated to strike either of the bars, even if he had not known of gravel being there. Mr Buck, the resident engineer, had been down No.2 shaft, and on seeing the gravel there told us to be cautious. We put good strong timbers in. Witness believes Mr Buck was there many times when he did not see him. No gravel was observable in the drift way. We have dug gravel in all the pits. The Leicester tunnel had sand in it, and we did not take any greater precaution there than here. Witness considered that there was more apparent danger in shaft No.2 than in the one that fell in. He knew of no means likely to make the tunnel safer than it then was.

W Barker, brother of one of the deceased men, deposed that his brother had followed mining ever since he had been able to work, and that he possessed considerable experience, having been employed at Leicester and other tunnels. Witness is also a miner. He had worked in the extra shaft the night before the accident, and he considered the soil there not to be so dangerous as that at Leicester, which was sand. The same precautions against accidents were taken at both places. Witness was present when the body of his brother was found; he was much pressed by the bar, and lying on the gravel side of the pit.

W Phillips described the situation in which the bodies were found. He then proceeded to state that on making the excavation for the purpose of getting the bodies out, they found a chalky soil on one side and gravel on the other. The bodies were lying on sand, chalk, and timber, all mixed together.

Mr Stephenson, engineer to the railway company, stated that he had directed in all cases in which any danger was feared from the presence of sand, that six feet and four feet lengths should be worked. Mr Buck, the resident engineer, had unlimited power as to any expenses necessary to render the work safe. He further stated that he had been employed as the engineer of the Leicester tunnel, and could confirm what had been sworn to with respect to greater danger there than at Watford. The shaft length of the Watford was obliged to be worked in a nine feet length.

Mr Buck, the resident engineer, made a similar statement.

James Simpson deposed that he was superintendent of the works on the part of the company. He had been down the tunnel 10 days before, and did not see any gravel; and on sinking the shaft now to get at the bodies, he found some chalk remaining in the form of the tunnel. The value of bricks, centres etc in the shaft was worth about £200.

The coroner then called the attention of the jury to the questions for their decision, as to whether they considered any blame to attach to any party, then for them to say to whom, and what was the amount of the deodand. The timber, bricks etc had been sworn to be of the value of £200, and they might find a verdict for that sum if they thought fit.

The jury, after a short consultation, found a verdict to the effect of the cause of death being entirely accidental, and levying a deodand of £5 on the bricks, timber etc. They further stated, that in their opinion every possible care and attention that skill and science could dictate had been used on the part of the company, their agents, and superintendents, in the construction of the shafts and works which had been brought under their notice.

The bodies of the unfortunate men were buried in Watford Churchyard the same evening.

Saturday 22nd August 1835: Buckinghamshire Herald

The Buckinghamshire Herald reports on the... Watford Tunnel collapse

The Caledonian Mercury reports on the… Scotland Street Tunnel flood

Melancholy and fatal catastrophe – four lives lost

An occurrence of a most alarming and unfortunately fatal nature occurred on Friday morning in the drift-way of the tunnel now forming for the Edinburgh and Leith Railway, by which the works have been much damaged and four lives lost.

Our readers are aware that the chief feature in this line of railway is a tunnel through the whole extent of the New Town, from Canal Street on the south to Canonmills on the north. The tunnel runs across Prince’s Street, through St Andrew Square, down Duke Street and Dublin Street, through Drummond Place, and down Scotland Street, in the low ground at Canonmills, where it again emerges into the open air. The making of this extensive tunnel had been divided into three or four contracts, and the drift-way of them all had been nearly completed; the last being the centre one, where the melancholy accident occurred, extending from about the foot of Duke Street to a considerable way down Dublin Street. The cause of this boring being left was in consequence of an interdict from Government, which obliged the contractors to work the drift from the upper end. This drift-way, it may be necessary to explain, is a comparatively small shaft bored through the ground, and being afterwards widened and lengthened, forms the completed tunnel. The drift-way in this railway, we understand, was so high that a man could walk upright, but not very broad.

A view down Dublin Street in Edinburgh’s New Town.
Photo: Mint & Ginger (taken from Flickr and used under Creative Commons licence)

That portion of the line extending through St Andrew Square has long been completed, and has been standing unused and unworked for the last seven or eight months, and during all that time there has been a gradual accumulation of water in the mine, being fed from the springs of the old North Loch and other water courses in the bowels of the earth in that direction. Of this the contractors were well aware. As the miners, however, were gradually carrying the drift-way in the centre contract up Duke Street to meet it, and were coming near to the point of junction between the two, they felt the necessity of proceeding with caution, so that the pent-up waters in the upper drift might find a vent through the nearly opened shaft without injuring the works or endangering life. Why this course, obviously, so full of hazard, was adopted, rather than the more safe one of pumping the water to the surface, does not appear, unless it may be inferred that the additional expense this would entail upon the works deterred them. If so, this is one added to many melancholy instances which might be adduced, of a narrow economy, in the first instance not only causing many valuable lives to be sacrificed, but of adding in the end, tenfold to the expense of the operation.

Such being the course adopted, however, the workmen had been for the last eight days employed, not in the usual operation of mining, but of drilling small holes through the strata, in order to discover the water, it being understood that if they did not in this way come in contract with it for a certain distance, they might then proceed in quarrying away more of the earth; while if the water should come, it would find a vent through the holes thus drilled, the solid barrier between resisting the passage of the whole body; and in this way they expected the accumulation of water would be gradually and safely drained. Here, however, began the error which has ended so fatally. The workmen who bored straight forward never discovered the water, and the reason of this, as it now turns out, arose from the fact that, from some slight deviation in the line of the drift-way either by the one or the other contractor, the two lines of shaft did not meet precisely in the centre, running straight into each other as was intended, but the centre one passed by a very slight difference indeed, to the eastward of the other. In this way the men had carried their line a little farther than the place where they ought to have met with the upper shaft, having all unconsciously to themselves, a very slight partition of clay between them and the immense accumulation of water in the neighbouring mine.

The works were carried on day and night, and the workmen, three or four of whom could only get to the place at once, were employed in three divisions, working eight hours each, and descending by the shaft or eye sunk at the head of Dublin Street. As they had been for some days in expectation of meeting with the water by penetrating to the other shaft, the attention of all was naturally called to every symptom of the gushing of water. On Thursday, one of the workmen was working on the west side of the drift, when four or five small jets of water gushed out. He called the attention of his companions to the circumstance, who thought it was the pent up flood, and, throwing down their tools, were about to run for safety; but the man who first discovered it assured them it was a small spring in the place; and on the jets stopping a short time after, they began to be reassured. There was another workman who had been employed in the upper mine that mention to his companions he thought they had deviated from the line of the other shaft, but no attention was paid to his remarks. On Thursday night, however, Mr Mitchell, the contractor, becoming anxious about the joining, gave directions that when the morning shift of men went down at six o’clock, he should be called as he meant to go down with them and ascertain the progress they had made. Accordingly, on Friday morning, Erskine, the ganger or superintendent of the men, was to have called on Mr Mitchell, but for some reason or other he did not do so, but he spoke to his brother, Mr Peter Mitchell, a person who was employed by his brother to superintend the workmen generally, but who was not conversant with the business of mining. He was induced to go down with Erskine, about six in the morning, where two men were already working.

An interior view of the tunnel, with its lining painted with calcite.
Photo: K-Burn

What passed in the mine after this can only be a matter of conjecture. But a short time after Mr Mitchell and the ganger had gone down, about half-past six, a boy, about fourteen years of age, named Jack, was lowered down the shaft, when at the bottom, and before he had let go his hold of the rope by which he had descended, he heard a noise, as he describes it, like a loud roar of thunder at the head of the drift. Terrified with the sound and instantly divining the cause, he cried to the men above to hoist him up. They also had heard the noise, and animated by the same terrors, they drew him quickly to the surface. Scarcely had he reached it, when a huge wave came surging up the shaft, a perpendicular height of eighty feet, the spray from which dashed fiercely against the roof of the wooden shed that encloses the descent. But this was only for an instant. Falling back again into the shaft, almost as quickly as it had risen, the angry waters began to find a vent through the drift which leads from the shaft down Dublin Street. The opening that had been made, however, was altogether inadequate to afford a channel to the torrent, so long pent up; and besides the debris brought down from the sides of the drift began to choke up the passage, and again to dam up the course of the torrent. In consequence of this, and the great compression of air in the mine, a second explosion took place at the foot of Dublin Street, this time towards the surface, when the water poured out upon the street, nearly opposite the entrance to the Broughton Markets, to such an extent that the area of Mr Brace, spirit dealer in Dublin Street, was flooded to the extent of about four feet, while a considerable volume poured down into Drummond Place. But the main stream continued its course underground, to the entrance of the drift at Canonmills, where it flooded the terminus of the completed portion of the railway to a considerable extent, filling up, for a time, the whole breadth of the railway line.

So soon as the workmen on the surface had recovered from the surprise and fright this sudden bursting had caused among them, their first thought was for the four unhappy men who were down in the mine. That they could have survived such an enormous rush of water was impossible; the most sanguine could not entertain a hope of their escape. Nevertheless, as soon as the water had subsided in the shaft, men went down, and after some little search they succeeded in finding the bodies of Erskine, the ganger, and of Blair, a miner from Liberton, which were lying at the bottom of the shaft. They were, as might be expected, quite dead; and appeared to have been swept down from the point of bursting to the place where they were found, and there to have been caught in the eddy caused by the circular shaft. The others were not then to be found, and it was supposed had been swept down the drift-way.

The noise occasioned by the bursting of the waters was distinctly heard by the families in the street; and the news of the melancholy accident having soon spread, a crowd was quickly collected, which continued about the works the whole day. Information being conveyed to the Police Office, a force was speedily despatched to the spot who rendered great service in keeping off the crowd, and otherwise preserving order. We may mention, also, that in the course of the forenoon, Bailie Mack, Mr Dymock, the procurator-fiscal, and Mr Haining, the superintendent of police, visited the scene of the accident, examined the workmen as to its origin, and otherwise took all the necessary steps to obtain judicial and precise information in regard to it.

The remains of a tablet, used to identify locations within the tunnel.
Photo: K-Burn

The fate of the two miners, whose names are Blair and Philips, is invested with a melancholy interest. We have already mentioned that the work was carried on night and day; and these men had gone down at ten o’clock on the previous night, and should have been released at six o’clock on Friday morning. Owing, however, to the fact that the men who should have relieved them had slept longer than usual, they continued to work and were thus involved in the dreadful calamity. Indeed, at so critical a period did the accident happen, that the relieving men had arrived at the shed and engaged in putting on their working-dress to descend into the mine, when they were alarmed by the crash of the eruption. The poor boy, too, we have mentioned, had a narrow escape. A few minutes longer, a few yards farther advanced into the mine, and no human power could have saved him. He seemed to be duly sensible of his perilous escape; and the wild expression of alarm pictured on his countenance hours after the accident, testified to the vivid impression made on him by the danger. Erskine, the ganger, had gone down just before him, and could not have reached the place where the men were working when the eruption took place. The boy states that he was only a few yards up the drift, and that he heard him utter a loud shriek at the time of the crash, as if he also then had become aware of his awfully perilous situation. We may mention that all the four unfortunate men were married and had families. The wife of one of them, Philips, whose body had not been recovered, resorted to the scene in the course of the forenoon, and her wild shrieks and cries were calculated to touch the coldest heart.

The water continued to flow at the aperture in Canonmills during the whole of the day, and the mine remained with from four to five feet depth of water in it during the greater part of the day. The slowness of its progress at last, compared with its fury on its first eruption, may be accounted for by the fact that debris brought down by the torrent had filled the narrow passage – and particularly at the bottom of Dublin Street, where the water forced its way to the surface, the drift had partially fallen in, the level of the street having perceptibly fallen. There is also on the north side of Drummond Place, a ridge of rock intersecting the drift, through which a passage is drilled, but so small as to prevent the great torrent of water forcing its way at once. Owing to these impediments, the water could only be drained off gradually. At the Canonmills station a channel was cut for the stream, conducting it into a common sewer on the line of railway, which carried it off.

One of the blockwalls erected when the tunnel became an air-raid shelter.
Photo: Laura Rennie

All the bodies were recovered. Erskine and Blair, as we have mentioned, were discovered about half-past ten in the forenoon at the bottom of the shaft. They were found together, Blair’s hand grasping the leg of Erskine – a position which would indicate that Blair had sought safety in flight down the drift, and had reached Erskine, but were both overtaken by the raging flood, which no speed could have outstripped. The bodies of Philips and Mitchell were found, the former about three, the latter about four o’clock in the afternoon. They had been carried down the mine as far as to the rocky ridge we have mentioned below Drummond Place, where their farther progress was stayed by this barrier. They were brought to the surface in the presence of a collected crowd, and Philip’s wife, who could not be long kept away from the scene of the calamity, renewed her lamentations at the sight of her husband’s corpse.

We need not add that this melancholy event formed the theme of conversation in the city, or that it has spread a general gloom over the workmen engaged in these operations. The deceased were all respected by their companions. Erskine was a faithful and vigilant superintendent, and the loss of Mr Mitchell, the brother of the master, is deeply regretted by the men. He was employed as general superintendent of the contract, and had the happy art of gaining the good will of those under him without neglecting the interests of his employers. As the families of all these poor men, with the exception, perhaps, of Mitchell are left destitute, a public subscription for their behoof will be necessary, unless, indeed, the directors of the railway follow the laudable example of the Marquis of Londonderry – an example not more laudable than it appears to be just – who makes it a point of providing from his own funds for the families of all the workmen who have the misfortune to lose their lives in his coal mines.

Monday 2nd December 1844: Caledonian Mercury

The Caledonian Mercury reports on the... Scotland Street Tunnel flood

Major A Ford reports on the… Hose Tunnel explosion

I have the honour to report that in obedience to your Order of the 7th November 1876, under the 66th section of the Explosives Act, 1875 (38 Vict. c.17), I have made an inquiry into the cause of an accident by an explosion of gunpowder which occurred at Hose Tunnel, near Scalford, in the county of Leicester, on the 14th October 1876, by which two persons lost their lives and six others were injured – one very severely. I also attended the adjourned inquests on the deceased at Scalford and Melton Mowbray which were held by Mr Oldham, the coroner for Leicestershire, on the 10th November; owing, however, to the injuries received by the principal witness in the case, he was unable to give evidence on that occasion, and the inquests were further adjourned to the 13th December, when I again attended.

In accordance with the provisions of the aforesaid section, I beg to render the following report –

Site of explosion

Hose Tunnel is now in course of construction by Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss, contractors, on a joint line of the Great Northern and London and North Western Railway companies, intended to run from Melton Mowbray to Bottesford. It is being excavated through a hill which is near the village of Scalford (about four miles from Melton Mowbray), and when complete will be nearly half a mile in length. In order to expedite the work, shafts have in accordance with the usual custom been sunk at intervals; and at the bottom of each shaft men excavate in both directions. In this way the construction can be carried on much more rapidly than if the cutting away were restricted to the two ends of the tunnel, each shaft giving two extra “faces”, as they are termed, for the men to work upon.

Cross section through the tunnel.

The accompanying sketch (above) shows the actual state of the tunnel on the 14th October, when the explosion took place. There were then two shafts (Nos. 1 and 2) sunk to the tunnel proper, in which men were at work, and two other shafts (Nos. 0 and 3) in what will ultimately be an open cutting.

Enlarged version of the plan showing Melton (south) end.

A “face” is about 11 feet high and 12 feet wide, and is divided into two “lifts”, the upper and lower; the upper lift being three or four yards in advance. A “shift” or gang of some 15 men are employed in each shaft under a foreman; but in the actual excavation only about three men can work on each lift, the remainder having to remove the earth to the bottom of the shaft, and to timber up the sides and roof of the tunnel as it is formed. On the 14th October there were altogether 17 men in the shaft No. 2, eight of whom were at the end of the tunnel where the explosion occurred (marked “site of explosion” on the plan).

Method of construction of the tunnel

In the Hose tunnel principally hard clay is encountered, and the method of excavation is to remove a certain portion on each side of the lift by manual labour, when two or three large holes (about three inches in diameter and about three feet deep) are bored into the centre part thus left unsupported at each side, and this portion is detached by blasting with gunpowder. The work is carried on by night as well as by day, the shifts relieving one another at 6am and 6pm, but on Saturday the day shift works from 6am to 2pm, and the night shift from 2pm to 10pm. Work is resumed by the day shift at 6am on Monday. Blasting usually takes place twice during each shift. The progress made at each face averages about one yard per diem, and the tunnel will not be completed for some months from the present time.

It will be observed that a tunnel while thus in course of construction by means of shafts consists of a number of underground places which in no essential particular differ from mines, as far as labour is concerned; yet, while stringent rules as to the use of gunpowder are laid down in the Mines Regulations Acts (35 & 36 Vict. cc. 76 and 77) for the latter, tunnels appear to be under no statutory regulations in this respect, as the Acts referred to do not seem to apply to them. Had there been no more than four pounds of gunpowder in the can taken into the tunnel at the time when the accident to which this report relates occurred, as would have been the case had it been a mine within the meaning of those Acts, I have little doubt that both the men whose lives were sacrificed would have escaped, and probably nearly all of the other six men would have been uninjured.

Storage and use of gunpowder by the contractors

The gunpowder used for blasting in the tunnel had been kept by the contractors in a store roughly constructed of large blocks of earth with a slated roof. Boards covered with sawdust formed the floor. The building was unlined, and there were apertures under the roof and by the side of the door. The contractors had not applied for a license for the store to the local authority, as required by the Explosives Act, and had they obtained such license, the store, as will have been seen by the description I have given, would have failed in very many respects to satisfy the conditions laid down in the Order in Council relating to stores; indeed, it was a most unsatisfactory place for the keeping of gunpowder. Moreover iron spades were also kept therein.

Owing to the necessity for a further adjournment of the inquests to the 13th instant, I was aware that considerable delay must occur in the rendering of my Report, and I therefore made a special Report on the illegality of this store on the 13th November, and the attention of the Local Authority was thereupon called to the matter. I have since been informed by Mr Benton that a new store has been now built, and that application has been made to the Local Authority for a license for the same.

It was the practice to take the gunpowder into the tunnel, when the holes were ready to be charged, in a can holding from 12lbs to 14lbs. The can had a long projecting neck with a sliding cover which would hold about 8oz or 10oz of gunpowder, and was called a “tot” by the workmen. It served as a measure of the amount of gunpowder to be used, three or four “tots” being sufficient for a charge; and the gunpowder, after having been poured from the can into the “tots” was projected with force therefrom by striking the “tots” against the side of the hole. The object of this was to ensure the gunpowder reaching the bottom of the hole and to prevent it from adhering to the sides.

There were no rules issued by the contractors for the guidance of the men in charging the holes, or indeed for any other purpose; the whole regulation of the work was left to the foreman of each shift. The general result, so far as the use of gunpowder was concerned, was that the foreman appears to have contented himself with telling the men to be careful, and to put their naked candles at a safe distance when they were charging their holes. As, on the one hand, placing the candles at a distance from the hole into which the gunpowder was to be “projected”’ involved an absence of light, which was most necessary for the purpose, and as, on the other hand, the question as to what would be a safe distance was left to the individual opinion of the workmen, it is not to be wondered at that the unprotected candle was sometimes left within two or three feet of the hole while it was being charged. Under these conditions nothing could be more natural, or I might say inevitable, than that in projecting the gunpowder down the hole a workman should occasionally make a mistake in the direction in which it was to be thrown, and that striking on some irregularity in the face near to the hole the contents of the “tots” should be scattered and be ignited by coming into contact with the nearest naked candle. In point of fact, there is no doubt that this was what happened on the occasion to which this report relates, with the result as above stated, that two lives were lost and six men were more or less injured.

Circumstances of the explosion

About half-past nine o’clock on the evening of Saturday the 14th October, eight men were in the north or Bottesford heading of No.2 shaft near the place marked “Site of explosion” on the plan. Three, John Sismey, Samuel Longman and John Foster were at work at the upper lift; and three, Samuel Lee, Charles Finch, and Robert Cann were about three or four yards from the face of the lower lift, and therefore about six to eight yards behind the first three. These were engaged in timbering up or supporting the sides and roof with planks. Some three yards further back William Taylor was running out earth, and about 15 yards behind was Thomas Wheeler the foreman of the shift.

One of the tunnel’s neat brick-arched refuges.

On the upper lift, where the three first-named were employed and the explosion occurred, the sides had been cut away, and Sismey having made a hole obliquely in the earth on the bottom had already charged it with gunpowder and was stemming it with clay, sitting down for the purpose behind Longman, who was in the act of charging another hole which was in the face of the tunnel. Near to Sismey there were two candles a short distance apart on the ground, and Longman was lighted by a candle placed in the face about two feet from his hole and a little above it. Foster was working at the side. The can containing the gunpowder was on the ground close by, and Longman having filled the “tot” for the third or fourth time therefrom, attempted to project the contents into the hole, when, as he stated in his evidence, he accidentally struck it against some projecting earth on the face and scattered the gunpowder, which, coming in contact with either his own or one of Sismey’s candles, was ignited. The gunpowder still remaining in the can was exploded, as also that in Longman’s hole; but Sismey’s hole was not fired. The three men on the upper lift were all very seriously injured. Foster died on the 28th October and Sismey on the 3rd November. Longman, who received the discharge of the gunpowder from the hole be was engaged in charging in his face, was still in a dangerous condition on the 10th November, and unable to give evidence at the adjourned inquest. On the 13th December, however, he had nearly recovered, and was able to give an account of the accident. All the other men also in that portion of the tunnel were more or less burnt, including the foreman, who was upwards of 20 yards from the can when the gunpowder exploded, and the three who were nearest on the lower lift were so badly injured that they had not returned to work on the 10th November, or nearly a month after the occurrence.

The principal witness in the case was Longman, the author of the mischief. He gave his evidence in a straightforward way without any attempt at concealment, and I have no doubt that the occurrence happened in the way he stated, viz. by his striking some projecting earth accidentally with the “tot” which contained gunpowder. Evidence was, however, given at the inquest that Sismey, who was carried to the infirmary of the Melton Union with him, had charged Longman with being habitually negligent in not removing his candle to a safe distance when charging his holes; but, on the other hand, Foster said that the occurrence was purely accidental, and that no one was to blame for it. There can be little doubt that the candle was not at a “safe distance” for such a dangerous operation, as the event shows, but it is very possible that Longman may have supposed that it was at a sufficient distance to ensure safety. He had always placed his candle, he stated, about the same distance from the hole, and he apparently argued that because no accident had to his knowledge occurred in this way, no such accident was probable or possible.

Cause of explosion

The primary cause therefore of the explosion was Longman’s accidentally scattering the gunpowder while he was charging his hole; but had the can been kept covered, or had there been only a small quantity of gunpowder – just sufficient for the purpose required – sent down into the tunnel, in all probability no one but Longman himself would have been injured, with the exception perhaps of Sismey and Foster (now both dead), who might have been slightly burnt by the discharge from Longman’s hole near to them. There must have been about 8lbs of gunpowder still remaining in the can at the time of the explosion.

Question as to blame to be attributed

The question then arises, to whom must blame be attributed for the loss of these two lives, and the injuries inflicted on the six other persons? In answer to this question I would observe –

Although the contractors, Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss, may leave the method of carrying on the work in each shaft to the foreman of the gang employed in it, the responsibility of providing for the safety of their men, and of taking all due precautions against accidents, rests with them. In the present case, what were the precautions adopted? We find, first, absolutely no rules or regulations whatever by the contractors themselves as to the use of gunpowder in blasting, all the details being left to the foreman; secondly, a can containing about 12lbs of gunpowder was sent down the shaft, when a much smaller quantity (such as 4lbs, the amount which would be allowed in a can in a mine) would have been quite sufficient for the purpose; thirdly, the foreman allowed the cover of the can to be used to “project” the powder with force down the hole, the men being told to put their naked candles at a “safe distance”, what is a safe distance being left to the men to decide. It is not very much to be wondered at under these circumstances that a man was found so projecting his gunpowder with his naked candle on the face about 2 feet from the hole, while another man was sitting on the ground behind him, stemming his own hole with two naked candles near him, and with the uncovered can containing gunpowder close by. I consider that Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss are very much to blame for this state of things, and that a grave responsibility attaches to them for permitting their work to be carried on without any proper regulations for the use of gunpowder in blasting.As regards Longman, it cannot be said that he exercised due prudence and caution when charging his hole by “projecting” the gunpowder into it under the circumstances stated. But it must be admitted that the method he adopted was the recognised plan in the tunnel; he had become accustomed to charge his holes with the candle at no greater distance, and never thought it possible that he should scatter the gunpowder by striking the face of the tunnel. A stranger to this method of working would no doubt have thought differently, and have rightly considered it a most dangerous practice; but Longman had become used to it, and considered it safe, and immunity from accidents hitherto had so far favoured this view. But this only furnishes another reason why proper and sufficient rules should be laid down in all cases where explosives are to be handled or used. On the whole, therefore, although there is no doubt that great blame attaches to Longman for his want of caution, it is, in my opinion, scarcely such as would render him criminally responsible. The primary responsibility in the matter appears to me to attach to Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss.# The inquests

As there were two inquests, one at Scalford on John Foster, before a jury of that village, which is near to the tunnel, and the other at Melton Mowbray on John Sismey, before a jury assembled in the town, the facts of the case had to be elicited on each occasion. At Scalford the verdict was as follows –

Looking out from the tunnel at its northern end.

“The jury find that the deceased John Foster died from the effects of burns caused by an explosion of blasting powder in Hose Tunnel, now being made on the Great Northern and London and North Western Joint line, and that such explosion was caused by the carelessness of Samuel Longman, but that such carelessness does not amount to criminality. And the jury further add that in their opinion “based upon the evidence brought before them”, the mode of performing blasting operations in the said tunnel is defective in arrangement, and during its progress lacks proper supervision. They recommend that cartridges be used in lieu of loose blasting powder. But in the event of such powder continuing to be used in a loose state, that not more than 4lbs be sent into the tunnel at one time to one set or gang of men, and that properly protected lamps be used instead of naked candles. The jury request Her Majesty’s Inspector who has attended this inquest to forward this expression of their opinion to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and the coroner to forward it to the contractors for making the tunnel.”

At Melton Mowbray the jury found a verdict of “Accidental death”, and special blame was attributed to no one.

As regards the first of these verdicts, I would remark that during the course of my inquiry and at my attendances at the inquests, I put questions to the different witnesses in the case. I asked among other questions, why the gunpowder was not used in the form of cartridges in the tunnel, why such large quantities were sent down at one time (pointing out the regulation in the Mines Act prohibiting more than 4lbs being taken into a mine in any case or canister), and why it was necessary to use naked candles when the holes were being charged. No evidence having been adduced to show that these precautions might not have been adopted, the jury, without any suggestion whatever on my part, made the recommendation contained in their verdict; and I now have the honour to forward to you this expression of their opinion as requested by them. I would beg to add that it has appeared to me during the inquiry I have held that there is no valid reason why tunnels in course of construction should not be regulated in the same way as mines, viz. by the Mines Regulation Acts above referred to, at any rate as far as the use of blasting powder is concerned, if not in other respects; and there would be many advantages, in my opinion, in their being placed under the supervision of the mines inspectors.

Where a tunnel takes several months to construct, and the details of the working in the shafts are left to the foreman of each gang, and no rules or regulations are issued by the contractors, there cannot be much doubt that considerable supervision is necessary.

As regards the second verdict, viz. that at Melton Mowbray, I would explain that the jury considered that Longman’s striking the face and upsetting the gunpowder was purely accidental, and hence they returned their verdict as “Accidental death”, attributing blame to no one. They appeared not to take into consideration the method of work in the tunnel, or indeed the question as to whether due caution was exercised by Longman in charging his hole. Although, as before stated, the blame to be attached to Longman does not in my opinion amount to criminality, I consider that he was to a certain extent culpable, and therefore I cannot agree with this verdict of the Melton jury. Further, I also consider, as previously explained, that a very heavy responsibility rests upon the contractors for neglecting to make due provisions for the safe conduct of their work.

I have to add that I received every assistance from Mr Oldham the coroner at the inquests, and Mr Benton, of the firm of Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss, the contractors, afforded me every facility in making my inquiry. I also had an opportunity of inspecting the work as actually carried on in the tunnel.

A Ford, Major RA, HM’s Inspector of Explosives

Major A Ford reports on the... Hose Tunnel explosion

Major V D Majendie reports on the… Cymmer Tunnel explosion

I have the honour to report that in obedience to your Order of 6th instant, made under the 66th Section of the Explosives Act, 1875, I have held an inquiry into the circumstances attending an explosion of dynamite which occurred at Cymmer, near Maesteg, Glamorganshire, on the 21st April 1876, by which 13 persons lost their lives and two others were injured. I also attended the adjourned inquest on the deceased which was held at Cymmer by Mr Cuthbertson, coroner.

Cymmer Tunnel’s muddy interior.
Photo: Richard Knight

In accordance with the provisions of the above-mentioned section of the Act, I beg to furnish the following report –

Circumstances under which the explosion occurred

The explosion took place in an unfinished tunnel, forming part of the Llynvi and Ogmore Railway Extension. This tunnel which, when completed, will be nearly a mile in length, is being driven through a high hill lying between Maesteg and Cymmer by the Diamond Rock Boring Company (Limited), of 2 Westminster Chambers, Victoria Street, SW. The work at the time of the accident was being carried on from both ends, and at the north or Cymmer end a distance of 365 yards had been penetrated. At 8.30pm on the 21st April an explosion occurred at a manhole, situated in, and on the left side of, the tunnel, 176 yards from the mouth, by which 13 persons were instantaneously killed and two others sustained serious injuries. Some damage also was done to the tunnel, portions of the roof of the heading being injured, in one case at a distance of 118 yards from the scene of the explosion, and the wooden centres at the opening of the tunnel distant 176 yards being blown away.

The names of the persons who were killed were –

John Bartle30 yearsbody or remains found 18 feet from scene of explosion
Robert Quick25 yearsbody or remains found about 81 feet from scene of explosion
Joseph Pearce25 yearsbody or remains found about 81 feet from scene of explosion
Robert Weeks30 yearsbody or remains found about 111 feet from scene of explosion
Edward Morgan32 yearsbody or remains found about 81 feet from scene of explosion
Evan Davies41 yearsbody or remains found about 111 feet from scene of explosion
John Osbourne25 yearsbody or remains found about 81 feet from scene of explosion
George Moore20 yearsbody or remains found about 81 feet from scene of explosion
David Hitchinsunknownbody or remains found about 111 feet from scene of explosion
Morgan Jones19 yearsbody or remains found about 111 feet from scene of explosion
Richard Parsons29 yearsbody or remains found opposite scene of explosion
James Oatesunknownbody or remains found about 81 feet from scene of explosion
John Clements13 yearsbody or remains found opposite scene of explosion

Two of the deceased, Richard Parsons and the boy Clements, were blown to atoms; some small fragments only of their bodies having been recovered, and these fragments were found in the immediate neighbourhood of the manhole where the explosion had occurred. With regard to the other men, some of them, as Bartle, Moore, and Quick, were more or less externally injured, but the others do not appear to have exhibited any marked injury, and were considered by the doctors who gave evidence to have been killed by the shock to the nervous system and the cooperation of poisonous gases – i.e. chiefly carbonic acid. A number of other men who were working further in the tunnel (see Plan) escaped injury. The position and details of the manhole at which the explosion occurred, the structural damage effected by the explosion, and the spots at which the bodies were found and at which the injured and uninjured men were working, are shown on the accompanying plan, which is reduced from a tracing which was produced on behalf of the Company at the inquest, and of which a copy was given to me for the purpose of my inquiry. I desire here to take the opportunity of stating that I received from Mr Lean, the resident engineer of the Company, every assistance and facility in carrying out my investigation, and also that the servants of the Company whom I examined replied readily to my inquiries.

Cross section through the tunnel around the location of the explosion.

After the accident had occurred, William Elliott, the foreman at the Cymmer end of the tunnel, and others, were prompt in removing the injured men, and Elliott especially seems to have displayed great presence of mind and gallantry. Immediately on the accident occurring he gave instructions to the engineman to keep up a strong blast of fresh air into the tunnel; and he himself worked at the removal of the bodies and of the injured men until he was overpowered and rendered insensible by the noxious gases which the explosion of the dynamite had produced.

Arrangements of the Company for the storage and supply of explosives

Proceeding to examine more particularly into the circumstances and cause of this lamentable explosion, the most fatal that has occurred in this country since the Stowmarket Gun-cotton Explosion in 1871, it appears that the work which was being carried on by the Company involved the use of a considerable quantity of explosive. Both gunpowder and dynamite were employed for the purpose; and at the time of the accident the Company also had some Cotton powder in their possession. Two magazines existed for the storage of the explosives, both being at the Maesteg side of the tunnel and distant over a mile from the Cymmer end. One of these magazines is used for the storage of dynamite; the other is used for the storage of gunpowder and cotton powder. The two magazines form separate buildings, more than 100 yards apart. The dynamite magazine existed in virtue of a special license No. 322, granted under the Nitro-Glycerine Act, 1869 (32 & 33 Vict. c. 113), and dated 25th August 1875. This license being limited in duration to 12 months, holds good (in virtue of Section 52 of the Explosives Act,) until it runs out in August next, consequently the Company held their dynamite not in virtue of any licence under the existing Explosives Act, but in virtue of the unexpired license specified above.

The gunpowder magazine does not appear to have been covered by any license under the old Act, or by any license or registration under the new Act, and the storing of cotton powder (exceeding the amount which may be kept for private use and not for sale) without license or registration, was also illegal.

The question of illegality in regard to the storage and use of the explosives will, however, be more fully considered further on.

The practice appears to have been for the foremen respectively in charge of the two ends of the tunnel to draw supplies of explosive for their use from the magazine. At the Maesteg end of the tunnel, the foreman generally drew only a small quantity of explosive, about enough for 12 hours working, and this was deposited in a wooden box a little way within the tunnel, a packet being brought from the box to a little wooden shed outside, for the purpose of fitting the detonators and fuse for firing. I am not strictly concerned with this end of the tunnel, except in so far as the practice there bears upon the practice at the other end; but I cannot refrain from noticing the almost entire absence of precautions which I observed there. The box where the packages of dynamite are placed for use, contained, at the time of my visit, candles, fuse, old iron and rubbish and dirt of various descriptions; while the wooden shed, in which the charges were made up was a sort of general store, full of iron, spades, pickaxes, and other implements. There was also a stove in it, but this I was assured is never used.

It is clear, however, that at the Maesteg end of the tunnel, the precautions for preventing accidents by explosion were at a minimum; and no attempt seems to have been made by the issue of suitable instructions to enforce care and caution. Turning to the Cymmer end of the tunnel, it appears that the manhole where the explosion occurred had been specially appropriated to the reception of the dynamite as it was received from the magazine at the Maesteg end; and it was fitted with a door and lock. The detonators and fuse were also kept here, the former being placed on a small shelf made for the purpose in the upper part of the manhole. Elliott, the foreman at this end, states that it was an instruction to the men to prepare their charges not at the manhole where the dynamite was kept, but at another manhole 40 feet further in the tunnel. This instruction, it was stated, as also the directions for the preparation of the manhole where the stock of explosive was kept, had emanated from Mr Lean the engineer.

The powder which was drawn from the magazine appears to have been kept in a separate place, some of it being in a manhole 80 feet nearer the entrance of the tunnel than the dynamite manhole.

The next question is, what quantity of explosive was kept in the manhole; and what were the precautions enjoined or observed with regard to it.

The former of these points is of importance, not merely as bearing upon the loss of life and extent of damage produced by this explosion, but as affecting the question of the legality of the presence of a quantity of dynamite within the tunnel. The other point is of importance in regard to the light which it may throw upon the cause of the accident, and in its relation to the question of whether blame attaches to the Company or their responsible officers or servants for this explosion.

With regard to the quantity of explosive kept in the tunnel, there is, I think, no doubt that the quantity of dynamite actually present in the manhole at the time of the explosion was 150lbs. An issue of 200lbs of dynamite had been made from the magazine by Butland, the storekeeper, on the 18th April; and of this quantity, Elliott states 50lbs and no more had been used up to the time of the accident. Elliott spoke positively on this point. There were also in the manhole about 10lbs of cotton powder, some detonators and fuse. The whole of these were exploded or destroyed by the explosion.

It is clear, therefore, from the above that there had been placed in the manhole on the 18th a quantity of dynamite sufficient for several days consumption; because while the quantity so deposited was 200lbs, it appears that the actual consumption from the 18th to the 21st (3 days) only equalled 50lbs. This fact it will be my duty to comment upon more closely hereafter.

As regards the precautions taken to prevent accidents, even if we assume that the place was intended only as a place of deposit for dynamite, those precautions appear to have been very much less stringent than is necessary to afford even a reasonable measure of security against accidents.

The manhole had, it is true, a locked door; and the key was held by the two responsible foremen, Elliott and Bartle. But they were in the habit of giving the key to certain of the workmen for the purpose of fetching what dynamite they wanted; these men were not forbidden to use a naked candle in removing the dynamite, nor, indeed, do they appear to have been enjoined or required to exercise any more care than if they had been handling an inexplosive substance. Detonators, as I have stated, were also kept in the place; and the manhole itself was not lined or in any way fitted as a place in which a quantity of explosive was habitually deposited most certainly should have been. And, as a matter of fact, the manhole cannot be regarded as merely a place of deposit. It was also, as it appears, commonly used for the preparation of the charges, by the fitting together of the detonators, fuse, and dynamite. I have stated that this was contrary to instructions; but Elliott himself admitted frankly that this rule had to his knowledge been frequently disregarded, and that such disregard of a rule, which he considered an important one, he had not visited with more than a verbal reprimand. He had himself, he says, “several times” seen Richard Parsons preparing the primers at the dynamite manhole. He had seen him doing so with a naked candle sticking against the side of the wall outside the manhole about a foot or six inches from it; he had even seen him smoking while so engaged, and he knew, he tells us, that this was dangerous. But it never seems to have occurred to him that it was his duty to do more than reprimand the man; he had never even reported such dangerous disregard of instructions to Mr Lean, nor had he taken the obvious precaution of refusing to allow this careless man the use of the key of the place. On the contrary, he allows Parsons to go again and again to the place; he again and again sees him doing what he knows was dangerous and directly contrary to orders; but he is satisfied on each occasion, with merely cautioning the man not to do it again.

Cause of explosion

With regard to the cause of this explosion, there is evidence that Parsons at the time it occurred was again doing that which Elliott said he had before, and, in defiance of orders, and in disregard of warnings and reprimands, done “several times” that is to say, he was engaged in preparing his primers at the manhole in which the supply of dynamite was deposited. William Lewis, a collier by trade, happened to have gone into the tunnel a few minutes (he says about five or ten minutes at the outside) before the explosion. As he passed the manhole he observed Parsons sitting on the sill of the manhole, and he had some conversation with him. Parsons was engaged in making up his charges, he had the detonators and fuse to his left hand, and immediately above the little accumulation of explosives, and about 6in from the side of the manhole, he had his naked candle stuck against the wall in the usual way by a piece of clay. It is significant of the general disregard of precautions which prevailed, that Lewis should have selected a man engaged on this work as the person from whom he could most conveniently obtain a light for his candle; and it is significant also of Parsons’ general recklessness, that he should not only have been ready to give him a light, but that while so engaged, he should have invited his particular attention to the detonators and other explosive material lying beside him. But this, Lewis states, is what passed; and when the conversation had ceased, Lewis passed on up the tunnel, after which, in a few minutes the explosion occurred. The fact that the remains of Parsons, blown almost to pieces, were found close to the manhole, tends to show that he was, at the time of the explosion, still engaged upon the work which had occupied him when Lewis passed. Such being the case, it really seems unnecessary to have recourse to recondite suggestions to explain the cause of this terrible explosion. I am not aware that it has ever been seriously suggested that the explosion was the result of spontaneous ignition; but, as this theory is rather a favourite one on such occasions, I thought it desirable to submit to Dr Dupre a sample of the dynamite from the same batch as that which exploded (taken from the magazine at the Maesteg end) for chemical examination. That gentleman’s report shows that the dynamite was of satisfactory quality, and free from any indications of destructive chemical action, or of the presence of any elements which would justify suspicion in this direction.

We are then left with our choice of the following possible explanations –

1: That, through some carelessness or clumsiness, Parsons exploded a detonator as he was fitting a fuse into it, or as he was fixing it in a primer

2: That a spark was communicated in some way to one or other of the explosives present

3: That the explosion was produced by a blow

4: That the candle fell on to and fired one or other of the explosives, thereby causing the explosion of the whole.

As regards the first possible cause, it is not impossible that the explosion may have proceeded from it, but it is certainly the most improbable of the four possible explanations enumerated above.

As regards the second possible cause, I ascertained by experiment not only that a spark can readily be struck with a piece of steel against the “Pennant” stone (a hard sandstone) in which the manhole was excavated, but that even two pieces of the stone itself struck smartly together are liable to give a spark. It is certain that the boy Clements was standing at or near the manhole at the time of the explosion; for he was blown to pieces, and the few remains of his body which were recovered (consisting only of his fingers) were found close to the spot. It is also certain that he had with him a steel drill 4ft long and 1¼in diameter, which was recovered after the accident doubled up in a serpentine shape, showing that it had been subjected to some great violence. There is no doubt that this drill would have been capable of striking a spark which might have fired the dynamite, or cotton powder, or the fuse.

Or, thirdly, the same drill would have been capable of exploding the dynamite by a blow. Dr Dupre’s report shows that dynamite of this quality can be exploded by a 1lb steel weight falling on to it a height of 18 inches. Or, the drill falling into the detonators might have produced an explosion; and Mr Lean holds strongly to the opinion that the accident was caused in this way.

It is, of course, impossible to say that it was not so caused, but I venture to think that the falling of a candle (either that belonging to Parsons, or that carried by the boy) on to the little pile of detonators, fuse, and dynamite, is by far the most probable of the four suggested causes. It was urged by Mr Lean, 1st, that had a candle fallen it would at once have been noticed, and Parsons and Clements would have had time to get away from the spot; but, as Elliott pointed out, had only one of the two candles present fallen, its fall might readily have escaped observation for the moment of time which would suffice to produce the ignition and resulting explosion; indeed, it is quite possible that a spark only may have fallen from the candle and not the candle itself.

2nd, Mr Lean observed that had the explosion been produced by the ignition of the dynamite or fuse, the noise of the burning material would almost certainly have attracted Parsons’ and the boy’s attention, and they would naturally have fled. But to this it may be replied that the noise produced by the burning of a small portion of dynamite is scarcely perceptible until the ignition has proceeded to some extent, and assuming that Parsons (who it must be recollected had been at work for some little time) had by him a few primers with the detonators fitted into them, a spark falling on to one of these would suffice to establish ignition, and, from an experiment which I have made, I conclude that this ignition of the dynamite might easily have produced the explosion of the detonator inserted in it before the sound of the burning was perceived; and, in the next place, an explosion produced by this means would have followed almost immediately on the ignition of a primer in which it may be assumed a detonator was fixed. Persons who have not actually made the experiment can hardly be aware of the silent rapidity with which the burning of a portion of ignited dynamite proceeds. And this observation holds good also with regard to gun-cotton. I am satisfied from my experiments that had a primer of dynamite (or gun-cotton) fitted with a detonator become ignited, it would scarcely have been possible for any person who might be close by to have effected their escape before the explosion which would be the necessary consequence of such ignition took place. I may add that I have also ascertained by actual experiment that a lighted candle falling on to dynamite almost instantly ignites it. Considering, therefore, that it is established that there existed all the elements for the production of an explosion in this way – the naked candle stuck against the wall by means of clay (to say nothing of the candle probably in the boy’s hand), the dynamite and the detonators, and almost certainly some primers already fitted with detonators, it seems unnecessary to have recourse to such explanations as the falling of a steel drill, or the accidental explosion of detonators to account for the explosion. There can, I should say, be very little reasonable doubt that the explosion was produced by the falling of a candle (or a spark therefrom) on to some of the explosive present, probably on to a primer of dynamite with detonator fixed, and that the resulting explosion extended to the whole of the explosives within the manhole.

Illustration showing the manhole where the explosion occurred.

That the large quantity of dynamite present increased the loss of life, I have no doubt. It will be observed that the large proportion of the men who were killed were working at a distance of from 80 to 111 feet from the scene of the explosion, and it is further noticeable that of the men working at this distance two escaped with their lives. I am accordingly led to the conclusion that had the quantity of dynamite present been very much less than that which actually exploded, the lives of the whole of the 10 men who were working at these distances from the scene of the explosion would most probably have been saved.

Consideration of the question as to the blame attaching to the Company or their servants

And this brings me to the concluding consideration –

What blame attaches to the Company or their servants for this sad explosion and loss of life?

The coroner’s jury, after about an hour’s deliberation, returned the following verdict: “That the deceased died from suffocation and shock, the result of an explosion of dynamite, but how caused there is not sufficient evidence to show.” I feel constrained to say that this verdict falls very far short of the meeting the justice of the case; and I must profess my surprise that the jury did not consider that the evidence which was laid before them at the inquest called for a more decided verdict, or at least made imperative some strong expression of opinion as to the general manner in which that part of the business of the Company which was connected with the storage and management of explosives was shown to have been carried on.

I conceive it to be my duty, at any rate, to point out that the Company appear not only to have been guilty of certain violations of the law, one of which I cannot doubt contributed to augment the loss of life resulting from this accident; but that they are also chargeable with an amount of carelessness and negligence in the management of the explosives kept and used by them which calls for a strong expression of censure and fixes on them a most serious responsibility in connection with this accident.

As regards the illegalities which I conceive were committed, it appears –

1st. That the Company at the time of the accident were storing gunpowder and cotton powder without any license or authority. I have stated that they possessed a gunpowder magazine, and it appears from a return furnished to me by the Company of the issues of explosive to the Cymmer end of the tunnel, that the consumption of powder was considerable. It appears therefrom that there were constant issues of 2cwt of gunpowder at a time. Thus, in January, there were six such issues, making 12cwt; in February there were four such issues, making 8cwt; in March there was one issue of 2cwt; and in April (up to the 21st) there were three such issues, or 6cwt. Thus the total issues of gunpowder from 1st January to 21st April amounted to 28cwt. Under the Explosives Act, which came into operation on the 1st January last, no person may keep more than 30lbs of gunpowder without a license or under registration, and then only provided it is kept for private use and not for sale. It is clear, therefore, that (not to go further back than the 1st January) the Company had been illegally storing gunpowder. They had also, it appears, been illegally storing gun-cotton (or “cotton powder”), for on the 17th April there was an issue to the Cymmer end of 56lbs of “patent gun-cotton” and “100 cartridges compressed ditto”. Of this material the Explosives Act allows only 15lbs to be kept (for private use and not for sale) without license or registration (Order in Council No.8).

With regard to this, however, Mr Lean laid some stress on the fact that the Company had, prior to 31st March, made application for a store license to cover the storage of “Mixed Explosives”, which license they have failed to obtain owing to the proposed site not being strictly in accordance with the provisions of the Order in Council relating to Stores. But it is proper to point out that the keeping of this gunpowder without a license had not only constituted an illegality since 1st January 1876, but was illegal under the old Act which expired at that date (see 23 & 24 Vict. c. 139, sec. XVIII.), and the mere fact of applying for a license about the end of March would not excuse the previous illegality, nor cover the continued storage of the explosive preceding the grant of such license, or after it had failed to be obtained.

2nd. But a more serious illegality, in my judgment, consisted in the storing of quantities of dynamite in the manhole at the Cymmer end of the tunnel. A reference to the license held by the Company shows that condition 3 directs that Nitro-glycerine preparations stored in pursuance of this license shall – “not be stored anywhere than in a certain magazine well and substantially built of brick or stone, or excavated in solid rock, earth, or mine refuse, and lined throughout with wood, and situated at Blaen Llynvi, near Maesteg, in the parish of Llangonoyd, in the county of Glamorgan”; and condition 11 directs as follows – “Nitro-glycerine preparations stored under this license shall not be used except by the licensee or persons in his immediate employ; and shall not be sold or served out except to persons in the immediate employ of the licensee for the immediate use of such persons on work authorised by the licensee.”

Now it has been shown that a quantity of dynamite amounting to 200lbs had been deposited in the manhole in the tunnel, which was not the place authorised by the license for the storage of the same, on the 18th April, and that at the time of the accident there remained of this amount 150lbs. If this constituted a “storage” of dynamite it was a violation of the third condition of the license above recited, while if the issue of the 18th April was in excess of what was necessary for immediate use, the eleventh condition of the license had also been violated. I venture to express my opinion that there was a violation of both those conditions. There is, it is true, no actual limitation of time assigned in the Nitro-glycerine Act or in the license as the limit beyond which keeping constitutes “storage”; but, taken in conjunction with the eleventh condition of the license, it must, I think, be clear that where dynamite is kept in excess of what is required for “immediate use” there is a “storage” of the same. This brings me to the question – What is immediate use? The resident engineer Mr Lean, who naturally in the interests of the Company would be disposed to assign a liberal interpretation to this expression, appeared to consider that “immediate use” meant about a day’s (24 hours) consumption.

Elliott stated that he had received verbal instructions from Mr Lean not to get more than two boxes (=100lbs in all) at one time. This, at the rate of consumption which had obtained up to the date of the accident, would generally represent four or more days consumption. Mr Lean, however, states that he does not recollect giving Elliott these instructions, and thinks it improbable that he would have given an order for any definite limit of quantity without regard to the actual consumption. But be this as it may, it is quite clear that, as a matter of fact, no correspondence between the quantity required for “immediate use” and the quantity actually issued was observed on the occasion of the last issue or on former occasions.

An analysis of the return gives the following results –

January – Total issues between 3rd January and 3rd February, 650lbs. If we assume that the consumption proceeded at the same rate, we have for the 31 days an average consumption of about 21lbs a day. But in no case were the issues less than 50lbs, or two days consumption, and in one case (the 14th), 100lbs was issued. There were in the month, 11 issues of 50lbs, = over 2 days each, and 1 issue of 100lbs, = nearly five days.

February – Total issues and (assumed) consumption from 3rd February to 1st March, 750lbs, = average consumption for the 26 days, 29lbs per diem. But the actual issues were –

7 of 50lbs = over 1½ days each

2 of 100lbs = about 3½ days each

1 of 200lbs = about 7 days

March – From 1st March to 4th April, issues and (assumed) consumption, 550lbs, making an average consumption for the 34 days of 16lbs a day. But the whole of this amount was served out in only five issues, being –

1 of 30lbs = about 1½ days

4 of 100lbs = about 6½ days each

April – Issues from 4th to 21st, 550lbs. Of this 150lbs was destroyed by the explosion, leaving 400lbs expended between the 4th and 21st, and giving an average consumption for the 17 days of 22lbs a day. The issues during this month were –

1 of 50lbs = 2 days consumption

3 of 100lbs = 4 days consumption

1 of 200lbs = 8 days consumption

I do not lose sight of the fact that this mode of exhibiting the want of correspondence between the issues and the quantities required for “immediate use” is open to the objection that being based upon the “average” rate of consumption it takes no account of the occasionally heavy expenditures of dynamite, or of the days when there was no such expenditure at all. It may be represented, for example, that although 100lbs was issued on the 14th January when the average consumption was only 21lbs a day, there is nothing to show that the whole of that 100 lbs was not, in fact, used on the 14th or 15th. But this argument, if it be admitted, includes also the admission that the consumption was exceedingly variable, and subject to no very reliable rule of averages, and it follows, therefore, that the storekeeper, in the absence of definite information as to the actual consumption or immediate requirements, could not possibly have adjusted his issues to the real requirements for “immediate use”. In the absence of any such information he would have nothing whatever to go upon but his calculation as to the rate at which the dynamite was demanded, and at which, judging from the frequency or infrequency of these demands, its use was proceeding; and the above tables at any rate show that if he in fact proceeded upon this method of calculation he certainly made no attempt to observe any relation between his issues and the amount apparently required for immediate use, seeing that he actually made his issues in quantities varying from one and a half to eight days average consumption. Had the storekeeper then anything else to guide him? It appears that he had not. It was the practice of the foreman, Elliott, when he wanted dynamite, to make a requisition on a form provided in a book; but it was not his practice to specify the amount required, nor had the storekeeper, whose magazine was distant about a mile (over rough mountain road) from the Cymmer end, any other opportunity of ascertaining with any sort of accuracy what was being actually used. And as a matter of fact it appeared from my examination of the storekeeper that he was even ignorant of the particular condition of the license which required the issues to be thus regulated.

It can hardly be successfully contended that a storekeeper who was not only ignorant of the actual quantities required for “immediate use”, but also of any obligation limiting the issues in this way, was in a position or likely to observe this condition of the license, and it is not therefore to be wondered at that an examination of the issue book discloses on the face of it an entire absence of any observance accidental or designed of this condition.

Still, despite the probability, almost certainty, that this condition must under the circumstances have failed to be observed, and despite its apparent non-observance throughout the three and a half months preceding the explosion, as ascertained by the method of computation adopted above, I deemed necessary to examine a little closer and to inform myself whether there actually was, on the particular occasion in question, a non-observance of this rule. The storekeeper’s book shows that there was an issue to the Cymmer end, on the 18th April, of 200lbs of dynamite. Elliott stated that on receiving this large amount he was at a loss what to do with it, and would have sent some of it back, but he considered he had no authority to do so. There had been nothing in Elliott’s requisition to suggest the sending of this large quantity. It is true there had been a slight delay in the obtaining of dynamite from the agent at Cardiff, and there was also the fact that the chairman of the Company (Major Beaumont) was known to the storekeeper to be present and carrying out experiments with new drills, and there was thus on his mind an impression that the stock had run out, and that the occasion was one when probably an extra supply would be useful. As a matter of fact both these surmises were incorrect, for there still remained (Elliott says) 50lbs of dynamite when the new supply was received, and there was in fact no increase whatever in the actual rate of consumption for that month.

These circumstances alone, show how impossible it was for a storekeeper, without definite instructions and a proper system, to have observed this important condition. Moreover, the license leaves no room for guesses and conjectures of this sort.

It expressly prohibits the issue of larger quantities than are required for immediate use; not quantities larger than the storekeeper or other person may consider or conjecture to be necessary, but quantities not exceeding what actually is necessary.

Applying this test, we find that while 200lbs were issued on the 18th, no less than 150lbs of that amount was unexpended on the evening of the 21st. This circumstance, quite apart from the other considerations which I have urged, seems to establish clearly a serious violation on this particular occasion of a most important condition of the license; one, moreover, to which, as I have shown, the storekeeper’s attention had not been specially directed by the Company, of which, indeed, it appeared that he was in fact ignorant, and one, finally, the neglect of which contributed, I do not doubt, to a large increase in the number of deaths resulting from this most serious explosion.

I observed one or two minor illegalities in the magazine, e.g. it was not wholly lined with wood, and it was not wholly free from the presence of iron; but on these points it is not necessary particularly to insist. The substantial illegality was that which I have endeavoured to bring out into prominence above, viz. the illegal storage in the tunnel of a quantity of dynamite in excess of what was required for immediate use.

Negligence of the company and their servants with regards to the management of explosives

But it is still my duty to make some observations on the negligence which is shown to have prevailed with regard to the keeping and handling of the dynamite.

I have already mentioned the laxity which prevailed even subsequent to the explosion, and up to the time of my visit, at the Maesteg end of the tunnel, a laxity which is not to be excused by the fact that the quantity of explosive was small, for it was certainly not so small that fatal consequences might not have ensued from its explosion. But at the Cymmer end with which I am more particularly concerned and where the quantity kept was sufficiently large, as we unfortunately know only too certainly, to cause the deaths of many persons, the absence of adequate precautions was not less conspicuous. Indeed, if we except the facts that the manhole where the dynamite was stored (in quantities far exceeding what was necessary) was provided with a locked, door, and that the men had been instructed not to prepare their charges at this spot – an instruction which it plainly appears there was no real attempt to enforce – it may be said that no precautions whatever were taken.

The foreman who was charged with the receipt and custody of the dynamite had neither received nor issued any written instructions with regard to its management; he was even doubtful, it seems, whether he would be justified when he received an unduly large supply (as he did on the 18th April) in sending some of it back, and as a matter of fact he did not venture to take the responsibility of doing so, and accordingly stowed it all away for want of a better place in the manhole; a suggestion which Elliott says he had made to Mr Lean that a small supplementary magazine should be provided outside the tunnel was not adopted; the manhole beyond being provided with a door and lock was not fitted in any way as even a place of temporary deposit for explosive should be, whether the explosive so deposited be in large or small quantities; the detonators were kept inside the manhole with the dynamite; the whole business of the place was permitted to be carried on by the light of naked candles; smoking, which in theory was prohibited, could, as it appears, be indulged in in the manhole with impunity; while even repeated disregard of the orders which had been given against preparing the charges at this manhole entailed upon the offenders no more serious consequences than a verbal reprimand.

The damage caused to the tunnel at locations BB and CC.

It is not surprising that such general laxity and carelessness should ultimately have resulted in a disaster; indeed the really surprising thing would have been the absence of such a result; and I consider that the Company in permitting such a state of things to exist on their works incurred a most serious responsibility, and have laid themselves open to very grave censure. The case is, in my judgment, further aggravated by the considerations, 1st – That the responsible officers of the Company were cognisant of the habitual carelessness of their workmen in their dealings with explosives, a carelessness of which in the case of Parsons the foreman Elliott had repeated and ample ocular evidence; 2nd – That they could not plead ignorance of the sort of precautions which should have been observed because the detailed conditions of their dynamite license furnished a useful and sufficiently precise guide on this point. The observance in the manhole of the precautions enjoined in conditions 6 to 10 of this license would probably have averted this disaster, and I quite fail to follow an argument or excuse put forth by Mr Lean, that while these precautions were no doubt proper to be observed where the amount exceeded 150lbs or 200lbs they were unnecessary in the case of smaller quantities; indeed, a more emphatic contradiction of the soundness of Mr Lean’s view that there was no objection to detonators being kept with the dynamite when the latter did not exceed 150lbs could not have been furnished than was furnished by the unfortunate fact that this particular amount of dynamite had sufficed (through the agency in all probability of a single detonator) to kill 13 persons, and it must be a matter of surprise and regret that Mr Lean should have ventured to offer this argument in face of the damaging refutation which this explosion afforded. Nor did Mr Lean’s argument in favour of the use of naked candles appear to me more convincing. He urged that the light given by a lamp is inferior to that given by a candle, and that consequently with a lamp there would have been a greater temptation to bring it into dangerous proximity to the explosive. But it appeared on cross-examination that Mr Lean’s conception of the relative illuminating power of candles and lamps rested upon no substantial basis. He had not, he said, taken any steps to ascertain whether a safe and efficient lamp for magazine use could be obtained, notwithstanding that the 8th condition of his dynamite license distinctly indicated the existence of such a lamp. Had he taken any trouble on the subject, he would have discovered that two patterns of lamps had been approved by me on behalf of the Secretary of State, and that the illuminating power of either of them was vastly superior to that of the common tallow candles actually employed. He would also have found that these lamps might be brought into even close proximity to an explosive without danger. In fact, he would have found that his argument on this point was worthless. Further, it appears to me that the grounds upon which Mr Lean stated that he had declined to adopt the suggestion made by Elliott, that a supplementary magazine should be provided outside the tunnel for the storage of the supplies of dynamite as received from the Maesteg end are wholly untenable. He said, that to have adopted this prudent suggestion would have entailed the carriage of prepared charges of dynamite fitted with fuse and detonator from such magazine into the tunnel at a risk to the persons working outside and to the huts and workshops, and that as dynamite is not dangerous until it is fitted to the detonator the nett result of this arrangement would have been an increase of risk. But even if the statement that dynamite is not dangerous until it is fitted to a detonator were correct, which it certainly is not, the result suggested by Mr Lean would not necessarily have followed; for it would, of course, have been open to the Company to require the detonators to be fitted as required for use in the tunnel, such small quantities only being sent from the supplementary magazine into the tunnel as might be actually required for immediate use. Moreover, by storing the stock of dynamite in the tunnel instead of outside, two journeys were in fact necessitated instead of one, for all dynamite so taken in had to be brought out again in quantities sufficient for immediate use, to be softened by the application of heat, and when so softened taken back again. Had the stock been kept in a supplementary magazine, the required quantities might have been taken out therefrom, softened at the place appointed for the purpose, and when softened carried on into the tunnel, there to be primed and used.

In short, the arguments by which it was sought to excuse the practices or omissions of the Company were, to my mind, the reverse of satisfactory, and in discharge of the duty imposed upon me by the 4th sub-section of section 66 of the Act, of making such observations on the evidence or any matters arising out of the inquiry which I may think right, I feel constrained to express my opinion that these arguments must be regarded rather as excuses put forward after the occurrence for what they are worth, than as considerations which had seriously influenced the Company and their servants with regard to the course which they had adopted, or with regard to the precautions which they had omitted to observe.

When all has been said, the conclusion appears inevitable that serious blame attaches to the Company and their servants for the dangerous negligence which is shown to have prevailed at these works in regard to the keeping and handling of explosives.

To apportion the blame in regard to this negligence is not easy. Primarily I suppose the Company must be held responsible for the acts or omissions of their servants, and I do not think this responsibility can be considered to be discharged by the fact that, in practice, the working management was vested in Mr Lean. It was surely the duty of the Company, as it is of everybody carrying on operations which involve risk of accident, to satisfy themselves that adequate precautions have been adopted for the prevention of accidents. Had the Company made any inquiry of this sort, I cannot doubt that they must have seen reason, as they can hardly fail to see reason now, for dissatisfaction with the arrangements. The professional qualifications of the chairman (Major Beaumont, RE) and his experience in connection with explosives, would at once have suggested to him that the arrangements adopted were not such as to afford any reasonable security against a serious accident.

The actual working arrangements were, however, in the hands of Mr Lean, the resident engineer, and it does appear to me that this gentleman is seriously to blame for the state of things which prevailed. It was, in my opinion, his duty to have taken steps to secure the strict observance of the conditions of the license and the adoption of proper measures of precaution; but Mr Lean appears to have tacitly delegated his functions to the storekeeper and the foremen, and this without taking any steps to direct their special attention to the particular points affecting their respective duties. Butland was left to find out for himself how much dynamite he should issue, and this, as we have seen, he wholly failed to discover; and the foremen were left to take such precautions as seemed to them proper, and these, it has been shown, were culpably inadequate; so, in the end, we find an excessive quantity of dynamite being issued and the keys of the manhole in which it was kept entrusted to a man (Parsons), whom the foreman, Elliott, knew to be reckless and in the habit of disobeying such elementary orders as had been issued with a view to the prevention of accident. There was thus, as it appears to me, a general failure of duty and censurable negligence on the part of all concerned, beginning with the Company, continuing with Mr Lean, Butland (the storekeeper), and Elliott, and ending with Parsons, and to the failure of duty and negligence of this last-named man in the careless and improper making up of the charges at the manhole, the explosion, as I have shown, may be immediately ascribed, while the large resulting loss of life was no doubt due to the direct violation of a condition of the license and the illegal presence of a quantity of dynamite largely in excess of what was required for “immediate use”.

V D Majendie, Major RA, HM’s Inspector of Explosives

Major V D Majendie reports on the... Cymmer Tunnel explosion

Local newspapers tell the story of a double fatality A reckless descent

Shocking accident at Clayton

On the line of the Great Northern Railway, from Halifax to Bradford, and thence to Thornton, there are two very heavy tunnels in the course of construction, one under Clayton Heights, about 1,000 yards in length, and that under Queensbury, about 2,000 yards long. Along the line of the tunnel first named, four shafts have been sunk so that headings can be driven simultaneously from eight different points, and the works connected with these headings are carried on night and day almost without cessation.

How the tunnel’s west portal looked prior to closure.

Over the shaft at which the accident occurred, large timber scaffolding, or head gear has been fixed, surmounted by a pulley from four to five feet wide, and by means of this the rubbish from below is raised to the top of the shaft; and at a few yards distant from the mouth of the shaft an engine for winding up the tubs of debris, and pumping water, has been planted.

There are usually eleven men in each shift at the bottom of the shaft, and at six o’clock on Wednesday morning, Henry Hickman, one of the sub-contractors, gave orders for the day shift to go down and relieve the night men, and accordingly four of them got into the tub or cage to descent. Before this could be done, however, it was necessary that the cage should be raised a little, in order that the “lorry” might be drawn back a little from underneath to allow the skep and the men to descend.

When the lorry was withdrawn, the order was given to lower, but from whatever cause, the engine had not been reversed, and instead of being lowered, the skep was drawn to the top of the head gear and went backwards over the pulley, the result being that one of the men, Thomas Coates, Hickman’s brother-in-law, fell to the bottom of the shaft, a depth of 35 yards, was horribly crushed and died in five minutes. The other three men fell to the ground about five yards from the pit mouth, with the skep after them, and were all seriously injured as they had fallen nearly 40 feet. The names of the three men who then so narrowly escaped were William Elliott of Queensbury, whose internal injuries were such as to preclude any hope of recovery, James Spillbury from Shelf, and William Williams. The third was the least injured of any, but still suffered from dislocation of the hip and a few bruises. They were all conveyed as soon as possible to the Infirmary in this town, and arrived there about half-past eight o’clock; and from the first no hope could be held out of Elliott’s recovery as he was suffering from a fractured pelvis and other severe internal injuries, while Spillbury had sustained concussion of the brain, and he was then also in great danger, though his recovery was not despaired of.

The body of Coates was removed to the Royal Hotel, Clayton, where on Thursday afternoon an inquest was opened before Mr Barstow, deputy coroner.

The wife of the deceased, Tamar Ann Coates, said that her late husband was twenty-seven years of age, and lived at Clayton Heights. He was working as a filler in the employ of her two brothers, who were sub-contractors under Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss, the contractor for the railway.

Mr John Fawthrop, surgeon, Queensbury, said he had seen the body of the deceased at the Royal Hotel, at about eight o’clock on the morning of the accident, and found beside a lacerated wound on the chin and sundry bruises and scratches, a fracture of both thighs, and concussion of the brain, the latter having caused death.

The eye of one of the tunnel’s two ventilation shafts.

James Bright, banksman at No.4 shaft on the tunnel, said when the accident occurred he was on the bank top, and saw Coates, Elliott and two other men get into the skep, then resting on the lorry which runs over the mouth of the shaft. Witness gave four signal “raps” which meant that the engineman was to raise the skep a few feet, in other that the lorry might be drawn from underneath them, and the instructions were obeyed. He then gave two raps, meaning to lower the skep to the bottom of the shaft, but instead of that the skep went right up the pulley on top of the head-gearing, and when he gave one rap to stop the engine, the skep was drawn right over the pulley, and fell on the ground between the shaft and the engine-house. Deceased either jumped or was thrown out, and fell right down the shaft. There were two men in charge of the engine, one of whom worked the day and the other the night shift, namely William Francis Taylor, and Edward Keats, but he could not say which of them was on duty at the time. Keats ought to have been on until six o’clock, and it then wanted a minute or two to six, it being very dark at the time. Witness had heard that a skep had been pulled over on Saturday.

Mark Radford, a miner who was working in the pit at the time, picked up the deceased. He was not dead, but died in a few minutes. Witness brought his body to the top of the shaft.

Henry Hickman, sub-contractor, deposed that he was standing near the pit mouth and saw the accident happen. He heard the raps given to raise the lorry with the four men in it, and it was lifted a few feet and then stopped half a minute, and then it was drawn up to the pulley. Immediately after the accident Taylor ran out of the engine-house and came to the top of the shaft, when he asked witness, “Oh Harry, who’s down the shaft?” and he replied “Tom Coates”. Then Taylor said again, “That ____ (meaning Keats) has left a trap for me, he left the engine in motion,” and then Taylor was as white as a sheet. Keats was away half an hour from the time the accident happened.

Wilkinson Andrews, aged seventeen, stoker and cleaner for Taylor, said he was at the engine-house five minutes before the accident happened, and the engine was not then in motion. No one was on the driver’s seat at the time, and as it wanted five minutes to the time he turned round and sat down, and the next he heard was some shouting outside on the bank. Witness then saw the rope coming slack on the drum, and immediately after Jacob Wright cried out, “You’ve pulled a poor fellow into the pit.” Taylor, Hoyle and Keats then ran out, and witness stopped the engine which was then running the rope off the drum. He could not tell who set on the engine. All that Taylor had said to witness since the accident was, “It was cruel of Ned.” Since then, witness had not spoken to Keats.

Henry Hoyle, aged thirteen, stoker for Keats, said that Keats was going to the seat, when Taylor said, “Come away” and Keats then put some oil on his hands, and was drying them, when the accident occurred. Witness saw Taylor go to the seat as soon as Keats left it, and the engine was then standing, and continued so for fully a minute after Taylor got onto the seat. When Taylor started it, he put full steam on, and must have thought the skep was at the bottom.

George Richardson, a labourer on the line, said he was passing the door of the engine-house about five minutes before the accident happened, and he then saw Taylor on the driver’s seat. Witness went into the engine-house some time afterwards, and heard Taylor say that he would take his “dying oath” that he was not on the seat at all.

No further evidence was then called and the inquiry was left in this unsatisfactory state – involving something very like recrimination between the two engine drivers – until next Tuesday when it will be resumed.

We regret to say that while the inquiry, as given above, was going on, the other man (Elliott), most seriously injured, was laid dead in the Infirmary. The other two men, still at the Infirmary, are progressing towards recovery.

(Leeds Times, Saturday 7th November 1874

A local memorial to the accident’s two victims.
Photo: Phill Davison

The adjourned inquest on the body of Thomas Coates, who was killed on the 4th inst by falling down a shaft at Clayton Tunnel, on the works of the new Great Northern line from Bradford to Halifax, was resumed at the Royal Hotel, Clayton, yesterday, before Mr William Barstow, Coroner.

Edward Keats, the engine driver on the night shift, was the first witness called. He said he was certain that it was Taylor, the other driver, and not himself, who drew up the skep when it went over the pulley. After lowering the skep on to the trolly for the men to get into, witness never meddled with the engine. He saw Taylor on the seat.

William Francis Taylor was then called, and he stated that when he went into the engine-house he and Keats compared watches, and it then wanted five or six minutes to six o’clock. The engine was then standing. Witness turned away to put his dinner into the cupboard and take off his jacket when he heard a signal, but he could not say whether it was to pull up or to lower. When he turned around again, Keats was on the driver’s seat. Witness went towards Keats and told him it was getting near six o’clock and he had better come away. Keats got off the seat, leaving the engine in motion, but before witness could get on the seat he heard the shouting outside and saw the rope on the drum coming slack. He immediately reversed the engine and ran out to see what was the matter. There were two marks on the rope, exactly alike, one to show where the skep was at the bottom, and the other to show where it was at the top. These marks came to just the same place on the drum, and Keats did not tell him whether the skep was at the bottom or at the top, as he ought to have done. It was quite dark and he could not see the skep, but he might have counted the “laps” of the rope on the drum if there had been time. Keats raised the men off the trolly. Witness never turned the steam on at all, as the engine was running when he went to it. Witness had been an engine driver for twenty-eight years.

After some deliberation twelve of the fourteen jurymen returned a verdict of “Manslaughter against William Francis Taylor.”

Bradford Observer, Wednesday 11th November 1874

Local newspapers tell the story of a double fatality A reckless descent

The story of Haddon Tunnel: Hidden Haddon: its rise and fall

If the procrastination over High Speed 2 ever gives way to construction, the line will navigate the delicate Chiltern Hills via a series of tunnels – some bored, some ‘green’. The latter comprise open-ended concrete boxes, sunk into the landscape, above which the ground is restored to something resembling its original state. It’s a modern term but a well-established principle. When the Midland Railway pushed its Buxton branch through the Peak District in the 1860s, it was obliged to excavate the 1,058-yard Haddon Tunnel so as not to blight the gentry’s views from the adjacent hall. Opened 150 years ago this month, the structure has lain silent since closure claimed it in 1968.

Looking southwards from beneath the length of masonry arch that collapsed with such tragic consequences on 2nd July 1861.

Those who engineer the green tunnels of HS2 will enjoy many advantages over the workforce at Haddon: laser-driven surveying equipment, high-capacity cranes and earthmovers, welfare facilities, foul weather gear, and not forgetting the restraining harness of health and safety. However much of a national embarrassment this has become in the 21st century through stifling regulation and risk aversion, better that than the havoc that was gruesomely wreaked in the 19th century at many railway construction sites.

On the defensive

Inspired by notorious mogul George Hudson, 1845 brought the depositing of Parliamentary plans for an ambitious new railway connecting Ambergate – north of Derby on today’s Midland Main Line – with Manchester. Guiding the heavy engineering was George Stephenson whose initial proposals identified a route up the Wye Valley until the Duke of Rutland’s opposition prompted a diversion through the Chatsworth Estate, owned by the supportive Duke of Devonshire. Alive to the commercial impact of being bypassed by the railway, the persuasive townsfolk of Bakewell managed to change the Duke of Rutland’s mind and he contrived to block the plans in the House of Lords. An alternative alignment was put forward, also through the Chatsworth Estate, with branches serving Buxton and Bakewell. But the delay proved critical. By the time Royal Assent was granted, the unsustainable financial drain of railway mania had caused the flow of money into such schemes to dry up. The line was progressed as far as Rowsley, opening in 1849, but the land beyond remained untouched for more than a decade.

No.1 shaft, at the south end of the tunnel, is just 3 feet deep – effectively just an opening in the arch.

The Midland Railway’s rivalry with the London & North Western manifested itself in a chess-like game whereby the former’s goal of securing a slice of Manchester’s lucrative rail market was thwarted by the latter’s defensive manoeuvring. With no hope of collaboration, the Midland was forced to push forward with an independent route, the first section of which involved a 15-mile extension of the Rowsley line into Buxton, authorised in May 1860.

Towards its western end, the River Wye meanders through its spectacular limestone gorge which was overcome by eight tunnels and a collection of assorted viaducts. Whilst the eastern section presented fewer obstacles, the terms set down by the Duke of Rutland for accommodation through his estate gave rise to the line’s most substantial engineering exploit, that of Haddon Tunnel which would bury the railway behind the hall from which its name was taken.

Best laid plans

Initial drawings for the structure survive in the Midland Railway Study Centre, with three signatories. Most notable is that of William Henry Barlow, installed as the Midland’s first Chief Engineer in 1844. By this time he had left to establish a private London practice, albeit retained by his former employer following Stephenson’s retirement. Barlow was later celebrated for the outstanding St Pancras train shed and his design for the replacement Tay Bridge. George Thomson, fulfilling the role of contractor, and his brother Peter also appended their names. This was a prolific and highly respected pair, credited with building a number of lines in South Wales, the North West and Yorkshire.

Initial drawings for the tunnel show the north portal and a drainage system towards the southern end, neither of which were built to plan.
Courtesy of Midland Railway Study Centre

On paper, Haddon was envisaged as two tunnels, separated by a short cutting. The most southerly would extend for 120 yards, sitting on a ledge cut in the gently-graded hillside and covered to conceal its segmental arch to a depth of just a few inches. Beyond this, a longer structure of 900 yards – punctured by two ventilation shafts – would comprise cut-and-cover sections either side of a bored portion. Towards the southern end, a series of drains were planned to channel ground water beneath the tracks where the land fell to below the height of the arch. Even at its deepest point, the crown was barely 30 feet below the surface.

But anyone visiting the tunnel today would struggle to recognise it from that description. Two shafts became five; the cutting disappeared; substantial changes in section are met; an open box near its centre brings 11 yards of daylight. Engineering contracts generally demand that work is carried out in accordance with the plans and specifications unless unforeseen problems are encountered. Trouble is, with activities below ground, virtually everything is unforeseen. So it should come as no surprise that the design evolved in response to prevailing circumstances. And clues to what they were have been left for us by civil engineer John S Allen.

The earth moves

On 12th December 1861, Allen presented a paper on the tunnel’s construction – which by then was just a month from being finished – to the Civil & Mechanical Engineers’ Society. This records that the stratum traversed throughout was shale overlying limestone, with a varying thickness of clay above it. During the course of the work, movement of the clay caused several extensive slips to occur, whilst ground pressure was sufficient to break 18-inch timber crown bars.

As built, the structure rises towards Bakewell on a gradient of 1:102 and comprises three sections: from the south portal, a covered way of around 490 yards, then a 350-yard tunnel, followed by another cut-and-cover section of 220 yards incorporating a curve to the east of 40 chains radius. Ground was broken on 10th September 1860 with the sinking of a shaft close to the main tunnel’s midpoint, from which a heading was driven to meet those already advancing from its ends. April 1861 saw work get underway at two points within the heading to excavate the tunnel to size, allowing four faces to be worked simultaneously. Progress was made in lengths of 12 feet, each requiring 12 crown bars, two miners’ sills and about 30 props of varying dimensions, as well as rakers and poling boards.

Work on the tunnel got underway in September 1860 with the sinking of No.4 shaft near the midpoint of the bored section.

Allen described the production line process: “The masons follow and build in the side walls, which are of sandstone grit, excellent in quality. This stone is found in great abundance in neighbouring quarries. The walls are built in block-in-course masonry – one header and two stretchers. These courses are backed up with rubble work, in sandstone or limestone. The thickness of the work is on average 2 feet 3 inches.”

“A profile is erected at the end of each length to guide the masons. The bricklayers follow as soon as the centres are set, which are of great strength and excellent in design. The arch, which is a semicircle, consists of 5 or 6 rings of bricks, as the ground may require it. These bricks are made on the contractor’s premises; good clay fit for the purpose being found adjoining the works.”

Ground force

Beyond the tunnelled portion, the covered ways took shape. Having opened the ground to the requisite depth, side walls and arching was inserted and the excavation then backfilled. “There are several sections of arch used”, declares Allen. “The principal one is that of a low stone arch, having a rise of 6 feet from the springing line. A semicircular arch of stone is also employed when the cutting is deep. The thickness of the arch is in all cases 2 feet.”

Towards its southern end, it is possible to walk alongside the tunnel at track level, such is the shallowness of the fill and gradient of the slope. As a consequence, the ground could not sufficiently counteract the thrust of the arch, prompting the introduction of “strong counterparts”, in the form of buttresses, to support the west wall, as well as increasing its thickness. Several buttresses are now exposed, the land having slipped off them over the years.

Buttresses are provided to support the west side-wall, helping it to counteract the thrust of the arch.

Allen concludes that “The works are of an interesting and instructive character, and have been carried on with very slight interruption night and day.” In just 16 months, Haddon Tunnel had been buried seamlessly beneath the Duke of Rutland’s estate. Whilst Allen was right to celebrate it as an engineering success, one unmentioned failure – the cause of that “very slight interruption” – had a human impact that should not be overlooked.

A nomadic existence

Alfred Plank was a lad of 15. On 7th April 1861, the national census records him as living in one of five ‘sod huts’ erected for the navvies at Great Rowsley, about a mile from the tunnel. Ten souls inhabited it, with Alfred’s father William head of the household. His wife Sarah and five of their eight children were joined by three boarders, also employed on the railway.

It seems likely that the family followed the contractor around the country as work arose. The youngsters were born in towns across South Wales; by 1851, home was north of Newark alongside the East Coast Main Line, then being built by the Great Northern. Now in Derbyshire, Alfred and his 13-year-old brother Charles were both wage earners, working on the Buxton line as horse drivers.

Living conditions would have been basic but comfortable, unlike those at work. More than 250,000 navvies served the railways when construction was at its peak in the mid-1800s; a good one could earn three times that of a farm labourer. Many were skilled – miners, masons, riveters, bricklayers, carpenters. Their welfare however was not a corporate priority.

Centres of excellence?

It’s fair to presume that Tuesday 2nd July 1861 was much like any other. Within the northern section of covered way, a 36-foot length of arch was waiting to be keyed with three courses of stonework. The centring that supported it comprised eight ribs, each with props at both ends and another in the middle. These stood on blocking stones of up to two feet square. Three rakers steadied the structure. The same centres had been deployed in the construction of four other lengths and were deemed fit for purpose again, their assembly overseen by carpenter Edward Sykes who inspected them twice daily.

Seventeen men were busy hereabouts. During the early part of the afternoon, two or three loads of stone arrived, pushed up a wagonway that passed between the props. Each wagon was opened at its end and the contents tipped into the metals. The blocks, some measuring 3 feet in length and weighing 3-5cwt, were then manoeuvred within reach of a derrick, ready for hoisting up to the masons. This was located at the north end of the arch, fastened to the centres by a pair of iron dogs. Operating it was Alfred Plank, with motive power for chain-pulling provided by his horse.

Having just been emptied, six men pushed a wagon away from underneath the stonework. Up top, some of the masons paused for a breather whilst labourers adjusted the wooden boards on which the materials were wheeled, leaving 36-year-old George Buckley, Jacob Rowland, George Twyford and Frederick Bacon still on the centring. Then all hell broke loose. According to Bacon, “I dropped down just as if I had been suspended in the air by a cord, and the cord had been cut. There was not the slightest warning, not the least imaginable.”

A remarkable image captured by Sir Miles Cave on 3rd July 1861, the day after a section of arch collapsed killing five navvies.
Photo: The Rowsley Association

The arch had gone. All hands immediately began clawing at the debris. Messengers were sent to Bakewell for medical assistance; surgeons Knox and Evans attended. By six o’clock – two hours after the event – the victims had been extricated. Lost were John Millington, aged 40, James Bird, 36, and 21-year-old James Clarke. Two were found side-by-side, horribly crushed. And just a few feet from safety was the boy Plank, lying alongside his horse. A cart carried the bodies to the Royal Oak in Bakewell to await the inquest. Buckley had survived with the loss of both legs, but succumbed in the early hours. A sixth man, Francis Evans, emerged with a broken leg; Twyford also suffered leg injuries.

Whys and wherefores

The affair cast a shadow over the district; the following day, hundreds arrived on site to pay their respects. Thursday saw mourners gather in Rowsley for James Clarke’s funeral; Alfred Plank was buried there on the Sunday.

At the Royal Oak, it fell to Coroner F G Bennett and a jury of 12 gentlemen to seek the accident’s cause, hearing two days of witness testimony. Much attention was paid to the centres, determining their condition and the impact of bolt holes drilled through them. Whilst it was asserted that their strength might have been diminished by as much as 25%, expert opinion concluded that they were still working well within their combined 560-tonne capacity, bearing about 120 tonnes.

It was learned that it had not been general policy to insert a middle prop until George Thomson had insisted upon it about a week earlier, “to make sure”. Edward Sykes revealed that the lone raker at the north end of the centres had been taken away some time before the accident, although this was not unusual. “They were put up to steady the centres and not to support them”, he insisted. A small land slip had occurred, depositing material onto one of the side walls, but the quantity was such that it could in no way account for the collapse.

The scene of the accident is considerably more tranquil today.

In the end it was W H Barlow who glued the clues together. “The statements of the witnesses indicate that the [eastern] end of the centres swerved out towards Rowsley, and also that all the centres twisted on their sides, the tie-beams being found towards Rowsley and the upper rib towards Bakewell. The only reasonable mode that occurs to my mind for explaining those appearances is that one or more of the props on the [eastern] extremities of the centres had been knocked away. It is possible that in unloading the stone, if unloaded on that side, or in moving the stone afterwards, the props might have been knocked away… The loss of a single prop…might cause the whole weight, by giving a twisting action to the centre prop, to give way.”

Tragic episodes

Accidental death became an occupational hazard for the navvy – tight margins and inadequate control measures conspiring against him. Early in September 1861, 22-year-old John Bishop, also a horse driver, was knocked down in the tunnel and then run over by wagons. But such events did little to impede progress. The structural work was concluded on 11th January 1862, the Duke’s agent having authorised the retention of five ventilation shafts rather than three as first agreed; by April, only a section of permanent way was missing. The first public train passed through at 7:20am on 1st August, running to a temporary terminus at Hassop, three miles away. Buxton was connected in May 1863.

Even then, misfortune could strike. On Saturday 24th July 1869, a boy named William Cutts left Derby on an excursion train, heading for Matlock where he intended to sell fruit. As his journey neared its end, drunken railway ganger Henry Southgate took 5lb of plums from him, but refused to pay. Threatened with the police, the miscreant attempted to escape feet-first from a window as the train passed through Haddon Tunnel. The boy grabbed him by the hair, shouting “Either leave the plums or money before you go!” Southgate did neither and fell onto the track. The guard, joined by a porter from Bakewell, found his body in the four-foot of the Down line close to the tunnel’s midpoint, minus its head and a leg.

A southbound passenger train emerges from the tunnel in August 1961.
Photo: J R Morten

The early hours of Thursday 5th June 1884 saw more tragedy. Francis Irish, a guard from Kentish Town, described how he heard a loud knocking beneath his van as the 11pm mail train from Liverpool passed through the tunnel at 50mph. He thought that some brickwork had come down. On arrival at Derby, the driver took his hand lamp and examined the locomotive, finding “blood and brains” on the front part of the bogie and a piece of cloth wrapped around the feed pipe. Shortly after 2am, goods inspector Matthew Knott and ganger Watson were despatched to the tunnel where they found the dismembered remains of a “working man” scattered over a distance of several hundred yards.

Test of strength

As the 19th century drew to a close, it became apparent that all was not entirely well with the structure. At No.3 shaft, inspections had detected a movement of 1½ inches at one side of the brick arch. Difficulties were also being experienced with ventilation – smoke was accumulating due to increased traffic levels. In July 1900, the Chief Engineer’s Office in Derby drew up plans to remove both the shaft and 33 feet of arch around it, instead constructing a large open box. Work got underway almost immediately, taking eleven months. Appointed as contractor was Chas Baker & Sons of Bradford.

With earth removed from above the brickwork, “a few stalwart masons” gathered on the morning of Sunday 2nd December, waiting for the start signal that would follow the passage of the 10:38am service from Bakewell. Great difficulty was experienced breaking away the crown but, once gone, the remainder fell with little persuasion. A gang of Midland Railway men cleared the debris, allowing services to resume before midday – passenger trains having incurred no delay at all. Inspector Groves took charge of a pilot engine to regulate movements. A second section of arch was similarly dispatched the following Sunday.

In 1900, distortion of the arch and problems with ventilation prompted the opening out of No.3 shaft.

Such an intrusive scheme would not have been undertaken lightly, given its complexity and operational impact. The extent of the works offers some insight into the concerns engineers must have had over ground movement. Constructed in a 44’ x 46’ excavation, the enlarged shaft boasts concrete side walls faced with blue brindles, bonded together with ironwork. At no point is their thickness any less than 5’, and at the base exceeds 8’6”. Estimated at £2,000, the scheme’s final cost was £2,904, suggesting perhaps that the scale of the challenge was initially misjudged.

A passing thought should be spared for one member of the workforce who lost some of his false teeth during a dinner break; they became lodged in his throat. Unable to extract them, the unfortunate man made the journey to Bakewell where Dr Fentem had to force them down.

A final substantive step in the tunnel’s structural evolution was taken in October 1913 when a project was started to slew the tracks and insert 46 additional refuges in preparation for the introduction of new 9’3” wide stock. Lasting eight months, the work cost £555. 1923 saw the drawing-up of plans to provide a timber lining in No.4 shaft although there is no evidence of the work having subsequently taken place.

Decline and renewal?

Whilst the 1963 Beeching Report prompted the withdrawal of local Matlock-Buxton/Manchester services, the line’s complete closure to through traffic was determined by a confidential 1964 study into ‘duplicate’ trans-Pennine routes and the introduction, in April 1966, of electric haulage for Manchester-Euston services on the West Coast Main Line. From October that year, freight and parcels no longer rattled through the tunnel, diverted instead via the Hope Valley line. The anticipated announcement that passenger expresses would follow was not long in coming, and so on Saturday 29th June 1968 – a day early thanks to a guards’ dispute – 1H18 St Pancras-Manchester Piccadilly became the last train to endure Haddon Tunnel’s darkness at about 7:45pm. The Up line was lifted in June 1969; recovery of the Down took place the following summer.

Perhaps it is testament to those who built the tunnel – now bricked up and ignored for over 40 years – that it has survived the withdrawal of substantive maintenance largely unscathed. The failure of a field drain crossing the bored section has triggered extensive spalling of the brickwork for 100 yards, a function of water penetration and freeze-thaw action. But the decline is sufficiently limited for its reopening to be pursued as part of an extension to Derbyshire’s Monsal Trail, occupying the trackbed northwards towards Buxton and passing through six other tunnels. Landowners are cooperative and surveys have been conducted; planning and financial hurdles are yet to be overcome.

Now bricked-up, the tunnel could soon be reopened as part of an extension to the Peak District’s Monsal Trail.

John Millington, George Buckley, James Bird, James Clarke and young Alfred Plank are honoured by a simple memorial in the churchyard at Rowsley. Their efforts, against the odds, were not unique; neither was their sacrifice. But were it not for their like, we would have no railway network. So when you next travel, don’t just gaze at the train – look under it, above it, around it. Celebrate the work of the humble navvy. And if you end up labouring on the green tunnels of High Speed 2, give thanks for the technological and mechanical revolution of the past 150 years. Count your blessings for health and safety too. Yes, really.

Many thanks to Glynn Waite of the Rowsley Association and Dave Harris from the Midland Railway Study Centre for their considerable help with this story.

Published 1st August 2012

More Information

Peak Cycle LinksProposal for Monsal Trail use
Peak District PlanningDocuments relating to the planning application