The construction challenges of... Lydgate Tunnel

The construction challenges of… Lydgate Tunnel

Lydgate Tunnel was constructed under the superintendence of Mr J G Fraser, acting for Messrs Locke & Errington, the engineers to the railway. It was driven through the coal measures. Faults are common in this formation, and several were met with in the course of the work. One of these presented itself in a singular manner, one-half of the tunnel being in strong shale and rock in veins, whilst the other half was in a mass of wet and loose shale.

The tunnel is 25 feet wide, with parallel sides, up to 3 feet above the level of the rails; the height to the soffit is 20 feet, and the castings average 3 feet 6 inches below the rails. The total length of the tunnel is 1,332 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, of which about 1,000 yards is on a straight line, and the remainder on a curve of 74 chains radius. The following are the lengths of the different strata cut through:

MaterialLineal yards
Clay and loose shale210
Strong shale335
Strong shale, interspersed with bands of rock474
Rock, with veins of shale135
Total length1,332

The work was commenced in August 1854, and completed in March 1856, over a period of seventeen months.

Five shafts, 9 feet diameter in the clear, were sunk in the usual manner, excavating through soft material, and drilling and blasting through rock. After attaining the average depth of 60 feet, the material was raised by steam power. Four shafts, about 230 yards apart, were permanent for ventilation.

Lydgate Tunnel’s stone-built east portal.
Photo: Forgotten Relics collection

No.1A had formerly been a colliery shaft, and had not been used for many years. It was reopened by the contractor, and a cross heading was driven from it into the tunnel, the centre of which was 40 feet distant. The permanent shafts were lined with 9-inch brickwork, or 12 inches of masonry, except where in rock; they were finished at the soffit of the tunnel with ashlar curbs 2 feet 3 inches deep. Where water penetrated, iron shields, with a gutter round the edge, were suspended, and the water conveyed by a pipe down the side of the tunnel, into the regular channels. The shafts were carried 12 feet above the surface of the ground, and were completed with an ashlar coping. A 9-horse power steam engine was fixed at shaft No.1a, a locomotive engine between shafts Nos. 1 and 2, to work them both, and another locomotive between shafts Nos. 3 and 4.

The shafts were all commenced in August 1854, and completed to the respective depths measured to the formation-level hereunder stated:

No. 1A completed October 185427⅓ yards
No. 1 completed November 185453⅓ yards13 yards
No. 2 completed February 185580 yards13 yards
No. 3 completed February 185575⅔ yards18½ yards
No. 4 completed January 185553 yards5 yards
Total depth289⅓ yards43⅓ yards
Average depth of each58 yards

Much inconvenience arising from foul air was checked by the proximity of the shafts. Foul air was driven away by means of fans fixed on the surface, which forced down a volume of air through pipes, which were fastened along the tunnel. In the neighbourhood of the old coal-workings, which ran across the tunnel, much choke-damp was met with, which was counteracted by a current of fresh air forced down through a bore-hole from the surface, lined with an iron pipe.

Great care had to be exercised in fixing the centres througl the portion of the tunnel lined from the heading of No.1A shaft, 245 lineal yards in extent, as part was on a curve and part on a straight line.

A general view through the now-disused tunnel.
Photo: Bungle

The faces walled from the cuttings at the ends, for 141 yards in length, were mined with a bottom heading, and at a distance of 30 or 40 yards from each end a break-up was made, from which lengths were driven both ways, towards the open cutting, and towards the next shaft. The remainder of the tunnel, worked from the shafts, was mined by a top heading 6½ feet high by 4½ feet wide. The shafts furnished ten faces; and 1,191 lineal yards out of the total length were worked from them, each face averaging 17·26 lineal yards per month. The open ends gave four faces in the break-ups, each making 9 lineal yards per month. The lengths mined from the different shafts are given in the following table:

Shaft No.Length driven east (lineal yards)Length driven west (lineal yards)TotalTime occupiedRate/month
1A138107245Oct 1854-
March 1856
1157126283Dec 1854-
March 1856
210096196March 1855-
March 1856
395108203March 1855-
March 1856
4119145264Feb 1855-
March 1856
Ends9546141Oct 1855-
March 1856

The excavation was conducted in the usual manner – the rock and strong shale being blasted out, and the clay and loose shale axed out. As each length was headed it was widened out, and the roof and sides supported by larch bars and poling boards, from 9 to 10 feet above the formation level. The material was removed in iron skips, capable of holding half a cubic yard each, which were placed on light trolleys, and these pushed along tramways laid between the work and the shafts, raised to the surface by engine power, and tipped on the spoil bank. The lengths mined averaged: in loose shale, 12 feet; strong shale, 15 feet; rock, 24 feet, in some instances 30 feet.

The centres consisted of skeleton ribs placed about 4 feet apart; at the leading end, two centres were placed close together, for greater security.

A cross section showing the thickness of the lining through shale (left) and rock (right).

The sidewalls were built of coursed rubble, the beds of the stones being punched with a hammer. The footings were not less than 18 inches below the formation level, and the walls were carried 7 feet 3 inches above the level of the rails. The arch, for 632 lineal yards, was turned with fitted rubble; and from the scarcity of good bedded stone, 700 yards were of brickwork. The mortar was composed of barrow-stone lime mixed with coal ashes, in the proportion of 2 to 1, ground by heavy iron rollers, and used fresh. Its setting power was most satisfactory.

Where the crown bars sagged much, they were built in, the intermediate spaces being filled with brickwork. Where water was met with over the crown of the arch, the tunnel was covered with zinc, terminating in a gutter to convey the water where a pipe was built through the masonry, to be discharged into the drains.

There was considerable variation in the thickness of the masonry. It was:

In shale2 feet 6 inches thick2 feet thick
In rock1 foot 9 inches thick1 foot 6 inches thick

The following table gives the lengths of each thickness built:

LengthThickness (sides)Thickness (arch)Earthwork/lineal yardMasonry/lineal yardTotal masonry
Lineal yardsFt/InchFt/InchCubic yardsCubic yardsCubic yards
Average per lineal yard12⅓

The contract price for excavation, without distinction, was 4s 6d per cubic yard, including all the timbering. The prices paid to the miners varied from 8l to 18l per lineal yard, according to the material; nearly half the total length of the tunnel amounting to 12l per lineal yard, or less.

The view towards the tunnel’s east portal from the platform of Grasscroft Station.
Photo: Saddleworth Museum Archives – A Community Resource

The price for setting the centres was 8s per rib.

The time the masons and labourers were allowed for building, with the cost, was as follows:

Sidewalls, 2 feet 6 inches thick and 12 feet in length£ s d
4 masons, 1¾ shifts of 8 hours7 @ 5s 6d1 18 6
9 labourers15¾ @ 3s 6d2 15 1½
Arch, 2 feet thick and 12 feet in length
4 masons, 3 shifts12
2 extra for key, 1 shift2
Sub Total14 @ 5s 6d3 17 0
11 labourers, 3 shifts
3 extra for key, 1 shift
Sub Total36 @ 3s 6d6 6 0
Total (about 4s 9d per cubic yard)14 16 17½

The contract price for the tunnel through rock was 26l per lineal yard and through shale 35l 16s per lineal yard; the average price was 30l per lineal yard.

The construction challenges of... Lydgate Tunnel

Delivering the Two Tunnels Greenway: The fourth dimension

Frederick Francis became a statistic at the age of 36. His was one of 1,032 lives taken by Britain’s railways in 1879. Back then, where trains went, death too often attended. Struck at just 10mph, Francis lost a boot, found later by the engine driver with his foot still in it. His left leg was crushed; six ribs had been broken and his scalp bore a large gash. But this wasn’t suicide or the aftermath of trespass. The deceased was “a railway servant” and had been hand-picked for the duties that killed him, such was his diligence…and misfortune.

Combe Down Tunnel receives attention to one of its refuges.

Recruited by the Somerset & Dorset Railway in 1877, Francis joined a permanent way gang under foreman platelayer Henry Ingle. Their patch encompassed the line’s centrepiece – the 1,829-yard Combe Down Tunnel which had opened three years earlier after 15 months in the making. A cabin was built into its east sidewall to accommodate them.

Francis’ attachment to the gang proved eventful but brief. On Friday 13th December 1878, shortly after the 7:20am goods had passed through, a substantial collapse blocked the tunnel close to the northern entrance. This spoiled the weekend for upwards of 70 labourers who spent it clearing away the debris. Four weeks later, a second fall dislodged timbers supporting the roof, again disrupting services.

Blood, sweat and tears

By spring 1879, the tunnel was alive with industry as a works party extended the lining – which had originally encased just the extremities – and rebuilt sections of existing brickwork. On 21st March, sidewalls were being taken down 300 yards from the north end. Francis found himself alone, much further into the tunnel, replacing a broken fishplate bolt.

At around 2:40pm, a Wimborne to Bath train entered via the south portal. The change in air pressure would have tweaked his eardrums and caused the flame of his hand lamp to flicker, but neither prompted Francis to stand clear – an error of judgement he paid for. He lay next to the track, still conscious, until the locomotive foreman arrived from Bath where his boot had been discovered. He was soon claimed by his injuries. At the inquest, Ingle “could not account for the accident” as there was “plenty of standing room”, by which he meant 2 feet 9 inches between wall and train.

34042 climbs over Tucking Mill Viaduct, bound for the Come Down’s south portal.
Photo: Hugh Ballantyne/

This preamble serves to illustrate that tunnels are more than just grotty holes through hills. Each conceals a unique history, adding another dimension to its three physical ones. While Combe Down’s last operational chapter was written in 1966, a sequel is in development as the tunnel prepares to become a conduit for people once again.

Recycle path

Harnessing the S&D’s former trackbed – including Combe Down and Devonshire tunnels – as a congestion-busting artery into the heart of Bath had been floated before. But wishful thinking gave way to campaigning muscle throughout 2005 when a group of like-minded cyclists formed the Two Tunnels Group to give the idea a firmer push. Traction was gained when Sustrans, the charity behind our ever-expanding National Cycle Network, included it in a successful bid for £50 million of lottery funding. Collectively known as Connect2, the aim was to improve journeys across 79 communities by establishing links between existing paths.

That was five years ago. Procedural challenges subsequently hampered progress on Two Tunnels, but issues surrounding the route’s structures were resolved and appropriate surveys undertaken. The first earth moved in 2010 when excavators unplugged the buried northern portal of Devonshire Tunnel. Earlier this year, a 30m footbridge was hoisted into place over Monksdale Road, spanning a gap previously occupied by a railway structure. And the S&D’s bridge across the Great Western Main Line – threatened with demolition by impending electrification – has been reprieved to host the new path, albeit delayed while investigations and repairs take place.

One of the abutments for the Millmead Road footbridge is inspected.

What’s left is a demanding works package that involves joining together the tunnels, an eight-arch viaduct, two three-span bridges, cuttings and embankments with 2¼ miles of tarmac. Another footbridge – comprising a 40m Warren truss – has also to be installed following diversion of a gas main that ran too close to the desired alignment.

Getting physical

In an age of austerity and financial scrutiny, the value-for-money on offer here is outstanding, even before the local economy accrues its benefits. The total bill will be just £2.5 million – perhaps enough to buy a step-free footbridge over a railway. Pragmatism is key: what needs to be done gets done, but nothing is gold-plated. And the venture has not been overburdened by gooey layers of management.

Patrick Tully, Senior Engineer at Sustrans, is overseeing the project – one of the most ambitious the charity has undertaken; contracted to deliver it is Hydrock, with Senior Site Manager Julian Geer leading the team. Mobilisation got underway in late June with the establishment of two compounds – one at the north end of Devonshire Tunnel, reached via a haul road around Bloomfield Park, and the other two miles to the south-east beneath Tucking Mill Viaduct. An encapsulated scaffold was wrapped around this structure.

Devonshire Tunnel’s north portal was buried beneath landfill until excavators unplugged it in 2010.

Physical works on the tunnels began on 23rd July with the removal of gates, a blockwall and years of accumulated detritus, thereafter allowing the installation of temporary lighting. To rid them of their soot, gritblasting has taken place to a height of 2.4m. Complicating the logistics between the tunnels is tranquil Lyncombe Vale and its three underbridges, one of which required a new deck before access over it could be gained.

Due care

Throughout the site, structural repairs have been carried out by subcontractor Falcon. Heading southwards, Devonshire Tunnel (SAD/10) is first to be met, 447 yards in length and lined throughout in masonry. Prior to Sustrans securing a 40-year lease, this had benefited from the inspection regime of British Railways Board (Residuary). Few remedial works were needed, with minor repointing at the crown, some crack stitching around the portals and brickwork repairs to the wing walls. Aluminium piping has been fitted into existing weep holes to ensure they don’t get blocked. Routes have then been established to allow water to reach the tunnel’s p-way drainage, around 200m of which has been renewed.

A drainage pipe is attached to the sidewall of Devonshire Tunnel.

Beyond the southern approach cutting is SAD/11, a 2.2m underbridge with its new 250mm concrete deck, a product of HDG Construction. The original span had been removed following closure. Its abutments’ upper brickwork was loose, missing or spalled – this has been reconstructed in Staffordshire blue brick; so too has some of the masonry. Low parapet walls with galvanised steel handrails were added above the slab. While the work was straightforward, the bridge would restrict access through the site until the concrete had cured sufficiently to carry construction traffic. September’s inclement weather worked in the team’s favour, ensuring full strength was exceeded in just 14 days.

The line was carried on embankment as far as SAD/12, a three-arch underbridge. Little attention was demanded here except stitching to vertical cracks in the piers, brickwork repairs at the parapet ends and some spot repointing. Due to erosion beyond one end of the bridge, stub trench sheet walls have been built as retainers at both sides of the path, tied together beneath it to provide mutual support. A simple, neat solution. Works to this and SAD/13, a single-arch bridge across a cutting, were carried out from MEWPs; elsewhere, platforms were erected by S N Scaffolds. The overbridge required little more than its vegetation being cut away.

The string course of SAD/14 is rebedded ahead of the parapet being rebuilt.

SAD by name and nature was bridge 14, another three-span structure close to Combe Down Tunnel. This had kept the line’s engineers busy, with both the piers and arch barrels refaced in blue brick, as well as numerous patch repairs to the spandrels. But only when its ivy growth had been stripped was it apparent that the parapets were bowed to below the string course. As an addition to the planned works, these have been taken down, rebuilt and secured to a concrete reinforcement strip inserted behind them.

Honeypot attractions

Until its recent transfer to Sustrans, ownership of Combe Down Tunnel (SAD/15) had been vested in Wessex Water, for reasons even it didn’t fully understand. Despite its size, rehabilitating the structure has not proved onerous: descaling spalled brickwork to alleviate any risk, a fair quantity of repointing, and drainage reconstruction particularly at the south end. Although its lining was extended following the 1878 collapse – which is marked by a significant change in section – much of the tunnel’s central portion features only occasional collars of brickwork, exposing the honey-coloured Bath stone which characterises the local architecture. Some of this was extracted from mines above the tunnel.

Refurbishments to Tucking Mill Viaduct (SAD/16) necessitated a full scaffold. Originally built for a single track, a second structure was erected on its west side in 1903 as part of a scheme – ultimately abandoned on cost grounds – to increase capacity into Bath. The pair was skinned in engineering brick to seamlessly tie them together, although movement has since resulted in some arch barrel cracks. These have been stitched and the skin extensively repointed. Tie bars have been introduced where bowing was identified in the spandrels. A new waterproofing membrane, hoppers and pipework will improve the drainage situation.

The scaffold allows one of the workers to grind out a perished mortar joint.
Extensive repointing has been carried out across the viaduct.

Prior to the works, blockwalls at either end prevented access onto the viaduct; these proved so impregnable that 83 reptiles had colonised the deck. A licenced ecologist relocated them. 52 feet above ground level, the parapets had partly succumbed to vandalism so they were lowered slightly and tidied up. Blue brick has been used to infill the open refuges and replace aesthetically displeasing breezeblock repairs. A concrete coping has also been poured.

Nice but dim

Yet to be installed is the tunnel lighting, although its cabling is already in place. Externally, this runs in a duct buried through the site, together with fibre optics for CCTV coverage – a security stipulation. To deter lurkers from standing in them, the bases of all the refuges have had a steep concrete slope inserted.

Self-evidently, lighting plays a major role and brings conflict with it. Current Standards remain silent on tunnels used for foot and cycle paths, but it’s clear that humans favour bright while bats welcome gloom. The compromise will see directional LEDs set at a height of 2.7m, creating a dark space at the crown. Lighting Services Group is geared up to install them. On top of this, United Visual Artists will brighten many of Combe Down’s refuges with feature lighting and a soundscape of musical voices.

Electricians attached the lighting cables in Combe Down Tunnel.

But ethereal matters take a back seat as the project’s most challenging element looms: tarmacking in confined spaces, hitting upwards of 200m daily to stay within programme. There is little room for manoeuvre – a 2.5m surface must be laid through 3.2m tunnels so once the paver is in situ, the vehicles feeding it must travel back and forth over the same route. “Sorted”, asserts Julian before outlining his plan: six track dumpers with a pivoting seat and dual controls will obviate any need for reversing. They will meet at designated passing places, each carrying 3 tonnes of material per trip. To deal with the fumes, fans installed at the tunnel entrances will push fresh air through at 2m/s, clearing Combe Down in 14 minutes.

Plot lines

Eight years after a local, Mark Annand, resolved to change the map of Bath, the improbable Two Tunnels Greenway is approaching fruition. It benefited from a slice of “right place, right time”, but couldn’t have happened without the campaign group’s drive, the ambition and tenacity of Sustrans, and, in Hydrock, a contractor with proven delivery skills. Cartographers will be on standby in January.

Many twists and turns have been woven into the story of Combe Down Tunnel since Frederick Francis played his bit part. What an anti-climax it would have been if the last page had brought decay and abandonment. Saved from that fate, the plot is about to thicken.

Published November 2012

(Photos © Four by Three except GWML bridge and SAD/13 overbridge © Mark Annand)

More Information

Two Tunnels GreenwayThe campaign group’s website
Two Tunnels blogNews of the construction works
Two Tunnels photosA collection of photos of the route, hosted on Flickr
Connect2An overview of the Sustrans scheme

Delivering the Two Tunnels Greenway: The fourth dimension

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

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 the Woodhead tunnels: Driving ambition

The Pennines were squeezed from the earth to form Britain’s backbone about 400 million years ago, give or take; the railways have been around for the blink of an eye. The former presented an inconvenient barrier when the latter was pushing its buffer stops to new destinations through the 19th century. But it was a challenge that gave rise to the great trans-Pennine tunnels – Standedge, Doves Hole, Totley, Cowburn – linking the north’s valleys to usher in the age of the train. Whilst the first step on that adventure was taken by Summit Tunnel in the hills above Littleborough, following closely behind was an enterprise that pushed every boundary before eventually falling victim to the blind march of ‘progress’.

Grit and determination

A classic view of the western portal as a train emerges from the 1845 tunnel into Woodhead Station.
Tameside Local Studies & Archives

Railway promoters kept parliament busy in 1836, depositing more than a hundred bills for its consideration and approval. Amongst these was the Sheffield Ashton-under-Lyne & Manchester Railway (SA&M), led by Lord Wharncliffe, backed by 56 local bigwigs and guided by engineer Charles Vignoles. Over the course of that summer, Vignoles and Joseph Locke independently surveyed routes, coming together in October to reconcile any differences. Their joint plan involved a summit 966 feet above sea level at the eastern end of a tunnel stretching for over three miles. As an economy measure, this would be built to accommodate just a single track but with provision made for a second bore alongside it should the need arise. And so, on 1st October 1838, Wharncliffe’s spade broke the ground at the western end of what, seven years later, would become Woodhead Tunnel.

This was a desolate place, in the back of beyond. Gearing up took many months. Accommodation had to be built for the workforce, stables for the horses, a magazine for the gunpowder; cart tracks were laid across the moor and machinery assembled upon it. It was the autumn of 1839 before real inroads were made.

Progress benefitted from five construction shafts – 10 feet in diameter and taking upwards of two years to sink. The deepest plunged 567 feet into the millstone grit; the shallowest 405 feet. To haul out material and drive the pumps, a 25 horsepower steam engine was harnessed at each. The tunnel itself was offset from their base by 16 feet at its centreline so that the shafts would sit between it and the second bore, should one subsequently be added. From 12 working faces, the two headings were driven – one later forming the crown of the tunnel, with the other positioned below it. When all eventually met, the greatest inaccuracy in line and level was just three inches.

With this initial work fulfilled by 400 navvies under the SA&M’s employ, contractors were then appointed to complete the excavation and insert the lining – the greater eastern section being awarded to Thomas Nicholson, with Richard Hattersley allocated the remainder. When activities reached their peak, 1,500 men were said to be employed there; 32 of them didn’t survive the experience, 250 suffered serious injuries.

The castellated portal at the Woodhead end was dismantled as part of the 1960s’ cable installation works.
A rare view looking out of the original Down tunnel towards Woodhead Station.
Photo: John Quick collection

On Saturday 20th December 1845, the company’s directors and engineer accompanied General Sir Charles William Pasley, the Board of Trade’s Inspector of Railways, through the tunnel – their train propelling a wagon of torch-bearing men so that this £201,210 black hole could be closely examined. It was, Pasley declared, “one of the finest pieces of engineering I have ever seen”.

Woodhead was visited by its inaugural revenue-earning service the following Monday. Two engines pulled 20 coaches through it in ten minutes, enjoying the falling 1:201 gradient from the eastern end at Dunford Bridge. They had passed beneath a soffit 18 feet above rail level; springing was at 10 feet. The lining varied in thickness from 18-36 inches – even more in areas of particularly weak ground – but was deemed altogether unnecessary for 300 yards where the millstone grit remained exposed. Two-foot deep drainage channels on both sides of the 15-foot wide bore carried away penetrating water whilst, into the north wall, 25 arches were cut at intervals of around 200 yards to ease the construction of a second tunnel. Cutting edge technology, in the form of Cooke & Wheatstone’s patent magnetic telegraph, allowed the guards at either end to communicate with one another.

And then there were two

Every train to travel Woodhead’s single line was drawn by a lone pilot engine. This approach ensured that only one train could ever be in the tunnel at any time, so rendering a collision impossible. But it soon became a serious constraint on the route. With the line under new ownership – that of the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway – work to extend the arches to form cross headings got underway in the spring of 1847 and, from these, another tunnel was bored for Sheffield-bound (Up) traffic. It was a protracted if relatively mundane venture, with spoil removed via the passages to waiting wagons. But cholera stalked the navvies’ western encampment in 1849, claiming 28 victims in a matter of weeks.

As 1852 arrived, the tunnel was receiving its finishing touches and deemed ready for inspection. But a 15-yard bulge had appeared in one of the side walls when Captain George Wynne of the Royal Engineers arrived to give it the once over on the 16th January; the masonry had to be taken down and rebuilt. He returned on 21st to find it “in a fit state for the conveyance of passengers” and the new Up tunnel was brought into service on 2nd February. In terms of dimensions, it was almost identical to its neighbour but lined throughout.

S&T staff attend to a signal as a Down train finds daylight after its three-mile descent through the tunnel.
Tameside Local Studies & Archives

Maintaining the tracks was a gang comprising two foremen and five labourers. There was a fair turnover amongst this number – some left believing the tunnels caused sickness, although a few were engaged therein for several years. All agreed it was a bad place to work, particularly the newer bore through which trains laboured up to Dunford Bridge. In 1863, an American visitor described the experience of being in the tunnels. “As the train approaches you feel the air driven forward, and also rushing through the openings into the other tunnel. The moment the train has passed it pours back again to follow the train. At the shafts the current was uniformly down and very strong, both at the time trains were in the tunnel and when they were not. A great deal of water was dripping from them all, amounting in some to a small stream. This fortunately did not fall upon the track, but in the arched chamber or opening between the tunnels where boards and masonry were arranged to receive it and carry it to the drains.”

By 1899 the Great Central had taken over and, to increase capacity, the company installed intermediate signals on the Up line, controlled from a box established in No.12 cross passage. Those prepared to man it – and there weren’t many – worked shorter six-hour shifts. But smoke contrived to mask the signals and many trains held by them found it difficult to get going again owing to the rising gradient. Conditions brought about the box’s abandonment in 1909. Hoping to improve matters, work to increase the diameter of No.2 shaft got underway in the autumn of 1912 – a £12,000 project that would take three years to complete.

Conditions aside, there was no denying Woodhead’s success. An average of 80 trains daily – the majority of them carrying coal westwards or empties back to Yorkshire – made the journey through the hill. But their impact on the tunnels’ lining was severe, eroding the mortar holding it together. The route’s electrification had been given the green light in 1936 and, once hostilities with Germany had come to an end, a substantial programme of renovations was initiated, conducted within overnight and weekend possessions. The decline though proved too great. In 1946, the civil engineering department was granted nine-month occupations of each bore in turn – single line working was instituted through the other tunnel whilst some traffic was diverted via alternative routes. Even then, when these periods were over, it was realised that a more radical solution would have to be implemented to avoid a repeat of the exercise.

A scene of great industry as the New tunnel’s eastern approach cutting is excavated.
Photo: Ben Brooksbank
(taken from Geograph under this Creative Commons licence)
Meanwhile the new portal takes shape at the west end.
Photo: Ben Brooksbank
(taken from Geograph under this Creative Commons licence)

History repeats itself

And so the foundations were laid for a new tunnel. Authorised by the Railway Executive on 15th November 1948, it would be built for two tracks to the south side of the original Down tunnel, separated from it by 77 feet except for the westernmost 200 yards where a curve of 40 chains radius reduced that distance to 27 feet. Unlike its elder siblings, the summit would be reached one mile in from the Dunford Bridge end, with falling gradients of 1:129 and 1:1,186 to the west and east sides respectively.

Sir William Halcrow & Partners were appointed as designers and consulting engineers, the construction contract being let to Balfour Beatty. Directing the venture was Eastern Region’s Chief Engineer John Campbell whilst the resident engineer was J D Dempster.

In February 1949, the hills became alive again to the sounds of industry. Dunford Bridge Camp grew for the workforce of 1,100, complete with cinema, clubs and a Post Office. There was a proper sanitation system too. But this was not the manual enterprise witnessed a hundred years earlier; this time a new generation of plant and equipment would cut timescales and costs. Or so everyone thought.

The engineer’s plan for three construction shafts was changed in favour of the contractor’s proposal for just one – 16 feet in diameter and located 2,610 yards from the Woodhead end, about 60 yards west of the midpoint. On the surface, this coincided with a shallow valley, reducing its depth to 467 feet. It was sunk 26 feet south of the centreline, thus separating lifting operations from those taking place in the tunnel itself. From its base, 12-foot square headings were thrust in both directions to meet those advancing from the portals. The rock was displaced with gelignite; side-tipping skips hauled by battery-powered locomotives carrying the spoil away for disposal.

The ‘New’ tunnel was driven from its ends and a single central shaft of 16 feet diameter and 467 feet in depth.
Photo: Thomas Maycock/
Tameside Local Studies & Archives

The plan was to enlarge the heading to full section by means of radial drilling. This though had to be abandoned as the shaly nature of the millstone grit – through which three-quarters of it was driven – brought uncontrollable results, with considerable overbreaks. A hasty reorganisation of the work was required, allowing it to progress from more than the four faces. But this in itself created logistical difficulties and the rate of progress slowed to a fraction of that demanded by the programme. Then, in 1951, two sections collapsed, one of them – 300 yards from the Woodhead end – left a void reaching 70 feet into the roof. Work there was delayed for six months.

The consequence though was the provision of haulage ways parallel to the heading and connected to it at intervals, these extending for around two miles. They effectively brought salvation – allowing nine additional working chambers to be opened up and, with them, the default installation of steel reinforcement ribs as the full excavation progressed. Whilst this proved costly and caused much consternation amongst the bean counters, it prevented the Pennines from falling on anyone’s head.

At 3 miles 66 yards, the new tunnel was 131 feet longer than its neighbouring single bores. Lined with mass concrete not less than 21 inches thick, its horseshoe shape provided a span of 27 feet and height from rail to soffit of 20 feet 7¼ inches. No invert was needed. To help ventilate the summit section, an 8-foot diameter stope was bored, 1,205 yards from the Dunford Bridge end, to connect with the easternmost (No.5) shaft of the Victorian tunnels. To improve the lot of future maintenance teams, a mess room was provided at its midpoint and permanent lighting installed.

The great and the good gather at the Woodhead end for the New tunnel’s official opening on 3rd June 1954.
Photo: Gibbs/Transport Treasury

Completed in October 1953, Woodhead New cost £4.25 million – £1.8 million over budget – and six lives. The first trains to pass through under 1,500V DC electric traction did so on 30th May 1954, with regular workings getting underway a fortnight later. Alan Lennox-Boyd, Minister of Transport, officially cut the ribbon on 3rd June.

Taking power

In January 1964, consent was granted for a new 400kV electricity transmission line between Thorpe Marsh near Doncaster and Stalybridge. Supported by others, the Peak Park Planning Board successfully argued that the infrastructure should be below ground between Dunford Bridge and Woodhead. To that end, the Central Electricity Generating Board acquired the two Victorian tunnels. But preparing them for a new life would involve considerable works so, in order to meet immediate demand, the Board was permitted to install temporary cables over the hill.

Since the late-Sixties, the Up bore (right) has accommodated electricity cables whilst the Down tunnel (left) contains oil tanks..
Photo: John Ashton

In the Up bore, thick soot was blasted away with air jets and mixed with ballast, cement and lime to create a hard floor. Voids behind the bulging lining were grouted and huge areas repointed, amounting to about half the tunnel. Three of the shafts were backfilled and sealed whilst No.5 had rubble dropped to a height of 40 feet, below the level of the stope. But shaft No.2 – having already been widened to 16 feet in diameter – was also repointed and retained in case of future ventilation needs.

Slightly younger and continuously lined, the Up tunnel was chosen as host for the cabling which was insulated within oil-filled pressurised tubes and immersed in a water trough. Alongside it, a narrow gauge railway was laid for access purposes. Next door in the Down tunnel, oil tanks were fitted. The portals, delightfully castellated when built, were reshaped to make way for ducting. Following an investment of £2.75 million, the switch was thrown and Woodhead’s two electrical circuits went live in 1969.

The end game?

Whilst envisaging a bright future for the Woodhead line as a conduit for freight, Richard Beeching’s 1963 ‘reshaping’ report effectively triggered its downfall. Amongst the list of proposals was the withdrawal of Sheffield-Manchester passenger services from the Hope Valley route. When the Minister of Transport refused to approve this, attention turned to services via Woodhead which served fewer communities. British Rail’s intention to sever them prompted an outcry and an enquiry, but its decision was eventually upheld and the last scheduled passenger train made its way through the tunnel on 4th January 1970. Then goods traffic, also dwindling, came under scrutiny too. Just 27 years after the new tunnel opened, a Harwich ferry train emerged from it as dawn broke on Saturday 18th July 1981, despatching into history the most audacious part of Lord Wharncliffe’s railway.

On 25th July 1980, 76008 and 76021 head west with coal.
Photo: Arnie Furniss

Campaigners still worked for a reprieve and, for several years, a rusting single track ventured through the open entrances to the tunnel. But it was lifted in 1986, extinguishing all remaining hopes. Two years later, a collapse near the midpoint of the original Down tunnel and concerns about ongoing maintenance costs prompted the CEGB to add the 1954 bore to their estate; this was acquired in 1993, reputedly for £1 – the intention being to fit new cables in it when the existing ones became life expired. In the meantime, ‘running repairs’ were carried out to the single bores with cavities grouted, more pointing, buttresses and steel ribs installed, and some sections lined in concrete. The costs were considerable, amounting to £15 million. Then in 1990, a stop-joint fire in the Up tunnel caused extensive damage, six years after which an oil fire occurred in the Down. The incentives to move next door were mounting up.

As campaigners hoped for a reprieve, a single line was retained for a few years after closure. Here it enters the Woodhead end…
Photo: John Ashton
…and three miles further east emerges at Dunford Bridge.
Photo: Keith Long

With the remaining trans-Pennine lines becoming victims of their own success, the railway’s strategic planners were tasked with finding more capacity to satisfy medium-term demands – both passenger and freight. Whilst they focussed on existing routes, campaigners and business leaders pointed at Woodhead. With a potential conflict brewing over use of its tunnel, the National Grid sought advice from the Department for Transport about the likelihood of the railway returning. There are no plans, it was told. The ensuing political wrangle fizzled out and preparations for the installation of new cables got underway in early 2008. Once live, the Victorian bores were decommissioned and had their ends unceremoniously filled with concrete, condemning these historic structures to abandonment.

Predicting the future is a talent few are able to perform with any degree of certainty, particularly in an era of economic turmoil and rapid technological development. The case for Woodhead’s revival could grow ever stronger or sink without trace. From a freight perspective, the 16-mile gap between Penistone and Hadfield is perhaps a side-show given that the logical connecting routes – via Tiviot Dale and the formidable Worsborough incline – have also been lost. If accepted, Network Rail’s Northern Hub strategy will deliver much needed capacity for passenger services and possibly restore the tracks through two other disused Victorian bores, those at Standedge.

Whatever the prospects for the three tunnels at Woodhead, there can be no rewriting of their past. The first one was engineered against the odds; the second overcame disease. A century later, the third was caught between a rock and a hard place. All three represent tenacious victories over the forces of nature, rightfully securing prominent entries in the railway’s history book.

The view looking west from the site of Observatory No.3. Bottom-left is the shaft to the 1954 tunnel; bottom-right is a pile of brickwork that used to be Shaft No.3. Near the horizon is Shaft No.2 and its associated spoil heap.

More Information

Woodhead tunnelsHistorical overview from Wikipedia
Work in ProgressBTF film featuring the 1954 tunnel’s construction
Reopen the Woodhead LineWebpage of the campaign group
National GridDetails of the cable replacement project

The story of the Woodhead tunnels: Driving ambition

Jordan Thompson examines… The geology of Whitrope Tunnel

Tunnels are remarkable feats of engineering and continue to present a combination of challenges – careful and precise design, and the inherent risks to those involved in their construction. But those risks were of a far greater magnitude in the Victorian era with large numbers of navvies either seriously injured or losing their lives.

Disused tunnels of this era offer an insight into the methods of construction and how health and safety standards today would have shut the site down on day one. Not all, but a large number of these forgotten relics expose the geology that had to be both overcome and worked with to construct them.

Closed in 1969, Whitrope Tunnel, part of the Waverley line in the Scottish Borders, offers a fascinating glimpse into over 400 million years of Earth’s history recorded within the 1,208 yard (1,105 metres) bore, as well as ways in which the workers took advantage of the rock they were breaking though beneath Sandy Edge.

Whitrope covers four geological groups that are each defined as two or more formations that share similar lithological characteristics; formations being varying thicknesses of strata with a comparable lithology, facies and other similar properties.

The Riccarton Group

The oldest group dating from the Wenlock series (433.4-427.4 million years ago) of the Silurian Period (443.8-419.2 million years ago), is the Riccarton Group. They are steeply dipping turbidity current deposits consisting of greywackes (sandstones), mudstones with siltstones. A disturbance such as an earthquake caused the sediments to move as an underwater avalanche and be deposited as distinct beds of the coarser grained greywacke sandstones and finer sediments, the mudstones and siltstones.

An Ocean known as the Iapetus began to close during the early part of the Ordovician Period (485.4-443.8 million years ago) and led to the collision of the continents of Laurentia, Avalonia and Baltica (Caledonian Orogeny). By the mid Ordovician, the Iapetus Oceanic crust was being subducted beneath the Laurentian continental margin, bringing Laurentia and Avalonia closer together and ultimately the collision with one another. The Iapetus Ocean had closed by the mid-Wenlock of the Silurian Period and Laurentia had overridden Avalonia, bringing with it the southern uplands accretionary complex which were sediments scraped from the subducted Oceanic crust. The Riccarton Group was deposited within a foreland basin ahead of the continuously advancing complex and by the beginning of the Ludlow Epoch (422.9-418.7 million years ago) had become part of a foreland fold and thrust belt setting within the accretionary complex. This created the steep dipping strata seen in the tunnel with the first contact of the group 74 metres from north portal and last noted at 110 metres.

The Riccarton Group is seen here (79 metres) as a steeply dipping Turbidite sequence and are the oldest rocks within Whitrope Tunnel.
Photo: Jordan Thompson

These folded rocks were then uplifted and exposed to subaerial erosional processes leaving an irregular surface and later buried beneath sediment, creating an angular unconformity very similar to the world famous Hutton’s Unconformity north of Berwick-upon-Tweed at Siccar Point. Whitrope Tunnel provides an excellent example of this geological feature.

The angular unconformity showing the steeply dipping Riccarton Group Turbidites and the gravel conglomerate of the Stratheden Group above.
Photo: Jordan Thompson

The Stratheden Group

Note the very coarse nature of the basal conglomerate and cobble-sized clasts that overlie the Riccarton Group (74 metres from north end).
Photo: Jordan Thompson

A sequence of gently dipping rock formed between the Frasnian to Famennian stages (382.7-358.9 million years ago) of the Late Devonian period (419.2-358.9 million years ago) and often referred as the Upper old red sandstone due in part to their distinct red colour caused by haematite coated grains, make up the majority of the natural rock and the tunnel lining. These rocks were formed dominantly in fluvial semi-arid depositional environments as well as some Aeolian and lacustrine. The Southern uplands Terrane, a product of the Caledonian Orogeny, began to erode bringing about the accumulation of sediments into alluvial basins formed as a result of the Acadian orogeny of the early to mid-Devonian period. The Stratheden Group is evident within metres of the north portal and is present all the way towards No.4 shaft (789 metres). They consist of a majority of fine to coarse sandstones, conglomerates, mudrock (siltstone and mudstone), most of which are visible. Mudrock was apparent in some beds but proved more difficult to identify in part to the highly weathered state of the rock.

Many areas have been left exposed and engineered as a rock footing for the masonry/brick sidewalls and crown, attesting to the solidity of these rocks.

The red/brown conglomerate of the Stratheden Group with an example of the dominant lining materials above – red sandstones and infrequent conglomerate masonry.
Photo: Jordan Thompson
Conglomerate – a clastic rock composed of a major fraction of granule, gravel, pebble, cobble and boulder-sized clasts of varying ratios and roundness – has been fashioned into a masonry block. It was likely not the easiest material to work with and a testament to the skill and determination of the workers.
Photo: Jordan Thompson
A weathered exposure of the Stratheden Group’s red sandstones (300 metres from north end) facing south. The rock has been used as a footing and is the largest exposure in the tunnel. Notice the southward dipping of the beds. Occasional beds of conglomerate are noted.
Photo: Jordan Thompson
One of many refuges, with this example retaining its original masonry arch. Another interesting feature is the steep angled normal fault cutting through the sandstone.
Photo: Jordan Thompson

Exposures of the Stratheden Group are numerous; in sidewalls (rock footings) and the back of refuges as they’re unlined. Overall, as you travel south, the conglomerates thin from around 250 metres and slowly transition to sandstones which contain minor beds of conglomerate. Red mudrocks are less common and their fine grained and highly weathered nature allows them to stand out against the coarser grained sandstones. These were first noted just south of the 325 metre point.

Overall the condition of tunnel where the Stratheden rock has been encountered remains generally stable with weathered beds of finer rock producing piles of material. Red brick and engineering brick are a common sight where patch repairs were required. It remains quite dry and falls of masonry are minor; the Stratheden rock remaining the dominant type for the lining.

No.1 shaft (approx. 98 metres from the north end) and No.2 shaft (288 metres) both show little in the way of water ingress, but enough to locate them. At 325 metres, an area where calcite (Calthemite) has deposited upon the sidewalls is very obvious and required a catchment tray (missing) and guttering. Beyond this point it remains mostly dry with only a small influx of water from No.3 shaft (531 metres). Once in close proximity to No.4 shaft (789 metres), water ingress becomes more of an issue.

There comes a point where the Stratheden Group transitions to the Younger Inverclyde Group. Why is there a marked change in geology?

The Whitrope Fault and Inverclyde Group

The Inverclyde Group belongs within the Tournasian stage (358.9-346.7 million years ago) of the Carboniferous Period (359.2-299 million years ago) and marks the deposition of sediments within the Northumberland-Solway trough which formed due to extensional tectonism beginning in the late Devonian Period.  The uppermost part of the group, the Ballagan Formation, designates mudstones that are separated by beds of sandstone and thin interbeds of limestone which the tunnel was bored through. The environments consisted of fluvial, alluvial fan, lacustrine (lakes), lagoonal and some marine in a seasonally arid climate.

A marked change occurs between No.4 shaft and the south portal in both the features and condition of the tunnel. A geological fault mapped just south of this shaft separates the Stratheden from the Inverclyde Group of which the fluvial sandstones of the Whita sandstone beds (Ballagan Formation) are identified on BGS mapping. The precise location of the fault and the sudden transition to the Inverclyde Group was not apparent. Rock footings also become less significant, most certainly a result of the change in geology.

Just beyond the 700 metre mark and preceding the mapped fault, the red sandstones were observed with a distinct pale red/pink colouration.  It can’t be ascertained in either case but may indicate the Whita Sandstone beds of the Ballagan formation or simply be a variance in the Stratheden Group. This sandstone was still evident in an exposure at 840 metres.

840 metres from the north end, facing north-west and in close proximity to the mapped fault. This exposure presents pale red/pink sandstone situated above beds of highly weathered rock. Calthemite deposits adorn the sidewalls and ballast floor.
Photo: Jordan Thompson

Water ingress is an issue Whitrope Tunnel has obviously always endured, judging by the number of catchment trays and guttering, the majority of which are now corroded or missing entirely. Hidden shaft locations are inherently a major factor whereby surface water can more easily percolate and, in the case of No.4 shaft, create quite a deluge. Ingress is apparent as you travel from the north portal but remains quite dry up until this point.

Continuing south from No.4 shaft, further areas where ingress had been a major problem necessitated the introduction of a water management system to gain some control. Note should be made of the drainage system at Whitrope. Much of the installation is now in severe disrepair, specifically at shaft locations. However, the central drainage channel is still working and directing water out to the north. This is aided by the tunnel’s 1:96 falling gradient to the north, the south portal being located close to Whitrope Summit (1,006 feet/307 metres ASL).

Calcite (calthemite) deposits may well be in part the result of the fault down throwing younger and more permeable carbonate bearing rock of the Inverclyde Group (Ballagan Formation). Small burns flow across the area above, further worsening the problem. The result of this has brought about fascinating formations upon the sidewalls and ground including calcite-enveloped ballast and fallen guttering now permanently ‘welded’ to the floor. As already noted, fewer rock footings are identified towards the south portal, with refuges often providing the best glimpse of the geology, a number of which are now masked by calthemite deposits.

No.4 shaft (789 metres from the north end) facing south. Water ingress and calcite (calthemite) deposits feature more heavily from this point and are likely due to a change in the geology.
Photo: Jordan Thompson
Approx. 850 metres from the north end and facing north, presents a much wetter tunnel whereby Calthemite appears to pour from the sidewalls and crown. The deluge of water and guttering is not a shaft location.
Photo: Jordan Thompson
920 metres from the north end, facing north-east. This water management installation – partially intact and functional – is a rare sight in Whitrope Tunnel. The masonry includes a greater ratio of the white/yellow sandstones belonging to the Inverclyde Group.
Photo: Jordan Thompson

Located at 928 metres, a refuge offers what may be the first evidence of the Inverclyde Group. The main distinction of tunnel exposures of the Stratheden Group is the red colouration of the sandstone/conglomerate dominated facies, intermittent mudrock and lack of carbonate beds. The refuge exposures from this point onwards present a majority of mudstone, shale, sandstone and carbonate beds. This is very likely to be the Ballagan Formation. The masonry is increasingly dominated by white/yellow sandstones, which support the geological change and what the workers were encountering and making use of. Useable rock between No.4 shaft and the south portal must have been limited compared to that further north. No.5 shaft (997 metres) lacks any deluge and retains its original marker upon the sidewall, whereas all other shafts either have no marker or they lie forgotten on the tunnel floor.

The refuge at 928 metres presents grey mudstone above beds of yellow sandstone, now mostly obscured by soot deposits.
Photo: Jordan Thompson

The Border Group

The typical refuge exposures found beyond 928 metres. The yellow/brown bed in the centre is very likely a carbonate and sits between beds of shale and mudstone (1,027 metres).
Photo: Jordan Thompson

BGS mapping designates the Border Group just within the south Portal. This group was deposited during the Visean stage (346.7-330.9 million years ago) of the carboniferous period and shares similarities to the Inverclyde Group’s Ballagan Formation. It is younger and the lower part of the group (Lyne Formation) comprises sequences of sandstone, siltstone, mudstone and limestone beds that formed in a variety of environments encompassing fluvial, deltaic, peritidal and marine. The distinction between the Inverclyde and lower Border Group – and where this occurs – is difficult hence the uncertainty in assigning them as distinct geological groups in the past. A collapse at the south portal, resulting in blockage of the tunnel and installation of substantial fencing, gives a rare glimpse above the crown and the dangerous state this section is in. Wave rippled bedding surfaces were evident in the fall material.

The presence of strengthening ribs just beyond the south portal is indicative of a severe issue with the overlying and fragile geology being apparent for many years. In the foreground is the collapse which blocked the tunnel in March 2002.
Photo: Jordan Thompson

Compared with the Riccarton and specifically the Stratheden Group – where rock is suitable as a footing material for the sidewalls and arch, a lack of water ingress and any of the minor collapses appearing to be more masonry than natural bedrock – both the Inverclyde and Border Group rock must have dealt a higher degree of danger to the workers constructing the tunnel. The retaining walls at the north portal are minor in comparison to those at the south portal; more evidence of the instability of the geology at the south end. It is very easy to overlook these factors and more so in the case of a tunnel with a full lining where the geology is hidden away for good.

Overall it was a great experience to locate and write about the condition of the tunnel and the changes in its geology after gaining a degree in Geology in 2013, but following other career paths since. Whether or not Whitrope Tunnel will see trains pass through it again is difficult to foresee. Due to its dangerous condition at the south end and the necessary surveying and repair of not only the collapse but the tunnel lining, it all factors down to cost and whether this section of line is seen as a viable option to be reopened. The decades of neglect have taken their toll and issues such as the collapse will only get worse, entailing greater cost and decreasing the chance of reuse.

However, its repair and reinstatement is most certainly a possibility and one I would be pleased to see in the near future. The dangerous and back-breaking work endured by the builders of Whitrope Tunnel in an isolated and unforgiving environment must certainly be another reason not to allow it to be infilled and forgotten like many of the magnificent disused tunnels in the UK.

Click here for a longitudinal section through the tunnel (PDF) (109kB)

More Information

Forgotten RelicsGallery of photos showing the tunnel
‘Navvyman’ by Dick SullivanChapter of a book describing the tunnel’s construction
WikipediaBrief overview of the tunnel
Historic Environment ScotlandDetails of the tunnel’s listing

Jordan Thompson examines... The geology of Whitrope Tunnel

The tunnels and viaducts of the Whitby-Loftus line: Against all odds

As finally built there were three tunnels on the sixteen mile line between Whitby and Loftus. These were the Sandsend (or Deepgrove), the Kettleness, and the Grinkle (originally Easington) tunnels. The longest was Sandsend tunnel (1,652 yards [1511 m]). The tunnel is, for the most part, straight; however, there is a curve to the north for the last 350 yards –

Kettleness tunnel was 308 yards [282 m] long –

Grinkle (originally called Easington) tunnel was 993 yards long [908 m] –

Photos: Neil Cholmondeley Collection

However, the only tunnel authorised in the original 1866 Act was the Easington, which was then to be 1,324 yards long, where work on the line began with the cutting of the first sod on 25th May 1871. Progress was satisfactory along some sections of the line, but the Engineer’s Report presented to the Directors of the company at their meeting of 9th May 1872 stated baldly that on the Easington tunnel to Loftus section, “Nothing has been done. Machinery there, then found the tunnel could be halved by a slight deviation. Careful examination of the ground satisfies us that we shall not meet with any extraordinary difficulty in the execution of the tunnel.” The Engineer, Mr J H Tolmé, was often given to exaggeration and prone to telling the directors what he thought they wanted to hear. His forecast concerning the future construction of the Grinkle (Easington) tunnel will, as will be shown, incorrect. The tunnel was shortened, though, for Tolmé’s report of 9th September 1872 mentions that, after arrangements with the landowners, the tunnel has been shortened from nearly a mile in length to considerable under half a mile (792 yards). This deviation, along with other changes to the 1866 plans led the directors, at a meeting on 12th October 1872 to note that “it is desirable that parliamentary sanction should be obtained to the deviations which have been necessary in carrying out the works upon the railway”. At the directors’ meeting of 11th February 1873 they “resolved that the Bill now submitted for authorising the diversion and alteration of the line and levels of the WR&MUR and for other purposes be and the same is hereby approved”. It is interesting to note that work had already been undertaken on these alterations, the main ones being bringing the line closer to the sea between Whitby (West Cliff) and Sandsend and the tunnelling changes at Grinkle and along the cliff face between Sandsend and Kettleness. Thus the 1873 Deviation Act was passed. The plans issued with the 1873 Act clearly show the new length of tunnel at Grinkle and six new ones proposed between Sandsend and Kettleness. However, there is no mention of any moneys spent on tunnelling until the twenty-first Engineer’s certificate presented to the 4th April 1873 meeting of the directors where it was noted that £1,000 had been spent on tunneling. This must have been on the Sandsend-Kettleness section where, Tolmé reported to the directors on 1st September 1873 “the headings for the short tunnels through the jutting points of the cliff are nearly all driven”. Unfortunately, in the same report, Tolmé had some bad news concerning the Grinkle tunnel: “A slip which took place in the embankment at the southern end of the Easington tunnel has caused a great deal of trouble and delay… A bed of quicksand was also met with in the tunnel heading, which considerably retarded the work…”

Without any doubt at all, the decision to initially construct the line around the cliffs between Sandsend and Kettleness was not only a major mistake, but the cause of the line’s failure. Nevertheless a considerable amount of work was done on the various tunnels as is indicated by Mr Tolmé’s last engineer’s certificate. In that certificate of 20th October 1873 he reports that, so far, £4,681 had been spent on the various tunnels. The problems caused by the cliff edge works as well as those at Grinkle tunnel brought the company to the edge of bankruptcy, and resulted in the sacking of the contractor, John Dickson at the end of 1873 and of the Engineer a few months later. It is impossible now to know how much work was actually done (no earthworks of any kind remain on the cliff edge section). However, a more recent historical Ordnance Survey map (before 1923) shows a tunnel at Keldhowe Point on the abandoned section of the line. There is no evidence for the existence of this tunnel other than the map. However, even the major tunnelling works which eventually took place further inland did not lessen the cost.

By the summer of 1874 the company was in considerable financial difficulty. Creditors were threatening to take legal proceedings against the company; horses and locomotives belonging to the company were sold at auction; complaints from members of the public regarding damage caused by the company and letters from disgruntled shareholders were arriving regularly; attempts to attract further investment failed dismally and, by 12th November 1874, the company’s bank account stood at £963.15.6 [£44,054] (and this only after the better of the two locomotives had sold for £750). The contractor had been sacked, and work on the line had ground to a complete halt. There was only one option open to the directors if the line was to be completed: an agreement with the North Eastern Railway company. On the 12th November 1874 the directors met to a consider a letter they had received from Mr C N Wilkinson, the Secretary of the NER, dated 23rd October 1874 in reply to the WR&MUR’s directors’ wish to open negotiations with the NER for taking over the construction of the line. At this moment the NER’s reply was cautious:

Central to the demands of the NER was that the cliff edge line be abandoned; clearly it was not, in their opinion “properly laid out”. At last in May 1875 an agreement was made, ratified by the Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough Union Railway Act of 19th July 1875, between the North Eastern Company and the Directors of the Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough Union Railway to complete the line “with all despatch”, and “in a substantial and satisfactory manner”. The NER would find the necessary capital and work the line upon completion.

Initially, the idea was for a major deviation away from the coast to be made. This would certainly have been a cheaper and easier option, but the new line was never begun. Interestingly, it would have included a tunnel near Mickleby of 525 yards in length at an estimated cost of £13,650. The cliff edge section between Stonecliff End and Holmsgrove was indeed abandoned, but the deviation line inland was never built; instead, a tunnel of length 1,652 yards was built which by-passed the cliff edge line and ran from Deepgrove to Holmsgrove where it emerged for a short section in the open air before entering another – Kettleness – tunnel. It is likely that the North Eastern Railway (with, no doubt, the agreement of the WR&MUR) considered that too much had already been invested in the line to make such a major deviation, or, more likely, that the additional new cost would not be recouped by savings in working or maintenance.

The Directors’ Report to their shareholders of 22nd February 1876 clarified the position: “As provided by the terms of the Agreement, the North Eastern Company has applied in the present session for powers to make a Deviation of the authorised line, and the Bill is about to be submitted for your approval. The deviation is less extensive than was proposed last Session, and substitutes for the line along the cliff about a mile and a quarter of railway almost all in tunnel.” On the 13th July 1876 powers for the deviation of the line through what was then known as Deepgrove tunnel (and for the abandonment of the partly constructed works along the cliff top) received the Royal Assent. The North Eastern Railway had immediately recognised the main problem, but its expensive solution (the construction of Deepgrove tunnel) was to become an important contributory factor for the line’s financial difficulties throughout its life and, indeed was, as will be seen, to be the immediate cause of its closure.

However, between 1875 and 1879 no work on this new tunnel was undertaken. The reason for this is clearly explained by the memorandum of the NER Chief Engineer, Mr T E Harrison. Mr Harrison was writing just after the long-delayed opening of the line in December 1883 and felt the need to explain and justify the length of time it had taken to construct such a relatively short line. According to this memorandum almost every element in the construction of the line when taken over by the NER in 1875 was faulty. This document has been discussed elsewhere and it is a most important source for understanding the early history of the line. Concerning the tunnels Harrison wrote, “…the surveys were so inaccurate that had the original tunnels been completed [those around the cliffs and at Easington], they were so out of line with each other, that no junction could have been made with them at all.” The Harrison memorandum gives the clearest explanation as to why the construction of the Deepgrove tunnel began so late in the proceedings. It was necessary to get all the other deficiencies remedied first.  At Grinkle tunnel problems continued; the Harrison memorandum indicating that the delay in opening the line was caused in part by two major landslips at the south end of the tunnel and another a little further south “extending over four acres of land which slid away for 300 yards.”

Construction work at Grinkle tunnel.
Photo: Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society

Reports submitted to the half-yearly meetings of shareholders between October 1879 and October 1882 indicate that this was the period of the construction of the tunnels between Sandsend and Kettleness. On Friday 24th October 1879 the shareholders of the company were informed that “The Mulgrave [Deepgrove] tunnel is commenced, also involving in  its construction a large amount of very tedious work; but the Directors have reason to believe that the Contractor is proceeding surely and steadily (about 800 men being daily employed…” Six months later the shareholders were informed that, “Much time, however, must yet elapse before the line can be opened throughout, owing to the very heavy amount of tunnelling to be accomplished…” Another optimistic report in October 1880 indicated that, “The Directors are informed that rapid progress is now being made…where the tunnel through the ironstone beds, near the Alum Works, is being vigorously pushed forward…” However, it was at the next shareholders’ meeting that the problem of landslips on the line became serious. At this meeting (17th March 1881) a letter from Harrison was presented in which he gave details. “The material at the Easington tunnel had for some distance turned out to be wet sand instead of shale as was expected, and this requires the tunnel to be invested with stronger brickwork and all to be timbered in the tunnelling, which as near as I can estimate will cost about £10,000 more than the contract.”

The line around the cliffs at Kettleness proved equally problematic. Harrison recalled in his 1883 memorandum that, “The three great slips that have taken place on this line are such I have never before in my long practice experienced… The slip in the face north of the Kettleness Tunnel has rendered it necessary to make a considerable deviation of the line for a length of 726 yards, including a tunnel 308 yards in length… The Kettleness (sic) [he means Deepgrove] tunnel is 1,621 yards long; a heading is made throughout its whole length, and there are only 540 yards remaining to be completed, 1,081 yards being finished…”

A scene of great industry at the south end of Kettleness tunnel.
Photo: Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society

This work proved costly: Kettleness tunnel cost in the region of £5,000 to construct. The tunnelling work was still in progress as late as February 1882. A complaint by  the master of a ship that had run aground near Whitby because lights on the cliffs near Sandsend had been mistaken for the Whitby lighthouse was investigated by Trinity House. Coastguards at Staithes and Whitby stated that these “lights” were in fact open fires at the entrances to the long tunnel at Deepgrove and Holmsgrove, provided for illumination for the shift workers involved in the tunnelling. This had been going on for two or three years. After the complaint was dealt with these lights were discontinued. It seems that the tunnels had been completed (or nearly completed) by the October of 1882, for the Shareholders’ report for that month stated that, “…general engineering works…nearly completed…extra works…required on the viaducts…”

The North Eastern Railway spent a considerable amount of money on the construction of the three tunnels on the line. The final cost for the line amounted to £655,077 of which the NER contributed well over £350,000. This high cost was due almost entirely to the need to improve the viaducts, to build or complete the tunnels and to make all the improvements so clearly delineated in the Harrison memorandum. Nevertheless the final product reflected the money spent upon it. Visual evidence, showing the interior of the Sandsend (Deepgrove) tunnel over 120 years after its construction and 50 years after its abandonment shows a very solid and well-built structure. Indeed, so well-built were the tunnels that there is very little reference to them in the three formal inspections carried out by the Board of Trade in 1883, thus indicating that they were not a cause of any concern for the inspectors.

There were two slightly unusual elements in the construction of Sandsend tunnel. Two adits or spoil tunnels were constructed so that some of the excavated material could be taken right to the cliff edge and easily dumped onto the rocks below.

The shorter of the two adits that were driven to assist with the tipping of spoil from Sandsend tunnel. In the foreground is debris from a shaft.

The line was difficult to work. The gradient map shows the many steep rises and falls between Whitby and Loftus.

Especially difficult for train crews was the 1 in 57 bank from Sandsend to Kettleness (with a short stretch of 1 in 62). Most of this steep climb was through Sandsend tunnel; it is not known whether any ventilation shafts were built at the time of the construction of the tunnel, but there is evidence to show that by 1895 there were two in existence. These were not enough and it was decided to ease the difficulties for the drivers and firemen labouring up this difficult stretch of line. Although there is no direct evidence, complaints from the train crews must have been regular enough and loud enough to make the NER construct three new shafts. Detailed plans of these exist in the National Archives. They were built in 1900.

As far as the primary sources are concerned, the tunnels pass out of history until September 1957, when the announcement was made that British Railways were to close the line. The ostensible reason was the cost of immediate and future maintenance, it being considered that £57,000 needed to be spent, mainly on the tunnels and viaducts, in the next five years. This, plus the limited income from the very few passengers that the line carried, was a difficult argument to counter. A glance at the north portal of Sandsend tunnel shows the distortion of the brickwork and the out of alignment tunnel mouth. This photograph was taken c.1956. British Railways were sufficiently alarmed by the inherent danger of the situation that they put in place temporary repairs, reinforcing the misshapen brickwork with steel rails.

Photo: Neil Cholmondeley Collection

However, while maintenance problems were absolutely necessary, it is more likely that the demands of the 1955 Modernisation Plan had more to do with the closure of the line than the (admittedly large) expense of maintaining the tunnels and viaducts.

When the line closed to all traffic on 5th May 1958 (the last trains running on 3rd May) the tunnels were left to the vicissitudes of time and weather. However, as has been noted, so well-built were they that well over 50 years later the interiors of Kettleness and Sandsend tunnels are still in good condition, except for the collapse at the north portal of Sandsend. Access to the south portal of Sandsend tunnel is straightforward, as is the north portal of Kettleness tunnel, but the respective north and south portals of these tunnels can only be reached by passing through the tunnels, as the track bed on the cliff face at Holmsgrove is totally inaccessible. While the ventilator shafts of Sandsend tunnel exist, the exits in the fields above have been capped, and there is now no sign of them.

More Information

Kettleness TunnelForgotten Relics website
Sandsend TunnelForgotten Relics website


  • HL/PO/PB/1/1873/36 & 37 V1 n 162 [Local Act, 36&37 Victoria I, c. cxxi (1873)]
  • HL/PO/PB/3/plan1873/W13
  • Tomlinson, W W,
  • The North Eastern Railway; its rise and development
  • (London, 1914)
  • The National Archives: RAIL 527, RAIL 743, RAIL 1110, MT 29
  • Michael Aufrere Williams,
  • The Whitby – Loftus Line
  • (Staithes, 2012)

The tunnels and viaducts of the Whitby-Loftus line: Against all odds

  • Author: Michael Aufrere Williams
  • Source: Journal of the Railway & Canal Historical Society (No.218)
  • Published: November 2013

The Two Tunnels project: The darkness at Bath’s heart

Think of Bath – the city, not the fixture alien to many teenagers – and you’d probably conjure up images of its abbey or exemplary Georgian architecture. Rather less likely, you might also recollect the Millennium-funded debacle that was Thermae Bath Spa – a contemporary pampering amenity featuring pools, massage suite and steam room. Contractual wrangles forced its launch back by four years, blowing the budget to smithereens. The railway is not unique in occasionally rustling up a dog’s breakfast from major infrastructure projects.

Striving for a smoother ride is the partnership delivering Bath’s next landmark venture – The Two Tunnels Shared Path – which will clear a direct, traffic-free artery into the city’s heart for those on foot or bicycle. It too is partly benefiting from lottery cash as one of 79 nationwide components of Sustrans’ £150million Connect2 scheme.

The southern portal of the mile-long Combe Down Tunnel.
Colour photos: Four by Three

The sustainable transport charity – which seems to effortlessly wrap itself in success – will lead the construction work, supported by co-financers Bath & North East Somerset Council as well as an energetic support group. The latter’s vision and campaigning skills proved pivotal in building the head of steam behind this enterprise.

Three years from now, a ribbon of tarmacadam will extend north from Midford over the trackbed of the deceased Somerset & Dorset Railway. The village sits to the south of Bath, beyond a limestone barrier which drives roads, river, canal, surviving railway and another Sustrans path on a circuitous seven mile slog into the city centre. Straightening curves and flattening undulations, the Two Tunnels route will slash three miles off that journey, thanks largely – you’ve guessed it – to a pair of disused tunnels.

Overlooked by Midford Viaduct is the Hope & Anchor pub – two compelling reasons for meeting up there with my tame tour guides Mark Annand and Matt Skidmore, who kindly took time out to immerse me in the engineering. Both sit on the support group’s committee although neither will be sedentary over the months to come.

Two Tunnels is immensely ambitious. Disjointed paths – lacking sensible access or a cycle-friendly surface – already occupy sections of the route. Progress is impaired by poor drainage which deters the less adventurous during wet weather. Creating a single, seamless link presents plenty of challenges: erecting two new bridges and reclaiming another over the Great Western main line; refurbishing a pair of three-arch viaducts plus a far grander affair at Tucking Mill. And let’s not forget those tunnels.

One of the better sections
within Bath’s existing ‘linear park’.
Masonry awaits attention on
Watery Bottom Viaduct.

Conquering the formidable gradients of the Somerset & Dorset’s extension into Bath involved serious engineering, matched only by capital costs. Its opening on 20th July 1874 brought both massive traffic growth and a financial burden which the company couldn’t bear. Scarcely a year on, the Midland and London & South Western Railways jointly took charge of the line through a 999 year lease.

The S&D enjoyed a quirky life, endearing it to many. Track and signalling oddities inspired its Slow & Dirty tag. A daily Bournemouth-Manchester express was threaded between freight and local passenger services whilst summer Saturdays brought a procession of holiday trains ferrying northerners to the exotic south coast.

Like two others, the section from Bath Junction to Midford remained single line until the plug was pulled in March 1966. Tucking Mill Viaduct – now barricaded at each end – was widened to accommodate two but never did. For the past 16 years it has been owned by the Monumental Trust Company which has vanished without trace. In the absence of a watchful custodian, the structure succumbed to vandalism and the blight of vegetation – if left unchecked, its future would be threatened. Attention is high on the project’s to-do list. Mysteriously, the deck was recently cleared by persons unknown but ivy continues to overwhelm three of its seven brick piers. Roots also make their presence felt.

Tucking Mill Viaduct is suffering from the blight of unchecked vegetation.

During the Seventies, a mile-long ‘linear park’ was established at the Bath end of the formation. To reduce liabilities, rail-over-road bridges were consigned to history including the viaduct over Lower Bristol Road. Replacing the smaller structures will maintain the separation of path and highway. The S&D’s crossing of Brunel’s Great Western – still in the hands of Network Rail – is also being pressed into service. The missing viaduct spawns a thorny problem which, initially at least, will be overcome by controlled crossings at existing traffic lights. Not ideal, but that’s pragmatism for you.

Having left Bath, trains battled the tortuous 1 in 50 gradient towards Devonshire Tunnel, noted for its ridiculously tight clearances – less than a foot in some cases. Today the northern approach cutting is lost beneath fill from an adjacent embankment, the full load of which is held back by a reinforced blockwall. The condition of the portal should become clear over the summer when an exhumation takes place, allowing any remedial works to be scoped.

Passing locomotives blasted clean the crown of Devonshire’s soot-encrusted lining. The rest of it will be attacked with air jets. The history of this 447 yard tunnel is unblemished, having benefited since closure from regular inspections by British Railways Board (Residuary) and its predecessors.

An access hatch for Devonshire Tunnel stands above its northern approach cutting.

In the seclusion of Lyncombe Vale – a rural retreat within the confines of the city – an existing right-of-way occupies the trackbed as it climbs over two pint-sized viaducts. Inspections have revealed Watery Bottom to be in need of some attention. Thanks to a Two Ronnies scriptwriter for that sentence. Then, at the route’s summit, its centrepiece emerges from the undergrowth.

At a little over one mile, Combe Down is the country’s longest railway tunnel without intermediate ventilation. This caused no end of headaches during its operational life.

3.25pm on 20th November 1929. A northbound freight consisting of 37 wagons and a brake van pulled out of Midford, hauled by a 7F travelling tender first. It was still crawling as it encountered Combe Down’s gloom. The restricted bore conspired with smoke and fumes to overcome the footplate crew.

The train gathered pace as it enjoyed the falling gradient through Lyncombe Vale and Devonshire Tunnel, finally leaving the tracks at the entrance to Bath Goods Yard. By then its speed was catastrophic. Two employees on the ground were struck and killed by flying debris; the driver too surrendered to his injuries. Colonel Trench, the investigating officer, recommended that maximum loads should be reduced or assisting engines provided.

Geologically, the tunnel is a fascinating structure. Hugely appropriate then that the father of that science, William Smith, made his home at nearby Tucking Mill. It burrows 400 feet beneath Combe Down, a hill which is largely formed of oolite. Towards the southern end, it breaks through into the Midford Sands whilst, above it, a layer of Fuller’s Earth acts as a waterproofing course. The straight, central section is unlined except for occasional collars of blue brick, thought to be relics of maintenance work around the turn of the last century.

Although our National Cycle Network boasts over a dozen former railway tunnels, none of them remotely approaches the length of Combe Down. It’s very much pushing the boundaries of what’s considered practical or desirable. Curves at either end extinguish any semblance of daylight. So what about personal security? Who in their right mind would choose to spend 20 minutes shuffling through a black hole?

Just two days before the line closed, a Great Western
Railway Society special leaves Devonshire Tunnel behind.
Photo: John Yeo

Research suggests that people look upon disused railway tunnels in a different way to their local subway. They often become a trip’s highlight – the honeypot attraction. Anyone planning mischief immediately restricts their chances of fleeing the scene. Entrances lend themselves to discreet CCTV.

And plans are afoot to keep explorers occupied as they journey through. Combe Down has a unique character with a variety of linings and profiles. These will be lit sympathetically. Elsewhere motion detectors could trigger changes to a spectacular lighting system. There is even talk of a live display board being sited in one of the refuges, keeping travellers up-to-date on departures from Bath station. Big ideas abound.

Once open, Two Tunnels will encourage 3.8 million annual day-trippers to experience more of what Bath has to offer. In a city known for its stone – much of it mined from above the tunnel – there are few opportunities to see it in its natural home. Enter Combe Down. History points and sculptures will line the route, reflecting the S&D’s history. There’ll be something for everyone – pedestrian or cyclist; local or visitor; commuter or leisure user; young or old. The map of Bath’s attractions is going to need reprinting.

“We’ll make Two Tunnels more popular than Bath Abbey” declares John Grimshaw, Sustrans’ irrepressible Chief Executive who soon retires to manage the project. “This will become the tourist site for the West Country. It’s going to be a challenge.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a master of understatement at work.

More Information

Two Tunnels GreenwayMain project website
Yahoo Supporters GroupWhy not sign up and give your support to the project?
Connect2Sustrans page highlighting the community benefits
Two Tunnels ProjectSupport page from Bath & North East Somerset Council

The Two Tunnels project: The darkness at Bath's heart

  • Author: Graeme Bickerdike
  • Source: Rail Engineer magazine
  • Published: June 08

The partial infilling of Thackley Old Tunnel: End of the Line

Tunnels do little to enhance the passenger experience, turning off the daylight and mobile phone signals. For some, this seemingly results in personal crisis. Any sense of what it took to drive the tunnel – in either human or engineering terms – is lost in the transient frustration. But then it’s hard to see the bigger picture when you’re in the dark.

Whilst modern machinery allows tunnelling to proceed with little manpower and relative ease, things were very different historically. Every one of the 695 bores on our ‘classic’ network represents a victory over the collective forces of earth, water and Murphy’s Law. Some of those victories bordered on miraculous; almost all proved costly.

Tortoise or hare?

Plans to connect the manufacturing towns of Leeds and Bradford by rail first appeared before Parliament in 1830, the intention being to improve transport links for the latter’s burgeoning wool trade. Although direct, the 9½-mile line involved stiff gradients, with a 1:30 incline at the western end worked by a stationary engine. Its promoters got cold feet when inflated costings emerged, causing the Bill to fail. A second scheme was put forward in 1839, but the necessary funding was not forthcoming.

Four years on, it took an intervention by George Hudson, “The Railway King”, to re-energise the idea. Consulting engineer Robert Stephenson surveyed a route along the Aire valley, entering Bradford from the north. Being four miles longer than the original line, business leaders opposed it with some vigour; but, as Stephenson explained to the Parliamentary committee, its ruling gradient of 1:200 was more suited to the under-powered locomotives available at the time, meaning end-to-end journeys would actually be quicker and cheaper to operate than via a more direct route.

Thackley Old Tunnel’s stone-built west portal.
Photo: Forgotten Relics collection

Royal Assent came in July 1844, however raising sufficient capital proved problematic; then Hudson offered a guaranteed return of 7½% and suddenly found himself beating prospective investors off with a stick. Staking out the line got underway immediately, although the brightest spotlight was shone on Thackley Hill – an obstruction to be overcome by a 1,364-yard tunnel. Here, seven shafts were started under the supervision of Francis Mortimer Young, the resident engineer. The following January, a contract for the substantive works was awarded to Messrs Nowell & Hattersley. They would benefit to the tune of £68,000, the equivalent today of about £7.8 million.

Fatal attraction

The islands of industry, 250 yards apart, that transformed the landscape around each shaft must have been a source of great curiosity. Locals would never have seen anything like it. Deployed at one was a 25HP condensing steam engine, used to lower men and materials into the workings and bring spoil out. It had a pump motion for a double lift and, alongside it, stood a 30HP cylindrical boiler.

Beyond our comprehension are the conditions endured by the mining gangs, working without protective clothing and only candles for light. One shaft reached a depth of 252 feet and, for those toiling at the bottom, there could be no escape from the cold shower of water issuing from the surrounding rock. Yet they hacked or blasted their way through mudstone, sandstone, clay, shale – whatever was encountered – then shovelled it into skips for despatch. Around-the-clock in eight-hour shifts, six days a week: it was relentless.

Death loitered nearby whenever shafts were sunk, ready to exploit any error of judgement or momentary lapse. Typical of those lost at Thackley was George Hardage – a miner, aged 19 – who fell down a shaft on Thursday 5th June 1845. Baptist preacher Alexander Pitt attended his funeral, addressing almost 2,000 mourners who had gathered outside the New Inn in Idle, where Hardage lay. Pitt recounted that “A solemn silence pervaded the whole meeting; all seemed to feel the solemnity of the occasion. Most of his fellow workmen were present; they, too, appeared much affected. I observed tears trickling down the cheeks of several of them.”

A blockwall at the western end of the Eighties infill. Note the tunnel’s distorted profile, with the arch pushed inwards at the left-hand haunch.
Photo: Phill Davison

And then there was the gruesome case of gaffer William Hervey who had secured a 15cwt stone to the rope at the bottom of No.6 shaft prior to it being hoisted out. On two or three occasions, the ageing engine proved unequal to the task despite pieces being broken off to lighten the load. Hervey went up to investigate; thereafter the stone was reattached and a further attempt made. When it stopped again at the half-way point, he went to the flywheel, put his foot on one spoke and firmly grasped another, intending to help it forward. However the wheel turned the other way, trapping Hervey’s head and legs in a three-inch gap between the wheel and a wall behind it. He was heard to exclaim “Oh God, stop it”, but death followed almost instantaneously.

In both these cases, inquest juries returned verdicts of “accidental death”; it was common for the unfortunate casualty to shoulder the blame for their demise, whether warranted or not. This provoked a correspondent of the Bradford Observer to assert that “while shareholders are pocketing their six, or eight, or ten per cent, there are widows and fatherless children lamenting – in bare, hunger-visited hovels – the loss of their natural protectors. Does not natural justice suggest that railway proprietors should make some compensation in such cases?”

A different world

The social scene could not have been more contrasting on Tuesday 30th June 1846, the occasion of the line’s formal opening. Along its length, crowds turned out to witness the spectacle, cheering and waving flags. A train bearing shareholders and other dignitaries departed Leeds at noon on a journey taking 45 minutes; awaiting them in Bradford – where all business had been suspended – was a temporary pavilion, its walls adorned with paintings including one of a train entering the tunnel.

In the teeth of an unseasonal storm, Mr and Mrs Harrison from the Sun Inn catered for a thousand guests with 20 joints of beef, 36 pigeon pies, 24 hams, 20 lambs, 54 ducks, 60 chickens, 24 tongues and 40 lobsters. In his address to those feasting, George Hudson commended the “contractors, artisans and labourers” whose “energy and spirit” had ensured completion of the line in just 16 months.

Business as usual

As built, Thackley Tunnel extended for 1,496 yards, 132 yards longer than initially planned; five of the shafts were retained for ventilation purposes. From the outset, third class passengers in open carriages complained vigorously about the drenching they received from penetrating groundwater, prompting a promise from the directors to attach protective metal sheeting to the stonework, although there’s no evidence they ever did.

A scaffold was wrapped around No.4 shaft’s protection wall, enabling staff to access the cradle which lowered them into the tunnel.

The tunnel continued to play out scenes of misadventure despite its operational status. A soldier and vicar separately met their ends within its limits, as did ganger Ben Smith. There were derailments, flood events and a bizarre concocted robbery, whilst commercial traveller Walter Stevens fell out of his compartment at 40mph and spent the next two hours evading trains as he crawled towards the exit with a smashed knee.

In July 1897, the Midland Railway’s Works Committee resolved that a second bore was needed to cope with increasing traffic and its impact on ventilation. The ‘Thackley Widening Act’ received Royal Assent the following year, allowing work to proceed on the new bore under the auspices of engineer J A McDonald and Thomas Oliver & Sons, the contractor. It opened on 27th January 1901.

On the move

Thackley Old Tunnel entered its current period of disuse in 1968, although it continues to be subject to Network Rail’s asset management regime. In April 1985, a bulge was recorded at the haunch closest to the live bore (north/Up-side) which was braced with steel ribs whilst monitoring took place. Further support was added as the rate of movement reached 4.5mm per annum; subsequent examinations also identified a 4.9m transverse fracture – open by 1 inch – together with a smaller bulge on the Down-side.

Core drilling and endoscopic investigations suggested that the material behind the bulge was mudstone; evidence was found of the timbers that had been used to prop it during construction. A study of the local geology indicated a mudstone unit dipping towards the tunnel from the north/north-east, capable of imposing load on the lining due to its depth but steep enough to pass over the New bore without affecting it.

Going down: the view up the stone-lined shaft.

In 1992, two blockwalls were built and the 83-yard section of tunnel between them grouted – together with No.3 shaft – to prevent further deterioration. However, in 2013, more distortion was recorded immediately to the west, with the crown being forced upwards into a void as the high haunches were pushed inwards. This brought concerns that consequential defects may emerge in the operational bore which would be difficult to remediate due to the presence of overhead line equipment.

The solution was another infilling project, this time over a distance of 67 yards. Lasting 12 weeks, the works were progressed by AMCO Rail through the summer of 2016. The design work was fulfilled by Donaldson Associates.

Now you see it

Secured as a compound was a parcel of land owned by Bradford City Council, normally used as a working livery by a nearby equestrian centre. Within it stands No.4 shaft. Over seven days, a large-scale grouting station was established here incorporating storage tanks and pumping equipment. Ainscough provided a 100-tonne crane to do the heavy lifting.

To reach the west portal, plant and materials had to be transported almost three miles, much of it along a lineside track. However Apollo Cradles was engaged to install a platform which allowed the workforce to enter and leave the tunnel via the shaft, accessed from a scaffold wrapped around the protection wall. They also secured three 63mm-diameter grout delivery pipes to the shaft lining with bespoke fixings.

In the tunnel, to draw water away from the live bore and shafts, 90 holes were drilled into the rock behind the lining – each 8m deep – and a conduit installed which was sealed with foam and held in place by stainless steel brackets.

Pipes were dropped down the shaft, through which foam concrete was pumped for the infilling operation.

As well as ventilation pipes, pairs of 300mm diameter drains pass through the pre-existing plug at the toe of the sidewalls. CCTV inspections found that these had become blocked during the original grouting operation so one on each side was reamed out to restore the water flow. Both the ventilation pipes and drains were then extended through the section to be infilled, the joints being double-sealed. The pipes were fastened to the lining at the haunches and chained down to prevent buoyancy.

No way out

Lengthy discussions had taken place between Donaldsons and AMCO as to the most appropriate fill material. Foam concrete was favoured at an early stage as it could be batched and pumped; it is also very light, imparts relatively little load but is strong enough (0.5-1N/mm²) to resist deformation of the lining. However it has to be poured in one-metre layers and the chemical reactions, when setting, generate a huge amount of heat. This would prove difficult to dissipate due to the confined nature of the tunnel.

Given the expected forces and the eventual likelihood of a lining failure, other products offering less strength were soon ruled out. It was ultimately decided that Fresh Cement Bentonite Grout from Bachy Soletanche met the various requirements, with a density of 1,120-1,130kg/m³ and strength of 1-2N/mm². A required quantity of 2,540m³ was estimated.

To allow for a continuous pour whilst addressing its loading implications, a double-diaphragm wall was built on a >300mm thick concrete slab using 10.4N/mm² blockwork in Flemish bond. The 2m interior space was then filled with G3 grout placed in 900mm lifts. A system of dowels and fixings tied together the wall, its foundation and the tunnel arch/sidewalls. Prior to construction, Wilkit foam had been injected radially through holes drilled at 500mm centres to fill any voids behind the lining around the bulkhead, thus preventing grout migration during the main pour.

The new blockwall, extending the infilled section of tunnel from 83 to 150 yards.

Two sets of four pipes passed through the wall at the crown; these were extended by various lengths into the fill area to ensure an even distribution of grout. In total, 2,406m³ was pumped down the shaft and into the tunnel – a distance of around 300 metres – over six days, the operation involving 24-hour working apart from a break over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Within a week, the site had been demobilised, rotavated and reseeded.

All due respect

Those who can appreciate the industry involved in constructing Thackley’s first tunnel might view with some discomfort the act of partially infilling it, seeming somehow disrespectful to the men who contributed to its excavation. Of course, last year’s work was justified by the imperative of protecting the parallel live bore. AMCO Rail undertook the task with typical proficiency, its workforce earning praise from neighbours for their helpfulness and courtesy. In this case, that’s the bigger picture.

Thackley’s potential usefulness ended 25 years ago when the first plug was shortsightedly inserted without the provision of through access. Since then it has effectively been two tunnels, each with one end. What’s the point in that? You’d like to think though – given today’s more enlightened approach to the preservation of our engineering heritage – that not every redundant tunnel will suffer a similar fate.

Published 1st June 2017

More Information

Scholar’s tragic endThe story of Henry de Beltgens Gibbins, found dead in the tunnel

The partial infilling of Thackley Old Tunnel: End of the Line

Four bores through Standedge: Noteworthy LMS tunnels

The Great Western Company’s Severn Tunnel, 4 miles 636 yards in length, is the longest tunnel in Great Britain. Next to it comes the LMS Totley Tunnel, 3 miles 950 yards long. The third longest tunnel, on the LMS Manchester-Leeds line, is now to be described.

The Standedge double line tunnel is 3 miles 64 yards in length and there are three other tunnels running parallel to it. The first of the four to be constructed, and incidentally the longest, was…

The canal tunnel

At the turn of the last century, a train pulls into Diggle Station from the double bore tunnel whilst the two singles, on the right, await their next customers.
Saddleworth Museum Archives – A Community Resource

This passes under the mountainous district known as Standedge. It is the summit level of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and the three Acts of Parliament under which it was constructed are dated 1794, 1800 and 1806. The Huddersfield & Manchester Railway Company acquired it, together with the Huddersfield Broad Canal at Huddersfield, under the Act of 1845. Both the railway and canals were vested in the L&NWR in 1847.

The length of the whole summit level is 4 miles and the height above OD 648.6 feet which is greater than that of any other canal in the country. It is straight throughout.

The canal rises 438 feet 10 inches to the summit level from Huddersfield to Marsden by 42 locks in eight miles and falls through a series of 32 locks 338 feet 1½ inches from Marsden to Ashton in less than nine miles.

The original construction of the canal tunnel, which had a length of 3 miles 135 yards, was partly of stone arch with side walls and partly rock cutting. In places the rock beds are horizontal and much broken up, in consequence of which ‘falls’ of rock occasionally take place.

The work was commenced in 1794 and completed in 1811, at a cost of £271,000. There is no towpath through the tunnel and the boats are propelled through by boatmen – or ‘leggers’ as they are called – from the roof or sides, the operation occupying 1½ to four hours, according to the weight of the cargo and the number of men engaged in the work. The boat horses and attendants travel by road over the tunnel.

There are four ‘wides’ or passing places for boats in the tunnel, viz Brunnclough Wide, Whitehorse Wide, Old Judy Wide and Redbrook Wide at distances of 0.8, 1.1, 1.5 and 1.7 miles respectively from the Diggle end.

Practically the whole water supply from the reservoirs situated on the top of Standedge is brought down the lockages on each side of the summit level. The minimum height above water level is 6 feet 8 inches, width 7 feet 3 inches, and average depth of waterway is 4 feet.

During the construction of the new double-line tunnel between 1890 and 1894, great damage was done by the mining operations to the canal tunnel. To make good the damage, a considerable length of brick flying arches (with side walls where required) and continuous arching were built.

A brick-arched section in the canal tunnel, close to the Yorkshire end.
Photo: Phill Davison

The present lining of the tunnel consists of 2,300 linear yards of rock cutting, 1,060 linear yards stone lining, 870 linear yards brick flying arches (new work) and 1,130 linear yards continuous arching (new work).

In construction of the new double tunnel, about 32 yards of the original canal tunnel at the Diggle end was removed and the waterway covered over with steel girders and floor plates for a length of about 275 yards.

Of the ventilation shafts for the tunnels, seven are situated directly over the canal tunnel and one over a side passage or waterway, but a detailed description of these is given under the head of ‘ventilation’.

Down South single-line tunnel

The construction of this tunnel was commenced in 1845 and completed in 1848 at a cost of £201,608. Its length is 3 miles 62 yards and the contractor was Mr Nicholson. It has an average width of 14 feet 6 inches at rail level, height above rail level being 17 feet 6 inches and its original construction was a stone arch with side walls. The formation through which it passes is the shales and rocks of the coal measures in which there are some ‘main faults’ and several subsidiary ones. Where these latter occur, the shale and rocks are very much distorted and shattered.

The original contour of the tunnel is in many places distorted, the crown of the arch being forced up. On opening out at these places, cavities were found over the crown and the rock very much shattered and drawn. Behind the side walls the shale was very compact. Portions were taken down and rebuilt. The stone arch at the crown varied from 10-22 inches thick (in three rings) and the side walls 22-27 inches, the face work being 10 inches thick. A defective length of 117 yards was rebuilt in 1894 at an actual cost of £4,589, or £39 4s per linear yard.

A further length of 73 yards was rebuilt in 1916-18; this latter work cost £67 per linear yard forward. In 1912-13, similar work was done at £48 per linear yard forward over a length of 17 yards and another length of 13 yards at a cost of £52 per linear yard forward.  In other places the arch ring has been repaired and cavities over the crown hand-packed. The height above rail level in the reconstructed portions is 17 feet 6 inches.

The rebuilding carried out in 1916 to 1918 is about 650 yards from the Marsden end of the tunnel and was necessitated by the damage done by the mining operations in the construction of the new double tunnel between 1890 and 1904.  Adjoining this place, the stone arching in the canal tunnel was found to be very much damaged and crushed, and a length of 33 yards was taken down and rebuilt.

The third shaft from the Diggle end, Redbrook (new), is the deepest at 512 feet.
A continuous deluge pours down it.
Photos: Phill Davison

In the length of the new double tunnel also adjoining, defective work was found, and the cavities above the crown were hand-packed and defective arching taken out and rebuilt.

In this tunnel, at a distance of about 1,075 yards from the Marsden end, 16 inch square longitudinal timbers were fixed below rail level and alongside the side walls for a length of 150 feet with 25 15-inch square wooden struts between, but below sleeper level. This work was done about 1881. The stone arching in the corresponding length of the canal tunnel was rebuilt about the year 1897.

In the new double line tunnel adjoining, which is inverted, the arch had to be repaired and the cavities found above the crown hand-packed about 1900. Both side walls of the single-line tunnel at this place have been thrust forward towards the centre, and there are also signs that the timbers and rails have been forced upwards. Iron rail centres have now been fixed in this place.

There are 13 cross-adits from this tunnel to the canal tunnel, and it is straight for its whole length.

In this tunnel, an amount of £10,100 has been spent on relining and other important renewals between the years of 1894 and 1912.

There are many adits linking the two disused singles as well as a large full-height connection, known as ‘the cathedral’, at their centres.

Up South single-line tunnel

Four cross-chambers now act as emergency evacuation routes between the operational tunnel and the Down South single bore.
Photos: Phill Davison

The construction was commenced in 1868, and completed in 1870, at a cost of £121,500. Its length is 3 miles 62 yards, and is straight throughout. The contractor was Mr Nelson. It has an average width of 14 feet at rail level, with an average height of 15 feet 6 inches above rail level.  The repairs carried out to this tunnel since 1871 are not as extensive as those done in the Down single-line tunnel. However, in 1894, 42 yards of the tunnel was rebuilt – the estimated cost was £1,122 pounds, being equal to £26 14s per lineal yard forward. In 1920, a further 10 yards was similarly dealt with – the estimated cost was £700, being equal to £70 per lineal yard forward.  The actual cost was £1,298.

The construction of this tunnel was brickwork in mortar made with blue lias lime, with the brickwork in Portland cement in places. The section generally adopted was side walls 1 foot 6 inches thick, arch ring 14 inches thick. Additional thicknesses were built in places as required, the side walls being 2 feet 3 inches thick, and the arch rings 1 foot 6 inches. The width between the side walls was 15 feet, though this has now contracted very much in places.

The tunnels were serviced by dedicated gangs of platelayers who had several cabins in which they could take a break.
Refuges were plentiful – good news when trains were approaching.
Photos: Phill Davison

Twenty-one large working headings were used for driving the Up single-line tunnel. These commence in the canal tunnel at varying levels, and run in form of an arch to the old railway tunnel. The floor at the side of the old railway tunnel (now the Down single-line tunnel) is about 6 feet or 7 feet below the rails in it. Some of these archways are open direct to the old tunnel, some are walled up with doorways 6 feet deep, 2 feet 6 inches wide, and some are walled up completely. From these arches there run culverts underneath the old tunnel, used for draining, and in some cases for ventilating it.  The culverts generally terminate in arched chambers between the railway tunnels, which stop a few feet short of the new railway tunnel. In five cases these chambers communicate with the new tunnel through cast iron grids at canal side of rails. There are 35 air headings from the old railway tunnel to the canal tunnel, most of which are driven through the rock, varying in shape and size, and having a large arched entrances. When in working order, they are such as to admit of walking from the railway tunnel to the canal tunnel. About one-third of these headings have been stopped up, either by tipping or walling up, or by both means.

A remarkable photograph showing ‘the cathedral’ – a full high adit between the two single bores – during its construction.
Saddleworth Museum Archives – A Community Resource

Thirty-one cross headings, with arches about 4 feet 6 inches deep by 3 feet wide, form ordinary means of communication between old and new railway tunnels.

Of the five shafts, four are directly over the canal and one, the Redbrook Down Cast shaft, is between the railway and canal tunnels. Four also are in direct communication with the old railway tunnel by large headings or grids.

Double-line tunnel

At the Marsden end, changes in profile tell the story of repair work carried out to the tunnels over the years.
Photo: Phill Davison

This is the most recently constructed tunnel. It was commenced in 1890 and completed in 1894.  The work was begun by the railway company, but completed by contractors. Its length is 3 miles 64 yards, and constructed of brick arch and side walls. The formation passed through is similar to that of the three previous tunnels. At various places concrete inverts were provided.

Since 1894 signs of bricks being crushed in the arch were noticed in several places, and on making trial holes in the crown, defective work was brought to light. Many cavities were found, with the crown bars left in. The existence of 9-inch dry brick midfeathers apparently showed that the cavities had been well packed but on further investigation more cavities were found beyond the midfeathers. These cavities subsequently were solidly hand-packed and the arches taken down and rebuilt when necessary. The cost of these repairs was about £1,600.

Rail level Standedge double-line tunnel is 658.89 feet above OD.

The new shafts at Brunn Clough, Redbrook and Flint Pit were constructed in connection with the new double-line tunnel, and the remainder are the original shafts. All, with the exception of Redbrook Down Cast shaft, are over the canal tunnel.

Ventilation of the tunnels

Name of shaft
(currently existing)
Approx height
above rails (ft)
Approx height
above O.D. (ft)
Diggle face of tunnel15m240
Cote pit15m109710ft0216876
Brunn Clough15m166020ft04571,117
Redbrook (new)16m132415ft05121,172
Redbrook (Up Cast)16m14407ft34741,134
Redbrook (Down Cast)16m14549ft04791,139
Flint pit (old)17m47510ft04541,124
Flint pit (new)17m61315ft04971,156
Marsden face of tunnel18m303

The railway tunnels are ventilated naturally by six of the shafts by means of cross adits of varying sizes. The two shafts at Redbrook – Down Cast and Up Cast – are the only ones in which any attempt has been made to artificially create a circulation of air.

In Redbrook Down Cast shaft, the air is brought down by a means of water sprays. Water near the surface of the ground is collected into a channel by means of a special arrangement, and spreads so as to fall in spray form down the shaft. This causes further air to follow, and the Up Cast shaft being only about 14 yards away, the constant circulation of fresh air is provided.

An artificial circulation of air was created by the Down Cast and Up Cast shafts at Redbrook. This could be regulated by opening or closing gratings and doors.
Photo: Phill Davison

The volume of water and air can be regulated in and out of the single-line tunnel at these shafts by means of gratings and doors, which control the air through various passageways under the lines.

The doorways over the open grating to the ventilating subway in the Down single-line tunnel are raised or lowered by chains by the platelayers when they require to ventilate the tunnel. By raising the doors the current of air coming down the Redbrook Down Cast shaft passes through the subway and thence upwards through the open grating at about sleeper level. This disperses the smoke in the tunnel in both directions.

If the Up single-line tunnel is required to be cleared, the doors are left down and the adjoining shuttles raised. This allows the current of air to pass further along the subway, thence through the open grating in that tunnel. When no ventilation is required the doors and shuttles are left down.

The Diggle end of the three railway tunnels, with the operational double-track bore furthest left.

More Information

Subterranea StandedgePhill Davison’s remarkable exploration of a hidden world.
WikipediaHistory of the tunnels