Work on Queensbury Tunnel, between Bradford and Halifax, began in May 1874 and involved the excavation of 180,000 cubic yards of rock - some of which was used to build parts of the tunnel’s lining - as well as the manufacture and placement of around 5.2 million bricks forming the arch.
Progress was delayed by the huge volume of groundwater entering the workings. Pumps at five of the seven construction shafts removed 80 litres of water every second. The 1.4-mile long feat was eventually completed in July 1878, more than two years after the date specified in the contract.
The greatest cost was borne by the 600-strong workforce. Dozens of injuries - many of them life-changing - were accompanied by 10 deaths. The first casualty, 30-year-old Richard Sutcliffe, was working at the bottom of a shaft when a skip fell down it and struck him on the head. Henry Jones and John Gough, 39 and 40 respectively, were withdrawing a failed explosive charge which suddenly detonated, whilst a lump of rock crushed to death Richard Jones, 33, as he worked it with a pick.
To honour the navvies, the Queensbury Tunnel Society has erected a memorial comprising of two rows of wooden railway sleepers which stand either side of the path linking the Great Northern Railway Trail to the tunnel entrance. They are each dedicated to one of the men and have QR codes on the back, linking to online biographies. The materials were mostly donated by the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, whilst the preparation and installation work was carried out by three supporters of the tunnel campaign.
Queensbury Tunnel Society engineering co-ordinator Graeme Bickerdike said: “Navvies are the forgotten heroes of the railway boom that changed the nation in the 19th century. Against the odds - without any of the mechanical advantages bestowed on today’s engineers - they bored passageways and erected inspiring structures to overcome formidable topographical barriers.
“That endeavour and the conditions experienced are beyond the comprehension of 21st century workers who, thankfully, never start a shift knowing that it might realistically be their last. The risks would be intolerable now and many paid the highest possible price, leaving their families destitute. But the rates of pay were comparatively good so the contractors were rarely short of men willing to step in.
“As we ride comfortably on their infrastructure, we must not forget those who gifted us our railway network through the Victorian era. We have a duty to respect the sacrifices they made and use their legacies to our greatest possible advantage. These assets present valuable opportunities as we look towards a better future after the pandemic. Queensbury Tunnel forms a strategic connection between two of West Yorkshire’s largest conurbations, with the potential to attract both tourists and commuters.”
The structure has been surrounded by controversy since National Highways - who manage it on the Department for Transport’s behalf - announced plans for a partial infilling scheme prompted by perceived safety concerns. £7.8million has already been committed, with the preparatory works still ongoing. If completed, the overall cost is likely to exceed £10million, but a planning application - which has not yet been determined - has attracted more than 7,700 objections.
In July 2020, the Government committed £1million to two studies examining the tunnel’s potential. National Highways has completed a technical report into repair options for the structure and their associated costs, whilst Bradford Council recently commissioned Sustrans - custodians of the National Cycle Network - to develop options for cycling routes connecting Bradford, Keighley and Halifax.
The navvy memorial, which is thought to be one of only two in the country, will be formally inaugurated in October.