Victoria Tunnel (Newcastle)
History and museums
The Victoria Tunnel is a subterranean wagonway that runs under Newcastle upon Tyne, England, from the Town Moor down to the River Tyne. It was built between 1839-42 to transport coal from Leazes Main Colliery in Spital Tongues to riverside staithes (jetties) ready for loading onto boats for export.
The tunnel was driven through boulder clay and formed by a base course of stone supporting a brick arch. Loaded wagons descended the incline of the tunnel under their own weight, and were rope-hauled back to the colliery by a stationary engine. The Colliery closed in January 1860 and the Tunnel was abandoned until the start of the Second World War when it was converted for use as an air raid shelter.
The tunnel is 2.4 miles (3.9 km) in length with a maximum depth of 85 feet (26 m) and drops 222 feet (68 m) from entrance to exit. It remains largely intact.
When it opened in 1835, the Leazes Main or Spital Tongues colliery was one of many coal mines around Newcastle. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing: demand for coal was high and the competition was great.
Initially, the coal was carried on carts from the colliery through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne to the river, ready for shipping. This was slow, as the town was largely still in its medieval layout, with narrow cobbled streets (Grainger Town was still in the early stages of construction) and expensive because of the road taxes. Porter and Latimer, the colliery owners, therefore employed a local engineer, William E. Gilhespie, to construct an underground wagonway. An overground waggonway following much the same route was mooted, but the Freemen of Newcastle would not give permission for tracks to be laid across the Town Moor. A more direct route to Elswick, about two miles upstream from the mouth of the Ouseburn, was also ruled out, because the old Tyne Bridge (the Swing Bridge would not be built until 1873) prevented ships sailing beyond Newcastle. Building a staithe here would involve having to pay the keelmen to take the coal downstream of the bridge before it could be loaded into the colliers, thereby significantly reducing the profit margin on each load of coal shipped.
Permission to build the tunnel was granted in 1838 and work started the following year. The tunnel was probably dug in sections. The engineers would have excavated a shaft down to the right level then tunnelled out to link up with the next section. John Cherry was appointed to manage the tunnelling, he was a former Yorkshire Lead Miner who had previously been employed as a miner at the Leazes Main Colliery. Building works were carried out by the firm of Mr David Nixon, a builder of Prudhoe Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. Some 200 workers were employed in the construction of the Tunnel and Thomas Fordyce in his Local Records for 8 January 1841 reported 'The workmen, to the number of two hundred, were regaled with a substantial supper and strong ale, supplied by Mrs. Dixon, the worthy hostess of the Unicorn Inn, Bigg-market, Newcastle. The Albion band attended, and enlivened the joyous occasion with their music'. The walls of the tunnel were lined in stone, and a double brick arch supported the roof. It is approximately 7 ft 5 in (2.26 m) high and 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m) wide. This was just large enough to accommodate the custom-built chaldron wagons.
Because of the gradual gradient of the tunnel, loaded wagons were able to roll along a standard gauge rail track down to the river. A rope was tied to the last wagon in the train and a stationary steam engine at the top of the tunnel hauled the empty wagons back up to the pithead.
The Victoria Tunnel was named after the popular, young Queen Victoria. It was officially opened by the Mayor of Newcastle on 7 April 1842. A crowd of spectators including the sheriff and important merchants gathered on the quayside and at 1pm cannons were fired as a train of eight wagons appeared out of the tunnel. Four of the wagons contained coal, and the others a “company of ladies and gentlemen and a band of musicians”!
The Victoria Tunnel was a financial success: it reduced the cost of transporting coal from the pit to the river by 88%. The colliery, however was not a success and closed in 1860.
Having taken two and a half years to build, the Tunnel was in use for just eighteen years.
In 1939, Britain prepared for war. People were instructed to practise “Air Raid Precautions” and protect themselves from bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe. In Newcastle, the city engineer developed plans to convert the Victoria Tunnel into a communal air raid shelter for 9000 people.
It cost £37,000 to adapt the Tunnel into an air raid shelter. It was cleaned of coal dust and in some parts whitewashed. Several concrete blast walls were added to stop potential bomb debris flying along the tunnel. Electric lighting was fitted and a new concrete floor was laid. Wooden benches and about 500 bunk beds were installed along the walls, and chemical toilets enclosed in canvas cubicles were built near the entrances.
Seven new entrances were completed: Claremont Road, Hancock Museum, St Thomas’ Churchyard, Ridley Place, Shieldfield Green, Crawhall Road, and Ouse Street. At Ouse Street it was possible to walk straight into the tunnel, but the other access points looked like subway entrances and involved walking down a steep corridor.
There is no doubt that the tunnel was a dark, damp, and uncomfortable place to shelter. Many people were afraid to use it. Those who did remember sitting with their families and neighbours, exchanging gossip and often singing songs while waiting nervously for the “all-clear” from up above.
At the end of the war, most of the fittings were removed and all of the entrances except Ouse Street were closed. This entrance had been built on private land: the garden of number 14 Ouse Street. Guided tours are available.
The Victoria Tunnel originally ran from the site of the Spital Tongues colliery near Hunters Road. It still exists under Claremont Road, and runs past the Hancock Museum, then close to the Civic Centre and St Mary's Place. From here it travels under Northumbria University City Campus, the Central Motorway and Shieldfield to St Dominic’s Church on the corner of Crawhall Road and New Bridge Street. It then continues under St Ann's Estate to an entrance on Ouse Street. The section of Tunnel that continued from here to the River Tyne was demolished in 1878.
Date opened: 7 April 1842
Original length: 2.25 miles (4 km)
Original height: 7 feet 5 inches (2.26 metres)
Original width: 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 metres) Drop: 222 feet (68 m)
Deepest point: 85 feet (26 m)
Length accessible today: 766 yards (700 m)
A 766 yards (700 m) section of the tunnel in the Ouseburn Valley is still accessible via a WWII entrance on Ouse Street. A programme of visits was first established by the Ouseburn Partnership in 1998. After a period of closure in 2006, the City Council carried out a programme of structural repairs and public safety measures, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Tyne & Wear Partnership. The Victoria Tunnel Education Project developed a number of resources about the tunnel and organised public tours and school workshops from 2009. From 2010 the Ouseburn Trust has run guided tours.
A sound and light installation, commissioned from artist Adinda van 't Klooster, focuses on the themes of war, fear, and nuclear weapons, using the codenames of British military research projects as a backdrop.