A walk through the works

Early in 1878, as construction of the tunnel was coming to an end, a reporter from the Halifax Guardian decided to visit the works with a friend. Their adventure resulted in two articles, one describing the scene of industry on the hill above the tunnel, and the other - reproduced below - takes a walk through from one end to the other. Together, they offer a unique insight into how Victorian engineers and navvies went about driving railway tunnels.

After many attempts to obtain a direct line north and south to run through the upper part of the two, the Great Northern Railway Company promoted the scheme to connect Halifax with Thornton and Keighley, and also with Bradford, and the public of Halifax, who have subscribed and subscribed in order to obtain better railway accommodation, gave the bill all the support they could. The Halifax, Thornton and Keighley Railways Bill came before a select committee of the House of Commons, on Tuesday, May 6th, 1873, and passed its final stage in the House of Lords on the 14th of July, 1873. The works were commenced early, the contract having been let to the well-known contractors, Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss, who have executed a large number of similar works in different parts of the country. Their contract commenced at a junction with the Ovenden line, a little north of Holmfield station, and some hundred yards below Netherton Mills, and included the formation of the long tunnel under the lofty hill on which Queensbury stands, also the formation the line from Hole Bottom (the other end of the tunnel) to Bradford, and a line from Hole Bottom to Thornton. The other portion of the scheme connecting Thornton with Keighley was left over for another contract, and this will be let shortly.

Having heard that the works were in a very forward state, that the tunnel would not be long before it was completed, I determined to pay a visit to this great undertaking, and commence at Holmfield.

The benefit from the formation of the Ovenden line has not yet been so marked as was anticipated, on account of the line not having been opened for passenger traffic. Yet the visitor to Ovenden, Bradshaw, Illingworth, Catherine Slack, and Queensbury, will notice that Holmfield station has now become a centre, to and from which stone wagons, coal carts, manufacturers’ lurries, and other conveyances can be seen passing along the roads to their destinations. The stone trade of the district has thus been further developed, and large quantities of stone from the quarries at Queensbury, Catherine Slack, and Illingworth Moor, instead of having to be conveyed at a great expense and loss of time to Halifax, by road, are now quickly despatched by the Ovenden line, and thus the building trade of Halifax and district has been benefited, while a corresponding advantage will be felt in the districts alluded to.

Perhaps the inhabitants of Ovenden have felt the advantage of the new line most, by the facilities afforded for bringing good coal from the South Yorkshire coal fields to within easy distance of their homes; and the manufacturers and mill owners will reap such a benefit, and must have a great effect on the trade of the district. It must be remembered that the extensive district of Ovenden has had to depend on the local coal measures for their coal, or pay a large sum for cartage from the Halifax station, up the steep road to Ovenden. Mill owners must have had to pay an enormous amount annually for this item alone. Thanks to the Ovenden line, this has been remedied, and almost a new trade has sprung up, as evidenced by the large number of coal merchants’ offices, or wood huts, at Holmfield station.

The roads in Ovenden, Bradshaw and Holdsworth, all bear evidence of the increased traffic to the station, and this will cause an increased expenditure on the part of the Ovenden Local Board, in keeping these roads in repair; but they have the advantage of the rates derived from the station, the new line, and the extra business premises erected, in addition to the general benefit of the inhabitants. Though the resources of the district are greatly developed by the opening of a line for mineral traffic, that the great revolution affected by the aid of efficient railway communication can never be half realised till a good service of passenger trains is placed at the disposal of the inhabitants. Therefore the greater the necessity for hastening on the completion of the line of communication between Halifax, Keighley and Bradford, as it is evident Ovenden must wait till then, before the government inspector will certify the line to be safe for passenger traffic.

Many unthinking people have spoken loudly of the length of time that has already been occupied in the construction of the line from Netherton to Hole Bottom, a distance of about two miles. But little do such people know of the magnitude of the work, of the engineering skill required, and of the innumerable difficulties to be overcome, in making those two miles of railway.  The pyramids of Egypt sink into insignificance compared with such a work. It must be remembered that the contractors have had to pierce through a hill 420 feet high from the level of the line, and to tunnel through the hill on which Queensbury is situate for the length of about a mile and a half. In addition to this a long cutting has had to be made from Netherton to the entrance of the tunnel, chiefly through hard millstone grit, through the cracks and fissures of which large quantities of water have escaped, causing no small amount of trouble to the men engaged.

To facilitate the excavation of the tunnel, eight shafts have been sunk, whose total depth amounts to over 2,000 feet. At the Netherton end of the tunnel, hard millstone grit has had to be blasted with dynamite, a most expensive though efficient explosive, whilst further into the tunnel carbonaceous shales, some of very hard texture, had to be worked through. But one of the chief difficulties to be overcome was the large quantities of water that were met with; and in order to get the experienced miners to work, heavy suits of waterproof had to be provided, and each man had to wear a hat very much resembling a sailor’s “Nor’-wester”. In sinking No.5 shaft the water accumulated so fast that when the depth of 270 feet had been reached, the men could no longer work, and the shaft had to be abandoned.

At the present time the stream of water is conveyed on the side of the rails from the mouth of the tunnel sufficient to turn a small water wheel, and all along the sides of the cutting at Netherton, water as clear as can be forms innumerable cascades as it issues from the cracks in the rock and falls into the watercourse below. Proceeding along the cutting from Holmfield to Netherton, several large “faults” are revealed, and the geologist will find many interesting features brought to light. The casual observer will notice the great beds of shale and bedded sandstone are bent into folds like paper, and in some instances the rocks are so tilted from the ordinary level that the outcrop points to the morning sun, thus reminding one of the great forces of nature that have been at work in ages gone by.

The stream of water which comes from Lower Well has had to be conveyed in iron troughing across the cutting, and from thence it runs down into the reservoir for the supply of Netherton Mills. It has been found necessary to divert the old brook coming down from Bradshaw at the point where the footpath from Holdsworth Hall crosses the line in the way to Strines. Here an aqueduct has been formed of solid masonry over the cutting, and a newly constructed watercourse conveys the stream to Netherton, where it runs in its accustomed course to join the Hebble at Lee Bridge. The ochery-red of the masonry at the bottom of the stream reveals the presence of iron in the water, and shows that it is derived from the carboniferous strata higher up, in which iron pyrites are found. As we near the tunnel a large number of men are found with long iron rods or drills in their hands, and they are engaged in making deep holes in the solid rock, in which dynamite is inserted. A large number of these holes are drilled in one day, and in the evening they are all fired, going off like the booming of cannon, and can be sometimes heard even at Halifax. Considering the great mass of hard rock that has thus to be worked, the process seems a slow one. A large portion of this stone has already been used for building purposes.

The debris from this cutting is taken away in trains of the contractor’s waggons, drawn by a locomotive, and afterwards dragged up the slope of the hill by a stationary engine, and tipped onto an immense triangular rubbish heap at a great elevation above the level of the line below. Being compelled to tip at such an elevation points to one of the difficulties the contractors have had to surmount, and must entail considerably more expense than tipping to form a railway embankment besides adding to the risk of accident. This large tip, 30 or 40 feet in thickness, and covering a large area, is levelling up the great hollow between the hills, and when completed will be covered with soil, so as to form arable or pasture land.

Near the mouth of the tunnel on the slope of the hill an interesting process was going on. Two men were engaged in piling some of the hard black shale brought out of the shafts of the tunnel, and mixing the heap with coal also obtained in excavating through the hill. This was fired, and while one end of the heap had burnt, and the fire gone out, the other end was all in a glow. This burnt shale was made to render some very important service in connection with the masonry on the line. After being burnt to the colour of bricks, it was taken to the mortar mill and ground up with lime, and the result was a first-class cement, which is very essential in the construction of such works as are needed on this line. A lump of this cement, after it has been exposed to the atmosphere a few days, is almost as hard as stone.

All the work at No.1, No.2 and No.3 shafts is completed, and the chimneys at the top erected. The tramway up the hill connecting the mouth of the shafts with the line below has been taken up, and all the tackling at No.1 and 2 shafts has been removed. This tramway, by an arrangement with the contractors, was made use of by an enterprising coal merchant, at Queensbury, who had waggons of coal brought from Holmfield station up the side of the hill to a siding on the top, near the village of Queensbury, this saving cartage from Holmfield. Before entering the tunnel, was noticed a Great Northern iron-cased van or powder magazine, in addition to a small brick one on the slope of the hill.

Having obtained a candle from one of the workmen, we proceeded cautiously under the arched tunnel. At first everything appeared dry and comfortable, and gave no indication of the character of the more central part of the workings, unless it were the stream rushing along its course on the left hand side. Seeing the red light of an engine, in front of us, and hearing its shrill whistle, our first thoughts were about our personal safety, as we had not been able to see the contractors and obtain a guide. The light of the candle simply made the darkness visible, and here and there were great piles of stones to be used for the unfinished portion of the archway near the centre. So we stopped, standing as near the wall as we could, till the engine passed, after which we obtained instructions from one of the men as to how to proceed without incurring much danger. We had not proceeded far when there was a noise as of many waters; all at once it seemed to rain in bucketsful and the candle had a narrow escape of being extinguished. The fact was we were passing No.2 shaft, at which the pent-up waters seemed to be making their escape.

Stepping from sleeper to sleeper, so far we had got on well; but now ponds of water had to be avoided, and progress was not so easy. At the bottom of No.3 shaft was a smithy, and the blacksmith, with his grimy face, was making the bellows roar. Here a number of workmen were busy making the permanent way, and constructing a drain, which will run in the centre of the six foot, right through the tunnel. There being a gradual fall from Hole Bottom to Netherton, the water collected in the tunnel will have to pass out at the latter place. Beyond No.3 shaft the arching of the tunnel was being carried on, the bricklayers standing on a raised platform right over our heads. On the line were two waggons loaded with bricks. A man stood in the centre of each waggon, and handed up in quick succession two bricks at a time, which were received by two men on the planks over their heads, and by them thrown up on to the raised platform for use of the bricklayers. Thus waggon loads are soon conveyed from the waggon to the platform.

Our progress soon afterwards became more difficult, and seemed more dangerous, for we had come to a portion where only a headway had been driven. The mode of procedure in making the tunnel, is first to drive a hole about six feet in height, and of sufficient width to allow a contractor’s waggon to pass comfortably between the timbers supporting the roof. The done, the waggons are backed under the headway, and the miners work out the material above to the requisite height of the tunnel, the stones and rubbish being rolled down into the waggons below, thus saving a large amount of labour in lifting, if any other course were adopted. At the point we had now come to the rubbish above the headway and on each side was being rolled into large iron skips placed on bogies. These skips when loadened were drawn by horses to the eye of No.4 shaft, and there hoisted up the shaft by the stationary engine at the top.

The clay, formed into puddle by the water and by the tramping of horses and men, the continual falling of heaps of rubbish, and the hurrying to and fro of the skips of materials, made it no easy work to proceed in semi-darkness. In addition to this every now and then there was a heavy waterfall.  After passing under a section where the arching had been completed, a second candle was obtained, and a longer section of heading was entered. Although the cross timbers of the roof were placed from a foot to a foot and a half apart, and were a great thickness, yet every other seemed to be broken in the centre by the great weight of earth above, so that the look of the roof was pre-possessing to someone who was a stranger in those parts.

Nevertheless, we must finish the journey, as we moved forward and soon had to pass a number of waggons that were being loadened, and it was with difficulty we passed through the narrow space between the waggons and the posts supporting the roof timbers. After this had been accomplished, a locomotive that was bringing nine waggon loads of bricks from Clayton was in front of us. Stepping on one side to let the train pass, the rest of the tunnel was found to be in a better condition for pedestrianism, and the only difficulty was to keep the candles burning, so strong was the current of air.

Before long we emerged at the other end of the tunnel at Hole Bottom, and the resolution was then made that the next time we went through the hill would be in a railway carriage drawn by a locomotive.  It will not be long before that time comes, for the work is proceeding very rapidly. A line of rails is now laid between Halifax and Bradford, via Queensbury, and the line is also laid to Thornton.

A great change has taken place in the aspect of the deep hollow beneath Queensbury, suitable named Hole Bottom. Before these works commenced cattle grazed in the pasture land below, and the only feature to relieve the quiet of the pastoral scene was a tramway up the hill side, connecting the coal pit of Mr Briggs at the bottom with the landing place at the top. But now two large railway embankments, branching at right angles from the tunnel, are again connected by lofty viaducts, the Halifax line forming a double junction with the Bradford and Thornton line.

Near the mouth of the tunnel is the engine that has been used for compressing air into the tunnel before a communication was made right through. There is also a blacksmith’s shop, with the innumerable pieces of iron and chains scattered about, the carpenter’s shop, the engine house, mortar mill, saw mill, powder magazine; also on the embankment are several offices, including those of the contractors, Messrs Benton and Woodiwiss. The tramway up the slope of the hill has been removed; but the engine house and some of the plant at the top is left standing.

Saturday 16th February 1878: Halifax Guardian

Content reproduced courtesy of Forgotten Relics website


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