Bramhope Tunnel: Conquering the Ridge

This Friday we hear from Local and Family History Librarian, Louise Birch, on the monumental engineering (and human) feat that was the construction of Bramhope Tunnel…

When the York & North Midland Railway leased and closed the Leeds-Selby Railway line (1940) in order to funnel regional rail travel through York they angered the manufacturers and merchants of Leeds, including the Marshalls and the Gotts who wanted to move raw materials into the city and finished materials out efficiently.  In response they sought to create a railway line to the north, linking Leeds with the linen towns of Knaresbourgh and Ripon and the ports of Hartlepool and Stockton. Three possible routes were proposed, the first discounted due to gradient and the second because it would disrupt valued fox hunting land in Eccup.

The hills and valleys of the Yorkshire countryside would be overcome with viaducts traversing the Aire, the Wharfe, the Nidd and Crimple Beck and a 1 ¾ mile tunnel used to conquer the Wharfedale ridge.

The Leeds – Thirsk Railway Company was directed by secretary, author and government reformer Samuel Smiles.  The engineering team was led by Thomas Grainger a Scottish civil engineer who also built the Wortley roundhouse on the Inner Ring Road, he was assisted by John Bourne as resident engineer and William Walker as section engineer.  William Cubitt a renowned civil engineer acted as advisor.

Mr James Bray of the Iron and Brass Foundry on Black Bull Street, Leeds was the contractor.  Bray operated the Poole Bank Quarries providing over 50,000 tons of stone to the viaduct archways. Bray had built or helped to build various railway and branch lines as well as the first Leeds Waterworks, Crown Point Bridge and Leeds New Dock.  During the tunnel years Bray moved his family residence from Hunslet, to Headingley, Headingley to Bramhope and Bramhope to the Moor Park Estate in Harrogate, a country gentleman’s estate.

Why a tunnel?  A tunnel is proposed when the cost of creating a cutting through digging and shoring up exceeds the estimated cost of a tunnel.  Originally planned for 3,344 yards this was extended to 3,520 yards at the wish of a local land owner, and then extended again to 3,743 yards to cope with water. Two 40ft high sighting towers were erected to keep the line true, one of these still stands in the field at the corner of Moor Road and Moorland Road.  The plan was to work in from each end and outwards from 15 shafts along the route joining up to create one continuous tunnel.  As this was proving too slow another 5 shafts were sunk for a total of 20 shafts.  Working shafts were 10ft diameter and brick lined, 4 of the shafts were made permanent at 40ft wide and lined in 2ft 6in thick block-in course work, they remain today as ventilation shafts.

The shafts were dug using picks and shovels through loose ground and explosives to get through the rock, when complete they would see teams of men lowered down in a huge brass bucket to work by candle light, for shovelling 20 tons of rock and earth each 12 hour shift the men were paid £1.50 per week.  The buckets operated by winchmen and powered by horses were used to remove the spoils with horses working 6-8 hour shifts.

“The flow of water is more copious than was anticipated” – York Herald, September 1846

Working conditions were constantly wet, with water pouring in from the ridge, at the same time water was required for construction and living needs and this was being taken from the village well resulting in a reduction in supply and the quality being spoiled. A new source was found near the crossroads at the Dyneley Arms which was then piped to the site.  The water draining through the tunnel came from the natural gathering ground of the ridge which flowed down to the Wharfe as Poole Beck and to the Aire as Adel and Horsforth Becks.  But this water already had a use, irrigation for farmer’s fields, the source of the Bramhope Well and the means of power for the industrial mills situated on these becks.  With the water table for the local area affected so dramatically claims for compensation had to be met and litigation went on for many years after the tunnel was completed.

The water coming into the workings from the ridge caused costly delays.  Every time a shaft flooded it needed to be pumped out, but the original pumps brought in for the job proved too weak. In June 1846 they were “pumping 338 gallons per minute for two months, day and night without being able to overcome the spring”, eventually they brought in and a 40 horse power engine (at a cost of £850), and by January 1847 they went from pumping 4,194 gallons per minute.

In total it’s estimated that 1 billion, 563 million, 480 thousand gallons of water was pumped out of the shaft workings. In terms of UK Olympic sized swimming pools that is 2843, Or enough to fill The Serpentine in Hyde Park over 18 times.

The foundation stone was laid at Shaft 1 in July 1846, once a shaft was finished teams of miners were lowered down to create header tunnels, smaller 8ft x 8ft tunnels shored up by beams and joined up to make a complete mini version of the tunnel.  This ensured the line was true and made communication easier.  Behind the miners, labourers laid a line of temporary rails for spoil to be removed.

Once the headers were complete the excavation was worked in lengths of 12ft, the excavators would move to the opposing side of the shaft and begin digging there while a team of labourers and bricklayers would take their place and begin building the tunnel walls.  On Bramhope tunnel there was a total of 22 teams working at any one time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The walls were of 8 inch thick block-in-course bound with Roman cement, backed by puddled clay and by rubble, and faced with concentric-ringed brickwork.

Each end of the tunnel received very different treatment, the Gothic north portal was given a castellated finish (now grade II listed) containing rooms used by railway staff.  The south entrance is very plain by comparison, a sandstone horseshoe-shaped arch below a cornice and a parapet.

The tunnel was completed November 27th, 1848 and the first train went through it May 31st, Leeds and Thirsk railway officials pulled by Bray’s locomotive Stephenson. As the tunnel was completed all but 4 of the 20 working shafts were capped off.  The tunnel officially opened a week later than expected on July 9th, 1849, with the public able to travel through from the 10th.  At the time of opening Bramhope Tunnel was the 3rd longest railway tunnel in the country. Despite the tunnel being a double track there was only 1 train at a time allowed in the tunnel with telegraphic communication between north and south tracks relaying information.

As well as the incessant water problems, the foul air, gunpowder fumes, dangers of roof collapse and working by lantern light made for very unpleasant working conditions.  It would have been very hard to minimise the dangers, the work was what it was, and there wasn’t much that could practically be done to manage the risk.

The memorial in Otley Church yard lists 24 men buried in the churchyard however recent research from Otley Museum has shown the number of men who died building the tunnel to be much greater, at least 39 and probably higher.  It’s hard to ascertain as no record of accident or sickness were kept until 1847 when an increase of £100 was made in the form of a grant to the Leeds General Infirmary and a ‘spring cart’ provided to carry casualties to the hospital and a further grant to the Beckett Street House of Recovery.

Water flooding into the workings caused around 4% of deaths, sudden flooding would have trapped men below ground with winch men unable to get teams out in time, there were also cases when the spoil bucket/lift snapping while full of waste material and this crashing down onto the men below but by far the biggest killer of the workforce was pneumonia, taking 10% of lives.

Statistically you would find 1 death for every mile of completed track, at 39 miles long I think the Leeds – Thirsk Railway with its tunnel and viaducts took more than its fair share.

Once the tunnel was complete the contractor James Bray erected the Bramhope Tunnel Memorial in Otley Churchyard with it taking the form of the elaborate castellated North Portal.

Bramhope Tunnel Memorial at Otley Church

In 1845 the village of Bramhope had a population of 350 people but the huge workforce created to construct the tunnel increased that by 2,300 navvies, many of whom brought families with them to live on site for the duration of the works.  The field in which the remaining sighting tower still exists, opposite Bramhope Cemetery was both home and job site for this workforce.

200 temporary wooden huts were constructed in the field for the men and their families with huts home to up to 17 people.  As the tunnel digging was done in 12 hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week you had in many cases the men sleeping ‘box and cox’ style, so as one man rolled out of his bed to begin his shift, another man rolled into it at the end of his.  Alongside the residential huts were offices, stonemason yards, joiner’s shops, explosive stores, stables, coal stores, saw mills and workshops for the brickworks. Records show that some of the workforce included, 188 quarrymen, 102 stonemasons, 732 tunnel men, 738 labourers, 18 carpenters, as well as around 400 horses.  This workforce was made up of farm labourers from Yorkshire Dales, North East England, East Anglia, and the Fenlands as well as Scotland and refugees from Ireland.

The local churches at Pool and Bramhope were filled on Sundays and the Leeds Town Mission had a man on site for 4 years with the company making an annual contribution of £100 to the mission with 600 tracts distributed weekly, Bibles sold for 10d and New Testaments for 4d.

The famous Navvy missionary Elizabeth Garnett was the daughter of the Vicar of Otley, she was 10 years old when the Bramhope tunnel opened and described Navvy settlements as “patrolled by policemen with cutlasses and native children cajoled to sleep with threats of being given ‘to a navvy’”. It may have been the Bramhope navvies who inspired her life-long mission for the improvement of navvy sites.  She wrote books to raise funds for the navvy mission and campaigned for support, writing hundreds of letters to people of influence.  She opened numerous Sunday schools but despite being considered the force within the mission, credit was instead given to Rev. Lewis Moule Evans as the leader of the movement.

Ale and porter were sold regularly around the huts however a decision by the company to stop this in an effort to increase productivity resulted in uproar from the workforce.

June 1846 saw a fight break out at Wescoe Hill cutting, Joseph Midgely the Railroad Inspector had to call in reinforcements to subdue 300 drunken navvies and the original resident force of one police inspector and one constable had to be increased.

Inspector Midgely’s reports are very illuminating, he noted that the masons, mostly local men, were quiet and well behaved, but difficulties occurred with those living in the rather overcrowded huts.  Midgely spent a lot of time on site, in and out of the workers homes and workplaces. To stop children running wild Midgely visited every home on site and listed the number of children within who could attend school.  There were 221 children, but the village school, opened on Eastgate in 1790 already had 40 children attending and only 10 vacancies. This is before the 1870 Elementary Education Act came into force so there was no legal requirement for children to be in school, but they were definitely in the way. Midgley estimated that for an expenditure of £20 another 40 spaces could be created. In 1847 a grant of £110 was made to the school.

The proposed cost of the Leeds and Thirsk line was £800,000 raised through £50 shares, however the final cost  of the line to Thirsk was £1,800,000 with the Bramhope section costing over half a million pounds with a cost per mile of £35,000, for comparison the Manchester-Leeds line cost £59,000 per mile and the Dundee-Arbroath line £8,000.

Shortly after the line was completed the company name was changed from The Leeds and Thirsk Company to the Leeds Northern Railway.

But it is still an amazing feat of civil engineering, one that played a large part in the industrial successes of Leeds as a city and one that we are still using today.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Those who died would have included non-conformists and catholics so would have been buried elsewhere. See for example the gravestone of James Myers of Yeadon ‘who came to his death by an accident in the Bramhope Tunnel…’ which is now set in the wall of Yeadon Methodist church

  2. Thank you for this! – really helpful and much appreciated.

    Leeds Central Library

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