If the procrastination over High Speed 2 ever gives way to construction, the line will navigate the Chiltern Hills via a series of tunnels – some bored, some ‘green’. The latter comprise open-ended concrete boxes, sunk into the landscape, above which the ground is restored to something resembling its original state. It’s a modern term but a well-established principle. When the Midland Railway pushed its Buxton branch through the Peak District in the 1860s, it excavated the 1,058-yard Haddon Tunnel so as not to blight the Duke of Rutland’s estate. Opened 150 years ago this month, the structure has lain silent since closure in 1968.

Initial drawings survive in the Midland Railway Study Centre, with three signatories. Most notable is that of William Henry Barlow, installed as the Midland’s first Chief Engineer in 1844 and later celebrated for the outstanding St Pancras train shed. George Thomson, fulfilling the role of contractor, and his brother Peter also appended their names.

On paper, Haddon was envisaged as two tunnels, separated by a short cutting. The most southerly would extend for 120 yards, sitting on a ledge cut in the gently-graded hillside. Beyond this, a longer structure of 900 yards – punctured by two ventilation shafts – would comprise cut-and-cover sections either side of a bored portion.

But anyone visiting the tunnel today would struggle to recognise it from that description. Two shafts became five; the cutting disappeared; substantial changes in section are met; an open box brings 11 yards of daylight. Engineering contracts generally demand that work is carried out in accordance with the plans unless unforeseen problems are encountered. Trouble is, with activities below ground, virtually everything is unforeseen. So it comes as no surprise that the design evolved in response to prevailing circumstances. And clues to what they were have been left for us by civil engineer John S Allen.

The earth moves

On 12 December 1861, Allen presented a paper on the tunnel’s construction to the Civil & Mechanical Engineers’ Society. This records that the stratum traversed throughout was shale overlying limestone, with a varying thickness of clay above it. During the course of the work, movement of the clay caused several extensive slips, whilst ground pressure was sufficient to break 18-inch timber crown bars.

As built, the structure rises towards Bakewell on a gradient of 1:102 and comprises three sections: from the south portal, a covered way of around 490 yards, then a 350-yard tunnel, followed by another cut-and-cover section of 220 yards. Ground was broken on 10th September 1860 with the sinking of a shaft close to the main tunnel’s midpoint, from which a heading was driven. April 1861 saw work get underway at two points within the heading to excavate the tunnel to size. Progress was made in lengths of 12 feet, each requiring 12 crown bars, two miners’ sills and about 30 props of varying dimensions.

At either end, the covered ways took shape. Having opened the ground to the requisite depth, side walls and arching was inserted, and the excavation then backfilled. In places, it is possible to walk alongside the tunnel at track level, such is the shallowness of the fill and gradient of the slope. As a consequence, the ground could not sufficiently counteract the thrust of the arch, prompting the introduction of buttresses to support the west wall.

Allen concludes that “The works are of an interesting and instructive character, and have been carried on with very slight interruption night and day.” In just 16 months, Haddon Tunnel had been buried seamlessly beneath the Duke of Rutland’s estate. Whilst Allen was right to celebrate it as an engineering success, one unmentioned failure – the cause of that ‚ “very slight interruption” – had a human impact that should not be overlooked.

A nomadic existence

Alfred Plank was a lad of 15. On 7 April, 1861, the national census records him as living in one of five ‘sod huts’ erected for the navvies at Great Rowsley, about a mile from the tunnel. Ten souls inhabited it, with Alfred’s father William head of the household. His wife Sarah and five of their eight children were joined by three boarders, also employed on the railway.

It seems likely that the family followed the contractor around the country as work arose. The youngsters were born in towns across South Wales; by 1851, home was north of Newark alongside the East Coast Main Line, then being built by the Great Northern. Now in Derbyshire, Alfred and his 13-year-old brother Charles were both wage earners, working on the Buxton line as horse drivers.
Centres of excellence?

It’s fair to presume that Tuesday 2 July, 1861, was much like any other. Within the northern section of covered way, a 36-foot length of arch was waiting to be keyed with three courses of stonework. The centring that supported it comprised eight ribs, each with props at both ends and another in the middle. Three rakers steadied the structure. The same centres had been deployed in the construction of four other lengths and were deemed fit for purpose again, their assembly overseen by carpenter Edward Sykes who inspected them twice daily.

Seventeen men were busy hereabouts. During the early part of the afternoon, two or three loads of stone arrived, pushed up a wagonway that passed between the props. Each wagon was opened at its end and the contents tipped into the metals. The blocks, some measuring 3 feet in length and weighing 3-5cwt, were then manoeuvred within reach of a derrick, located at the arch’s northern end, ready for hoisting up to the masons. Operating it was Alfred Plank, with motive power for chain-pulling provided by his horse.

Having just been emptied, six men pushed a wagon away from underneath the stonework. Up top, some of the masons paused for a breather whilst labourers adjusted the wooden boards on which the materials were wheeled, leaving 36-year-old George Buckley, Jacob Rowland, George Twyford and Frederick Bacon still on the centring. Then all hell broke loose. According to Bacon, “I dropped down just as if I had been suspended in the air by a cord, and the cord had been cut. There was not the slightest warning, not the least imaginable.”

The arch had gone. All hands immediately began clawing at the debris. By six o’clock – two hours after the event – the victims had been extricated. Lost were John Millington, aged 40, James Bird, 36, and 21-year-old James Clarke. Two were found side-by-side, horribly crushed. And just a few feet from safety was the boy Plank, lying alongside his horse. A cart carried the bodies to the Royal Oak in Bakewell to await the inquest. Buckley had survived with the loss of both legs, but succumbed in the early hours.

Whys and wherefores

The affair cast a shadow over the district; the following day, hundreds arrived on site to pay their respects. At the Royal Oak, it fell to Coroner F G Bennett and a jury of 12 gentlemen to seek the accident’s cause, hearing two days of witness testimony. Much attention was paid to the centres, determining their condition and the impact of bolt holes drilled through them. Expert opinion concluded that they were working well within their combined 560-tonne capacity, bearing about 120 tonnes.

It was learned that it had not been general policy to insert a middle prop until George Thomson had insisted upon it about a week earlier, “to make sure”. Edward Sykes revealed that the lone raker at the north end of the centres had been taken away some time before the accident, although this was not unusual. “They were put up to steady the centres and not to support them”, he insisted.

But it was W H Barlow who glued the clues together. “The statements of the witnesses indicate that the [eastern] end of the centres swerved out towards Rowsley, and also that all the centres twisted on their sides, the tie-beams being found towards Rowsley and the upper rib towards Bakewell. The only reasonable mode that occurs to my mind for explaining those appearances is that one or more of the props on the [eastern] extremities of the centres had been knocked away… The loss of a single prop… might cause the whole weight, by giving a twisting action to the centre prop, to give way.”

Accidental death became an occupational hazard for the navvy. Early in September 1861, 22-year-old John Bishop, also a horse driver, was knocked down in the tunnel and then run over by wagons. But such events did little to impede progress. The structural work was concluded in January 1862. The first public train passed through on 1 August, running to a temporary terminus at Hassop, three miles away. Buxton was connected in May 1863.

Test of strength

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it became apparent that all was not entirely well with the structure. At No.3 shaft, inspections had detected a movement of 1 and a half inches at one side of the brick arch. Difficulties were also being experienced with ventilation – smoke was accumulating due to increased traffic levels. In July 1900, the Chief Engineer’s Office in Derby drew up plans to remove both the shaft and 33 feet of arch around it, instead constructing an open box. Work got underway almost immediately, taking eleven months.

With earth removed from above the brickwork, “a few stalwart masons‚” gathered on the morning of Sunday 2, December, waiting for the start signal that would follow the passage of the 10:38am service from Bakewell. Great difficulty was experienced breaking away the crown but, once gone, the remainder fell with little persuasion. A gang of men cleared the debris, allowing services to resume before midday – passenger trains having incurred no delay at all.

Such an intrusive scheme would not have been undertaken lightly, given its complexity and operational impact. The extent of the works offers some insight into the concerns engineers must have had over ground movement. Constructed in a 44′ x 46′ excavation, the enlarged shaft boasts concrete side walls faced with blue brindles, bonded together with ironwork. At no point is their thickness any less than 5′, and at the base exceeds 8’6‚”. Estimated at £2,000, the scheme’s final cost was £2,904, suggesting perhaps that the scale of the challenge was initially misjudged.
Decline and renewal?

The line’s closure to through traffic was determined by a 1964 study into, ‘duplicate’ trans-Pennine routes and the introduction, in April 1966, of electric haulage for Manchester-Euston services on the West Coast Main Line. From October that year, freight was diverted via the Hope Valley line. The anticipated announcement that passenger expresses would follow was not long in coming, and on Saturday 29 June 1968 1H18 St Pancras-Manchester Piccadilly became the last train to endure Haddon Tunnel’s darkness.

Perhaps it is testament to those who built the tunnel – now bricked up and ignored for over 40 years – that it has survived the withdrawal of substantive maintenance largely unscathed. Any decline is sufficiently limited for its reopening to be pursued as part of an extension to Derbyshire’s Monsal Trail, occupying the trackbed northwards towards Buxton.

John Millington, George Buckley, James Bird, James Clarke and young Alfred Plank are honoured by a memorial in the churchyard at Rowsley. Their efforts, against the odds, were not unique; neither was their sacrifice. But were it not for their like, we would have no railway network. So when you next travel, don’t just gaze at the train – look under it, above it, around it. Celebrate the work of the humble navvy. And if you end up labouring on the green tunnels of High Speed 2, give thanks for the technological revolution of the past 150 years. Count your blessings for health and safety too. Yes, really.

Many thanks to Glynn Waite of the Rowsley Association and Dave Harris from the Midland Railway Study Centre for their help with this story.