Victoria Tunnel, Ouseburn, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

At the time of writing, the Victoria Tunnel is the number 1 ranked attraction in the North-East of England on TripAdvisor and yet doesn’t rate the merest mention in the Rough Guide to England. This guidebook refers to an attraction in the Ouseburn district that is on the opposite side of the street to where people meet to begin their tour of the Victoria Tunnel. This seems a little odd to me, especially as the tunnel tour merits the ranking on TripAdvisor and presents the visitor with a philosophical dilemma on how best to survive an encounter with a rumbling 2,000 lb coal waggon in almost total darkness 60 feet underground.

The office for the trips to the Victoria Tunnel is opposite the Seven Stories National Centre for Children’s Books. All the guides and the people in the office are friendly and even arranged for my previous booking to be refunded as I’d inadvertently booked for the wrong time. There were 15 people on the same tour as me and we followed one another towards the entrance about two blocks away.

We were given the safety drill and allocated torches and hard hats in the daylight. An introduction went into why the tunnel was built – to get coal from a local mine to the waiting ships on the Tyne in the quickest possible manner, but the most interesting part was that the tunnel wasn’t built on pure guesswork. The engineers had a geological map created in 1835 that showed an ice age river running from Spital Tongues to the Tyne, The engineers also knew the river was now boulder clay which would be easy to remove. I thought it was amazing they had such accurate maps in those early Victorian times, but then I was reminded that all the local collieries used to mine coal from the same seam as it progressed through the earth, so if they knew where the coal went then they would certainly know where other seams went such as the boulder clay.

The Spital Tongues mine was opened in 1835. Initially, the coal was carried on carts from the colliery through the streets to the river, ready for shipping. This was slow, as the town was still had a layout of narrow, cobbled streets and expensive because of the road taxes. The coal dust also provided breathing difficulties for the citizens of the city.

Porter and Latimer, the colliery owners, employed a local engineer, William E. Gilhespie to construct an underground wagonway, an overground waggonway being out of the question as the Freemen of Newcastle would not give permission for tracks to be laid across the Town Moor, a building rule that is followed to this day.

Permission to build the tunnel was granted in 1838 and work started the following year. The tunnel was probably dug in sections by around 200 workers. 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. The gradual gradient of the tunnel meant loaded wagons simply rolled 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 after they’d unloaded their coal.

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