For 178 years a secret has lurked beneath the city, from the North West in Spital Tongues to the Tyne itself.
It was not always a secret. Back in 1842, it was well publicised that the Spital Tongues Colliery (also known as the Leazes Main Colliery) had held the grand opening of its new coal wagonway, running from the pit mouth 2.2 miles from the river to the staithes by the Tyne.
The story of the Victoria Tunnel begins a few years before this, however, with two businessmen known as Porter and Latimer and an engineer named William E Gillespie.
Coal was a lucrative business back in time, with much of the North East benefitting greatly due to being on top of the Great Northern Coalfield. The pits, despite almost non-existent health and safety, provided jobs for many men and even children across the North East and Newcastle had become one of the main coal exporters by the time Porter and Latimer purchased the Leazes Main pit in 1835. Easy money, surely?
Unfortunately, in the first instance, they were wrong. The Leazes Main seam was a damaged coal seam, with substandard coal that was terrible for burning and many industrial areas in the North would not purchase low grade coal. The next viable option for this coal was to transport it elsewhere; down the country to areas like London, who would buy it for a better price than business and families in Newcastle and coalfield areas.
The problem with this for Porter and Latimer was that the pit was over 2 miles from the River Tyne, where the keelboats would be able to take it to the ships. At first, the coal from the Leazes Main colliery was transported via horse drawn carts down Northumberland Street, which at the time was a residential area in those days – those who could afford to lived on the street. This quickly became a nuisance for the residents, as to turn a profit the colliery had to transport coal to the Quayside at all times of day and night. Imagine the noise of horses’ hooves, the trundling of coal-filled waggons on the cobbles of the street at all hours and then pair that with the coal dust that would drift from the waggons and find its way onto the houses and washing hung out to dry, as well as anything the horses themselves left behind, and you can understand why the residents began to complain to the town council.
It was 1836 when W.E. Gillespie was brought on by the men to help them plan out how they could solve their transportation problem, proposing a track of some kind that would serve them better. The problem with this was the low bridge on the Tyne that prevented the coal ships from reaching where the proposed drop off point would be, and the track could not go overground across the Town Moor due to the Freeman of Newcastle preventing anyone from building upon the land. This is when Gillespie began to look underground, and upon studying old geological maps found the route of an ice age riverbed that ran from Spital Tongues down to Ouseburn, and thus the plans for the Victoria Tunnel were born.
Planning permission was obtained by Porter and Latimer in 1838, and by 1839 around 200 Navvies had been enlisted by Gillespie to dig shafts to a certain depth into the earth. Once the shafts had been dug to the right depth, the men could get in and begin digging along towards the next shaft to meet the next group of men. The area they were digging through was built up with boulder clay, a soft material which contained rocks of various sizes; some could be the size of a golf ball, some could be the size of a modern-day car. It was a tough job, to work for over 12 hours lying on a wooden board kicking clay out with tools attached to their work boots but was incredibly effective. The softness of the clay made working through the it much easier, and to avoid the use of any explosives within the tunnel the workers simply altered course slightly around the boulder. By 1842, just 2 years and 10 months after the digging began, the tunnel was complete. An admirable feat from men using their hands and small tools, as the Metro tunnel between Monument and Central Station took longer using heavy machinery. All the clay removed from the tunnel had been formed in a cast and fired into bricks to act as the structure of the tunnel, with a base of sandstone offcuts that had been recycled from the newly built Grainger town, providing a sound structure that was 7.5ft high and 6.3ft wide.
Gillespie had a reworking of the Tyneside chaldron created to fit within the tunnel, maximising space usage and leaving only a gap of about 4 inches between the wagon and walls – scrapes can still be seen on the sandstone to this day in some places.
On 7th April 1842 the Victoria Tunnel, reported as the Spital Tongues Tunnel, was officially given a grand opening by the Lord Mayor and his wife along with other dignitaries from the city. The invited men and women, all in pressed shirts and fine dresses to mark the occasion, were sent invitations directing them to the entrance of the tunnel and upon their arrival at the colliery they were greeted by a partially cleaned out Newcastle chaldron. Once they were directed into their chaldron, they were joined by a brass band in the chaldron behind them and sent on their way down the tunnel. The Victoria Tunnel was not built for people to be in, so to imagine them rumbling through the pitch black at a steady pace is quite something! Around half an hour later they reached the exit, cannons fired, and the tunnel was declared officially open. Once the alcohol had run out at the Quayside, they moved to the Old Assembly Rooms at Fenkle Street to continue the party – this is supposedly where the name Victoria Tunnel was introduced, as a tribute to the Queen Victoria. The workers got their party too, heading out into the Bigg Market to the long since demolished Unicorn Inn, where they were served pie and ale for 3 days until the place had been drank dry and had to close.
The Victoria Tunnel cut the cost of transporting coal from the seam by 88% compared to when the Colliery first opened, the tunnel being built on a 1 in 90 gradient meaning that gravity pulled the waggons downhill rather than employing people or requiring machinery, and a stationary steam engine could wind up the rope and retrieve them. However, with the seam being so damaged the colliery became unsustainable and was forced to change hands as Porter and Latimer went bankrupt, letting the Northumberland Bank take over before that too went bankrupt. After just 18 short years, the Victoria Tunnel was closed and put up for sale along with the pit in 1860.
The only death known within the tunnel itself during its use as a wagonway happened in 1852. This saw the death of Staithes worker William Armstrong Coulson who was just over a mile in giving a walkthrough of the tunnel to brothers Ralph and Benjamin Arkless, two businessmen looking to buy the pit and tunnel. Mr Coulson tried to outrun the oncoming chaldron of debris, which had been sent down due to an error in communication and was crushed by it in the darkness.
After this incident, the Victoria Tunnel was left abandoned other than being used as a mushroom farm in 1929, though this business was unsuccessful. That was until 1936, when the likelihood of war breaking out was increasing and the country began to look at public air raid shelters for cities. Upon remembering the existence of the Victoria Tunnel and the depth of most of the tunnel being around 80ft, the council decided to try and find it again beneath the streets, and once they had the clean-up began in 1939 to get it in working order for use as a public air raid shelter. 7 entrances were created in total, the first at Claremont Road and the last in the back garden of 14 Ouse Street. This entrance is the shallowest of all 7 and the only accessible entrance surviving for public use.
It was possible for approx. 10,000 people to take shelter in the Victoria Tunnel by the time conversions were complete, with wooden bunks for just 600 as well as benches, plus low wattage lighting and limewashed walls to stop disease spreading amongst those sheltering within it. Repairs were carried out to sections like what is today known as the Quayside Railway, which contained a tunnel above the Victoria Tunnel for the former branch to the river side. Toilets could also be found at the bottom of each entrance point of the tunnel, filled with a chemical called phenol to keep them somewhat sterile before they could be emptied by the tunnel warden who patrolled sections of the tunnel. Due to the bombing risk blast walls were also added along the tunnel, designed in a similar pattern to a WWI trench so that any blast that made it through the tunnel would lose momentum before hitting anyone on the other side.
The Victoria Tunnel proved to be invaluable during WWII by providing shelter to so many who lived in ‘Tyneside flats’ and did not have their own garden. Often the raids did not stop in Newcastle; with the Luftwaffe instead using the Tyne to navigate their way towards other industrial cities, but it provided shelter for up to 8 hours at a time once the sirens went off and kept people safe on nights such as 1stSeptember 1941, when Newcastle was targeted. Over 1000 people in Shieldfield were made homeless and the Manors Goods Yard, now Northumbria University, was destroyed by high explosives and burned for 4 nights before finally being put out. Though no one is known to have died in the tunnel during the war, a few were unfortunately killed after leaving the safety of the tunnel to return home, highlighting how crucial the tunnel was to keeping people safe.
After the war, the tunnel was once again left abandoned with most of the entrances being blocked up in time and the tunnel filled with rubbish from the war, some of which is still in the North End.
In 1976 part of the tunnel was handed over to Northumbrian Water to be used as a storm drain between Ellison Place and Queen Victoria Road, and in 2012 it was discovered that it worked perfectly well as the tunnel flooded up to its roof during what we now know as Thunder Thursday. It was not until 2006 that Newcastle City Council secured funding to begin restoration of the South end of the tunnel so it could be opened for the public after it was damaged during above ground building works, and since 2010 the Ouseburn Trust have been running daily tours along the South End of the tunnel.
As well as being used for tours, the Victoria Tunnel is now used for school workshops and small events, giving generations both young and old the chance to experience the inside of the ‘worst air raid shelter in Britain’ as it was voted in Which? magazine in 1943.
In 2020, due to the situation across the globe and in a step forward for accessibility, the Virtual Victoria Tunnel opened allowing those who could not visit the opportunity to book an online tour with a guide and ‘walk through’ the tunnel. The tours cover both the story of the tunnel as a coal wagonway and an air raid shelter, as well as covering the stories of people from the valley such as the Tarset Street tragedy which saw 4 people perish after an accident involving a poorly covered bomb crater.
Though the industry that once ruled the city is no longer found, the Victoria Tunnel is a reminder of our industrial past that has kept itself well hidden beneath our own feet, providing a quiet haven for many and found by those looking for something truly unique.
I would like to dedicate this to Donald, a tour guide who knew everything there was to know and had time for every new guide and visitor the Victoria Tunnel received.
Georgia Brusby is a history graduate from the University of Central Lancashire, a former Commonwealth War Graves Foundation intern and became a Victoria Tunnel tour guide in 2018. She runs History Upon Tyne on instagram and has an interest in local history, as well as the First and Second World War and the stories behind those who fought and fell in them. In her spare time she listens to music, goes on bike rides and gardens.
‘Celebrating Newcastle’s Secret Two Mile Underground Victoria Tunnel’ https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/history/celebrating-newcastles-secret-two-mile-10686640
Tunnel History, Ouseburn Trust https://www.ouseburntrust.org.uk/tunnel-history
‘Frightful Accident in the Spital Tongues Colliery Tunnel’ 19th June 1852 http://www.dmm.org.uk/news18/8500619d.htm
Victoria Tunnel Spital Tongues https://www.flickr.com/photos/39821974@N06/4076834849/