This week’s guest post seems fitting, coming after last week’s look at the 1921 Stapleton Road accident and thinking about how we remember those who have been killed or injured at work on the railways. Typically we focus on the operational years, rather than construction – but here the post, from the Queensbury Tunnel Society, looks at some of the navvies who built the Queensbury tunnel. Importantly, the Society has recently installed a memorial to those navvies known to have died during its construction – a very visible reminder of people who might otherwise be forgotten. We were delighted to be able to provide the Society with details of some operational accidents which happened inside the tunnel, to help extend the picture and understanding of the longer term heritage of the tunnel.
Queensbury Tunnel Society has been battling for seven years to oppose Highways England’s perverse insistence that the tunnel is a threat to public safety. To date, they have spent nearly £7 million of taxpayers’ money preparing the tunnel for abandonment and shown stubborn refusal to consider how repairing the tunnel can turn it into a public asset. Apart from the tunnel having the potential to become the longest underground cycleway in England (1.4 miles) as the centrepiece of a greenway connecting Halifax with Bradford and Keighley and drawing visitors from far and wide, it is the legacy of ten men who died and hundreds of other men and their families who endured unimaginable hardship during its construction between 1874 and 1878. We believe that the best tribute to the men who died is to repurpose the tunnel for future generations, but in the meantime we have erected a memorial on the northern cutting, which we hope evokes the enduring toil of navvies in the 19th century and recognises the individual lives lost.
In our age of mechanisation and health & safety regulations, it’s hard for young people to understand the basic tools and brutal conditions that were then the norm for construction workers on the railways. The memorial was conceived and designed by Graeme Bickerdike, who chose to use the simple, robust shapes of worn sleepers, topped by inverted chairs to appear as faces looking down. These were kindly donated by the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway Group and the cost of other materials, the cement, name plates and such were funded by a grant from Bradford Council’s Connecting People Fund. After considering different options, installation of the monument was undertaken by volunteers who brought their own machinery and worked heroically for hours with barely a pause. The end result is seen below.
Word spread quite quickly to draw people to come and see the memorial and we’ve been gratified by many appreciative comments. Each sleeper is fitted with a QR code linked to the Queensbury Tunnel Society website, where each fatal incident is described with as much detail as we have about the men and their families (available here).
The campaign to preserve the tunnel continues and we are determined to honour the men who built it by doing all we can to give it a new lease of life. To date, 7,700 objections to Highways England’s application to abandon (i.e. destroy) the tunnel have been logged on the Bradford MDC Planning Portal. Many objectors comment on the respect due to the ten men, as well as the engineering marvel that the tunnel clearly is. And of course there are strong arguments about the health and economic benefits of active travel, easing congestion, improving air quality, business opportunities and tourism, hosting sporting events etc. Other projects such as the Bath & Bristol Two Tunnel Greenway, the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire, the Keswick to Threlkeld track show the enormously popularity of our heritage railway routes. We believe Queensbury Tunnel deserves pride of place in a national network of tunnel greenways.
If you share the vision of a long-lasting legacy for the ten men, their fellow navvies and families, please add your OBJECTION to Highways England’s abandonment plan, here. Be sure to tick OBJECT (about 80 people whose comments favour the tunnel’s preservation have clearly been confused!).