Thackley Tunnels: changing landscapes, and the men who built our railways

Bradford gained its first link with the national railway system in 1846 when the line through Shipley to Leeds along with the west coast link to Glasgow was completed. Although the more direct route to Leeds proved to be too technically demanding at this time, the Aire valley route also provided some formidable challenges. The biggest of these was the construction of the Thackley tunnel.


The Aire valley is congested in some areas with steep valley sides and the river Aire and the Leeds Liverpool Canal competing for space on the flatter valley bottom. At Thackley there was no alternative but to take the railway straight through the hillside by constructing a tunnel almost three quarters of a mile long. The Leeds and Bradford Railway Bill, published in April 1844, gave details of the tunnel. It was to be 1384 yards long, 20 feet high and 24 feet wide, and would be ventilated by a number of air shafts.

 The contract for the construction was given to James Bray, an iron founder from Leeds who later went on to construct the long Bramhope tunnel on the Leeds to Thirsk line; the engineering work was carried out by Joseph Nowell and Sons. The majority of the early railway contractors had gathered their experience through many forms of construction work: the Nowell family were stone masons originally and built several churches and bridges before building the Macclesfield canal and then branching out into railway construction.

Fig. 1      Typical tunnel construction. This is the Grinkle tunnel in North Yorkshire c. 1880

Work on the tunnel began in 1845, and by August reports had been made on progress. As well as starting work at both ends of the tunnel, six shafts were being dug down to the intended tunnel level. At the highest part of the hill the shafts would have to be 250 feet deep, and by the end of August they had already dug deeper than 90 feet and in some places they were ready to start digging horizontally. This was hard work as for the most part they were cutting through solid rock, although there were also layers of softer shale. At the top of each shaft there was a steam engine which was used for a variety of purposes, the main one being hoisting waste materials from the tunnel. They were also used for pumping out water, for lowering and raising the miners, and for forcing down air to displace the smoke of gunpowder from the frequent blasting operations. At an inquest in late 1845 it was stated that 64,000 pounds of explosives had been used and about 125,000 shots fired.

The stone was brought to the surface where it was dressed by a team of stone masons and then taken back down to be used for building the permanent arch of the tunnel. The shale and other waste rock were simply dumped in large mounds close to the shafts. Special agreements had been made with the land owners that once construction work was completed these mounds would be covered with soil and seeded over. These mounds are still visible today, but because of the thinness of the soil very few trees are able to flourish.


The work was scheduled to continue around the clock with three shifts of miners working on eight hour shifts: a large experienced workforce was needed. It was only on Sundays that work drew to a halt; although early in 1846 the board of the Midland Railway was scandalised to learn that the contractors had been working on Sundays. Although the contractors had resorted to working seven days a week in order to get the works finished on time the board ordered them to stop Sunday working immediately.

The actual numbers of workers is not recorded; but a comparison can be made with the numbers involved on the Bramhope tunnel. There were probably around 1,000 navvies plus their families, with 200 horses brought in for the work, and there would have been about 100 quarrymen, 50 stonemasons, 350 tunnel men, 300 labourers and 12 carpenters. The miners were a mixed crew consisting of local workers but also many experienced miners from as far afield as Wales. Most were single men who found local lodgings, but there were also those who moved into the area with their families and rented local houses.  

As can be imagined a large number of single men living away from home could and did lead to local problems. The local paper reported frequent scenes of riot and disturbance in Idle. It was stated that speculators had built huts and were selling unlicensed liquor to the miners. The constables and excise men were vigilant in trying to discover these illicit drinking dens but were themselves not beyond temptation. There were reports of constables drinking with the miners and on one occasion in 1845 this led to a near riot. Two constables who had been drinking with the railway men became the worse for wear, and so an old excavator helped them find their way back to the station, but when they arrived they inexplicably locked up their helper. When the miner’s companions heard of this they rushed to the lock-up and demanded his immediate release, threatening to pull the place down if their demand was not met.  They then went to the home of one of the constables to reinforce their demand. The constable initially refused but as the mob smashed his windows and threatened further violence he went quietly with them and released their comrade.

Fig 2. Typical working conditions

As the construction work drew to a close many of the miners moved on to new projects in other parts of the country or returned to their home towns and families. A number, however, had married local girls and made their home in Thackley and the surrounding villages, and there are still a number of villagers who can trace their families back to these incomers.


As construction was being planned the township of Idle entered into discussions with the Midland Railway board. A deputation from the neighbourhood asked for a station to be provided on the main line. They were told that no decision could be made at that time and were offered a sop of £10 which was handed over to the Rev. E. M. Hall to provide religious instruction to the workers on the line. Just to the west of the tunnel a small station was constructed. Named Idle Station, this was just a small building and was probably accessed from the little footbridge which crosses the line just below Brackendale Mill.  The station was quite a distance from the centre of Idle and it is not surprising that it closed early in 1847.

The tunnel was finally opened for traffic with the completion of the railway line in May 1846. A special train was organised for the opening ceremony which would run from Leeds to Bradford and then return after the celebrations. Composed of about a dozen open carriages, and one closed for the ladies, the train carried two musical bands. The proceedings were temporarily dampened by the considerable dripping of water from the roof of the tunnel. The return train stopped at Apperley Bridge to inspect the viaduct and allow the passengers to dry out after their second journey through the tunnel.


Tunnel building was a hazardous occupation in the nineteenth century. Edwin Chadwick, the Victorian reformer, shocked a commission of enquiry by pointing out that casualties in the construction of the Woodhead Tunnel amounted to 32 killed and 140 wounded. This was equal to 3% of the numbers employed; the death rate was higher than in the four battles of Talavera, Salamanca, Vitoria and Waterloo. The accident rate at Thackley was also high. By May 1846 the Bradford Observer announced that the Thackley tunnel was now completed and the Leeds and Bradford Railway was expected to be opened in the following July. The article added a critical comment referring to the great number of persons who had been injured and killed during the tunnel’s construction. The difficulty of the project and the working conditions of the time inevitably led to many incidents during construction. The Bradford Observer was vociferous in its defence of the rights of the miners. In the edition of 25th September 1845 it stated that these construction schemes were carried out at the expense of human life, while the share-holders were pocketing their eight or ten per cent.

There are widows and fatherless children lamenting, in bare, hunger-visited hovels, the loss of their natural protectors! This is the ‘per contra’ of the ten per cent! One man risks, or ’invests’ his money; another man his life; and the result is, ten per cent to one, and death to the other. Does not natural justice suggest that railway proprietors should make some compensation in such cases; should provide for the widows and orphans of men who lose their life in their service, and also for men who get themselves disabled.

The paper carried frequent reports of broken bones resulting from falling rocks or blasting operations, and in one report it described a visit to the Bradford Infirmary where there were four tunnel workers. One was “mangled in a shocking manner” while engaged in blasting; one sixteen year old had been knocked under the wheels of a ‘tip wagon’, another had been in hospital for eleven weeks with a injured foot and the fourth had a fractured leg when part of a shaft collapsed. Deaths and funerals were also reported with one describing the funeral train consisting of several hundreds of the deceased’s fellow workers, dressed in white smock frocks and having white favours in their hats.

One of the first reported deaths was that of William Hervey a 39 year old gaffer or under taker. There was a problem in trying to raise a 15cwt. piece of stone to the surface. After the steam engine failed several times to raise the rock Hervey went to the surface to deal with the “old coffee mill” as he called the engine. In attempting to start the eight feet diameter fly wheel he stood on one spoke while pulling another. The wheel suddenly started in reverse, trapping Hervey in a three inch gap between the wheel and the wall, killing him instantly. At the subsequent inquest questions were asked of the serviceability and power of the engine along with working practices but the jury eventually found that Hervey’s carelessness was the main cause of the accident. One disturbing feature was that Hervey’s wife was in an advanced state of pregnancy and her husband’s lifeless body was carried into her house without any warning of an accident.  Understandably the poor woman fainted and had not recovered three days later.

The completion of the tunnel was, unfortunately, not the end of death and injury. Railways continued to be dangerous places both for passengers and workers. It was reported that between 1872 and 1876 nearly 3000 railway workers were reckoned to have lost their lives. In Thackley the area in and around the tunnel seemed to attract incidents, both for workers and passengers. In January 1847 John Skellon, a plate layer, was killed in the tunnel. He was with two workmates who had just completed their day’s work and were inspecting their work when they heard the whistle of a Leeds passenger train as it entered the east end of the tunnel. Almost immediately there came the whistle of a Bradford luggage train as it entered the tunnel from the west. All three men panicked and ran along the line towards the nearest exit. Fortunately two of the men remembered their safety instructions and lay down by the side of the tracks and were saved. Skellon, unfortunately, continued his panicked attempt to escape and was run down by the passenger train. Suffering a broken thigh and severe wounds to the head he died immediately. A similar accident occurred in January 1896 when Ben Smith, a thirty-four year old ganger was struck and killed by an express train while he was working on the line. Smith, who left a widow and five children, had only been a ganger for four months. He had just succeeded his father who had held the post for forty years and had been replaced because it was thought the job held too great a responsibility for a man his age.


An unusual occurrence took place in June 1892 following a period of heavy rainfall in the Aire valley.  Travellers from Bradford to Leeds had the experience of seeing their train ploughing through deep water and their progress was halted at four o’ clock when they reached Shipley and they were stuck there for over six hours. There were two reasons for the delay. There had been a serious collapse of stone work at the Apperley entrance and an express train was derailed at the Thackley end. In addition the tunnel itself was two feet deep in water. Just above the Thackley entrance to the tunnel there was Brackendale Mill which was supplied by two reservoirs, built on higher ground above the mill. The rainfall that day was so severe that the larger reservoir was full to overflowing, and there was a real danger that the banks might give way sending such a flood of water that the mill would be in danger of being swept away. It was decided to cut a channel to divert the water away from the mill, but when the work was completed the water rushed down the hill with such force that it carried away bales of wool and barrels down on to the railway line and in to the tunnel.

 At this moment an express from Leeds was approaching the tunnel. The driver had been advised at Apperley Bridge to proceed with caution because it was known water was on the line. As he saw the obstructions he applied the brakes to stop as quickly as possible but was unable to do so before the wheels hit the bales of wool and iron hoops from the barrels. The two combined to derail the train but fortunately the carriages remained on the rails, thus avoiding any injury or loss of life. Meanwhile a second disaster had occurred.  Shortly after the express had entered the tunnel the parapet at the Apperley end was struck by lightning and the whole mass collapsed, completely blocking the entrance. Soon a hundred men were sent out from Leeds to clear the line, and by twenty past ten the first train was able to pass through in safety.


The Aire valley line proved to be extremely popular and the weight of traffic between Leeds and Bradford, as well as the westwards link to Scotland, brought demands for expansion. Work started in August 1896 on widening the route from Apperley Bridge to Calverley, and a year later it was decided to build a new tunnel parallel to the existing one, using the same techniques as in 1844. This decision was taken because the small bore of the existing tunnel, combined with the ever increasing traffic through it made it more and more difficult to ventilate.

A new army of workmen descended on the area and once again Idle village and surrounding area had to deal with the problems of a large influx of itinerant workers.  One problem was that the local schools became overcrowded. The recently created Board Schools struggled initially but soon came to terms with the additional numbers. The well-being of the workers and their families was more considered this time and a new facility of a was provided for the workers. From the start of construction a Navvy Mission was provided (See the separate article on this website)

The methods of construction and working practices had changed little in the intervening fifty years and it was not long before more accidents began to happen. In November 1898 the Bradford Observer reported a serious accident when a major rock fall buried three men. The men were quickly extricated and taken to the Bradford Royal Infirmary where one man later died. Only two months later in January 1899 another fatal accident occurred. Four men were due to take their dinner break and had got into a skip or cage to be hoisted up the shaft. They had only gone a short distance when it was noticed one of the hooks securing the skip was unfastened. Almost immediately the skip became unstable tipping the men out, and one of them suffered severe head injuries as he landed on the rails at the bottom. Evidence was offered at the inquest showing the working arrangements for raising and lowering men in the shaft had not been followed. However, despite this the jury returned a verdict of accidental death, saying no one was to blame except those who were in the skip.

Later that year, in June, a similar fatal accident took place. Four men, Aaron Smith, James Murray, George Carter and James Jeffrey, were preparing to take their dinner break and had climbed into a skip to be hoisted to the surface. Shortly after the ascent started they discovered that one of the two of the securing hooks had come loose causing the skip to swing dangerously.  Realising the danger Carter managed to jump over the side. The others were not quick enough and at a height of twenty feet the skip dashed against the side wall throwing Smith and Murray over the side. Smith fell upon his head and died almost immediately. Murray’s fall was partly broken by the body of his companion, but nevertheless he suffered severe injuries and was taken to Bradford Royal Infirmary. Meanwhile Jeffrey was left clinging to the chain, which continued to ascend, and he eventually reached the surface unharmed.

Fig. 3 Thackley Tunnel 1906

The blasting of rock was an obviously dangerous operation and although many safeguards were taken accidents still occurred. In January 1900 miner William Wilson was engaged in pushing two blasting cartridges into a hole in the rock when they suddenly exploded, killing him almost immediately. The subsequent inquest was told that there was no metal in the instrument used to push in the cartridges and they had been placed in the hole in a proper manner. No explanation could be offered to explain the explosion and yet again a verdict of accidental death was returned. It was noted at the inquest that since work started on the tunnel two years ago the contractors had used nearly seventy thousand pounds of gelignite and fired over 120,000 shots.

Little more is reported in the newspapers of accidents taking place, although in September 1900 it was reported that there had been a considerable delay to construction work. This time a navvy placed a lighted candle too near to supporting woodwork and set fire to a beam which continued to smoulder for over three days.

Eventually the tunnel was completed and the new line was brought into operation in January 1901.  Once again the village returned to normal. An entry in the log book of Thackley School in early 1901 notes that most of the navvies had left and the names of several children were consequently taken off the school’s registers.  The workers had become part of the village and many people were sorry to see them go. The Navvy Mission provided a farewell party for over 250 people. At the event the Vicar said he parted from the excavators and masons with regret. During their time in the Parish they had behaved exceedingly well and he personally felt thankful that some of the families were remaining in the village.

The two lines continued to attract a lot of traffic, but eventually began to tail off with the advent of motorised transport. The original line was discontinued in 1968, the rails taken up and the tunnel closed. Vegetation and fencing now makes it difficult obtain good views of the two tunnels and they go unnoticed by walkers. The ventilation shafts are still standing, although many have now been capped to prevent vandalism. The sounds of passing trains still reverberate up the shafts making an eerie noise heard only by wildlife and the passing walker. It could be a ghostly epitaph to the many men killed and injured in the construction.

G Fink-Nottle

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