Digging the Railway Tunnel

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Tunnel through Malvern Rocks

The Malvern Hills consist largely of syenite, a Precambrian granite-like rock formed some 700 million years ago. It is one of the hardest rocks and presented the tunnelling engineers with enormous difficulties, not least because the tunnel was dug by hand!  Progress began at both ends of the tunnel in 1856.   Workmen excavated rock at the rate of 10 metres per week initially.  When they reached the extremely hard granite-like rock though, and equipped only with hand tools and explosives, it was as little as 15cm per day!

Three vertical shafts allowed for ventilation and pumping up excess water.  The tunnel was lined with bricks and the two teams finally met on 21st July 1860. The tunnel measured 1,432 metresAfter five years, it was officially opened on 12th June 1861.

Navvies

The railway and tunnel were constructed by men known as navvies.  The name came from the word navigators who used to dig canals. Navvies undertook hard and dangerous work for payments of 18 shillings per week in the 1850s.  (This is the equivalent of almost £67 in today’s money). Their main tools were shovels, spades, pick axes and explosives.  Steam-powered mechanical diggers were too expensive compared with experienced and cheaper manpower.  Between 200 and 500 navvies worked on the Malvern line and tunnel at any one time.  Many seem to have come from Cornwall and Devon, and the strong accents of Ireland and Wales were often heard locally.

Stephen Ballard the engineer, described the work undertaken by his navvies. Two men were in charge of a wagon that they had to fill with rubble seven times each day.  Each wagon contains two and a quarter cubic yards.  The result is that each man has to lift nearly twenty tons weight of earth on a shovel over his head into a wagon.  The height of lifting is about six feet.”

Tunnel Dangers

Inside the hills, the labourers worked in oppressive conditions. Their clothes were often drenched from dripping water and the air in the cramped spaces was foul.  The timber props that supported the tunnel creaked and sometimes gave way under rock falls.  Amazingly, there was no major incident in the building of the tunnel.  Outside, the work involved excavating tonnes of soil to make embankments, again using simple shovels and wheelbarrows.