NRWS Victoria Tunnel Report March 2010

Victoria Tunnel – 21 March 2010

 Brian Randell


This, the shortest of short walks (just 1400 metres!), was one I’d experienced previously. I nevertheless found it very pleasant and interesting walk, thanks especially to our two volunteer guides from Newcastle City Council’s Victoria Tunnel Education Project. In fact, since I last saw the tunnel it has had a lot of lottery grant money spent on it. The result is a general refurbishment, greatly improved lighting at the two ends of the accessible section of the tunnel, an excellent set of display boards at the tunnel entrance, and an audio system that was used very effectively, while we stood in the darkened tunnel at the end of our tour, to recreate the sound of a passing train of coal wagons.


The tunnel is impressive evidence of Victorian engineering, ingenuity and determination. It was constructed during 1839-1842 in order to provide an economical solution to the problem of transporting coal from the Spital Tongues colliery down to the River Tyne. Taking the coal on horse-drawn carts through the City was expensive and unpopular.  Taking it round the City to the west would have had the disadvantage of reaching the river upstream of a low bridge, Newcastle’s Georgian bridge, where the Swing Bridge now is. The problem with this is that coal would have to be loaded first into keelboats and taken downstream to the ships that would take the coal to London and elsewhere – a costly exercise.  Going round the City to the east would involve crossing the Town Moor – one variously hears that the Newcastle Freemen would not permit this, or that they demanded an excessive fee.


So, nothing daunted, the mine owners had a tunnel dug straight under the City down to the Tyne near the mouth of the Ouseburn, for a cable-drawn waggonway. Trains of laden wagons (each carrying 53cwt of coal) would descend to the river under to gravity, and would be pulled back up empty by a stationary steam engine. It was designed so that up to 32 wagons could be handled in a train, with three trains per hour. The tunnel remained in successful operation until the colliery closed in 1860.  It came into use again as an air raid shelter during World War 2, when it was furnished with seating for 9000 people and bunks for 500. Aside from the tunnel structure itself, most of what one now sees - blast walls, concrete floor, the remains of benches, an old chemical toilet – dates from this time. I’ll bet whoever last used this toilet never guessed that it would become a tourist attraction, leave alone to two parties from the NRWS!