Totley Tunnel, Nether Padley

Recent Photograph of Totley Tunnel (Nether Padley)

This tiny, and uninspiring tunnel-opening 100 yards from the station of a little known village in the Peak District of Derbyshire marks the opening of what is at the time of writing the longest wholly under-land rail tunnel in the United Kingdom.

At 3 miles and 950 yards long, it is 22 feet and 6 inches deep with a span of 27 feet across. In comparison, the Severn Tunnel, which carries the Great Western Railway line under the Severn Estuary between Bristol and South Wales, is 4 miles and 629 yards long. Both of them pale in comparison with the Channel Tunnel, of course - but it is nevertheless interesting that it required almost a century, and the benefits of modern technology before they were surpassed. The Severn Tunnel was under construction between 1873 and 1886, and the Totley Tunnel between 1888 and 1893.

The building of both the Severn and Totley Tunnels was dependent largely on the efforts of men, and horses, with the assistance of steam driven pumps, drilling machines driven by compressed air, and explosives. Totley Tunnel was begun from the Grindleford (Padley Wood) end, on 27th September 1888 - the first 530 yards was excavated by hand power only. The tunnel was necessary to carry a branch of the Midland Railway between Sheffield and Manchester, and the Railway had let two main contracts for its construction: Thomas Oliver and Sons of Horsham, was responsible for the first 10½ miles, which included Totley Tunnel, and the remainder was the responsibility of J. P. Edwards of Chester. Brick observatories were built at Bradway, Totley Moss and Sir William Hill to provide sightings for keeping the tunnel straight. Bad weather conditions could complicate sightings, but ‘very often a better visibility is achieved westwards towards Grindleford on the summer evenings’ - so said Percy Rickard, the resident engineer, in his report to the Institute of Civil Engineers, representing the engineering firm of Messrs. Parry and Story, M.Inst CE, of Nottingham and Derby, who were the engineers behind the project.

The tunnel is straight throughout with the exception of a curve at Grindleford. At the Grindleford (Padley Wood) end, a turbine, driven by the nearby Burbage Brook pumped air into the tunnel, as availability of air shafts were restricted due to difficulty of siting them - the depth required from the moorlands above was over 700 feet, and (perhaps more tellingly) the Duke of Devonshire didn't want them on his grouse moors! Consequently, labourers had to work in alternately hot and stuffy, and freezing conditions, sometimes with flooding. The predominant lighting was provided by tallow candles which they stuck to their caps, or mounted on the walls of the tunnel.

Writing in December 1891, a correspondent from the Manchester Guardian told of the appalling conditions from whence comes the oft-repeated quote that: ‘Every man seemed to be possessed of the miraculous power of Moses. Whenever he struck a rock water sprang out if it.’. He goes onto explain that ‘The irruption in the Padley heading was recently gauged at 5,000 gallons a minute. The flow was so great that the men had to go to work on a raft... But a dam and shoot were constructed at the dip, and the water will be grappled by means of a culvert.’ Another source reports that the force of the waterfall could be heard a quarter mile away!

Whilst he described water as an ‘annoying enemy’, gelignite was ‘a useful friend... a new explosive which blasts away the most obstinate bulk of rock with scant ceremony’. Such problems as he describes bedeviled the work throughout; the actual excavation taking more than 4 years - in 1890, average progress was about twenty yards a week. Having commenced work from both ends, when the two ends met on 19th October 1892, the construction company was proud to announce that their centres were only 4½ inches apart laterally with only 2¼ inches difference in level!

Such accuracy is surely a tribute to both the engineers who were involved in the design and the men who assisted in its construction. Some of them would have given their lives, although as many were victims of disease fostered by the appalling living conditions in the 'shanty towns' built to house the workforce, both at the Padley and Totley ends. There were outbreaks of both cholera and typhoid, and a smallpox epidemic at Totley in the winter of 1892 when ‘The cases number about 50; nearly 100 persons have had the disease and recovered; and 13 of the sufferers have died. With few exceptions the disease has been confined to the navvies on the Dore & Chinley Railway’.

The tunnel was formally opened on 10th August 1893, and a steam engine be-decked with garlands took a party of top-hatted dignitaries on an official inspection. The line between Sheffield and Manchester was opened for Goods traffic three months later, and for a regular passenger service on 25th June 1894. On that day, flags flew at the newly built stations along the line and brass bands welcomed trippers to Hope and Castleton. The passenger facilities were an immediate success, tourists being advised to alight at Grindleford for horse-drawn bus connections to Eyam, Stoney Middleton, Baslow and Chatsworth.

Ah! What optimism there must have been at that time in this ‘Brave New World’ - would it have been greeted with the same enthusiasm as when a new motorway opens, making some of our journeys easier? Perhaps at that time, this was only the case for the ‘better off’ - a working day for the navvies was one of three 8-hour shifts and in mid-1889 the pay was 3s 2d per week; once the tunnel was finished they would be out of work, and how many of them would have been able to afford rail travel themselves? In comparison with their wages, the cost of the line was four million pounds overall. Nevertheless, the opening up of the hillside must surely have changed the sleepy little hamlets of Eyam Woodlands and Upper and Nether Padley for ever. New houses, and a new church were built to accommodate an increased population, with a steady influx of commuters from Sheffield arriving to occupy the newly built ‘Villas’ of Tedgeness Road and Padley Hill.

Meanwhile the ‘shanty towns’ lost their residents and the navvies moved on elsewhere to other jobs, or occupations. An example was ‘Jimmy the Whip’ (James LEWIS) who had come from the Worcester area with his family to live in Hathersage; he became a foreman on the tunnel, but when it was completed he took off with his family to Clay Cross and found new work - see Time Out of Mind Tales, Hathersage.

Overall there was a huge workforce - one only has to study the Hathersage 1891 Census records to find whole households of “Tunnel Miners” - a household with individuals known only as ‘Jacques’ and ‘Fido’; and the ‘Sleepers Out’ - a group of four who on census night in April 1891 two of whom ‘slept in a Brick Yard at Totley’, one who ‘slept in Barn at Hathersage’ and another who ‘slept on Road Side’. Two others were more fortunate, arriving in the area from Gloucestershire in having a roof over their heads, as they met and married local girls; one was my grandfather George Henry REEVES, who had also worked on the Severn Tunnel, and the other the father of Edward WHITE, who later operated “Teddy White's” buses based at Calver Sough.

(Information provided by Rosemary Lockie)

Edwards, Brian - Totley and the Tunnel. 1985.
Centenary of Totley Tunnel. Article by Julie Bunting published in The Peak Advertiser 6th September 1993.

Image contributed by Peter & Janet Kirk on 8th April 2003.
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