History society brings tunnel vision into focus

Victoria Tunnel
Victoria Tunnel
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Morpeth Antiquarian Society

MIKE McGuire relayed this fascinating story to Morpeth Antiquarian Society at the end of March.

In the 1830s, Porter and Latimer, the owners of the Leazes Main (Spital Tongues) Colliery on Town Moor were faced with protests from the people and city hierarchy of Newcastle over their coal carts congesting the streets and pollution from dust and horse manure as they made their way to Tyneside quays.

The colliery company did what miners do best; they dug a tunnel as a waggonway from the coal mine to where the Ouseburn joined the River Tyne.

Work began in 1838 and the Victoria Tunnel was opened four years later with a cannon salute and a party for the workers in the Unicorn Inn in the Bigg Market.

Eight wagons were the first to emerge at the Ouseburn end; four loaded with coal, the others contained city dignitaries, the mine owners and a brass band.

The tunnel was 4km long, 2.3m high and 1.9m wide – built in sections it was not completely straight.

From the entrance on Town Moor it dropped 68m to the river and was 26m below the surface at the deepest point.

By 1860, however, Spital Tongues pit was closed, all the equipment was sold, and the tunnel was abandoned.

The Tyne end of the tunnel was demolished when the Glass House Bridge was built in 1878.

Abandoned, but not entirely forgotten by some.

In 1928, Gateshead entrepreneur Thomas Moore established the Victoria Tunnel Mushroom Company.

He tried to farm mushrooms in the river end of the tunnel, but the business failed and closed the following year.

Soon the tunnel was to become a sanctuary for people in the city.

In 1939 war broke out and the tunnel was cleaned and fitted as an air raid shelter for 9,000 people.

Several new entrances were built, bunk beds, benches including seats from a theatre, electric lighting and chemical toilets were installed to make it more comfortable.

Blast walls were erected inside the tunnel to make it safe from above-ground explosions.

The war ended and all the entrances except one were blocked up.

The Victoria Tunnel was again left in darkness.

Part of the tunnel was converted into a sewer in 1976.

Now visitors can be taken through a short section of the tunnel, thanks to Heritage Lottery and other funding.

The next meeting of Morpeth’s history society is tomorrow at 7.15pm in St James’s Hall. Visitors are welcome.

There will be a short talk on the derring-do of Captain Joe Baker-Cresswell, HMS Bulldog and the Enigma Code, followed by a pool supper as part of the Morpeth Antiquarian Society AGM.