Study reveals navvies’ Queensbury tunnel sacrifice

Ten men lost their lives whilst working on the Queensbury Tunnel
Ten men lost their lives whilst working on the Queensbury Tunnel

As the Historical Railway Estate (HRE) prepares to spend around £3 million of public money abandoning Queensbury Tunnel, the Society campaigning to save it has published a study of the ten men known to have lost their lives during its construction 140 years ago.

At 2,501 yards in length, Queensbury Tunnel was one of the most challenging projects ever undertaken by the Great Northern Railway.

It was engineered by John Fraser in the 1870s and formed the route to bypass congested lines around Leeds and Bradford and after several issue the work was eventually completed in July 1878.

When it opened three months later the tunnel became the 11th longest on Britain’s railway network.

Around 600 navvies, railway engineers, played a part in building Queensbury Tunnel, and another 100 laboured in the cuttings at either end.

The report shows of the ten men confirmed to have been killed, three died as a result of explosions, two were crushed, one fell down a shaft, one was struck by a falling skip, one drowned, one was hit on the head by a collapsing roof support and one was run over.

The death rate was one worker in 70, although many others sustained injuries that could have proved fatal.

Norah McWilliam, who leads the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “It’s easy just to see Queensbury Tunnel as a black hole in the ground but, beyond its physical form, it has a compelling story to tell and many men made appalling sacrifices to drive it through the hill. As well as those killed, others suffered injuries that would change their lives forever.

“Of course none of this is a reason to save the tunnel at any price; but, in our view, it does impose a moral obligation to robustly examine all possible options before deciding to destroy it. We owe those men a huge debt because they gave their lives in pursuit of the great social revolution brought by the railways in the 19th century. We shouldn’t allow our engineering heritage to be swept aside simply because that’s the easy option, particularly when the tunnel still has the potential to serve a useful purpose for generations to come.”

The report shows that at 44, the oldest to die was John Swire, a profoundly deaf man who had only returned to work on the morning of his death after being hurt in another accident. His right leg was severed below the knee when wagons ran over it.

The youngest casualty was 25-year-old Frederick Goulding who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time - standing between a wagon and a roof support when a large rock smashed into the wagon, causing Goulding to get crushed.

The Queensbury Tunnel Society is campaigning for the structure to be repaired so that it can serve as the centrepiece of a future cycle path network connecting Bradford, Halifax and Keighley. However designers working for the Historical Railways Estate are already making progress with an abandonment scheme ahead of physical works starting in 2018.

Anyone wishing to sign the petition can visit

To view the society’s report visit