Work on Queensbury Tunnel, between Bradford and Halifax, began in May 1874 and involved the excavation of 180,000 cubic yards of rock - some of which was used to build parts of the tunnel’s lining - as well as the manufacture and placement of around 5.2 million bricks to form the arch. But the perilous work was undertaken without any of the health and safety precautions found on modern engineering sites, resulting in a significant toll on the 600-strong workforce.
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.
But perhaps the most tragic misadventure befell a farm labourer called Captain Pickles. On 15th May 1877, he married Edna Oddy at Bradford Parish Church. Days later, in a probable attempt to give his new wife a better life, the 30-year-old secured work as a platelayer on the railway, a job that attracted a higher rate of pay. However on 17th June, barely a month after the happiest day of his life, he was hit on the head by a half-ton timber in Queensbury Tunnel which had been dislodged by a trolley striking it. His injuries were so severe that death was instantaneous.
To honour those who lost their lives, the Queensbury Tunnel Society has erected a memorial comprising two rows of wooden railway sleepers which stand either side of the path linking the Great Northern Railway Trail to the tunnel entrance. They are each dedicated to one of the men and have QR codes on the back, linking to online biographies. The materials were mostly donated by the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, whilst the preparation and installation work was carried out by industrious supporters of the campaign to reopen the tunnel as part of a Bradford-Halifax Greenway. A grant for the work was secured from the Bradford Connecting People fund.
Dozens of people gathered in the tunnel’s northern approach cutting on Sunday afternoon for a ceremony to formally inaugurate the memorial. The event was opened by Revolution - Queensbury Youth Band and included a short reading about the ten men, whilst Black Dyke Mills Folk Club performed a specially-written song.
Cllr Beverley Mullaney, Deputy Lord Major of Bradford, reflected on the tunnel’s construction in the 1870s. “There were dozens and dozens of injuries - many of them life-changing - accompanied by ten deaths. These men are the forgotten heroes of the railway boom that changed our nation in the 19th century.
“As we ride comfortably now on their infrastructure, we must not forget those who gifted us our railway network through the Victorian era. We have a duty to respect the sacrifices they all made.”
Judith Cummins, MP for Bradford South, commended the Queensbury Tunnel Society’s efforts to save the tunnel as an asset. “To see everybody here lends a great deal of encouragement to the campaign going forward.
“We have got to carry on that campaign and keep that campaign alive so, for future generations going forward, we connect not only Halifax and Queensbury, we also bring around fantastic health benefits for the people of Queensbury, Bradford and wider Yorkshire. It’s a huge project.”
“It’s fantastic to have a lasting legacy to those who’ve given their lives. I often think that, when we look at the past, it does inform the future.”
Cllr Robert Hargreaves, who represents Queensbury ward, said: “The tunnel has great historical significance in making Queensbury the place that we know and love now. But more importantly, it offers huge potential for the future - not just for our children and those here today - but for everyone who comes after that.
“We do have £830 million for transport in West Yorkshire and the £20 million levelling-up fund, so now is a great opportunity - more than ever - to make this happen.”
Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “The event was both moving and uplifting. We reflected on the lives of the ten men who succumbed in unimaginable circumstances, often leaving their families destitute. And we looked forward to the positive role the tunnel could still play if we open our eyes and see the vision.
“We cannot allow the valiant efforts of those men to be lost through a lack of ambition. It may be 143 years old, but Queensbury Tunnel remains a vital strategic connector and we’ll need it as we emerge into a greener and more enlightened future.”
The memorial is thought to be one of only two in the country dedicated to the navvies involved in constructing railway tunnels through the 19th century.