Site Records

Site Name: Ramsgate Public Air Raid Shelter & Scenic Railway

Marina Esplanade (Southern portal of railway tunnel)
OS Grid Ref: TR387650

Sub Brit site visit August 1984 and January 1997

[Source: Nick Catford]

The London Chatham & Dover Railway Company opened their extension from Margate to a terminus at Ramsgate Harbour in 1863. The last section of the line ran in a 1124 yard tunnel from Dumpton Park to the terminus on the seafront, close to the harbour. In 1926, Southern Railway built a link from their line at Dumpton Park to the former South Eastern Railway station at Ramsgate Town, a mile inland. The link was built because of cramped conditions at the terminus and the steep gradient which caused some difficulty for steam locomotives. The Harbour Station and the tunnel were closed from 2nd July that year.

Photo:Southern portal of the railway tunnel on Marina Esplanade as rebuilt in 1957 (1984)
Photo by Nick Catford

While the track was soon lifted, the station building, purchased by the Town Corporation, was leased to Thanet Amusements Ltd. who built their Pleasureland Amusement Park. Having opened a fun fair and zoo, the company was keen to utilise the former railway tunnel and after considering a number of possible proposals decided on a narrow gauge 'scenic' railway running from the southern tunnel portal where they built 'Beach Station', to a new terminus at 'Hereson Road' a few minutes walk from the Southern Railway's Dumpton Park Station.

Two Car Train Arriving at Beach Station (Photo by R.L.Eastleigh)

The scenic railway utilised the first 800 yards of the railway tunnel from where a new 300 yard narrow gauge (8' X 6') spur tunnel was constructed. The spur curved to the northwest at a gradient of 1 in 15, emerging into the new station at Hereson Road. The contract for the work was awarded to Holborn Construction who in 1936 built a single track line with a passing loop just short of the spur junction, and three tracks serving two wooden platforms at each station

The 'World Scenic Railway' as it was called, opened for business on August Bank Holiday 1936. Each carriage was fitted spotlights to illuminate tableaux on the tunnel walls.

At the outbreak of war in September 1939 the railway ceased operations. Deep level shelters were not practicable in many areas but as Ramsgate was built on beds of upper chalk, tunneling would prove an easy and cheap task requiring no propping.

2 Trains Standing at Hereson Rd. Station Prior to Opening. (Photo by GEC Traction Ltd.)

Photo:Junction Between Standard Gauge Tunnel & Narrow Gauge Spur Tunnel (1984)
Photo by Nick Catford

The town's borough engineer and surveyor R.D. Brimmell conceived and planned a scheme for tunneling galleries out of the chalk. This was similar to the only other known network of deep shelters in Barcelona that Spain built during the Spanish civil war.

Following Hitler's seizure of Austria in 1938 Brimmell put his proposals before the town council for submission to the Home Office for approval. The plan was rejected on the grounds that it was "premature". Following Munich, the council approached the Home Office a second time but were again turned down. In the spring of 1939 when Hitler walked into Czechoslovakia, the council made a third appeal to the Home Office who relented and excavations began. By the outbreak of war, work was nearing completion on what was to become one of the most extensive network of deep air-raid shelters anywhere in the country. Plans were soon in hand to incorporate both the standard gauge and narrow gauge tunnels in to the shelter network. The tunnels would be linked to a further 3.25 miles of new tunnels skirting the town in a semi-circular route.

Plan of the tunnels
Drawn by Alan Lawrence

The contract for this immense undertaking was awarded to Francois Cementation Co. Ltd., at a cost of 40,383 with an additional 13,481 for seating, lighting, chemical toilets and the costs of converting the existing tunnels.

Work proceeded night and day and the first section of the network between West Harbour and Queen Street was opened by the Duke of Kent on 1st June 1939 with the contract due to be completed by the end of that year. As each new section of tunnel was opened it received it's allocation of local people with strict regulations enforced; smoking was forbidden and pets and prams were not allowed underground. The first section opened had batteries and a generator but the rest of the tunnels had to rely on the town supply, which was at times erratic. Eventually the council provided 200 hurricane lamps. There was also a system of loudspeakers to relay wireless programmes and announcements.

Photo:Arklow Square branch tunnel looking towards the steps up to Arklow Square (1984)
Photo by Nick Catford

West Harbour Entrance

The tunnels ran at a depth of 50 to 90 feet, following the line of existing roads wherever possible. For most of its length they were unsupported and un-lined but the entrance tunnels close to the surface and a few short sections through unstable ground were lined with reinforced concrete. For most of their length the new tunnels were 6' wide by 7' high with toilet recesses fitted with curtains at 75 foot intervals and a first aid post every 1000 feet.

There were ten ventilation shafts throughout the system with manhole covers (still visible) in the roads above. There was seating for 35,000 but the shelter was expected to hold 60,000 without difficulty.

There were numerous spur tunnels serving 10 entrances located mainly in public parks and open spaces, (one of them at Vale Square was filled in before the shelter opened as the area was well served by two other entrances) with an 11th entrance in the hospital as a quick route for taking patients down from the wards and casualties up into the hospital.

For further information and pictures of the Ramsgate tunnels click here

[Source: Nick Catford]

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