The Ouseburn Culvert provides an interesting counterpoint to the nearby Victoria Tunnel, for while the latter was described during the Second World War as the worst air raid shelter in Britain, the Ouseburn Culvert was considered by some one of the best, thanks to its dryness, facilities, the sense of camaraderie due to its size, and of course the level of protection afforded. It was also one of the few shelters in the country where no one would have noticed if the chemical toilets were a little ripe.
It had come into being in the first decade of the 20th century when the city fathers of Newcastle culverted the Ouseburn stream and then proceeded to bury the 655m long Hennebique ferro-concrete tunnel with a covering of industrial waste and spoil to improve cross-city access. Building work started in 1907 and was completed in 1911 at a cost of £23,000. The original idea was that it would take ten years to fill the 30m deep dene which would then be built upon, but by the 1940s it was still not full and plans changed, and the new City Stadium was built on it instead.
The two tunnels were built in very different ways. The Victoria Tunnel was bored in shorter sections between sunken vertical shafts which were then backfilled, while the 9m wide by 6m high elliptical culvert was built in the open and then covered over. Construction photographs from 1907 on show first the timber formwork and then the tunnel being built in a steep banked valley.
In 1939 the culvert was converted into a shelter for 3000 people for £11,000, just under half the cost of its initial construction. The work included the construction of a concrete platform floor a little above stream level. The finished shelter would have been incomparably drier than the Victoria Tunnel and the background sewer smell one notices today would at the time have had competition from other shelter aromas. Its size and dryness allowed a wider range of communal facilities such as a canteen, sick bay, library, wardens’ offices, a stage for musical events, a youth club and space for church services.
An unusual dispute arose between the canteen operator and the Council over his unwillingness to pay for the electricity he was using. Resolution was achieved when he agreed to lower his charges for tea and other hot drinks and sandwiches (a bargain at 1½d for a cup of tea and 2½d each for cocoa, coffee and sandwiches).
Interesting remains from the wartime period are the shelter bay numbers painted on the walls, and glass “tell-tales” fixed across roof cracks with wartime dates inscribed on the mortar. The latter show that it was being regularly monitored to ensure its safety, and may have been placed there in 1941 after a fracture 30m long was found, possibly caused by bomb impacts on parts of the city above.
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