The Victoria Tunnel was built in 1842 as a 3.6km long underground wagonway from the Spital Tongues colliery down to riverside docks at Ouseburn. The coal-laden wagons would be allowed to run down to the river under gravity and would then be hauled back up empty, originally using ropes and then later with steel cables. The tunnel was lined with stone and had a brick arched head.
Its working life was punctuated with dramatic incidents, such as wagons escaping and ending up in the Tyne, and boilers exploding and killing staff. A particularly horrible incident took place when wagons were sent down the tunnel without the top men being aware that three surveyors were inside the tunnel at the bottom end. When the party of surveyors heard the echoing rattle of the wagons, the three men made different split second decisions for the tunnel had no refuges for them to press into. One chose to run, one to press himself against the wall, and the last to lie down between the tracks. Standing in the narrow tunnel today, you can imagine their horror when they heard the clattering din of the approaching wagons. As though each had drawn out a different outcome from the hat of chance, one of the men died, one was injured and one survived unharmed (it was far too far to run and the surveyor who tried was killed, the wall hugger suffered terrible injuries, while the man who lay down on the tracks escaped without injury). By the 1860s though the tunnel’s working life was over and it was largely forgotten.
Forgotten that is until the late 1930s, when the Government began to relax its policy on larger and deeper shelters and Newcastle was one of the handful of places mentioned as exceptions to the rule because it had two sites could be brought into use quickly and with relatively little expense. Once its location could be found, that is.
The Victoria Tunnel’s subsequent conversion to an air raid shelter in 1939 cost £37,000, the bulk of which would have been the cost of forming new protected entrances and building internal blast walls to break the tunnel down into smaller sub-shelters. In addition, the walls were whitewashed, a tarmac finished concrete floor was laid, and wooden benches, 500 bunks and chemical toilets were provided.
The seven entrances built (at least 16 had been planned) were at Ouse Street at the southeast end, Crawhall Road (the deepest at 26m below the surface), Sheildfield Green, Ridley Place, Barras Bridge/ St Thomas’ Churchyard, the Hancock Museum and Claremont Road, all except the first requiring ramps and stairs to descend from road level down into the tunnel.
The shelter capacity was given as 8000 but it is unlikely it ever had that many occupants. Dampness was a serious problem and deterrent to users although one Government inspector in 1941 observed “better damp than dead” with the timeless insensitivity of a bureaucrat. He continued, “as this is a mining district, the persons who will shelter in this tunnel are possibly better fitted constitutionally to resist underground and damp conditions than those in the south.”
The tunnel was once again more or less forgotten post-war, and a section near the Civic Centre was converted into a sewer in the 1970s. In 1998 though a 700m long section at the south east end was opened to visitors. Starting at the bottom, one walks up the narrow dripping passage by torchlight. One can see that the whitewash was clearly intended to make the shelter seem bigger, but as the shelterers had to duck under the tunnel roof electric light fittings as they walked in they probably were not fooled. The original fittings no longer exist in this section, though marks in the floor show where benches and bunks would have been, as well as the bases of Elsan toilets.
For more information on tours contact Ouseburn Trust.