Near here in St Thomas’ Churchyard, and close by at Ridley Place, were two of the entrances to the Victoria Tunnel World War 2 air-raid shelter. Originally built by Victorian Mine owners, this masterpiece of engineering was used to transport coal to Newcastle’s Quayside. The tunnel is 2.5 miles long and is a Grade 2 Listed structure. At its deepest point, it is 26 metres below the surface.
Newcastle was a cradle for the coal-powered industrial revolution and by mid-19th century demand for coal was high.
Porter and Latimer, the owners of the Spital Tongues Colliery, needed to find a way to efficiently transport coal from their colliery to the Tyne where it could be loaded onto collier ships and distributed to their customers, far and wide.
They originally applied to build an overland wagon way that ran across the Town Moor, but the plan was strongly contested by the Freemen due to its potential impact. As an alternative the engineer in charge proposed an underground tunnel running from the Town Moor under the town to the Tyne. This was approved and building work began in 1839 with work completed in 1842. Once opened, loaded coal wagons went down the incline of the tunnel under their own weight and were drawn back to the colliery by a wire rope pulled by a 40 horse-power stationary steam engine sited near the pit head. The tunnel culminated at staiths near the mouth of the Ouseburn.
The tunnel was used as a means of coal transport for just eighteen years before it was closed in 1860.
From 1860 the tunnel remained disused until World War 2 when it was adapted for use as air-raid shelters. In 1939, Britain prepared for war. People were instructed to practise “Air Raid Precautions” to protect themselves from Nazi bombing raids. Initially it had been intended that there would be eighteen entrances to ease the crowds of people that would scamper for safety every time the sirens sounded warning or ariel attack. However, because of time constraints and engineering difficulties, only seven were completed. These entrances were situated at Claremont Road, Great North Museum, St Thomas’ Churchyard, Ridley Place, Shieldfield Green, Crawhall Road and Ouse Street.
To make the tunnel more habitable during air-raids adaptations were undertaken.
* A new concreted floor was laid with a drainage channel
* Electric lighting fittings were added
* The tunnel was stocked with hurricane lamps at various points in case the electricity failed
* Benches to seat up to 9,000 people
* Bunk-beds for at least 500 occupants
* Chemical toilets were installed in cubicles constructed form a wooden frame and covered by hessian.
* Parts of the tunnel were cleaned and whitewashed so that light could reflect.
Since World War 2 a section of the tunnel, running from Ellison Place to Queen Victoria Road, was converted into a sewer, whilst the section from the Great North Museum up to Spital Tongues was blocked off and remains unused. However one section, from an opening in Ouse Street through to New Bridge Street, has been preserved and is now open to visit through regular weekly tours or by pre-arranged special tours for groups of six or more.