Guides: Leicester Industrial History Society
18 June 2019
In 1830, the mine owners of NW Leicestershire faced a problem. They wanted to use the new technology of railways to bring their coal to the lucrative market in Leicester but in their way was the hill on which County Hall and Glenfield Hospital now stand. It was much too steep for early locomotives to climb and was even too steep for a stationary engine to haul the wagons up an inclined plane, as had been done at Swannington and Bagworth. They consulted the famous engineer George Stephenson, who designed what was then the longest steam railway tunnel in the world and recommended his son Robert to build it.
The tunnel is just over a mile long. It was built straight and level, based on existing models from the canal network but at a larger scale to accommodate trains. “Navvies” dug the tunnel from both ends and from shafts sunk along the route. Smaller ventilation shafts were provided at intervals and now make interesting features in the gardens above! Surveyors expected that the tunnel would pass through rock but instead they found soft sand so the entire length had to be lined using locally made bricks.
The dimensions of the tunnel were always a limitation, from the opening ceremony when the funnel of the locomotive hit the roof, broke and covered the travelling dignitaries in soot! In later years it became difficult to find rolling stock small enough to fit: with only a few inches of clearance, speeds were limited to 4 mph so it took trains 15 minutes to pass through.
Although Glenfield Tunnel closed to rail traffic in 1966, it still exists and members of our Society were able to visit, thanks to the Leicestershire Industrial History Society. We walked about ¼ mile from the entrance to the first excavation shaft and our guide pointed out features of interest along the way, such as refuges where workers could avoid passing trains, and evidence of when Plessey and Marconi briefly used the tunnel for testing after its closure.