A tunnel comes to Shildon town

April 19th witnessed the 175th anniversary of the operational opening of the Shildon Tunnel; with lines running from New Shildon to Crook via Bishop Auckland, and to the Dene Valley, to access the local coal reserves.

Driven by the need to increase coal supply and revenue via its mainline, the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company took the decision as early as 1836 to build the tunnel, under the banner of the Bishop Auckland and Weardale Railway Act, which was passed by Queen Victoria within a few weeks of her ascending to the throne in June 1837.

Work finally started on the tunnel in April 1839, with the sinking of the first shaft, to tackle the daunting problem of the 500ft high Magnesian Limestone Shildon ridge.

Whilst by no means the first railway tunnel, running 120ft below Shildon it was a major feat of engineering and is now the world’s oldest working railway tunnel under an urban settlement.

The tunnel is 1,225 yards long, with its sides constructed of stone and with a brickwork arch. It is estimated some 7 million bricks were used, with Thomas Dennies the principal bricklaying contractor. An aqueduct system, which can still be seen today, was also built to carry local streams across the cutting.

Dominant and very visible features of the construction were the vent funnels, which rose as high as a house and remained a feature of the town’s landscape until 2008, when the last was demolished.

The completion of the tunnel itself was celebrated with great ceremony some four months earlier than its opening, on 10th January 1842.

A procession was formed at the Cross Keys Inn on Cheapside which then marched into the tunnel. Canons were fired and music performed by Lord Prudhoe’s brass band. Inside the tunnel a platform had been erected for the ceremony, with the darkness relieved by innumerable candles.

Luke Wandless, the tunnel’s resident Engineer, was presented with a silver trowel and laid the last brick, pointed in Roman cement.

A bottle of wine was sprinkled on the last brick and the tunnel Christened The Prince of Wales, in honour of the future King Edward 7th who was born on 9th November 1841.

Drinks and food were provided for the workmen at six different public houses in Shildon; with the principal function being held at the Cross Keys.

The Durham Chronicle, in its edition of 14th January 1842, was to comment: “This is the only tunnel, properly so called in the County of Durham.”

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