Category Archives: North Staffordshire Railway Company

FOCUS ON KIDSGROVE: The Harecastle Tunnels

Harecastle- railway-tunnel- north-portal-south-tunnel-kidsgrove

Two railway tunnels, three cuttings and a defile took the North Staffordshire Railway Company’s mainline under Harecastle Hill which separated Kidsgrove and Chatterley.

The first trains ran through the cuttings and the tunnels on 9 October 1849 when the section of track linking Kidsgrove with Stoke opened. Before reaching the first cutting, trains travelling south from Kidsgrove to The Potteries crossed a bridge over the Trent and Mersey Canal. As the train went over the bridge, passengers looking out of the carriage windows could see the two tunnels that took the canal through the hill.

The Canal Tunnels

The first canal tunnel was constructed by James Brindley and his brother in law Hugh Henshall. It opened in 1777 and was 2,880 yards long, 12 feet high and 9 feet wide. The tunnel was so narrow that boats travelling in opposite directions could not go through it at the same time. Boats going south had to wait at Kidsgrove until it was their turn to enter the tunnel. Boats going north had to wait at Chatterley until the ones coming from Kidsgrove had passed through. Because it was not wide enough to have a towpath, the boats had to be “legged” through the tunnel.

As traffic increased, the delays caused by long queues of boats waiting to go into the tunnel infuriated local industrialists. Faced with the possibility that pottery manufacturers would build a railway, the canal’s owner, the Trent and Mersey Canal Company, decided to construct a second tunnel at Harecastle. The company employed Thomas Telford to build it. The new tunnel cost £112,581 and was opened on 30 April 1827.

The Railway Cuttings and Tunnels

Railways came to The Potteries in the mid-1840s when the North Staffordshire Railway Company was founded. Trains that the company planned to run linking Stoke with Macclesfield and Crewe had to go through Harecastle Hill. Civil engineering contractor, Thomas Brassey was employed to build two railway tunnels and make a series of cuttings between Kidsgrove and the Chatterley Valley.

The first cutting a train travelling south from Kidsgrove to Stoke came to was a narrow roofed cutting, called a defile, near St. Thomas’s Church and Kidsgrove parsonage.

The defile was about 150 yards long. It had stone walls and a brick roof to prevent noise from trains interrupting church services. When it left the defile, the train passed through a cutting which was about 300 yards long and about 75 feet deep before entering a short tunnel called the North Tunnel. The tunnel, which was 183 yards long, took the railway under Boathorse Road. On leaving the North Tunnel, the train went into another cutting that led to the South Tunnel which was 1,768 yards long.

The northern entrance to the South Tunnel was near where Boathorse Road changes its name to Nelson Bank. The tunnel ran through the hill to Chatterley where its southern entrance was in a cutting near Lowlands Road. Although built at a higher level than the two canal tunnels, for most of its length the South Tunnel ran between them.

Building the South Tunnel

Brassey employed about 1,600 men to build the South Tunnel. No less than 15 shafts were sunk from the surface of the hill to the level of the tunnel. Because of the hill’s undulating nature, the shafts varied in depth from 25 to 60 yards. At the top of the shafts, there were steam engines which lowered building materials for the men working below and brought soil to the surface. Before the work started, an underground roadway was driven into the hill to take supplies to the men building the tunnel. 

The roadway, which civil engineers called a drift, was six feet wide and six feet high.

Workers began to construct the entrances to the tunnel at Kidsgrove and Chatterley. At the same time, gangs of men were digging the tunnel northwards and southwards from the bottom of the shafts. The part of the tunnel they built linked the shafts which became air vents when it opened. 

Offices, stables, a few cottages and a mill for grinding cement were erected on the summit of Harecastle Hill. The bricks used to build the tunnel were made by brickworks in the Chatterley Valley. A tramway was laid over the hill to take bricks to Kidsgrove.

The South Tunnel took two years to build, and it is estimated that 15 million bricks were used in its construction.

Copyright 2020 North Staffordshire Heritage

(Photograph of the north portal of the South Tunnel at Harecastle © Copyright Jonathan Hutchins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)