Local Navvies Killed in Norwood Tunnel?

Norwood tunnel is equal longest of the tunnels built during the pioneering era of canals in this country. Planned by the nationally famous engineer James Brindley it is 2,880 yards, the same length as his Harecastle tunnel on the Trent & Mersey.

Brindley was commissioned to build a canal from Chesterfield to the river Trent, and when he was planning the waterway in c1768 geography dictated that it would have to cross a limestone ridge. He chose to do so in the Wales-Kiveton Park area where the ridge is at its narrowest. Tunnelling was expensive, time-consuming and dangerous, all of which had to be weighed against great water-supply benefits. The longer the tunnel, the longer the canal could keep to one level and water would not be lost as boats climbed up and down through numerous water-thirsty locks.

Norwood tunnel was an immense project. In January 1772 contractors were sought to make three million hand-made bricks for the lining, and local colliery owners were asked about supplying coal for the fifteen kilns which would be on the surface along the whole length of the tunnel. Vast quantities of clay suitable for bricks, and limestone to make mortar, also had to be found in the area.

The construction work was done by sinking a series of shafts and then driving headings from each until they met the workings from adjoining shafts. The number used is not known - some have been plotted and the location of others estimated, but whether original or dating from later major works is not clear. Nevertheless, the big challenge of a canal tunnel was to keep the level accurate - it could not follow a seam of minerals, instead it had to be level and of uniform bore no matter what was found in the hill. And with geology in its infancy no one knew what that may be. This is why Norwood and Harecastle tunnels were enormous challenges for the engineering techniques of the day, and a double headache for James Brindley.

What we do know about the shafts is that they were dangerous places. John Hutchinson of Wales was killed as he was lowered down, leaving a widow with a large family of small children. In contradiction of the modern uncaring image of Canal Companies the Management Committee authorised the payment of five guineas to Mrs Hutchinson to help with the upkeep of the fatherless children. Not long afterwards Edward Bunting was severely injured - standing at the bottom of a shaft he was hit by a large basket of rocks which, being hauled to the surface, broke free and crashed down on to him. He was taken to Harthill and put to bed at one of the inns. They called for medical attention but the surgery and drugs applied by Dr George Frith were to no avail. Edward Bunting died and was buried in Harthill’s parish churchyard. Again the Canal Company showed a caring face - after his death paying the bills outstanding for his accommodation and medical treatment.

The origins of the men who built the tunnel is not known. Although John Hutchinson was described as “of Wales” it may not mean he was a local man. He may have moved to the area with his family, drawn by the work. The same may apply to Edward Bunting. The only other names known are those of the contractors who undertook the work, who individually agreed the payment for which they would complete a section, but who they employed is not known nor their own origins.

The management of this system appears to have been lax and blame has been attached to John Varley, who was Brindley’s Resident Engineer. This was revealed when, after Brindley’s death, Hugh Henshall took over responsibility for the project. However, it should be remembered that Varley also had to oversee the construction of the canal which was stretching to the eastwards away from the tunnel. And no canal tunnel of this magnitude had been completed in Britain so Varley and the contractors had little prior experience to guide them. It was dangerous work in the hot tunnel, using gunpowder by candlelight, and the company accounts include funds for the “liquor given to the workmen at the tunnel” - which may or may not have improved their safety!

Norwood tunnel was completed, and the first boat passed through, on 7 May 1775. Only two days later Hugh Henshall led the official opening ceremony when three boats took 300 people, including a musical band, through the tunnel in 61 minutes, although the numbers may be journalistic exaggeration. As there was no towpath the boats had to be propelled by their crews, presumably by “legging” them through but no details were recorded.

Nevertheless, the construction of Norwood tunnel was of national importance. It proved that such engineering was possible and thereby encouraged people to invest in the later canals, which eventually formed the transport network which made the Industrial Revolution possible.

Christine Richardson

Historian of the Chesterfield Canal Trust

Author of “James Brindley - Canal Pioneer” (2004)