Brunel possessed a vision and understanding that went beyond his engineering ability. ‘If passengers are to fully experience the romance of the railway, the engineering has to be invisible. The trains should float over the landscape with such apparent ease that the passengers do not notice if they are climbing a gradient or fording a river.’ To achieve this Brunel designed numerous viaducts,tunnels,embankments, bridges and sea defences.
How it all started
John BurgessOne day, back in the summer of 2009 I caught the afternoon train from Tiverton Parkway bound for London Paddington and within a few minutes of leaving the station we entered the Whiteball tunnel.
I glanced at my watch to log the time it took to pass through the tunnel, It took just twenty three seconds.
Those fleeting seconds of darkness were hardly noticed by fellow passengers as they sipped their coffee or chatted on their mobile phones, but for me they triggered thoughts of the huge engineering achievement, which took place there by Brunel and his team, to construct the 1092 yard long tunnel in the mid 19th century. As the train sped on through Beam Bridge, I tried to picture the scene where a thousand men were involved in back-breaking manual labour day after day, moving tons and tons of soil by horse-and-cart to create the cuttings or working underground in the cold and wet by candlelight, burrowing through the sandy soil with nothing more than simple pick axes and shovels.
My mind as they say, ‘boggled’ at the thought and I wanted to know more.
On my return from London I set out to look into this amazing story. I trailed through ‘oodles’ of information about Brunel but found no more than a mere mention of the Whiteball tunnel and to my surprise, I discovered that there was also very little detailed information readily available on the world-wide web or in books about it's construction.
I mentioned this to my friend Richard Fox of Wellington and he in his characteristic, enthusiastic way immediately set out on a road of discovery and enlisted the help and cooperation of other like-minded people to put the record straight.
Through much local delving and research in Exeter, Bristol and London, he has come up with a fascinating story of presumably the largest project by far that Sampford Arundel has ever seen.
It is a very wide story, in the sense that what has been discovered covers the social as well as the engineering details.
You will read about some remarkable surveying techniques, sinking of fourteen shafts, how they dug a tunnel in sand and that 7 million bricks were required. Richard also tells us about the men and what it was like to live in those times: sharing beds, fights which broke out and even stories of men committing ‘capital offences’; why tokens were paid instead of wages and how dignity was maintained under starvation conditions.
The story also illustrates the huge gaps which existed between the gentry and the workpeople and the impact that a thousand hard-drinking workmen camped nearby for two years had on local life.
Delving into the past is always interesting, particularly if it’s local, and as Richard reminds us; ‘we can take our sense of values and even ambitions from what we learn from our predecessors.’
I hope that this tale will inspire, amuse, interest and educate us all.
Part One - A little bit of railway history
Before plunging headlong into the detail of what took place here about 170 years ago to build the tunnel at Whiteball, I thought it would be both interesting and helpful if I pulled together a few significant events from history relevant to the development of the railways.
In 1800 the fastest a man could travel over land was at a gallop on horseback, a century later much of the world had trains which regularly travelled at speeds of 60 mph. This remarkable transformation was initiated by the Cornish steam engineer and inventor Richard Trevithick, when on the 21st February 1804, his locomotive and the world’s first steam engine to run on rails, hauled a train along the tramway of the Pen-y-Darren iron works near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.
First beginnings - - -
On the 27th September 1825 George Stephenson's "Locomotion" pulled 600 people the nine miles from Stockton to Darlington at a speed of 4 mph.
One of the most significant events to take place in the development of the railways was held in 1829 at what was then a small hamlet nine miles from Liverpool, at Rainhill.
Over an eight day period the Liverpool and Manchester Railway held trials there in the form of a competition to find the most suitable steam engine to haul the trains. The Rainhill Trials had great influence on the development of railways across the world for the next 140 years. This event attracted thousands of people from across the country who turned up to see the very best of British engineering design competing in trials to determine that steam locomotives had sufficient potential to be used on the railways and the way in which they should be developed.
The outright winners were George Stephenson and his son Robert with their steam locomotive which reached a speed of 29 mph and aptly named,
It is believed that it was Stephenson’s success at Rainhill which inspired a young and brilliant engineer, to become interested in the railways. That young man was none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
In March 1833 Brunel was appointed chief engineer for The Great Western Railway and charged with the task of devising a route from Bristol to London. This was a bold venture for a man with no previous experience in railway construction, but he overcame all obstacles and had the job done in eight years.
During this time, in 1836 a separate line was incorporated between Bristol and Exeter and when this was finished in 1844, speeds of rail travel between London and Exeter via Bristol were ‘without parallel.’ This was due to Brunel’s insistence on straight railways referred to at the time as, ‘Brunel’s billiard
table’ and to the brilliance of Daniel Gooch’s locomotives. Gooch had trained with the Stephenson’s and he was barely twenty one when Brunel recruited him for the GWR.The line between Bristol and Exeter was probably the fastest stretch of railway in the world, but during its construction, here at Sampford Arundel, was the main obstacle this side of Bristol which Mr. Brunel had to deal with: the Whiteball hill, one consideration was to take the hill in a curved route to the south of Whiteball, but Brunel's prefernce for straight track saw this idea rejected, so a tunnel was the only option.
John Burgess, Historian and for many years Chairman of the Sampford Arundel
The building of Whiteball Tunnel, by Richard Fox, Historian, raconteur and Freeman of Wellington
Richard FoxPonder this for a moment, how long would it take you to shovel nearly 20 tons of sand over a six-foot wall?, What does 20 tons of sand look like?, a metal cone measuring 8 feet high and 5 yards across. And it’s wet. Or, if you ride a horse, or even if you do not, it might be 30 times the weight of that horse.
how long would it take to move it by shovel? three days, four?- - - a week maybe, don’t experiment. We do not want strained shoulders and broken hearts!
Building the tunnel was a mammoth physical task, done by hardened “navvies” (abbreviation for navigators) who had been navigating canals accross Engaland for decades.
A navvy was expected to shovel this amount in a day- - every day!, as you'll find out a little later on.
So let us start by seeing what we know about the 1000 men that came and camped on Whiteball to do the job. We are very grateful to Denis Dodd, who leads important restoration work on the canal at Nynehead, for giving us much information including the book “The Railway Navvies” by Terry Coleman. Terry has gone into the navvy history in great detail, nationally, and we are grateful to him also. He gives the overall picture, not the local one. Here it is. We can test local details as we go on.
Below are two examples of "horse gins" (gin is short for engine) These machines were in use during the middle part of the 19th century
to convert horsepower into rotary energy, in order to raise and lower loads in shafts or the boring of deep wells for instance
There were at most 200,000 navvies working all over the country. They included masons, miners, bricklayers, “getters”(using pickaxes), “excavators”(using shovels), labourers, and boys. Many were Irish. Ireland had been conned into an Act of Union with England in 1800, so we were all one cou ntry. The Irish had a reputation for drink (but so did the others), and, if well treated, for great loyalty and hard work. And the work was VERY hard. It was usually organised as follows. Railway Companies appointed surveyors to plan and to superintend a line, which was itemised: bridges, cuttings, embankments, tunnels. Contractors tendered for each item.
At Whiteball time (1841-44) there was a lull between two railway booms and there was keen competition which forced prices down. The winning contractor then subcontracted further, or appointed “gangers” who each took on perhaps 10 men. This gang might become a “butty gang” which would tender to the contractor for a small job to be finished in a certain time: this caused payment problems if some gangers worked harder than others. Or, excavators could be paid by the “fourteen-set day”. A set was a train of 6-foot high waggons. Each waggon would be filled by 2 men, and it held 2 cubic yards and a quarter. The train was filled, and taken away, 14 times a day. This works out at just under 20 tons per man per day, and the next day, and the next, wet or fine. The train was drawn away by horses on a temporary track out of the cutting to an embankment (usually), where the line is higher than the landscape. A block of timber was put across the track. A boy led a horse to one side of the track, attached it to a waggon, and gee-ed it up to a fast pace before casting off and urging the horse to safety. The waggon careered on into the timber with a loud crunching noise and toppled its load over and down the embankment. What fun for boys!? Where did they come from? Guess!
Below are some typical scenes from that period, cottages near The Beambridge Inn, and two pictures of Navvies posing for their picture
Part 2. Why Whiteball?, and why Red Ball? the answer is that a “ball” is a small hill.
Whiteball is a heap of white sand, sandstone, marl, quicksand, gravel, etc. Next to it is Redball, a heap of red sand. We need to explain how these distinct heaps came to sit in between the sharp-stoned Blackdowns and the Westleigh limestone. Any information about this, or any other topic, will be extremely welcome as we go on, and will be acknowledged and added to the story. We have already received a great deal. This is a combined effort.
Back to our navvies.
Contractors had to tender low, and to make money they had to get the utmost from the workforce. It is hard to imagine how masters and men thought of
each other, then. There was a strong class system. We have a few clues. Slavery had only just been abolished in the colonies. Workers were exploited in factories. Men died of methane poisoning in the Thames Tunnel. The Corn Laws caused great poverty. Workers were told lies to persuade them to go to New Zealand. All these give a picture of an upper class that exploited without caring. The lower classes were often not educated (if they were, they were taught respect), disjointed, and knew nothing different. Almost anything was better than the poverty of the countryside. There were too many people for the work available. “If you won’t do it, someone else will.” No dole, no NHS, no unions. When trouble did occur, it was put down by the military.
Only canal-hardened navvies could work hard enough for the gangers. So navvies tended to move as the work moved. If a local man was really tough he might be taken on, but it was said to take a year for an average healthy man to harden up. So we guess that few local labourers were taken on at Whiteball. As for masons, bricklayers, and carpenters, we do not know.
Where did they live we ask ourselves?
Some would have been put up locally, but that may have meant cash payment (see later!). There was a camp at Whiteball, we do not know yet exactly where. It might have consisted of huts built of almost anything on flat ground, or built into a hillside. 20 people usually lived in a small hut! That might have been let by the contractor to one family, which would then take in other families, or single men. Families tended to sleep together in one bed, including children and even dogs (kept for fighting and/or poaching), and there is a record from the Box Tunnel that beds were shared: a man coming off shift would sleep in the bed of a man going on. The hut, and the cooking, would be organised by the WOMAN, who would pay the rent. “woman”, not “wife”, because people married “over a broomstick”. Why? Contractors tried to pay enough to keep their navvies. If they did not, the navvies did not strike (usually) as that achieved nothing, but voted with their feet, marching huge distances to another railway. The families stayed behind, because the distances, and risks at the far end, were so great. Each family was then taken on by another man, who presumably had a broomstick. Note that this kept “one man, o ne woman”, which was part of the unwritten navvy law: prostitution was very rare. As children grew up, boys were needed to work with horses, but it was hard for girls to escape from the system. However, the doubling of recorded baptisms at Burlescombe Church during this period may suggest a strong church influence, so that broomstick marriages may not have been the custom at Whiteball: we do not know (yet?).
(editor' note A.)an ancient folk ceremony of undefined origin practised among slaves, romani gypsies and non-religious sects.
The couple would would simply jump over a broomstick into a "married" state.
Jumping over a broomstick into marriage was considered an act of faith
The Tommy Shop
(editor' note B.) Wikipedia describe this as "an arrangement in which employees are paid in commodities or some currency substitute...rather than with standard money. This limits employees' ability to choose how to spend their earnings--generally to the benefit of the employer"
We have followed a general account of navvies without being able to say exactly what happened at Whiteball; but hope that you have gathered a fairly realistic impression from the examples that we have given of what life might have been like up the hill.
We are on firmer ground about money, however.
There was a TOMMY SHOP, a place where goods could be acquired. The area where it was situated is still called Tommy Shop by the locals. It is on the strip of land between the old and the new roads at the corner of the hill going towards the Poacher’s Pocket. A Tommy shop was usually owned (or rented) by a contractor, and items could be got there by exchange of TOKENS ONLY. Why not cash? If cash was paid on pay day, once a month, it would often be spent, much on beer, until it was all spent. After that, penniless, the navvy would get a token from his ganger or from his contractor, the value (plus charges) being taken off his pay for the next month. So, perhaps oversimplifying, the contractor, instead of having to pay cash to his men, had to stock the Tommy shop instead, which was very much cheaper for him.
Brunel did not approve of this system, known as the “truck system”, but as contractors took on almost every responsibility including labour hire, they could tell the Railway Companies to mind their own business, though no-one would have dared to say that to Brunel!
Where does Brunel come into it? The Bristol and Exeter Railway was separate then from the Great Western (Bristol to London). Brunel was put in charge of it by the directors. He chose the route to Exeter, via Weston-super-Mare, Bridgwater and Taunton. The only big obstacle on the whole line was Whiteball. Could he have gone round it? There was a proposed route going right up the valley from Beam Bridge towards Lane End Farm and then cutting through the ridge near to the Poacher’s Pocket. A proper appraisal of this route will depend on an examination of the landscape; but in any case a sharp curve would have been needed, and Brunel was mightily keen on very fast, STRAIGHT railways.
The nearly straight tunnel route that we enjoy today was chosen. It goes from Beam Bridge to Marlands at a gradient of 1 in 80, then through the tunnel and for half a mile beyond it at 1 in 128 to the summit, before going downhill to Burlescombe and Exeter. Slackening the gradient meant a longer tunnel and larger cuttings, but engines were not very powerful when the line was planned, and speed was Brunel’s lifeblood.
We have benefitted ever since from his perfectionism and foresight.
Part 3. Method of paying the navvies
We have followed Terry Coleman’s account of navvies without being able to be too definite; but hope that we can go on to show from examples that we have given at least a good idea of what life may have been like up the hill. We are on firmer ground about money, however. There was a TOMMY SHOP. It is still called Tommy Shop by the locals. It is on the strip of land between the old and the new roads at the corner at the bottom of the hill going towards the Poacher’s Pocket. A Tommy shop was usually owned (or rented) by a contractor, and items could be got there by exchange of TOKENS ONLY. Why not cash? If cash was paid on pay day, once a month, it would often be spent, much on beer, until it was all spent. After that, penniless, the navvy would get a token from his ganger or from his contractor, the value (plus charges) being taken off his pay for the next month. So,perhaps oversimplifying, the contractor, instead of having to pay cash to his men, had to stock he Tommy shop instead, which was very much cheaper for him. Brunel did not approve of this system, the “truck system”, but as contractors took on almost every responsibility including labour hire, they could tell the Railway Companies to mind their own business, though no-one would have dared to say that to Brunel!
The Bristol and Exeter Railway was separate then from the Great Western (Bristol to London). Brunel was put in charge of it by the GWR directors. He chose the route to Exeter, via Weston-super-Mare, Bridgwater and Taunton. The only big obstacle on the whole line was Whiteball. Could he have gone round it? There was a proposed route going right up the valley from Beam Bridge towards Lane End Farm and then cutting through the ridge near to the Poacher’s Pocket. A proper appraisal of this route will depend on an examination of the landscape; but in any case a sharp curve would have been needed, and Brunel was mightily keen on very fast, STRAIGHT railways. The nearly straight tunnel route that we enjoy today was chosen. It goes from Beam Bridge to Marlands at a gradient of 1 in 80, then through the tunnel and for half a mile beyond it at 1 in 128 to the summit, before going downhill to Burlescombe and Exeter. Slackening the gradient meant a longer tunnel and larger cuttings, but engines were not very powerful when the line was planned, and speed was Brunel’s lifeblood. We have benefitted ever since from his perfectionism and foresight.
The railway Sharpes
In March 1833 the 27 year old Isambard Brunei was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western
Railway The strategy was to build a railway that would link London and Bristol.
Works commenced shortly after this date and it was around this time that John Sharpe and his family moved away from
Co Durham, and went south to Keynsham, near Bristol to work on this line Here he gained
employment as a foreman under the head contractor Mr. Rainger, Robert also came to work on the
same line, and his daughter Maria was baptised at Keynsham in 1837.
John Sharpe had charge of six hundred men, and had charge of all the works, the gangers and the tradesmen. He was paid 24 shillings a week (£1.20p)for his first month, which then rose to 35s, after twelve months his wages were raised to 50s. He stayed a further twelve months, but could see that things were
going wrong, and so left and got work as a sub-contractor under a certain Mr Hemans.
Under Hemans he carried out earth works close by the city of Bristol, a hill of 30,000 yards - providing
Horses and labour, but not materials. Again his brother Robert was working in the same area.
William John was bom at Bedminster. near Bristol, in 1839. John's next work was on the Gloucester
and Birmingham line, where he took a small contract on his own account under the company, near
Breedon, After this he returned to work with Mr Hemans for a short while, before taking contracts on
the Great Western.
From there thev moved down to Whiteball Devon to work on construction of a difficult tunnel on the
Somerset - Devon border on the Bristol & Exeter line. where substantial cuttings were necessary. They
lived for a time at the nearby village of Sampford Arundel, where Robert and Maria had their 5th child Charles James Sharpe in January 1843- This is also possibly where the youngest brother Paul met Mary Elizabeth Dart, who was bom in Appledore, Devon, and whom he later married.
Many hundreds of men were killed or injured during the building of the early railways.
At Whiteball there was one particular incident in which a man was killed, which John Sharpe later recounted. His brother, Robert, had called a man away who was earthing under a fall of dirt He called the worker
twice, and reproved him very sharply, but after Robert had gone the worker persisted. Fifteen minutes
later the fall came down and killed him. John later said the worker was a 'good workman' and a 'nice
sort of man*.
Also at Whitehall a notorious rogue known as "Ready-money Tom" disappeared having hired horses
from the Sharpe brothers; John lost £25 - his brother £125.
Research carried out at the Taunton Library - - -
With the kindly help of David Bromwich, upstairs at the Taunton Library, we were able to follow the story of the coming of the railway through the pages of an old newspaper.
“As the tunnel ... will need more time than at any other point between Wellington and Exeter, it has been determined to commence its excavation without delay.”
Line opened from Bristol to Bridgwater.
“A line of carriages a quarter of a mile long laden with barrows, etc., goes through Taunton for the excavators.”
January 1842. “The excavators are in severe distress, industry being suspended due to bad weather, especially those who have families. As hardworking men they are well entitled to humane attention. These poor hardworking men, almost verging on starvation, have behaved in a peaceable and honest manner in the streets of Taunton.” (Note: this winter seems to have been worse than the one in 1963, if the report in the same paper of 18 feet of snow at Marlborough is to be believed.)
“The excavators are in severe distress, industry being suspended due to bad weather, especially those who have families. As hardworking men they are well entitled to humane attention. These poor hardworking men, almost verging on starvation, have behaved in a peaceable and honest manner in the streets of Taunton.” (Note: this winter seems to have been worse than the one in 1963, if the report in the same paper of 18 feet of snow at Marlborough is to be believed.)
Line opened from Bridgwater to Taunton.
A letter complaining that the nightingales had been driven away from Staplegrove by the building of the railway towards Wellington.
October 1842 Ructions reported!
"The hitherto quiet town of Wellington has during the last week been thrown into a state of great excitement, in consequence of several disturbances having taken place between the excavators engaged in the line of railway near this town, and some of the inhabitants, which have led to serious results. It seems that some of the resident bootmakers feel great jealousy towards a man of their fraternity, who has followed the railroad men, and thereby secured their trade. They went round, stripped the poor fellow and his wife, and beat them very severely. The railroad men, to revenge this ill-treatment to their follower, assembled nightly in great numbers, armed with sticks, and attacked the inhabitants indiscriminately. On Saturday night they fell upon two respectable tradesmen, Mr. William Oland, builder, and Mr. William Sparkes, confectioner, the latter having gone to the aid of the former, was beaten most shamefully, and it is feared he will not recover from the effects of several wounds he received on he head. One of the men was captured, and an attempt to rescue him took place; but his friends deeming themselves not sufficiently strong, desisted, threatening to bring a reinforcement of 200 men from White Ball on Sunday evening to obtain their comrade’s release.
An outbreak was therefore expected, but nothing of consequence occurred.”
(Note: Captured? By local people? By the constable? How restrained? Tied up!!?? We do not know. The next 6 papers were examined very carefully, but there was no more news of this affray.)
What would this newspaper have been I wonder ? (The Wellington Weekly News did not exist.)
Part 5. The answer is of course The Taunton Courier.
Yes, but it does not tell us anything about the progress of the work. So we are most grateful for all the information which we get from Harry Norton of Burlescombe. This includes many extracts from C. W. Green’s book about the history of Sampford Arundel. During the nightingale time, while the railway was progressing near Taunton, in August 1842, Whiteball was being prepared for its arrival. Brunel wrote to the directors (we quote Green): “The heavy cuttings in the neighbourhood of the Whiteball have been carried on vigourously. One working shaft has been sunk by the Company to the depth of the tunnel for the purpose of affording full information to parties tendering for the execution of the tunnel. The work, divided into 4 contracts, has been let to experienced contractors on fair and square moderate terms.”
Much experience had been gained on tunnel building during the canal era. It took far too long just to work from both ends, so the extra labour was justified in building shafts, and then working outwards in both directions from the bottoms, so that many faces could be excavated at once. This was taken to extremes at Whiteball: “14 shafts, the deepest being about 200 feet, were dug from the surface. The navvies were lowered, and they dug outwards towards the next shafts. Spoil was hauled up through the shafts in large buckets attached to a windlass and powered by horses on the surface. This lifting device is called a “horse gin”. Contraction of “engine”. The spoil was dumped on the surface and to this day the stretch of land above the tunnel is known as The Tippings.” It is indeed an extraordinary and beautiful landscape, which those who can do some rough walking can enjoy, as there is a public footpath from the Tommy shop to Marlands. It’s wonderful. Take strong boots.
Green Quoted again:
“Some workmen lived with their wives and families. The number of baptisms in 1843 and 1844 were almost double the average. Nearly half were children of men working on the railway, including the sons of two contractors, Robert Sharp and Jeremiah Hill, and two engineers, William Glennie and John James. Only three deaths are recorded in the parish register: one of a labourer killed by a coach passing over him in the night. There is no trace of Joseph Harrison, the foreman said to have been killed in a shaft accident and buried in the churchyard. (See later.)
Green also gives much other local news, and he quotes this report from William Doble: “The last time the Culmstock bounds were beaten was about 1844. Cider had been stored at the Red Ball for the thirsty beaters, and the navvies at the tunnel getting wind of it,went in a body and drank it. A battle ensued in which thenavvies came off best. The inn was almost wrecked; the defeat, however, was no disgrace to our fathers, there were doughty pugilists and men of tough mettle in the parish then, and they did not take their beating lying down; only numbers overpowered them. Jimmy Jones, a crippled shoemaker of Culmstock, was said to be the only man who returned to the village with a whole skin; he saved himself by hobbling upstairs and hiding under the landlord’s bed. My uncle described it as a battle royal – the blid flying in all directions.”
So, in the autumn of 1842, we have the actual railway approaching from Taunton, heroic work being done in the Whiteball cuttings, and shafts being sunk from the top of the hill down towards the level of the tunnel. This not only implied backbreaking wet work: it needed great engineering accuracy. We shall see later how this was achieved.
Part 6. Candles!!(and mayhem!!)
We hope that the navvies had some sort of Christmas cheer at the end of 1842, and we start 1843 with the major scandal story in January. The Taunton Courier again: “William Kean, a Whiteball Tunnel excavator, charged with having on the preceeding night committed a most outrageous crime on the person of a poor woman named Harris. She is a Cornish woman living at Wickwar, Gloucestershire. Her husband deserted her on 29 Dec., leaving her and a month-old baby in destitution. The Parish offered no relief but raisd a subscription to pay her expenses to come to Whiteball, the husband being employed there as a railway smith. She left on Jan 3rd, travelling by road waggon to Wellington and Whiteball, arriving at 5 p.m. on Wednesday 4th. She went to the Tommy shop and described her husband. Some men offered to take her to him. Two men took her with the infant and a clothes bundle a short distance on the turnpike towards Wellington, and then turned left into a lane towads Burlescombe. They passed two houses with lights and then knocked at a third which was unoccupied; knocked; called “Mary”. No answer, no lights. The woman got alarmed. They dragged her into an outhouse and treated her in the most brutal manner; stuffed her mouth with straw; threatened to murder her; each man committed a capital crime. Somehow she freed herself, ran across fields, and got into a lane. She saw a light at some distance. She went towards it and the earth seemed to open up in front of her. It was the railway cutting. She cried for help and a man took her to the Red Ball inn. Landlady Mrs. Wicks took her in. The child had been left behind. She said that she had scratched the face of one of her assailants. Mrs. Wicks said that there were several navigators in the kitchen who mght find the child. They went to the kitchen: one of the men there had had his nose scatched. He was detained, and the constable sent for. The prisoner said that the child had been left in the linhay and offered to show them. Fearing that he would escape, the offer was refused. Other men were sent, and found that the child had been left on the doorstep at the next house. The magistrates (E. A. Sanford and Revd. W. P. Thomas) committed the prisoner to Devon County gaol for trial at the assizes. The woman and child to be sent to the Welington Union workhouse.”
Some explanation is needed here. She arrived at 5 p.m. in January, so everything happened in the dark, and presumably cold! The prisoner was “detained”: we do not think that this could have been done without the help of the other workmen. If they had wanted to protect their mate, surely they could all have run away? Did they realise that, by at least not opposing his detention, they were perhaps condemning him to death? This may support the previous theory that the navvies did have their own code of marital conduct, and woe betide those who broke it. It would have taken some time for the constable to come from Wellington, and the landlady could not have restrained him for all that time on her own. Finally, the case was sent for trial to Exeter because the crime had been committed on the Devon side of the border. We are unable to discover the outcome of the trial or whether the prisoner was hanged or not, does anyone else want to try to find out?
Finally - - -
The tunnel was opened on 1st May 1844 and in C.W.Green’s history of the parish, he describes it thus: ‘Anyone in the parish standing beside the newly completed tunnel just before twelve o’clock would have seen an Acteon engine climbing the steep gradient into the Whiteball tunnel...Brunel, the directors and other important people were in the carriages.’
The website designer would like to thank both Richard Fox and John Burgess for their hard work in preparing this series and to those who have helped with the research and background support. It is hoped to publish this work as a booklet for the local library at some future date.
Footnote Concerning Francis Tredwin (1848-1940)
Most of the information we possess about the early life of Francis Tredwin junior (Frank Tredwin) comes from an interview which he gave to a reporter from "The Herald" in 1937 when he was in his 90th year. He must have been between eight and eleven when the family moved from Wellington to Milmoor. As a young boy he remembered helping to carry the stone used in rebuilding Peacehay Farm after its partial destruction by fire, the exact date of which is not known. A lifelong member of the church choir, he could remember the interior of the old parish church before it was rebuild in 1867, "its galleries and windows and the carved oak pulpit, part of which was used in making the present communion table".
The Bristol and Exeter Railway had been opened four years before he was born and he could remember the railway in its early years, "only a few trains, moving slowly-almost creeping along-the line". As the construction of the Whiteball Tunnel was such a relatively recent event, he heard many stories of the years between 1842 and 1864 when hundreds of navvies were working in the parish, and pits were sunk from the Whiteball Hill into the tunnel beneath to remove the earth and rock. One of these concerned Joseph Harrison "whose tombstone he faced as he talked. He was a foreman employed on the cutting of the Whiteball railway tunnel. He was warned by another workman that if he went down the shaft he would never come up alive. He did so and the prophecy came true". The parish register does record the burial of three railway labourers during these years but none of them bears the name Joseph Harrison. Either Francis' memory failed him, or the reporter mistook the name he was given.
This is an image of the entire workforce taken on completion of the tunnel, probably an early plate camera was used
They are all here, surveyers, navvies, bricklayers, gangmasters, engineers and boys, but not Brunel himself
Recent work on the Whiteball tunnel. Some notes by Peter Bowler
Peter BowlerAbout five years ago we noticed some intense activity in the deep cutting on the Wellington end of the tunnel. This cutting had, over the years become a haven for wildlife, with it's mature trees and ground cover it was protected from the worst of the weather, and, between trains, a quiet and tranquil place with nesting birds in profusion.
Our worst fears were realised when we had a 'phone call and found out that Network rail, in their wisdom, were to systematically remove all trees, bushes, and anything else that was growing there, and for a couple of weeks the whole area echoed to the sound of chainsaws and chipping machines.
At the end of all this the cutting looked like a war zone, completely devoid of any living thing
The results of deforestation in the Cutting
Moving on a couple of years. The first thing we saw of the next phase were men on orange suits carrying surveying instruments, measuring and pegging out a very large area in the corner of the field adjacent to the railway line at the end of the cutting.
After a time a great deal of heavy machinery appeared, followed by vast quantities of crushed rock aggregate and large diameter black piping, also portable cabins, toilets, massive diggers, cranes, and other heavy equipment.
This is where it all happened - - - -It transpired that removing all the trees and ground cover had caused the loose sandy soil of the cutting to be saturated with water which then cascaded down onto the railway line, a deep trench had to be opened on the lip of the cutting in order to bury large drainage pipes, with the aggregate on top, with the excess spoil spread on the sloping sides of the cutting.
All this took several weeks and an enormous amount of material, man-hours, - - - -and cash!.
The big one!, Lining the tunnel
Two years ago (2009) once again a large portion of the field was taken over by a mass of machinery, site offices, stores and workers,(centre picture) this time the task was to line the tunnel with pre-formed steel frames (left picture), the reason being that with the passing of time debris and bricks were coming loose and becoming a potential hazard to trains passing beneath.
As the work had to take place when there was no traffic it was all done over many weekends, day and night, meaning complete closure from Taunton down to Tiverton Parkway.
Passengers were shuttled by buses whilst this was going on.
Enormous bogies had to be lifted by a large crane and swung over onto the track, then the equipment was assembled on the bogies
and hauled into place inside the tunnel (RH picture) a shuttle service ferried the workers to and from the tunnel itself, other self propelled vehicles kept
them supplied with all the materials that they were using, a really huge project, at any one time between 30 and 40 men were working 12 hour shifts throughout the weekend.
“We are grateful to Innovative Support Systems Ltd for allowing us to use pictures of their “Ram-Arch” products on this web-page”