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“It is not a little curious to turn back, and watch the first beginnings of a work of such magnitude as this railway, which will cost more than £5,000,000.  In November, 1830, there was to be one line of rails only, and the work was to be done for £6,000 per mile.  The capital was then one million and a quarter, and no greater velocity contemplated than eight miles an hour.  Shares got up to nine and ten premium on the prospectus, at which many hundreds were sold.  Then it was determined to have two lines; and at that announcement the shares fell directly to a discount . . . . We wonder that the speculators of those days would have thought, if they could then have been informed what the real cost of the present two lines would be.  One thing is certain, there would not have been a railway between London and Birmingham for many a year.”

The History of the Railway Connecting London and Birmingham, Peter Lecount (1839).

Originally planned for completion in September 1837 within a budget of £2.5M, the London and Birmingham Railway was at the time and in every sense the largest civil engineering project yet undertaken in the United Kingdom:

“Up to that time no railway of similar magnitude had been attempted.  The line from Liverpool to Manchester was by comparison a trifling work.  Its length was little more than a quarter of the length of the new road, and its most important works, including the Sankey viaduct (with nine arches each of fifty feet span thrown over the Sankey valley, and running seventy feet above the Sankey canal), its principal tunnel, 2,250 yards long, and its firm highway over the bogs of Parr Moss and Chat Moss, are in respect of magnitude not to be compared with the Kilsby tunnel, the Blisworth cutting, and the Wolverton embankment and viaduct.  A man of iron nerve would have experienced some uneasiness at the commencement of such an undertaking.”

The Life of Robert Stephenson, John Cordy Jeaffreson (1866).


Jeaffreson might have included in his list of Stephenson’s more daunting challenges the Primrose Hill and Watford tunnels, and the Tring Cutting, although a great deal of heavy engineering was needed elsewhere to overcome Nature’s obstacles while maintaining the line’s 1:330 (16 feet to the mile) ruling gradient.

It might assist those unfamiliar with the terrain to list the main geographical features that required civil engineering solutions in the form of embankments, cuttings, viaducts, bridges and tunnels.  In their guide to the London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount describe the landscape thus:

“The country between London and Birmingham is a series of basins or low districts, separated from each other by considerable ridges of hills; the object to be gained was, therefore, to cross the valleys at as high a point as possible, and the hills at as low a one . . . . The whole will, therefore, stand thus:―

1. The basin at London formed by the Thames.
2. The summit at Oxhey, near the division of the counties of Middlesex and Hertford.
3. The basin of the Colne river.
4. The summit at Tring.
5. The basin of the Ouse, near Stoney Stratford.
6. The summit at Blisworth, opposite Towcester.
7. The basin formed at Weedon by the streams flowing into the River Nene at Northampton.
8. The summit at Kilsby, opposite Daventry.
9. The basin of the River Avon, crossed near Wolston, about five miles south of Coventry.
10. The summit of the Meriden ridge.
11. The basin at Birmingham formed by the river Rea, which flows into the Tame. . . .

. . . . Although there were found during the progress of this great work numerous and severe difficulties, there was nothing to indicate anything like what was experienced, and without expending vast sums in boring, they could never have been anticipated.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

The London and Birmingham was planned to open at the same time as the Grand Junction Railway (sketch map), the two lines sharing a terminus at Curzon Street.  But great difficulty in overcoming the large bed of quicksand found at the southern end of the Kilsby Tunnel in Northamptonshire delayed completion of the London and Birmingham line, and it was over 12 months after the Grand Junction Railway had arrived in Birmingham (the GJR opened for business on 4th July 1837) before a through service between London and the North-West was established.

Construction of the London and Birmingham Railway commenced at both ends:

“LONDON AND BIRMINGHAM RAILWAY ― The average number of workmen employed on the line during the early part of the present summer was about 12,000, and the weekly expenditure of the company about £40,000.  The quantity of earth excavated will be about 16 millions of cubic yards.  The weight of iron in the rails and chairs forming the line of way will be 38,000 tons.  There will be 290,000 stone blocks of four cubic feet each, and 75,000 of five cubic feet each, being together 1,535,000 cubic feet, or 105,000 tons of stone under the cast iron chairs or pedestals which support the rails, and exclusively of any used in the bridges, tunnels, &c.”

The Bucks Herald, 23rd September 1837.

The line was opened in stages as work progressed.  On 20th July 1837, a service commenced on the section between Euston and Boxmoor (Hemel Hempstead), which was extended to Tring on the 16th October.  The line could not be completed in time for Queen Victoria’s coronation on the 28th June 1838, but aware of the lucrative traffic the event would generate, on the 9th April 1838, the Company opened the section from Tring to a temporary station at Denbigh Hall near Bletchley, and also from Birmingham to Rugby, a stagecoach shuttle being used to bridge the 38-mile gap.  The line was eventually opened throughout on the 17th September 1838, the first passenger train from London to Birmingham taking 5½ hours to complete the 112½ mile journey.

This, and the following three chapters, summarise the main civil engineering challenges that Stephenson and his team had to overcome in building the line.



“The Directors had placed equal portions of the line under the separate superintendence of the respective London and Birmingham Committees . . . . The directors deemed it advisable that the execution of the whole line should be under the direction of one engineer, and Mr. Robert Stephenson had been appointed to the office, and had received instructions to stake out the line without delay.  The Directors had reason to believe that the railway will be completed in about four years.  The plan on which the work is to be carried on is as follows:―

1st. That those parts of the line which require the longest time for execution shall be commenced first, and the rest in succession, so that the whole may be completed at the same time.

2nd. That the purchase of the land shall be made with reference to this arrangement.

3d. That the payment of the calls shall be regulated so that no part of the capital shall be demanded before it is actually required.

4th. That the works shall be executed by contract, by open competition.

The only deviation from this plan is in reference to the end of the line near London, which eleven Directors recommend should be finished with expedition, from a conviction that the novelty and convenience of a railway contiguous to the metropolis would excite general interest, and prove an early and productive source of revenue to the Company.”

The first general meeting of the Proprietors, reported in The Morning Post, 20th September, 1833.

Stephenson spent the time between the passage of the London and Birmingham Railway Bill (May 1833) and the letting of the first three contracts (May 1834) assembling his project team, levelling and staking out the course of the line, and drawing up plans and specifications for every aspect of the work:

“The engineer wished to ascertain with accuracy the amount of the work before him.  To effect this, before cutting a turf, he went over every inch of ground, and endeavoured to calculate the exact cost of every operation necessary for the accomplishment of his task . . . . In laying down the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, George Stephenson had at the outset of the undertaking only a general notion of the labour before him.  The details were not considered till their consideration could no longer be deferred.  Robert Stephenson saw that this plan of leaving each day to take care of its own evils was little calculated for so vast an undertaking as the London and Birmingham line.”

The Life of Robert Stephenson, John Cordy Jeaffreson (1866).

With these preliminaries complete, the Company was in a position to advertise for tenders to undertake the work, which had been divided into sections, their extent depending on the complexity of the task.  For the reasons stated above, the Board stipulated that work was to commence at the London end of the line:

“In their former report, the Directors announced the appointment of Mr. Robert Stephenson, as Engineer in Chief.  They have since succeeded, to their complete satisfaction, in obtaining the services of a sufficient number of skilful and scientific persons as Assistant Engineers, for conducting the Works on every part of the Line, which has been arranged in sub-divisions for this purpose.

Notwithstanding the obstacles which an unfavourable season has presented to the field operations of the Engineers, the whole of the Line from London to Birmingham has been staked out and levelled, with the exception of a few points, to which Mr. Stephenson is desirous of devoting his particular attention.  He has requested that the Plans and Specifications of the Works for the first twenty miles from London will be complete by the 1st of March.

The Directors will then immediately advertise for Tenders for the execution of the Works on that portion of the railway, and the Plans and Specifications for other parts of the Line will follow in succession as shall bring the remainder into completion, in conformity with the intention announced in the former Report.”

Liverpool Mercury, 28th February, 1834.

Each sets of plans and specifications were produced in triplicate, one copy being available for inspection by potential contractors who, on the appointed day, submitted sealed tenders for contracts in which they were interested.  Tenders were then evaluated on the basis of experience and reputation, price, and the adequacy of the contractor’s capital for funding construction until payment became due from the Company for completed work.  Following the award of a contract, each of the sets of documents were signed by Stephenson and the successful contractor; one set went to the Board, Stephenson retained a set, and a set went to the Assistant Engineer for the district.

By August 1834, the Company had let contracts for 42 miles of railway ― 21 miles at each end of the line ― and the Board was confident that before the close of the year contracts would have been let for almost 80 miles.  And so work commenced.



If contemporary accounts are accurate, few of the works necessary to surmount the landscape’s natural obstacles presented exceptional problems, but those that did threw up challenges that were more than the civil engineering contractors of the age could handle.  During the course of construction, the Company was obliged to revoke eight of the thirty contracts and make other arrangements.  The Castlethorpe and Weedon contracts were among those re-let to other contractors, but a further eight were taken over by the Company’s own engineers, who then managed the work directly and provided the wherewithal to complete it.  Under these circumstances, the Company was entitled to claim liquidated damages for the additional costs arising from the contractor’s failure to perform the contract, but this was not considered feasible:

“In reviewing the extent, and particularly the nature of the country through which the Railway passes, no person can be surprised that a vast number of unforeseen difficulties should arise.  In the progress of the works, difficulties were developed which defeated the sagacity of the most experienced contractors ― which set at defiance the knowledge of the ablest engineers . . . .

. . . . The question has been asked, Why were not the securities of these contractors made to pay the fine consequent on the breach of contract, and thus a portion of the Company’s loss be recovered?  The answer is plain: neither equity nor sound policy could approve of such a line of procedure.  If the Company’s engineer, with all his experience, could not foresee these hidden difficulties, how could a contractor estimate them?  With such discrepancies between the apparent labour, and that which, in proceeding, was revealed, it would be a question for a jury, or possibly the Chancellor, whether they would be liable.  The attempt to make them so would then have involved a law-suit, and its consequent delay in the progress of the works ― a delay which would be so injurious as to neutralise the benefits of a successful suit ― a delay which, if the suit were unsuccessful, would have exposed the Directors to a fearful responsibility.  They, however, acted upon the spirit of their contracts, and thus avoided the injury and the odium which the reverse line of conduct would have ensured.”

The Railway Companion, from London to Birmingham, Arthur Freeling (1839).

Thus, the cost of building the line began to rise significantly above that estimated, although it is probably fair to say that none of the contractors who did deliver what was expected grew rich in the process.  Speaking of the difficulties encountered during the construction of the line, Robert Stephenson subsequently observed:

“After the works were let, wages rose, the prices of materials of all kinds rose, and the contractors, many of whom were men of comparatively small capital, were thrown on their beam-ends.  Their calculations as to expenses and profits were completely upset.  Let me just go over the list.  There was Jackson, who took the Primrose Hill contract — he failed.  Then there was the next length — Nowells; then Copeland and Harding; north of them Townsend, who had the Tring cutting; next Norris, who had Stoke Hammond; then Soars; then Hughes: I think all of these broke down, or at least were helped through by the directors.  Then there was that terrible contract of the Kilsby Tunnel, which broke the Nowells, and killed one of them.  The contractors to the north of Kilsby were more fortunate, though some of them pulled through only with the greatest difficulty.  Of the eighteen contracts in which the line was originally let, only seven were completed by the original contractors.  Eleven firms were ruined by their contracts, which were re-let to others at advanced prices, or were carried on and finished by the company.  The principal cause of increase in the expense, however, was the enlargement of the stations.  It appeared that we had greatly under-estimated the traffic, and it accordingly became necessary to spend more and more money for its accommodation, until I think I am within the mark when I say that the expenditure on this account alone exceeded by eight or ten fold the amount of the Parliamentary estimate.”

The Life of George Stephenson and of his son Robert Stephenson, Samuel Smiles (1868).

Much had yet to be learned about estimating and contracting for large-scale civil engineering projects, among which was the impact on labour and material costs arising from other railway projects competing for the same resources ― inflation was to play its part in doubling the final bill for the line:

“Retardation of Railways by the High Price of Labour. ― Owing to the great demand for labour the wages have risen considerably, and increased obstacles are thrown in the way of completing the lines which are in progress.  The Birmingham, Southampton, and other lines, we are informed, are not proceeding with little more than half the rapidity they were.  Of course this, with the great rise in iron and other things, must tell materially in the estimates, and tend much to retard that early benefit the country would otherwise derive from these undertakings.  Common labourers are offered on the London and Birmingham Railway, from fifteen to eighteen shillings per week, and masons four shillings and sixpence per day, but even at these wages the application for hands in many places has been unsuccessful.”

The Railway Magazine, Vol. 1 (1836).

“From the great increase in prices, which took place almost immediately after the letting of the works, no less than seven [eight] contracts were thrown on the Company’s hands, and of course these were the most difficult and expensive parts of the works, and in each case, the directors had to purchase all kinds of implements and materials at a vast expense, including five locomotive engines, while, from the times at which these seven contracts took to complete them, there was very little possibility of transferring these implements (technically called the Plant) from one contract to another.  This, although a very expensive process, was the only one to be followed, or the line could not be opened under at least a year beyond the time contemplated.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

Construction contracts and the eventual contractors (eight having failed),
from The Life of Robert Stephenson, John Cordy Jeaffreson (1866).




On 21st April 1834, the Company let three contracts covering the first 21 miles from London.
 Messrs. Jackson and Sheddon took the Brent (or Primrose Hill) contract, a 5¾-mile section that included a deep cutting and tunnel under high ground adjacent to Primrose Hill, a tunnel at Kensall Green, and a long embankment across the Brent Valley.

The Primrose Hill Tunnel was to be 1,120 yards long, 24 feet wide, 22 feet high, with 5 shafts and brick-lined throughout.  The main problem for the contractors lay in the nature of the terrain through which the tunnel was to be driven, blue London clay:

“The Brent contract, a length of six miles, was let to an experienced contractor for the sum of £119,000; the party failed, and the Company were obliged to do the work, which in consequence of the peculiarity of the soil, has cost them £250,000.  This contract included the Primrose-hill Tunnel, which is 1100 yards in length, and proceeds entirely through what is termed London clay, the most unmanageable and treacherous of all materials, the difficulty of tunnelling through which can only be appreciated by practical men.  Unsuccessful attempts have been made to tunnel through it at former times, the most memorable of which was the Highgate Tunnel.  The Primrose-hill Tunnel is, however, the largest work that has ever been effectually performed through the same material.”

The Railway Companion, from London to Birmingham, Arthur Freeling (1838).

In the age in which the Primrose Hill Tunnel (map) was built, tunnelling in general remained fraught with difficulties, among which was estimating its cost, as that at Kilsby was to prove.  Excavation alone was expensive, but especially so in London clay, which is a tough material and very difficult to remove.  Lecount states that hatchets and cross-cut saws were the most effective tools, for spades, pickaxes and blasting proved to be of little use.

The formation over part of which we have come is called the London clay, and constitutes the lower portion of what geologists call the tertiary formation [from 65 million to 1.806 million years ago].  It consists of immense beds of argillaceous matter resting above the chalk, which latter has, at some very remote period, formed the floor of a gulph of the sea or bed of the mouth of a large river, which has gradually been filled up by muddy depositions, from 300 to 600 feet thick, now constituting the London clay.  The clay with which this chalk basin has been filled up, forms the site of the British metropolis and neighbourhood; it extends on the north and west to the Chalk Hills of Wiltshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire.  On the east it reaches to the sea, and on the south terminates at the North Downs.”

Osborne’s London & Birmingham Railway Guide, E.C. and W. Osborne (1840).

A more acute difficulty associated with London clay was already known, for some years previously the Highgate Tunnel, which passes through the same terrain, collapsed.  Its failure was attributed to the immense pressure exerted by London clay when exposed to air [1] and the inability of the tunnel’s brick lining to withstand it:

The London clay is penetrated by the Primrose Hill Tunnel, and presents a close, compact, and dry appearance.  This tunnel was perfectly free from water, but a more than usual thickness of brick lining was necessary, arising from an extraordinary pressure, probably caused by the swelling of the clay, on exposure to the atmosphere.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

Portal at Primrose Hill Tunnel under construction, April 1837. John Cooke Bourne.

Towards the end of 1834, the Company was obliged to take over the work from
Jackson and Sheddon, the contractors, who had become bankrupt.  In their place, Stephenson appointed John Cass Birkinshaw to take over supervision:

The London and Birmingham Railway was commenced in the year 1834, and Mr. Birkinshaw was appointed assistant engineer at the London or Camden Town end.  But he did not long retain that position, for the contractor having become bankrupt, the works were carried on by the company, and Mr. Birkinshaw, as having already had much experience, was considered by Mr. Stephenson a proper person for their direction and management.  The heaviest works were the Primrose Hill tunnel, made through the London clay, the open-cut tunnel at Kensal Green, and the Brent bridge, beyond which his portion of the line did not extend far.  The works were well done, and elicited favourable remarks both from Mr. Stephenson and from the chairman of the company.”

From an obituary of John Cass Birkinshaw (1811-67) held by the Institution of Civil Engineers.


Section of Primrose Hill Tunnel,
showing timbering and the brick invert (bottom).

In view of the clay’s ability to exert substantial force as it expanded, Stephenson and Birkinshaw adopted unusual precautions.  Excavation was limited to nine feet in advance of the tunnel’s brick lining, and very strong timbering was used to support the arching until the brickwork was complete.  Owing to the extraordinary expansivity of the moist clay, the pressure on the brickwork was such that it forced the mortar from between the joints, bringing the bricks’ inner edges into contact, a problem made worse by the local bricks having hollow surfaces that made them unfit to bear great pressure.  Lecount states in his history of the Railway that the bricks were ground into dust and, by degrees, the tunnel’s dimensions insensibly but irresistibly contracted.  In his biography of the Stephensons, Samuel Smiles also refers to the problem:

“The pressure behind the brickwork was so great that it made the face of the bricks to fly off in minute chips, which covered his [Stephenson’s] clothes while he was inspecting the work.”

Life of George Stephenson and his son Robert Stephenson, Samuel Smiles (1868).

This difficulty was overcome using very hard bricks laid in Roman cement, which, by setting hard before the external pressure became great enough to force the bricks into contact, enabled the whole surface of the brick to resist the pressure, rather than just its edges.  The thickness of the brick lining was also increased in most parts of the tunnel to twenty seven inches and the invert (an inverted arch on the tunnel floor) to eighteen ― the invert, it appears, had been abandoned as a cost-cutting measure:

“In the original designs for the tunnels on the Loudon and Birmingham Railway, all the sections contained inverts, of rather slighter depth than the arch.  In the Watford tunnel, through solid chalk, the invert was found to be altogether unnecessary, and its place was supplied by ordinary footings to the side walls.  A similar change, which was not only a saving of a large expense, but a means of very considerably increasing the rate of progress of the limiting works of the line, was accordingly attempted in the Primrose-hill tunnel; but the hard London clay, though requiring a pick axe to cut it, soon showed such unmistakeable menace of rising from the floor to fill the whole excavated area, that the original section was re-established.”

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868).

Other than the engineering problems thrown up by London clay, inclement weather also played its part in delaying the tunnel’s completion and the opening of the first section of the line:

“The Directors, in their late Reports, expressed an expectation that the first 21 miles of the railway from London would be completed in the spring of 1837.  They regret to say that, owing to the late unexampled season, this expectation cannot now be realised before the summer.  The engineer reports that the continued bad weather for the last four months, defeated his calculations in a degree which no former experience could have led him to anticipate.  In some descriptions of soil this delay could not have taken place to such an extent as in the London clay, which is exemplified by the progress of the works on other parts of the line, where the material is more favourable; but in the London district the incessant falls of rain have rendered it quite impracticable to proceed with them uninterruptedly.  With the excavations and embankments on the Primrose-hill contract he persevered until the extra expense was such as to induce him to suspend further operations; a step, in the propriety of which, the Directors fully concurred.”

Report of the 7th half-yearly General Meeting, Northampton Mercury, 18th February 1837.

South entrance to the Primrose Hill Tunnel by John Cooke Bourne, 1837.

“Leaving Kentish Town on the right, and passing under Chalk Farm bridge, we enter the Primrose Hill cutting.  If the traveller should now happen to look out from the window of the carriage, he will behold stretching across the line the noble entrance of the Primrose Hill tunnel.  This is a bold and massive structure, erected in that style of architecture which is usually termed the Italian; and consists of two wings and a centre, raised upon a rusticated basement.

Drakes Road Book of the London and Birmingham Railway, James Drake (1839).

The Brent section also included the 320-yard Kensal Green Tunnel, probably the World’s first ‘cut and cover’ railway tunnel:

“Kensal Green Tunnel: The Railway passes under the Edgeware Road and Kilburn Wells.  At Kensal Green, a deep cutting was made to pass under the Harrow Road, at a very acute angle; after which the channel was covered over, and the roadway newly made.  This gallery, or covered way, called the Tunnel, at Kensal Green, is 966 feet 6 inches in length.”

The Literary World, Vol. 2 (1840).

Judging from the absence of reports, the tunnel appears to have been completed without serious incident, but that cannot be said for the embankment and viaduct across the Brent Valley:

Here is a slight excavation of about 150 yards, which is succeeded by an embankment of one mile and a half in length, which is, in some places, from 35 to 40 feet high; under it is a small tunnel, two field bridges, and what we must call the Brent Viaduct . . . . it is 85 yards long, and consists of one main arch, and three others in each abutment; the former is 37 feet from the level of the river Brent, which flows through it . . . . it is in some places nearly forty feet in height, and it contains 101,923 cubic yards of earth.”

The Railway Companion, from London to Birmingham, Arthur Freeling (1838).

This embankment was constructed from pieces of broken up London clay, but was not soundly compacted, leaving fissures within the structure that gradually caused the interior to become saturated with rainwater.  The clay softened, resulting in slippage:

With reference to that portion between London and Tring, the permanent road is in tolerably good order, except on the Brent Embankment near London and on the Colne Embankment near Watford.  Both these works have continued to subside, with scarcely any intermission, more or less rapidly since their formation; the former from the slippery nature of the material which composes it, the latter from the unsoundness of its substratum in the valley of Colne.  The gradual subsidence of embankments admits of no other remedy than maintaining the level of the railway by the constant supply of new sound material adapted for ballasting, which in the present case may fortunately be obtained from a convenient spot, and at a moderate expense, for there is in the Company’s possession at the south end of the Watford Tunnel, a large store of excellent gravel and chalk, sufficient to meet all the demands of the line and stations between Watford and London for some years.”

The Mechanics’ Magazine, Volume XXVIII (1838).

Severe weather also delayed work on the Brent Embankment (and also at Wolverton and Tring, where excavation of the long Tring Cutting came to a standstill).  Despite these setbacks, at the General Meeting held in February 1837 the Chairman was able to inform those present that the Brent contract was nearing completion:

The works of the Primrose-hill contract, which have been continued by the Company under the direction of the engineer, are nearly completed with the exception of the Brent embankment.  The Primrose-hill and the Kensal-green tunnels are finished and traversed by the Company’s engines, and the permanent way is laid through a great part of this contract.  Of the embankment on the south side of the Brent bridge, about 58,000 cubic yards remain unfinished, to complete which, under an ordinary state of the weather, would require three months.  That portion of the embankment which is north of the bridge is brought up to it, but not yet raised to the railway level.  On the completion of the embankment north of the Brent, the engineer proposes to expedite the formation of the south portion of it by making 6,000 or 8,000 cubic yards of side cutting, thus guarding against further disappointment as far as practicable.

From this point to Watford no work appears to require especial mention, the completion of the Watford tunnel and the small quantity remaining in the excavations at each end, rendering any detailed remarks on this part of the line unnecessary.”

Report of the 7th half-yearly General Meeting, Northampton Mercury, 18th February 1837.

The Primrose Hill Tunnel was eventually completed in January 1837 at a cost of £280,000, over twice the contract price, but despite the Chairman’s optimistic forecast for completion of the Brent Embankment, tipping and compacting more material to counter slippage was still proceeding in 1838.




The ‘Bushey Arches’ viaduct near Watford ― a public house sign, now in Watford Museum.

The second of the London contracts covering the section from the River Brent to the River Colne was let to Nowell & Son.  This work, which included a cutting through the Oxhey Ridge ― the original plan being for a tunnel  ―  does not appears to have presented any particular engineering challenges:

Mr. Stephenson reported that from the nature of the soil at the proposed Tunnel under Oxhey  Lane, and from the comparisons of Messrs. Nowell & Sons prices for tunnelling in the Schedule of extras and the prices of excavations, he considered it would be for the advantage of the Company that this portion of the Line should be made an open cutting.  That Messrs. Nowell & Sons were willing to substitute the excavation for the Tunnelling without any additions to the sum for which they have contracted.

Minute No. 179.  Resolved that the Engineer-in-Chief be authorised to make necessary arrangements with Messrs. Nowell & Sons, and that the portion of land at Hatch End required for spoil be reserved for that purpose.”

Board Minutes, 24th September 1834.

The completed Oxhey cutting impressed one travel writer sufficiently to prompt him to pen a description:

On the left appears Oxhey Ridge.  This ridge is part of a chain of hills which extend from Chipping Barnet to Uxbridge, and for a considerable distance form the boundary between Middlesex and Hertfordshire.  The materials of which they are composed are principally sand and clay; and it was on account of the difficulty of carrying a tunnel through such a description of ground, that the railway was made to cross them by a cutting, notwithstanding their great elevation.  In passing through this excavation, we cannot avoid being struck with astonishment at the immense amount of labour which its construction must have required; it being a mile and a half in length, and in many places between thirty and forty feet deep.  It is crossed by several bridges, the principal of which is Oxhey lane bridge, a noble structure of three arches, but attracting attention chiefly by its extraordinary height.  A short opening which occurs immediately after passing this bridge enables us to catch a glimpse of Oxhey Wood; and, upon the termination of the cutting, we behold amid some prettily wooded scenery on the left the little village of Oxhey, with its antiquated chapel and remarkable churchyard, ― remarkable, indeed, if we may place any credit in the asseverations of a rustic, who solemnly assured us that its silent denizens were wont to be buried in a bolt upright posture.”

Drake’s Road Book of the London and Birmingham Railway, James Drake (1839)

Oxhey Lane Bridge in a later era.

The contract also included the southerly of the two mainline viaducts [2] in the Colne Valley, the London-road viaduct, known locally as the ‘Bushey Arches’.  This is a 5-arch structure of which the arch spanning the former ‘Sparrows Herne’ turnpike (Bushey Heath to Aylesbury) is the first skew arch to the design of Assistant Engineer George Watson Buck:

“Soon after entering upon it [the Watford embankment] the Railway goes over the London road, by a brick viaduct of five arches, of forty-three feet span each; they are composed of ellipses, having voussoirs at the intrados; [3] the centre arch is of an oblique form, in order that the course of the road should be preserved as heretofore.  This may be thought a bad feature in a design of this kind, but it was unavoidable, the trustees having compulsory clauses in the Act of Parliament to compel the Company to adopt this form of arch.  The manner in which the engineer has overcome the defect in the design is admirable, and it is scarcely perceptible to the observer: it is a very massive structure, and cost in its erection £9,700.  The other arches are square with the line of Railway; and at either end are retaining walls built into the embankment, making the total length of the viaduct three hundred and seventy feet.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

The London Road Viaduct’s skewed arch.

Mr. Stephenson reported that one arch of the Watford Bridge is turned and that another is nearly so, and that a third, a skew arch, is in such a state of forwardness that he expects the whole to to completed in two months.”

Board minutes, 26th November 1834..

The London-road viaduct is followed by a 1½-mile long embankment, the River Colne being bridged by the 5-arch ‘Colne Viaduct’ ― both embankment and viaduct threw up engineering challenges.

The problem that the contractors faced with the Colne embankment lay not in the use of unsuitable material from which to form it, [4] nor in excessively steep slopes, but in the valley’s weak sub-stratum that was unable to withstand the loading.  As with the Brent embankment the only remedy was to continue tipping material until the formation stabilised:

It has been found useless to remove the bog, on account of the water it contains, and the only alternative is therefore to allow the embankment to proceed and settle as it may.  It is very low near the ends, and descends rapidly and somewhat irregularly; the men ought to be constantly cautioned against their danger in taking off the horses from the [earth] waggons, and are much exposed to going over.  The brakes however are simple and well managed.”

Report to the Visiting Committee, 27th and 28th May, 1836.

The Sub-Committee had the satisfaction to find that the Embankment at Watford, under Messrs. Nowell's, was proceeding in conformity with the directions of the Committee, that the Bog earth was removed and replaced by sound material from the side sutting, and that the embankment was in consequence assuming the necessary stability.  The difficulties at this point are not likely to retard the completion of the first 21 miles of the Railway.”

Report to the Visiting Committee, 1st and 2nd September 1836.

It took nearly one million cubic yards of earth to make this embankment, which is in some places above forty feet in height and is the largest throughout the whole line . . . . The whole of the land near this spot is most precarious in stability; and the effects are clearly visible in the amazing ‘slips’ which have taken place in the embankment across the [Colne] valley.  Oftentimes, in a very few hours, the level of the newly-formed ground has sunk several feet, while the base of the embankment has widened out to an enormous extent, causing infinite labour to bring the level of the Railway back again to its original state, and to make it solid enough for the passage of the trains; this has caused many a sleepless night to the workmen and engineers.  The length of this embankment is about a mile and a half, and is composed entirely of the finest materials for such a purpose ― chalk and gravel.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

The Colne Valley embankment and River Colne Viaduct, by John Cooke Bourne (1837).
Note the abandoned stone sleepers, right foreground above.

And the same problem affected the viaduct over the Colne.  Both Conder and Lecount recalled the considerable excavation that was necessary to find firm ground on which to rest the viaduct’s piers:

“. . . . long trains of brick-carts and timber-carriages commenced a service from the nearest canal wharf, and piles of bricks, and heaps of half-wrought freestone from Yorkshire quarries, began to accumulate near the waggon-building field.  Then there was a great-field day of the engineers, a display of lines and levels and measuring tapes, an arbitrary infringement on the turnpike road, and the foundations of the great new viaduct were commenced.  It was necessary to press this work as rapidly as possible, as some million and more cubic yards of embankment had to be carried over it and tipped to form the southern portion of the great Colne Valley Embankment.  For seventeen feet the workmen had to sink, before arriving at a foundation sufficiently firm to sustain the weight of the piers.”

Personal Recollections of English Engineers, F. R. Conder (1868).

“The construction of this bridge
[the viaduct] was a work of considerable skill and labour, the foundations being of the loosest material possible; in fact, it may almost be called a floating bridge ― for it rests entirely on platforms of wood, having sheet piling to protect them.  The cost of its construction was little less than £10,000.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

The Colne Viaduct, by John Cooke Bourne (1837).




Watford Tunnel face, 6th June 1837, by John Cooke Bourne.

Stephenson’s original plan was to route the line to the west of Watford and into the Gade Valley; then, to proceed northwards in close company with the Grand Junction Canal to Hunton Bridge where the line would have joined the existing route.  However, the Earls of Essex and of Clarendon, landowners of the Cassiobury and Grove estates through which the line was to pass, were implacably opposed to this scheme (and, indeed, to the Railway as a whole).  Thus, as an alternative, George Stephenson & Son submitted a report recommending that the line pass to the east of Watford and then northwards through what is now the long Watford Tunnel:

“The alteration at Cassiobury as an expedient to avoid the private grounds of Lords Essex and Clarendon is unquestionably an expensive one, but after thorough examination of that neighbourhood keeping in view the necessity of avoiding Cassiobury Park and the adjoining plantation belonging to Lord Essex we are inclined to recommend the adaption of it, though it involves the necessity of a Tunnel.

This leads us to notice the circumstances of Tunnels occurring in the line we are now recommending.  It is certainly desirable to avoid such mode of surmounting high grounds if it were practicable at a moderate expense but we are induced to recommend Tunnels in some situations when the depth of the cutting is very great in order that the first cost of the line may be greatly diminished.

Report dated 21st September 1831.

In evidence given before a Committee of the House of Lords, Stephenson expressed his feelings plainly on the need for this deviation:

“I have been nearly two years examining the country for the proposed line to Birmingham, which begins at Oxhey Lane and goes from thence to the South end of Watford, through the Colne valley, and passes the parks of Lords Clarendon and Essex, avoiding the same by a tunnel and an acute curve, which would be attended with no inconvenience . . . .”

Abstract of Evidence given before a Committee of the House of Lords, June 1832.

The Watford Tunnel and its two deep approach cuttings formed part of the contract let to Copeland and Harding, which covered the section from the southern end of the Colne crossing to King’s Langley:

“Just past here is the entrance to the Watford Tunnel; it is 24 feet wide, and the crown of the arch is 25 feet high; it is ventilated by six shafts, the largest of which is a memorial of the death of the persons buried here during the excavation; the shaft was increased in size to get out their bodies; the tunnel is one mile 170 yards in length; upwards 120,000 cubic yards of earth were taken out of it.”

The Railway Companion, from London to Birmingham, Arthur Freeling (1839).

“. . . . I made my escape into the wider, though more reasonable, turmoil of the tunnel.  There was no day there and no peace: the shrill roar of escaping steam; the groans of mighty engines heaving ponderous loads of earth to the surface; the click-clack of lesser engines pumping dry the numerous springs by which the drift was intersected; the reverberating thunder of the small blasts of powder fired upon the mining works; the rumble of trains of trucks; the clatter of horses’ feet; the clank of chains; the strain of cordage; and a myriad of other sounds, accordant and discordant.  There were to be seen miners from Cornwall, drift-borers from Wales, pitmen from Staffordshire and Northumberland, engineers from Yorkshire and Lancashire, navvies — Englishmen, Scotchmen, and Irishmen — from everywhere, muck-shifters, pickmen, barrowmen, brakes-men, banksmen, drivers, gaffers, gangers, carpenters, bricklayers, labourers, and boys of all sorts, ages and sizes; some engaged upon the inverts beneath the rails, some upon the drains below these, some upon the extension of the drifts, some clearing away the falling earth, some loading it upon the trucks, some working like bees in cells building up the tunnel sides, some upon the centre turning the great arches, some stretched upon their backs putting the key-bricks to the crown — all speaking in a hundred dialects, with dangers known and unknown impending on every side; with commands and countermands echoing about through air murky with the smoke and flame of burning tar-barrels, cressets, and torches.  Such was the interior of Watford tunnel.”

Navvies as they used to be’, from Household Words, Vol. XIII., 19th January 1856.

At Watford, the terrain becomes predominantly chalk, but soft chalk rent by gravel-filled fissures as much as one hundred feet deep:

“The gravel is most abundant in the neighbourhood of Watford, covering the upper chalk which in many places it penetrates, or in other words, the large fissures or rents in the chalk are filled with gravel, and as this latter material is very loose and mobile, it was the occasion of much difficulty and danger in the excavation of the Watford tunnel; for at times, when the miners thought they were excavating through solid chalk, they would in a moment break into loose gravel, which would run into the tunnel with the rapidity of water, unless the most prompt precautions were taken.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

These fissures were cut into on several occasions, but on the 17th July 1835 there occurred an inrush of gravel at the foot of one of the working shafts that buried alive ten of the miners at work in the tunnel:

“The shaft in question, one of the four in this length of tunnel (1,700 yards), is termed a gin-shaft, and has been sunk about 90 feet below an elevated platform erected for the purpose of removing the earth.  The shaft has been very lately sunk, and two nine-feet lengths of tunnel had been bricked, the third being, it is stated, just mined and ready for the bricklayers.  The shaft was about to be bricked on Friday morning, between 5 and 6 o’clock, by a party consisting of five bricklayers and six labourers, who composed what is termed the night gang; and had the appalling event taken place a few hours afterwards, the morning gang would have been at work, and the loss of human life must have been awful in the extreme . . . . In loosening a portion of the wood work previous to bricking the shaft, it is supposed the earth gave way and buried the unfortunate men, carrying the whole of the wood work with it . . . . The men must be buried upwards of 80 feet below the surface of the earth, and although 60 men are actively engaged in digging out the bodies, it is probable that six or seven days will elapse before they are extricated.”

The Bucks Herald, 25th July 1835.

“After more than a month of incessant exertions on the part of Messrs. Harding and Copeland, the contractors for the Watford line of the London and Birmingham Railway, and a vast number of labourers who were relieved every twelve hours, the bodies of some of the unfortunate men, who were buried under more than eighty feet of earth, by the sudden falling in of the shaft in Russell Wood, Levesdon Green, Watford, in this county, have been dug out.  Early on Saturday morning the miners were enabled by crawling between the interstices made by the fallen timbers, to see the legs of some of the sufferers, and to know that before many more feet of the gravel and chalk had been removed (the distance from the surface being about eighty-four feet) they would come to the bodies . . . . At three o’clock in the afternoon an extended hand presented itself to the view of the bystanders, on the side of the opening opposite to that which the first eruption of the gravel is supposed to have taken place.  The body on being cleared was found in a sitting posture, with the head thrown back; it is presumed the poor fellow was looking upwards at the moment he met his death, have heard the cry of “ware” from the men at the top of the arch; his face was crushed and the legs broken.”

The Bucks Herald, 22nd August 1835.

In view of the risk of tunnelling through such hazardous terrain, the workforce was reluctant to continue.  Many years later, Francis Fox, son the Charles Fox, the tunnel’s Resident Engineer, recalled his father’s strategy for getting the men back to work:

“Whilst engaged in the construction of the Watford Tunnel in 1834, he received instructions to go to Birmingham.  He asked to be allowed to remain, for they were working in very soft and dangerous ground; but his request was declined, and he was sent to Birmingham.  He had not been gone more than a few days when a message was received that the tunnel had fallen in, and eleven men had been killed.  He immediately hurried back, and found that there was a panic on the spot.  Up to this point is what my father himself told me, but a very old friend of mine further related that, when the tunnel had fallen in and had produced this panic, my father went to the works and said to the men, ‘That tunnel has to be put through, cost what it will, and therefore I want you men to volunteer.’  Not one of them would do so.  ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘I will do it’; and he got into the bucket, and was just about to be lowered down the shaft, when the ganger, using language more strong than elegant, said he ‘would not see the master killed alone.’  He went down with him, and these two finished the length through the dangerous ground, after which the men returned to work.”

River, Road, and Rail ― some engineering reminiscences, Francis Fox MInstCE (1904).

By February 1837, the Chairman was able to report that all that needed to be done on the Watford Tunnel was a small amount of work on the excavations at either end.




A romantic view over Boxmoor looking towards Berkhamsted.

The contracts for the Kings Langley to Aldbury [5] section were let to ‘W. & L. Cubitt’, a name connected with many notable Victorian construction projects including the 1-mile Camden Town to Euston railway extension, and both Euston and King’s Cross stations.  Although there were no engineering problems of note on this section, it included several interesting features; the fine iron skew segmental arch bridge across the Grand Junction Canal at King’s Langley (alas, now defaced in concrete reinforcement), a masonry skew bridge at Boxmoor, Boxmoor embankment, the long retaining wall adjacent to Berkhamsted Castle and the Northchurch Tunnel.

George Watson Buck’s masonry skew arch bridge at Boxmoor.

Referring to this bridge, Roscoe and Lecount were of the opinion that . . . .

“The science of bridge building has, of late years, made rapid strides towards perfection, and there are many instances where arches of immense span have been erected; but we believe no example exists of such an oblique arch executed in brick work as that now under notice.  The square span across the road is twenty-one feet; but the obliquity causes the span on the face of the arch to be lengthened to more than thirty-nine feet; its facial form is that of a flat segment of a circle; and the acute angle of the quoins is chamfered off until it reaches the obtuse angle, where it vanishes.  This gives the bridge the appearance of having one voussoir more than it really has; and also obviates the defects which generally attend the construction of skew bridges, by the acute angles of the quoins being broken off or injured, either by settlement or accidental blows.  The idea of cutting off the acute angles of such arches emanated, we believe, from Mr. George Buck, the resident engineer of the line from London to Tring.  The perfect manner in which the whole of the stone work, and the spiral courses of the bricks, are executed, reflects great credit upon the builders, Messrs. Cubitt of London.”

At Berkhamsted . . . .

“. . . . work had begun in 1834 with a massive earthmoving operation needed to take the line across the outer moat of the Castle, and huge quantities of bricks were needed to make a stable base (Birtchnell 1972, 87).  The original station (Birtchnell 1975, xiii, 22-3) was a handsome brick building in Elizabethan style, and stood almost opposite the Castle Street canal bridge. It was replaced in 1872 prior to the widening of the tracks . . . . ”

Extensive Urban Survey ― Hertfordshire: English Heritage and Hertfordshire County Council (2005).

Berkhamsted Castle is said to be the first building to receive what in today’s language would be described as a ‘preservation order’.  Sections 98 and 99 of the 1833 Act stipulated that the Railway was not to deviate from the authorised line (100 yards in either direction was usually permitted) when passing through the grounds of Berkhamsted Castle, neither were any structures ― except for the necessary bridges, culverts, etc. ― to be erected, while section 100 forbad the Company from making bricks or burning lime anywhere within the parish.

The original Berkhamsted Station.
The Grand Junction Canal is to the right in the picture note the absence of platforms.
At this point the Railway passes between the Canal and Berkhamsted Castle atop the substantial retaining wall in the foreground.

Nevertheless, the Railway cut through the Castle’s outer gate and earthwork defences, running atop a substantial retaining wall, the requirements for which Brees cites as a model for specifying railway construction work.  This is an extract:


“This Wall is for the purpose of retaining the Railway Embankments along the part of the road from Berkhampstead to Berkhampstead place, immediately in front of the Castle.  Pilasters are to break forward half a brick from the face of the wall, at a distance of 20 feet, as near as may be, centre to centre, and they are to run flush into the plinth at the bottom, which must project half a brick.  The top course of the Plinth must consist entirely of headers, neatly bevelled off, and laid in cement.  A piece of stone, of the dimensions and form shown, is to stand out as a string-course from the pilasters, and in the manner shown in the drawings, and along the wall, at the same level, a half brick projection of equal depth is to be continued, the bricks of which must be rubbed on the outer surface.  Where the road passes under the Railway, this arrangement is altered, as will be seen from the drawings.  A torous moulding extending as far as the outside of the pilasters in front of the abutments.  Immediately behind the pilaster, the wall must be broken by counterforts, of the form and dimensions shown in the drawings, and they must be well bonded into its substance.  The footings are to be carried down 1 foot 6 inches below the present surface, and whatever is the section of the ground, they must in no part be formed at a less depth . . . .”

Railway Practice: a collection of working plans and practical details, S. C. Brees (1847).

From Berkhamsted, the line continues northwards along the Bulbourne Valley in close company with the Grand Junction Canal, through Northchurch and Dudswell towards its summit and the long cutting through the depression in the ridge of the Chilterns known as the ‘Tring Gap’:

We now enter the Dudswell excavation; it is in some places fifty-three feet deep, and, including the tunnel, three quarters of a mile in length, of which the North Church Tunnel is nearly one half; the road from Ashridge to North Church passes over the tunnel . . . . The traveller will have observed one peculiarity in this excavation; from the nature of the soil; and the depth of the excavation; it was found necessary to make a platform, or gallery, about half way up; this is about ten feet in width, and then the slope again commences; this platform gives great security to the slopes, and prevents their falling in; the following diagram will give a better idea than mere description.”

The Railway Companion, from London to Birmingham, Arthur Freeling (1839).

Although Freeling and Roscoe both refer to the ‘Dudswell excavation’, it is at Northchurch where the cutting ― approaching a mile in length ― commences, deepening as it approaches the high ground at its northern end under which it passes through the Northchurch Tunnel.  Both Freeling and Roscoe refer to the slopes of the cutting being divided by a ‘bench’, which Freeling depicts thus:

The upper strata of the Dudswell excavation are formed of wider slopes than the lower portion, owing to a different nature of the soil; and it also has a bench where they unite, to give security to the slopes.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

Bench, or Berm: a ledge left on the face of a cutting to strengthen the same. Steep cuttings should always have ledges to support them, particularly in canal work to prevent the mould from the upper part, falling down into the water; chalk may also be executed at a very steep inclination by their assistance. Ledges are likewise generally made at a change of slope, occasioned by meeting with a different soil.”

A Glossary of Civil Engineering, Samuel Charles Brees (1841).

The Tunnel is probably better known than would otherwise be the case through publication of the charming watercolour of its southern portal under construction, by the artist and civil engineer Samuel Brees (1810c.-65):

Northchurch Tunnel, September 1837.  A watercolour by S. C. Brees.
The contractor was W. & L. Cubitt.

At about the middle of it we pass through the North Church Tunnel, the length of which is one fifth of a mile.  It has two handsome fronts of stone, with side walls of brickwork, and is the same height and proportions as the Watford Tunnel.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

Brees also reproduced the specification and plans for the tunnel in the first edition of his series of books on Railway Practice, from which the following elevations are taken:

An elevation from Stephenson’s plans for the Northchurch Tunnel, reproduced in Railway Practice by S. C. Brees (1838).

Northchurch Tunnel portal,
reproduced in Railway Practice by S. C. Brees (1838).

This Tunnel is to consist of a brick Arch, of the form shewn in the drawings, supported by carved Side Walls, standing upon stone skew backs, which are to be bedded upon the counter or Inverted Arch, forming the base of the tunnel: this part is to be one and a half brick in thickness, excepting the shaft, as shewn on next drawing, and the arch and side walls are to be two bricks thick throughout the whole length of the tunnel, excepting for a length of 7 feet 3 inches at the front, and at a distance of 12 feet on each side of the shaft, together with the shaft length, where they will be three bricks thick, or in such other places as the Engineer may think it requisite to make them thicker: in which latter case the Contractor shall be paid for the increase according to the rate mentioned in his Schedule of Prices.  The Arch, if of the thickness of one and a half brick, shall consist of three half brick rings: if it be two bricks thick, it shall consist of four and a half brick rings, and so on, and each ring shall contain five courses of bricks more than the ring immediately beneath it . . . .

An extract from Stephenson’s specification for Northchurch Tunnel, from Railway Practice by S. C. Brees (1838).

The document went on to specify that excavation was to proceed in what by then was the usual manner, of sinking shafts at intervals along the tunnel’s alignment, from the bottom of which a narrow heading was then excavated for the tunnel’s full length before widening out commenced.  The heading served to prove the correct level and alignment, and help reveal any unexpected hazards that had not been detected by trial boring:

The Contractor must also sink two other shafts on the centre line of the tunnel, one at each end of it, and drive a Heading 4 feet wide and 5 feet high, the whole length of the tunnel.  This Heading must be carried through, before any part of the main tunnel is commenced, and must be supported and kept open during the execution of the whole work, by timbering or such other means as may be deemed necessary by the Engineer . . . .

An extract from Stephenson’s specification for Northchurch Tunnel, from Railway Practice by S. C. Brees (1838).

Although Northchurch Tunnel appears to have posed no particular civil engineering challenges during its construction, that does not mean that the excavation was free of hazards for those who undertook the work.  But in that era, injury and loss of life in the workings was probably to be expected at some stage during tunnel excavations:

“Frazer accordingly put in for, and obtained a contract to carry a portion of the drift through Northchurch tunnel; over this job he appointed George his gaffer, and George then got me to be appointed his assistant and time-keeper.  So to Northchurch tunnel we went, early in October; and, under the directions of the engineers, opened the drift at the north end of the tunnel; sinking a shaft about midway on our length, which was, I think, about one hundred and fifty yards.  By the middle of November we had six gang of navvies at work . . . . The soil through which we were carrying the drift of Northchurch tunnel was of a most treacherous character, and caused many disasters.  Despite every precaution, the earth would at times fall in, and that, too, when and where we least expected.  Thus, in the fifth week of our contract, notwithstanding that our shoring was of extra strength and well strutted, an immense mass of earth suddenly came down upon us.  This came from the tapping of a quicksand.  One stroke of a pick did it.  The vein was shelving and the sand, finding a vent, ran like so much water into the open drift; which was of course speedily choked up.  George Hatley was at once on the spot; and, under his directions efforts were promptly made to clear away the sand, so that the shoring should be re-strengthened if possible before the earth above (deprived of the support afforded by the sand) should collapse.  The most strenuous efforts were made in vain.  There came a low rumbling, like the distant booming of artillery, then followed crashes louder than the thunder, startling us from our labour; and, while we were hurrying away, down came the whole mass of earth, masonry, timber, and sand, crushing five men under it.

Of these men three were dug out alive, and removed — terribly mangled — to the West Herts Infirmary; the other two were found dead.”

‘Navvies as they used to be’, from Household Words, Vol. XIII., 19th January 1856.
This article is reproduced in full in the Addenda.

Northchurch Tunnel under construction, June 17th 1837, by John Cooke Bourne.

The original West Herts Infirmary was founded by the eminent surgeon, Sir Astley Paston Cooper, one of the Railway’s most implacable opponents. [6]  The hospital opened in January 1827 for the “gratuitous relief of the necessitous poor”.  Construction of the London and Birmingham Railway inevitably added to the hospital’s work, which by this time had moved from its small beginnings to larger premises in Hemel Hempstead.  The Railway Company Directors donated £21 and the Contractors a further £25, but they later arranged to pay 8s. a week for any workman admitted.  Delay in treatment ― especially for men excavating the Tring Cutting ― could result in death from loss of blood, and the Hospital staff suggested that gangers should be shown how to apply a temporary tourniquet.

On emerging from the Northchurch Tunnel, the line continues its ascent through Dudswell to Tring where it reaches its highest point at 419ft above sea level.  Tring station also marks the beginning of the 2½-mile cutting through the Tring Gap, the excavation of which was undertaken by Thomas Townshend (1771c.-1846), a successful contractor with experience of large-scale earthworks on the Birmingham Canal, most notably the huge cutting at Smethwick.

Tring Cutting, Grand Union Canal.

Work on the Tring Cutting commenced in September 1834.  According to correspondence published in The Mechanics’ Magazine, by the following year good progress had being made:

“The work through Tring Hill is proceeding very well, and, I may say, rapidly.  A ‘temporary bridge’ has been constructed across the canal at Seabrook, to carry the earth over (the embankments being finished as far as there).  I understand it is not the intention of the Company to put up the permanent bridge till all the earth shall have been carried over.  But the foundations for it have been put in some time.  The top is to be of iron.  Mr. Townsend
[sic.] has lately been laying down a fresh set of rails (parallel wrought-iron ones) in lieu of the common cast-iron, and a new set of waggons have been put on the work.  The temporary bridge over the canal is something like a bridge when compared to that which was put over the canal at Wolverton, and pulled down by the Canal Company. [7]  (By-the-bye, I think a vote of thanks ought to have been passed by the Railroad Company and forwarded to the Canal Company, thanking them for their unbounded kindness in destroying a bridge which must have broken by its own weight, and occasioned, probably, a great loss of life.  By what I can learn, they get on very badly in that quarter).  Mr. Townsend will complete his part, before the others are well begun.  He keeps his men very steadily at work.”


“The excavation for the London and Birmingham Railway, through Tring-hill, is proceeding rapidly.  Mr Townsend
[sic.] the contractor has upwards of 500 men employed besides a great number of horses.  It is expected they will intercept the ‘Bulbourne springs’ when they get deeper.  These springs at present come directly into the Grand Junction Canal.  There is only one fault to be found with the work in this neighbourhood, and that is the steepness of the banks, they being only, for the excavations, in the ratio of nine inches horizontal to one foot perpendicular.  In the event of a sharp frost, this ground, which is a sort of chalk rag, will slake down like lime, and will consequently be a great nuisance after the road is finished.  The banks of the Grand Junction Canal, in the deep cuttings collateral with the railroad, are more than one to one, yet the slips which have occurred after a sharp frost have been prodigious.”

From letters published in The Mechanics’ Magazine, Volume 23, 1835.


The magazine’s second correspondent was correct in his belief that the excavation would intercept the Bulbourne Springs, as had been James Barnes’ experience some 40 years earlier when excavating the Grand Junction Canal cutting half a mile to the west (See Chapter VII.A Highway laid with Water).  Robert Stephenson was later to report that:

“The Tring cutting on the L and B R/Way presents another forcible example of the constant and rapid absorption of water by the chalk.  In the execution of that cutting a very large quantity of water was encountered, notwithstanding the situation was on the summit of the chalk ridge, forming the actual brim of the basin, where it could not be supplied with any water but such as fell upon the immediate neighbourhood, yet it yielded upwards of one millions gallons per day, and continues to yield an extraordinary quantity up to this hour, without any sensible diminution.”

Minutes of proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers: Volume 90, Part 4.

The “large quantity of water” to which Stephenson refers is now channelled from the railway cutting through a heading to enter the canal summit.

The culvert that drains the Tring Railway Cutting into the summit of The Grand Union Canal.
The flow of water shown here was after a period of dry weather.  The arch is about 4feet high.

During the drought of 1934, Edward Bell, the canal company’s surveyor, reported that he was able to walk through the dried out heading, but not wishing to retrace his steps he emerged into the railway cutting ― he mentions, as he climbed up the steep embankment, “feeling very scared as an express train thundered along below”.

Tring Cutting after the track had been widened during the 1870s to accommodate four tracks.

“The Tring Excavation is about two miles and a half long.  The strata through which it was cut are composed of the lower or grey chalk formation, without flints.  It averages forty feet, and for about one quarter of a mile is fifty-seven feet in depth.  Out of this hill were taken one million and a half cubic yards of earth, which had to be lifted to the surface a height of forty feet and then deposited in ‘spoil banks’.  It was executed by means of a number of ‘horse runs’ so called by excavators from the men being drawn up planks nearly in a perpendicular position by horses.  A rope is attached to the front of the barrow containing the soil, while the excavator takes firm hold of the handles, and both barrow and man are drawn up the plank, ― the latter having his body nearly horizontal during the ascent. It is a fearful practice; and should any accident occur, by the breaking of the rope or restiveness of the horse, the workman is precipitated to the bottom in an instant.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

From a later era, a horse-run in use on the Manchester Ship canal workings.

By February 1837, the Chairman was able to report to the General Meeting that work on the Northchurch Tunnel was complete, and the Board was optimistic that the line would be opened to Tring by the Autumn.  However, the heavy rain during the winter of 1836-37, together with the influx of water from the Bulbourne Springs, brought work in the cutting to a standstill:

The quantity of water yielded by the cutting, in addition to that which has fallen in rain, together with the argillaceous character of the chalk in the Tring contract, rendered it absolutely necessary to stop proceedings on the embankment, and to confine them to the side-cutting and spoil.  It is but justice, however, to the contractor to add that he persevered in carrying on the embankment, until the engineer reported that it became positively impassable.  Notwithstanding this temporary delay, the engineer is of opinion that the completion of this contract will certainly not be much protracted beyond October next.

From the Report to the 7th half-yearly General Meeting, February 1837.

In October 1837 ― apparently to the surprise of all concerned ― Townshend relinquished his contract and the Company took over the work:

“Another unpleasant affair for the Company arose from the person who had the Tring contract becoming bankrupt ― a matter least expected, perhaps, of any.  He was a man of capital and talent, and had established a reputation for years as an able contractor.  The works he had on his hands were of the most extensive nature, and ought to have paid him well; when, to the surprise of every one who knew him, he was suddenly declared to be in difficulties through his contracts on the Grand Junction line, and ultimately went into the [London] Gazette, leaving his works at Tring, including the heavy cutting through the chalk, to be finished as best it might.”

The History of the Railway connecting London and Birmingham, Peter Lecount (1839).

The reasons for Townshend’s bankruptcy stemmed from difficulties over contracts he had with the Grand Junction Railway Company coupled with a substantial increase in wage rates, but within seven months he had paid off his creditors and was able to return to contracting during his final years.

The winter of 1837-38 was another of unusual severity, which delayed work until the frost broke up.  Stephenson was able to report to the General Meeting held in February, that the Cutting was almost complete and the next section of the line from the south would shortly be opened:

The Tring Contract, which comprehended the most extensive excavation on the line, is now nearly completed.  The whole of the excavations and embankments are ready for the further opening to Denbigh-hall, except that about 4,000 yards of permanent road remain to be laid, not in one length, but made up of several smaller portions.  There still remains work, which, as nearly as can be calculated, must require three weeks to perform.  The embankments throughout this contract, consist almost entirely of chalk, which being already well consolidated, and little liable to subsidence, the immediate use of the permanent road may be reckoned upon as soon as completed.”

From the Report to the 9th half-yearly General Meeting, February 1838.

The line from Tring to Denbigh Hall was opened to the public on the 9th April 1838.






The clay is entirely free from water, but its absorbing properties are such that when it is exposed to air it swells out rapidly.


A further viaduct to the west of the main line was built to carry the former Watford and Rickmansworth Railway (opened October 1862) over the valley of the River Colne, between Bushey and Watford High Street stations.


The wedge-shaped stone blocks used to line the facing curves of each arch.


 At its southern end, the Colne embankment was formed of spoil excavated from the Oxhey cutting, at the northern end with spoil from the Watford cutting.


Although in Aldbury parish, Tring station lies at the northern end of this section.


“I remember,” said Robert Stephenson, describing the opposition, “that we called one day on Sir Astley Cooper, the eminent surgeon, in the hope of overcoming his aversion to the railway.  He was one of our most inveterate and influential opponents.  His country house at Berkhamsted [Hemel Hempstead] was situated near the intended line, which passed through part of his property.  We found a courtly, fine-looking old gentleman, of very stately manners, who received us kindly and heard all we had to say in favour of the project.  But he was quite inflexible in his opposition to it.  No deviation or improvement that we could suggest had any effect in conciliating him. He was opposed to railways generally, and to this in particular.  ‘Your scheme,’ said he, ‘is preposterous in the extreme.  It is of so extravagant a character, as to be positively absurd.  Then look at the recklessness of your proceedings!  You are proposing to cut up our estates in all directions for the purpose of making an unnecessary road.  Do you think for one moment of the destruction of property involved by it?  Why, gentlemen, if this sort of thing be permitted to go on, you will in a very few years destroy the noblesse!’  We left the honourable baronet without having produced the slightest effect upon him, excepting perhaps, it might be, increased exasperation against our scheme.  I could not help observing to my companions as we left the house, ‘Well, it is really provoking to find one who has been made a “Sir” for cutting that wen out of George the Fourth’s neck, charging us with contemplating the destruction of the noblesse, because we propose to confer upon him the benefits of a railroad.’”

Lives of the Engineers ― George Stephenson and Robert Stephenson, Samuel Smiles (1862).


January 19th 1835: A company [the London and Birmingham Railway Company] were empowered by an act of Parliament to do all works necessary and convenient for constructing a railway, and among others to cross canals and make embankments in the line; and in particular to cross a canal of which the defendants [the Grand Junction Canal Company] were the proprietors, and to make an embankment over a valley near the same place.

Subsequent clauses in the act restricted the company from doing any thing which should obstruct the navigation of the canal, or any part thereof; and specified the height and dimensions of any bridge to be made and maintained for carrying the railway over the canal.

The company, for the purpose of transporting earth from the higher lands on the south to the lower land on the north side of the canal for constructing an embankment, erected a temporary bridge over the canal, supported partly on piles driven into the bed of the canal.

The defendants pulled down such bridge and thereby destroyed the passage of communication for the carriage of the earth.

Held, by the Master of the Rolls, on a motion for an injunction to restrain the defendants destroying any such bridge, or preventing such communication, that the clause empowering the railway company to cross canals in the progress of their works was not restricted by the subsequent clauses which applied to permanent bridges; and his Honor therefore grained the defendants from obstructing the making or use of such passage of communication.

Cases Relating to Railways and Canals: 1835-1840.