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Standedge Tunnel
Diggle to Marsden, north-east of Oldham, Greater Manchester, UK
Standedge Tunnel
associated engineer
Benjamin Outram
Nicholas Brown
Alfred Stanistreet Jee
William Baker
date  1794 - Dec 1810, 1846 - 1st Aug 1849, 1868 - Feb 1871, 1890 - Aug 1894
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Tunnel  |  reference  SE005079
ICE reference number  HEW 12, 1032
photo  © Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Standedge Tunnel under the Pennines is not one tunnel but four interconnected bores constructed in stages to carry a canal and, later, railway tracks. The earliest of them, built for the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, is still the longest, highest and deepest canal tunnel in Britain. The canal tunnel has been restored but only one of the three rail tunnels now carries trains.
From 1770, the need for better transport links in the north-west was met by extending inland waterways. Among them were the meandering Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the Rochdale Canal, connecting Manchester with the Calder & Hebble Navigation. Less circuitous were the Huddersfield Broad Canal (1774-6) and the Ashton Canal (1792-7), terminating at Huddersfield and Ashton under Lyne respectively.
On 4th April 1794, an Act of Parliament was passed authorising construction of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal for 2.1m wide craft of up to 24.4 tonnes, connecting the terminus of Sir John Ramsden’s (1755-1839) Huddersfield Broad Canal with the Ashton Canal. Its engineers were Benjamin Outram (1764-1805) and Nicholas Brown (d.1838).
Standedge Tunnel was canal’s major work, bored through a ridge of solid rock in the Pennines, between Diggle and Marsden to the north-east. At over 5km long and some 197m above sea level, it is the longest and highest canal tunnel in Britain. It is also the deepest, running a maximum of 185m below the surface.
The tunnel lies at the summit of the canal and by 1799, the arms on either side had been completed. West of the tunnel, the canal falls 108m through 32 locks in 13.3km, and east of the tunnel it descends 133m through 42 locks in 12.1km.
The narrow tunnel was constructed mostly to an egg-shaped profile 2.7m wide, 5.2m high, with 2.4m depth of water and 2.7m headroom. Laboriously driving a passage through the rock without mechanical assistance was so costly and time consuming that additional Acts of Parliament were passed in 1800 and 1806 to raise more money, enabling construction to continue.
Excavation began at both ends. However, the work was beset by water ingress and poor organisation. The Diggle end started off higher than the Marsden end, and correcting this undermined some of the work, causing several collapses.
More than 30 shafts were sunk from ground level, many intended to control groundwater in the upper rock strata. Five main shafts were sunk to provide ventilation and access, with diameters ranging from 2.2m to 3.7m. West to east they are Cote (SE012087), Redbrook (two shafts, SE025102), Flint (SE029107) and Pule (SE036114). One of the Redbrook shafts is a little to the south of the tunnel, the others all lie along the line of the canal.
Tunnel excavation was carried out from the base of the access shafts, as well as from either end. The arisings were hoisted up the shafts and dumped nearby, forming hummocks that can still be seen. Joining these piecemeal tunnel headings resulted in a somewhat crooked alignment.
Work was completed in December 1810 at a cost of £123,804 or almost one-third of the cost of the whole canal. It opened to traffic on 4th April 1811, by which time many vessels were using alternative routes. Moreover, the tunnel had no towpath, so while the towing horses were led over the hill, the boats had to be ‘legged’ through the tunnel — a process that took up to four hours, further limiting its commercial success.
There are four 'wides' or passing places for boats in the tunnel — Brunn Clough, Whitehorse, Old Judy and Redbrook — at 1.3km, 1.8km, 2.4km and 2.7km respectively from the Diggle end. Three are original and a fourth was added when the first rail tunnel was constructed.
In 1845, the Huddersfield Broad and Narrow canals were acquired by the Huddersfield & Manchester Railway & Canal Company, which became part of the London & North Western Railway Company in 1847. The railway needed to counter competition from the Manchester & Leeds Railway via Summit Tunnel by crossing the Pennines to link Manchester and Huddersfield. It made sense to use the same route as the existing tunnel at Standedge.
Between 1846 and 1849, a new single-track 'down' tunnel was constructed 15m south of the canal bore by contractor Thomas Nicholson (d.1861) under the direction of engineer Alfred Stanistreet Jee (1816-58). It opened on 1st August 1849, having cost £201,608.
The rail tunnel is a little higher than the canal tunnel and runs straight for 4.9km. It has an average width of 4.4m at rail level, with 5.3m headroom above the rails. It is connected to the canal tunnel by 12 cross adits 2.7 wide, with inverts some 1.8-2.1m below the rails, and 35 air headings.
The original construction was a three ring stone arch 250-600mm thick with side walls of 560-690mm. The tunnel passes through faulted shales and coal measures, which caused its profile to distort over time, creating cavities above the tunnel and forcing the crown of the arch upwards.
In 1868-70, another straight single-track rail tunnel, also 4.9km long, was constructed for the 'up' line at a cost of £121,500 (opened February 1871). It is situated 2.3m from the canal tunnel, just south of the down tunnel and connected to it by 31 cross headings with arches about 1.4m high by 910mm wide. The main tunnel is 4.3-4.6m wide, and 4.7m high above the rails, constructed in brickwork generally 457mm thick. The engineer was William Baker (1819-78) and contractor Thomas Nelson.
About 1881, the down tunnel was strengthened some 983m from the Marsden end by fixing 406mm square longitudinal timbers alongside the side walls, below rail level, for a length of 45.7m, interspersed with 25 wooden struts 381mm square.
Increasing demand for rail travel soon meant that extra capacity was required. In 1890, the London & North Western Railway began construction of a double-track tunnel about 17m north of the canal tunnel, using direct labour. This tunnel opened in August 1894, completed by sub-contractors Williams, Lees & Thomas. The 5km tunnel mainly follows a straight line, curving at the Marsden end where the railway tracks emerge above ground to cross the canal tunnel.
In 1893, about 29m of the canal tunnel at the Diggle end were dismantled and replaced by a 251m cut and cover extension, lined in cast iron. This enabled the new tracks to also cross the canal tunnel in the open at this end. The final length of Standedge Canal Tunnel increased to about 5.3km.
The 8.2m wide horseshoe-shaped third rail tunnel consists of a brick arch and side walls, with concrete inverts in some places. Three new shafts, 139-156m deep and 4.6-6.1m in diameter, were sunk at Brunn Clough (SE016091), near Redbrook (SE024101) and at Flint. Cross adits connect it with the canal tunnel.
The three railway tunnels are ventilated naturally by six of the eight shafts and the side passages of varying sizes, with gratings and doors to regulate the air flow. At the two original Redbrook shafts, air is circulated artificially by a water spray down one of the shafts, which draws air down and up the neighbouring shaft only 13m away. The large cross adits were used for removal of excavation arisings during construction of the rail tunnels, with the spoil taken out by boat.
All the rail tunnels also had locomotive water pick-up troughs more than 457m long, fixed to the tunnel walls inside the Diggle end, to ensure that steam trains had enough water for the journey.
In 1894, a 107m length of the down tunnel was rebuilt at a cost of £4,589, as well as 38m of the up tunnel for £1,122. Defective workmanship in the crown of the double-track rail tunnel was remedied by packing cavities above the arches, which were dismantled and rebuilt as necessary.
Around 1897, the down tunnel’s stone arch was rebuilt over the area strengthened in the 1880s. Further reconstruction of the down line occurred in 1912-3 (27m) and 1916-8 (67m). In other places, cavities over the crown were filled and the arch ring repaired. In 1920, 9m of the up tunnel was rebuilt.
With canals losing traffic to the railways, the Huddersfield Narrow Canal fell into decline and the last commercial boat passed through Standedge Canal Tunnel in 1921. In 1944, the whole canal was closed under the provisions of the London Midland & Scottish Railway (Canals) Act, which received royal assent on 21st December 1944.
Lone vessels struggled through the canal tunnel in 1948, 1961 and 1962. However, parts of the roof were becoming unstable and some sections later collapsed, making passage impossible. Iron gates were installed to close the tunnel portals.
In 1966, the 1849 rail tunnel closed. By 1970, the 1871 tunnel was also disused and the track beds removed from both tunnels. Maintenance continues, and the 1849 tunnel is a designated escape route with a roadway suitable for emergency vehicles. The 1894 double-track tunnel is still used by railway services.
In September 1978, the west entrance to the 1849 rail tunnel was Grade II listed. In July 1985, the east entrance portal to the canal tunnel was Grade II* listed, and the east portals of the 1849, 1871 and 1894 rail tunnels were Grade II listed.
In 1974, the Huddersfield Canal Society was formed to restore the canal to full navigation, largely using volunteer labour, and between May 1999 and November 2000, a £5m restoration of the canal tunnel was undertaken. Though closed to traffic, the canal tunnel had been a natural drainage conduit, allowing water to escape but retaining silt. The work included pumping out 10,700 tonnes of 2m deep silt, removing or reprofiling 3,000 tonnes of rockfall debris, stabilising parts of the tunnel with rock bolts and applying a sprayed concrete lining over steel mesh reinforcement.
In May 2001, the canal tunnel opened to boats once more, after complete renovation of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. On 25th May 2001, the Standedge Visitor Centre opened at the Marsden end, and in 2004, major repair and stabilisation work was undertaken in the 1849 rail tunnel.
Resident engineer (1794-9): Nicholas Brown
Resident engineer (1799-1801): William Bailiffe
Resident engineer (1801-11): John Rooth
Contractor (1794-7, west end): Thomas Lee
Contractor (1794-6, east end): direct labour
Contractor (1796-8): George Evans
Contractor (1801-11): direct labour
Contractor (1846-9): Thomas Nicholson
Contractor (1868-70): Thomas Nelson of Carlisle
Sub-contractor (1894): Williams, Lees & Thomas
Contractor (1999-2000): AMCO
Contractor (2004): May Gurney
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH North

Standedge Tunnel