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Butterley Tunnel
Butterley, east of Ripley, Derbeyshire, UK
associated engineer
William Jessop
date  1792 - 1793, opened 1794
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Tunnel  |  reference  SK422513
Butterley Tunnel, known originally as Ripley Tunnel, was part of both the transport and feeder systems of the Cromford Canal in east Derbyshire. When built, it was the world’s third longest canal tunnel, after Sapperton and Dudley. It suffered from subsidence and partial collapses and has been disused since the early 20th century.
The 23.5km Cromford Canal, built 1789-94, runs through the Pennine Middle Coal Measures formation of sedimentary rocks with bands of coal and iron ore. The canal’s assistant engineer Benjamin Outram (1764-1805) saw the potential for exploiting these minerals and when part of the Butterley Estate became available in 1790, he bought it, forming Benjamin Outram & Company with Francis Beresford (d.1801). In 1791, Cromford Canal’s engineer William Jessop (1745-1814) and John Wright (1758-1840) joined the partnership.
The company oversaw the construction of the canal and its three supply reservoirs, and established an ironworks south of Butterley Reservoir. The canal flows underground through Butterley Tunnel between Hammersmith (west of the A38) and Golden Valley (west of Codnor Lane). Coal and ironstone for the ironworks were mined from the tunnel’s route during construction by excavating several adits into the hillside and 33 vertical access shafts, the deepest being 64m.
Originally 2.71km long, the brick lined tunnel takes a straight line from its eastern portal (SK421513) near Newlands Inn Station to its original western portal north west of Hammersmith. It is generally 2.75m wide at water level and 2.45m from water to soffit. Four of the construction shafts were retained to give tunnel ventilation and have circular brick towers above ground.
The valve chamber (SK398516) inside Butterley Dam contains a stopcock to allow water from Butterley Reservoir discharge directly into the tunnel via a vertical shaft, maintaining water supply to the canal. At this point, the tunnel’s soffit is 15.2m below reservoir water level (some 9m below ground).
The tunnel passes under Butterley Ironworks and widens out to accommodate underground wharfs, where goods were transferred between the works and the canal boats through loading shafts. Known as the ‘wide hole’ (SK402515), the wharfage is located 1.92km west of the east portal.
Cromford Canal traffic was regulated by law from 1802 onwards. In 1807, Outram’s company changed its name to the Butterley Company — it continued to operate on the ironworks site as Butterley Engineering until 2009.
In 1889, Butterley Tunnel was closed after a section collapsed and underwent four years of repair works, including a series of timber frames to support the tunnel soffit and prevent wall movement. The tunnel’s western end was extended by about 65m in 1890, to accommodate the tracks of the Midland Railway above.
Mining-related subsidence caused a further partial collapse of the tunnel roof on 6th June 1900, which was not repaired and the tunnel was closed permanently. In 1904, the tunnel was judged beyond economic repair. However, some repairs were attempted in 1907, after funds were raised under an Act of Parliament, though another collapse occurred during the works. In 1909, passage through the canal stopped.
Cromford Canal closed in 1938, and in 1944 was discontinued by another Act of Parliament. In 1947, it was taken over by British Waterways and abandoned completely in 1962.
In 1977, when the A38 Ripley-Swanwick bypass was built west of Ripley, the tunnel mouth was extended westwards by a corrugated steel conduit 2m in diameter inside the tunnel — the annular gap being filled with concrete. The present west portal (SK393517) is some 10m further west than the 1890 one.
In 1979 and 2006, the tunnel was inspected and its condition recorded. No further repair works were undertaken. In 2013, the ‘wide hole’ was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument by English Heritage.
At 2.8 km, Butterley Tunnel is comparable in length with Jessop’s Blisworth Tunnel in Northamptonshire, which opened in 1805 and is still operational.
Resident engineer: Benjamin Outram
Contractor: direct labour
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH E&CBDCE1

Butterley Tunnel