Opened in 1842, and still largely intact, the Victoria Tunnel runs for some 2½ miles under Newcastle city centre – from Spital Tongues in the north-west to the Ouse Burn’s confluence with the Tyne in the south-east.
It was built by Porter & Latimer, the owners of Leazes Main Colliery, over a three year period as (believe it or not) the most cost-effective way of transporting coal from their main pit-head to the river for onward export. Doing it this way meant that they didn’t have to pay keelmen to take the goods a few hundred yards down river (and past the restrictive bridges) to the waiting ships. Moreover, the scheme satisfied the local authorities who didn’t fancy coal wagons traipsing through the main thoroughfares of the town.
The tunnel itself was driven through boulder clay, then a base and lower wall of stone was laid and a double-brick arch built – to a height of a little over seven foot and six foot wide. Loaded wagons descended the incline of the tunnel under their own weight – a total fall of some 222ft – and were hauled back using rope by a stationary engine at the head of the tunnel. At the opening ceremony eight wagons were squeezed through the tunnel to great ceremony – four containing coal and the others a “company of ladies and gentlemen and a band of musicians”.
The labourious task proved to be a financial success – but the colliery itself did not. In 1860 it was closed, leaving the tunnel to collect dust for several decades. Curiously, in 1928 local brewer Thomas Moore founded the Victoria Tunnel Mushroom Company and tried to farm mushrooms in the lower end of the tunnel. However, his idea came to nothing and within a year the tunnel was abandoned once again.
During World War II the subterranean space was utilised as an air-raid shelter – and benches, bunks, blast walls and chemical toilets were installed, as well as the opening up of new entrances. It was able to hold some 9,000 people. After hostilities it was once again closed to the public, though it seems that it was under consideration as a nuclear air-raid shelter at one point.
Only relatively recently has the tunnel been brought back to life – this time as a tourist attraction.