A captivating title for the February heritage blog, we're sure you agree. Iain Kitt, one of our amazing Victoria Tunnel guides, has been undertaking research into how the former coal wagonway came to be transformed into an air-raid shelter at the outbreak of WW2. The story is routinely told on our Victoria Tunnel tours and currently the Virtual Victoria Tunnel Experience, but Iain’s research shows there was more to it than we imagined. 

February 2021

For the purposes of the blog, Iain has introduced some poetic licence with an imaginary family leading the narrative, although all dates and details are true. You can read a fuller account of the arguments over how to improve the Tunnel on our Ouseburn heritage research page. Although this all happened nearly 80 years ago, what lessons does it have for us today? Disputes between local and central government about how to respond to a major national crisis, arguments about the cost and who should pay, plans being agreed and then not implemented, a North/South divide. Surely such things couldn’t happen again…or could they?

On the 2nd September 1941, Michael Robson arrived home from his job in the shipyards to his house in Breamish Street, in St Ann’s in the East End Newcastle, at the usual time of 6pm. After a quick wash at the kitchen sink, he sat down to dinner with his wife, Edith, and their two children, Nancy and Betty but no sooner had they started their meal than they heard the by now familiar, but no less unwelcome, sound of the air raid siren. Bloody Luftwaffe, thought Michael, they don’t half pick their moment. He looked at the anxious faces of his wife and children. Ever since some bombs had fallen on Tarset Street, just a few hundred yards away, back in April they had become much more frightened of the bombing raids and last night there had been a particularly heavy raid on the City. Bombs had fallen on the New Bridge Street Goods Station, just half a mile away, and the fires they had started were still burning. “Come on everyone,” he said, trying to sound cheerful, “let’s go for a singsong, we can eat when we get back. We won’t be away long.”

Firemen outside the entrance to New Bridge Street Goods Station the morning after Second World War German bombing

Firemen outside the entrance to New Bridge Street Goods Station the morning after Second World War German bombing raid with smoke still rising (Unknown source, 1941)

Edith got the bag of blankets and warm clothes she kept for these occasions whilst the girls put on their winter coats. Michael picked up the attaché case containing all their important papers, that he kept by the front door. As they left the house Michael looked back and wondered “will it still be here when we get back?”

They hurried to the Crawhall Road entrance to the Victoria Tunnel shelter. Already queues of people were lining up to go in. The entrance was narrow and steep, and it took time for people to get through. But before long they were going down the ramp into the tunnel, holding on to the handrail to avoid slipping on the wet surface. Why can’t they stop the water getting in thought Michael, then adding, and why can’t they put in proper toilets as the smell of phenol from the chemical toilets wafted up towards them. Fortunately, when they got into the Tunnel, no one was using the toilets. There was only a waist-high modesty curtain around them and squeezing past them when someone was sitting on one was never pleasant. Soon they reached section 27, where they always went to meet Edith’s mother, and Michael was relieved to see there were still some vacant seats. Settling down they prepared to spend an unpleasant few hours in the dimly lit, cramped, smelly and damp tunnel. At least it’s safe, thought Michael, but I wonder what happened to the complaints that Councillor Goodfellow made? Nothing I suppose.

Bunks and benches in the Victoria Tunnel

Replica bunks and benches in the Victoria Tunnel (Newcastle City Library Collection)

In fact, Councillor Goodfellow had caused quite a stir. At the beginning of the year, he had complained about conditions in the Tunnel, especially the damp but also the lack of medical attention, inadequate lighting and of seating, the non-existent canteen arrangements and lack of drinking water. When he was not satisfied with the Council’s response he had written to the Minister of Health, much to the annoyance of Dr Charles, Newcastle’s Medical Officer for Health. That stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest.

The Council first proposed using the Tunnel as an air raid shelter in March 1939. The Home Office agreed it could be converted and the Council was awarded a grant to make it suitable. It had been built in the nineteenth century to carry coal under the city down to river, so before it could be used as a shelter it had to be cleaned out, electric lighting installed, an asphalt floor put down over the old railway track and entrances built. The original plan was to build 18 entrances at an estimated would cost of £28,100. But building the entrances proved to be much more difficult than envisaged and progress was slow. By February 1940 only three had been completed and the estimated cost of building just seven had risen to £40,000. Concerns were also raised about its suitability for use as an air-raid shelter both because of the difficulties of access but also because of the damp and cramped conditions. The tunnel was only approved as a “public shelter” i.e. for people caught in the street at the start of a raid. The Council never thought it was suitable as a dormitory shelter because, as Dr Charles put it, it was “irremediably damp”. However local people had different ideas and they insisted on sleeping in it overnight, forcing the Council to instal rudimentary seats and bunks.

Victoria Tunnel entrance at St Thomas Church, Haymarket, Newcastle

Work at the entrance to the Victoria Tunnel Air Raid Shelter in the grounds of (right) St Thomas Church, Haymarket. (Newcastle City Library Collection, 1939)

Following Councillor Goodfellow’s letter to the Minister, there were meetings to discuss what should be done to possibly improve conditions. These involved the Council, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Home Security, the Regional Civil Defence Office, the Treasury. There were discussions and arguments about whether the southern end, from just below Tarset Street to the entrance in Ouse Street, should be closed off because it wasn’t deep enough underground to offer full protection from a direct hit. The floor was in increasingly poor condition and need to be repaired or even replaced with concrete. Plans for a medical station to be built in the tunnel itself were drawn up, rejected, then eventually agreed but never actually built. A backup system for the lighting was looked at, but in the end, they had to make do with hurricane lamps during the frequent power cuts. It was agreed that drinking water would be provided from overground tanks with water piped down into the tunnel, but that never happened either.

Medical posts in the Victoria Tunnel

Plans for medical post in the Victoria Tunnel

With potential costs rising the Treasury started to ask questions about what was essential. In a memo dated February 1942, for example, it was stated that “the inhabitants were previously apparently content with the nasty damp tunnel” so did the whole floor need concreting or could it just be patched and was colour washing not just a luxury? Dr Charles’ concerns were dismissed on the grounds that the “doctors have higher standards than the average shelterer.” The Council was at odds with Whitehall, complaining that matters were increasingly being taken out of their hands. Consideration was given to closing the Tunnel altogether, although this was dismissed because it was thought that it would be very unpopular. The issue was even debated in the House of Commons. When it was raised there in October 1941, by David Adams the M.P. for Consett, the Minister for Health, Ernest Brown, said that the shelter, although popular, was not very satisfactory despite “much money, time and labour” being devoted to improving it. He went on to add that “it is causing the Minister of Home Security…as much worry and correspondence as anything else in the country.”

The major problem remained the damp. At the behest of the Civil Defence Office an experiment was tried to seal the walls with gunite, a mixture of sand and cement applied at high pressure. But, as the company applying the gunite predicted, whilst it dealt with the problem of water seeping into the tunnel it made that of condensation much worse. Eventually, in December 1942, the idea was abandoned. However, that did mean that, finally, blast walls could be built in the southern end of the tunnel where there was inadequate ground cover, although ironically, by now the German raids had all but ceased. No major changes were made to the Tunnel after that even though it continued to be used by hundreds of people every night. The final cost of conversion was estimated to be over £50,000.

Victoria Tunnel blast walls

Blast wall in the Victoria Tunnel (unknown source)

Back in the Tunnel Michael was blissfully unaware of all this, just thankful that together with Edith, Nancy and Betty, he was at least assured of a safe haven during the bombing raids. He looked at his watch, 10.30 pm and no sign of the all clear. He sighed, it looked like they were in for a long night. Edith was already asleep, her head resting on his shoulder. He’d managed to squeeze the two girls into one of the bottom bunks even though this was, strictly speaking, not allowed. Children were supposed to go on the top bunks, but it was a five-foot drop onto the floor and there was no guard rail. But Bob, the warden on duty that night, was an old school friend and could be relied upon to overlook the transgression, although it would cost Michael a pint when they next met in the Tanners Arms.

Just as Michael was thinking he might as well try and get some sleep he was approached by a gentleman in a smart suit who was obviously not a local. This was confirmed when he introduced himself, as Michael did not catch his name because of his posh Southern accent. But he did gather that he was from the Ministry of Home Security and had come up from London to investigate conditions in the air raid shelters in the northeast, especially the Victoria Tunnel. Why, he asked did Michael continue to bring his family into the tunnel when the conditions are, “shall we say, not ideal?” Michael hesitated for a moment before shrugging his shoulders. “Well better to be damp than dead, I suppose,” he said. The man from the Ministry looked puzzled at his response but thanked him politely before walking off down the tunnel to talk to someone else. But maybe it was Michael he had in mind when he wrote in his report when he got back to London that: “It occurs to me that, as this is a mining district, the persons who will shelter in this tunnel are possibly better fitted constitutionally to resist underground and damp conditions than those in the south.”

Extract from report by the Deputy Principal Officer (‘O’ Division, Ministry of Home Security) on his visit to the Victoria Tunnel on the night of 2 September 1941

Extract from report by the Deputy Principal Officer (‘O’ Division, Ministry of Home Security) on his visit to the Victoria Tunnel on the night of 2 September 1941.