In May 2021's special Ouseburn Heritage Blog, we're traveling 280 miles southeast to the east coast of Kent and visiting Ramsgate Tunnels. These southern tunnels have many fascinating similarities to the Victoria Tunnel, so we hope you'll enjoy reading this historical exploration as much as we did.

The first tunnel, built by the London, Chatham, and Dover railway company (LCDR), facilitated access to a newly constructed seafront station. Which was built in direct competition with their rivals who operated a station on the seafront at Margate (approximately 4 miles north-west).

The tunnel itself was ¾ mile long and ran on a gradient of 1 in 75, which proved to be an issue for early locomotives and there were several recorded accidents. The rail access to the seafront provided a boost to Ramsgate, helping to cement its reputation as a key holiday destination, throughout both the Victorian and later Edwardian eras with the trade supporting thousands of livelihoods in guesthouses, hotels, and restaurants.

The Ramsgate Sands Station c.1900

Fig. 1 Showing the Ramsgate Sands Station c.1900

The seafront station, however, was not to last. In 1921, Parliament passed the Railway or Grouping Act, which merged the 120 independent railway companies into just 4. The Southern Railway Company, which took over from the LCDR, set about reviewing its infrastructure and decided that the Ramsgate Sands station was no longer fit for purpose. Lacking any room to allow for further expansion. Consequently, Southern Railway decided to construct a new station at the top of the town. Providing for the construction of additional platforms, goods sheds, and a maintenance yard. The old station was leased by the Ramsgate Corporation to Merrie England, who set about transforming the site into an amusement centre, complete with one of the longest bars and dancefloors in Europe. As part of their lease, they also had use of the old Victorian tunnel through which in a bid to increase revenue and to provide a link to the seafront once more, they decided to construct a light electric railway. Opening in August 1936, it soon became known as the ‘Worlds Scenic Railway’, so-called because, as the carriages ran past illuminated tableaux and models of famous places across the globe, you would be transported around the world in five minutes before arriving on the seafront.

Showing the seafront station of the light electric railway following its post-war refurbishment.

Figure 2. Showing the seafront station of the light electric railway following its post-war refurbishment.

Five months earlier, in March, Ramsgate’s Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Committee had been established with the towns dutiful civil servants starting the unenviable task of preparing the town for war. They were led by the town’s experience of the First World War when Ramsgate was subjected to several significant air raids, leading to the construction of several primitive subterranean shelters. Despite official government guidelines, which were dismissive and officially against the construction of deep shelters. Ramsgate’s ARP Committee felt that the geological conditions and the precedent set by the First World War were exceptional. So, they ordered the Borough Surveyor Richard Brimmell to set about formulating a plan to reinforce the original shelters and to examine the possibility of constructing a larger scale deep shelter system.
In June 1938, Brimmell's plans were submitted for approval, to the ARP Department at the Home Office, but in line with official government policy, were turned down in September. Not deterred, Ramsgate’s ARP Committee, conferred with Brimmell to produce a revised scheme, which called for the construction of 3.25 miles of tunnels, which would house the entire population of the borough. The Committee felt that, ‘every possible endeavour should be made to obtain approval for the modified scheme’.

To this end, Ramsgate's then Mayor Alderman Arthur Kempe, supported by the town’s MP Captain Balfour (Under-Secretary of State for Air), organised a meeting at the Home Office, with Kempe leading a delegation to London in February 1939. Kempe’s persuasive argument must have worked, on the 20th of March 1939, Ramsgate finally received word, construction could begin at once on the Deep Tunnel Shelters.

Work started immediately and continued day and night at a rate of 24 feet (7.3m) a day, with the chalk (on which Ramsgate lies), being cut, with pneumatic shovels. Before being transported via a narrow-gauge railway and then hosted up through construction shafts to the surface. Impressively, the completed tunnels incorporated a gradient of 1 in 600, which not only kept them above the natural water table, but in addition, allowed for a completely self-ventilating system.
The depth and comparatively small size of the Deep Tunnel Shelters (approximately 7ft by 6.5ft) meant only limited concrete reinforcement was necessary, restricted to shallow sections and entrances. All of which incorporated two right-angled bends to counteract bomb blast. The tunnels galleries also followed the road network to remove problems associated with easement and allowed the roads to act as detonating slabs, serving to mitigate the damage caused by direct hits.

On the 1st of June 1939, the Duke of Kent officially opened the first ¼ mile length of the Deep Tunnel Shelters. By December, the full 3.25 miles of shelters had been complete, forming the largest purpose-built air raid shelter in the country. Capable of housing up to 60,000 people and equipped with a temporary operating theatre, emergency generators, lighting, bunks, and benches.

Showing the Duke and Kent (left) and Richard Brimmell (right), at the official opening 1st June 1939.

Fig 3. Showing the Duke and Kent (left) and Richard Brimmell (right), at the official opening 1st June 1939.

Consequently, Ramsgate was soon advertised as the safest resort-town in the country, however, it would take another six months for the first bombs to fall on the borough. It was to prove a grim foreshadowing, as just a month later, on the 24th August 1940, Ramsgate suffered its worst air raid of the conflict. When, following an aborted attack on nearby Royal Air Force Manston, returning Luftwaffe aircraft released an estimated 500 high explosive bombs on the town, causing a sea of devastation 3 miles long and 1/2 a mile wide. Tragically 31 people lost their lives in the raid, but countless more were saved thanks to the forethought and tenacity of both Brimmell and Kempe.

Showing bomb damage on Warwick Drive, Ramsgate, following the raid on the 24th August.

Figure 4. Showing bomb damage on Warwick Drive, Ramsgate, following the raid on the 24th August.

Despite strenuous efforts to provide shelter during air raids, long term accommodation for those who had lost their homes, had not received the same level of attention. Consequently, following the 24th of August, Ramsgate Corporation had to find alternative accommodation for those remaining in the town who had been made homeless. The answer was the old mainline Victorian tunnel. With families invited to set up temporary cubicles, constructed with scrap materials and seating provided, in the form of old deckchairs brought in from the beaches.
For some, this was a temporary measure before they either returned home or moved away. For others, this would be their home until 1945. Due to a lack of essential facilities, there were soon complaints about the conditions, which forced the Corporation to act. Eventually, they installed a canteen, first aid post, toilets, electric lighting and running water. Dances were held and a semblance of normality introduced.
The light electric railway returned for the summer season of 1946 operating until 1965 before the new owners Ramsgate Olympia finally decided to close. A decision triggered by both an increase in social mobility, and a down-turn in the popularity of seaside holidays following the Second World War. The tunnels were subsequently sealed and became the haunt of urban explorers and local teenagers.

In 2011, the last phase within the tunnel’s history began, when a group of local enthusiasts started to examine the possibility of opening the tunnels as a heritage attraction. After years of tireless work, on the 27th May 2014, the current Duke of Kent officially re-opened the tunnels, just as his father had done before him. The Ramsgate Tunnels, operated by a charitable trust, and managed by an army of dedicated volunteers have now become a thriving visitor attraction. Helping to support regeneration efforts and attracting more than 20,000 visitors a year.

Showing the Arklow Square entrance as it looks today.

Fig 5. Showing the Arklow Square entrance as it looks today.

Thank you to Ramsgate Tunnels' Lead Historian, Isaac Naylor for his fascinating article. Find out more and plan a visit on the Ramsgate Tunnels website.