2022 is the 180th anniversary of the completion of the Victoria Tunnel. To mark the occasion in the first blog of the new year Victoria Tunnel guide John Blenkey tells us about the life and career of William Ellison Gillespie, the tunnel’s engineer. Through testimonials written by Gillespie’s employers and clients we get a picture of a man whose talents were sought after in the industrial landscape of early 19th Century England.

January 2022

William Ellison Gillespie was born in 1796 in the small village of Rain-hill in the parish of Prescot in Lancashire. As a young man his ambition was to become an engineer and take part in the wonderful advances of this period, in which steam power gave so many possibilities. Coal was now needed in greater quantities to fuel the furnaces and to fill the hearths of homes nationwide. Methods of moving large loads of coal to a collier brig or a canal boat were needed, and horse drawn wagons were too slow and inefficient.

Trevithick’s high-pressure steam engine 1804 Source: Science Photo Library

Richard Trevithick the great inventor and exponent of steam power patented his high-pressure engine in 1802 and by 1804 built the first working steam locomotive. The same year he came to Newcastle to discuss with pit owners the locomotive and its possible use in transporting large quantities of coal. This opened the way for the North East to become the centre for the development of steam locomotion.

Stephenson’s works on Forth Street, Newcastle Source: Wikipedia Commons

In 1823 George Stephenson and his son Robert opened their locomotive works in Forth Street Newcastle to design and build engines. Two years later 27-year-old William Ellison Gillespie started work at George Stephenson’s works, as he completed the Stockton to Darlington railway.

Testimonial from Robert Stephenson, engineer, Newcastle upon Tyne 12 September 1833.

Mr W E Gillespie has been employed under my father and myself on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and on the Leicester and Swannington Railway. From our experience of him we can state that he is possessed of considerable talent and is well acquainted with the construction of railways and works connected with them. On the Leicester and Swannington Railway he superintended the execution of a tunnel upwards of a mile in length which was completed to my entire satisfaction.

By 1833 William E Gillespie was held in such high regard that a request was made for him to go on an inspection tour of the first railroad tunnel in America. He sailed on the Black Ball Line to New York and then took a coach into Pennsylvania to inspect the Staple Bend Tunnel on the Allergheney-Portage Railroad.

Staple Bend Tunnel east portal Source: Wikipedia Commons

The following year he went into partnership with Joseph Welch a native of Gateshead. The sign above the business door in St Nicholas Yard, Newcastle, read; GILLESPIE and WELCH, Civil Engineers and Builders. While Joseph Welch worked with Isambard Kingdom Brunel on the rail works leading to Sunderland’s North Dock, William worked as superintendent of works with Benjamin Thompson.

Testimonial from Benjamin Thompson, George Johnson and Nicholas Wood, Managing Directors, Newcastle Upon Tyne, October 1836.

Mr W. E. Gillespie is employed by us on the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway and the different works which have been committed to his superintendence and have been conducted and completed to our satisfaction. We have great pleasure in stating that he is a person well calculated to take upon him not only the construction of railways but also the various works connected with them.

The year 1837 certainly was a stormy one for William as it found him standing before the court of insolvent debtors in Portugal Street, Lincolns Inn Fields, London, the same year Charles Dickens described the court in his first novel The Pickwick Papers. William was ordered to attend on the tenth day of July at the hour of ten in the morning and had taken lodgings in Fleet Street while his case was being heard, the alternative being the debtor’s prison. William’s petition was heard before three bewigged commissioners in the musty confines of the ‘ill-lighted and worse ventilated’ court. Unfortunately, the name of the plaintiff remains unrecorded. The barrister hired by William pleaded for his freedom and the ability for him, a man of good stranding to continue working and to pay off his debt. The commissioners agreed and William was released.

Later that year Gillespie and Welch were approached by Porter and Latimer, the owners of a local colliery which was having trouble transporting coal through Newcastle to the Tyne. They were experiencing several issues which required them to find a new route. These included the cost of wagoner’s, their unreliability during periods of high demand for coals at the quay, building works around Grainger Town, accidents on the steep bank leading down to the river, and complaints from the residents about the congestion and noise. The solution was the construction of the Victoria Tunnel.

Testimonial from Charles Porter and Edmund Latimer, Newcastle upon Tyne April 1842.

Mr W. E. Gillespie has been engaged by us as Engineer for the construction of our tunnel from Spital Tongues Colliery to the River Tyne which is about 2 and ¼ miles in length and the various works connected therewith, all of which he has completed in the most satisfactory manner, and it gives us much pleasure to say we consider him well qualified to construct or superintend the formation of railways also to manage the working of them with economy and safety.

Victoria Tunnel Source: Newcastle City Library

William Ellison Gillespie died on the 31st of October 1846, presumably unmarried, his obituary in the Newcastle Courant read.

On the 31st in this town, aged 50, Mr William Ellison Gillespie, civil engineer, in which capacity he commenced his career in 1825 with Mr George Stephenson, with whom he was connected during the execution of many of his great engineering works. He afterwards visited America, on a tour of inspection. On his return he settled in Newcastle and undertook amongst other things the formation of the incline Tunnel at Spital Tongues Colliery, allowed by all men to be a work of great mechanical difficulty, which he successfully completed. As a private individual, his integrity of character endeared him to a large circle of friends by whom his loss will be sincerely lamented.

Research sometimes requires a stroke of luck to fill in the missing details of some character from the past and their life and achievements. Records relating to a birth, death, or marriage provide the bookends, however, the actual life and achievements of that individual can be elusive or even totally lost to history. This could have been the case with Mr Gillespie were it not for his application to emigrate to New Zealand.

Dear Sir,

You will much oblige me if you would have the goodness to send me such information as you generally give to persons who wish to emigrate to New Zealand. I enclose you a copy of my testimonials from which you will be able to form an idea whether such an individual would find it advantageous to emigrate.


From the testimonials submitted for the relevant authority’s approval we can at least fill in his career up until 1842.

Reply 19 August 1842

In reply to your letter of the 17th instant I beg to acquaint you that the cost of an intermediate cabin passage to New Zealand is 35 pound and steerage from 17 to 20 pound. There is little doubt that you would on your arrival in New Zealand find ample and profitable employment.

We can only speculate on the reason why William did not emigrate to this new country, as we find him still living in Newcastle until his death in 1846.