Bowland Tunnel memories to be recorded for archives

editorial image

Memories flowed like water when a historian and a former tunnel builder compared notes on the Bowland Tunnel, built more than 60 years ago.

Jim Devaney, now aged 89, was a foreman on the the Ribble Valley’s biggest civil engineering project, part of the Haweswater Aqueduct, a pipeline to carry water from the Lakes to Manchester.

The workers' camp at Ellerbeck, which was demolished in 1954.

The workers' camp at Ellerbeck, which was demolished in 1954.

Margaret Brenchley, who has written a book about the project, was a little girl on her family’s farm when the huge Ellerbeck Camp on their land, off the Slaidburn – Newton road, housed about 700 people who worked on the tough and often dangerous scheme.

The two got together at Jim’s home in Castle View, Clitheroe, to share their memories and make plans to record Jim’s recollections for Slaidburn Village Archive.

They soon found that each had a different view of the project, which ran from 1948 to 1954.

For Margaret, nee Pittman, it was a busy and exciting time for a child at Laythams Farm as she played with the tunnel workers’ children, and even got taken down the 80-foot shaft with her brother George as a Sunday treat.

A young George Pittman stands next to a temporary rail track on the site in the 1950s

A young George Pittman stands next to a temporary rail track on the site in the 1950s

For Jim, it was hard and dirty work erecting the timber shuttering and blowing wet concrete to line the walls of the 10-mile tunnel after the tunnellers had blasted through the rock. Some men lost their lives in terrible accidents underground, crushed by machinery, electrocuted or overcome by fumes.

Margaret researched old documents and press cuttings for her book, and interviewed some of the few remaining people who remembered the project.

She recorded how part of her family’s rented farm was requisitioned for the Ellerbeck camp, a complex of accommodation huts, storage buildings, temporary railways and a powerhouse where noisy diesel generators provided electricity and compressed air.

Margaret said: “A lot of the men were refugees from Poland and Ukraine who had escaped from the Nazis. There were Scots and Irish too. They could be a bit rough and ready, but I played there all the time and we never worried.

Historic moment after the last shot was fired and the two sections of the tunnel met in 1951 The margin of error was just one eighth of an inch.

Historic moment after the last shot was fired and the two sections of the tunnel met in 1951 The margin of error was just one eighth of an inch.

“We got to know them quite well, and one day they let my brother George and me go down the shaft in the lift on Sunday when it was fairly quiet. “It was exciting and a bit scary. It was very dark at the bottom, but you could see the lines of electric lights vanishing into the distance.”

Jim recalls: “The noise was deafening, and the diesel fumes were so thick you could hardly see. There weren’t the same safety rules we have today. “The tunnellers were paid about £60 a week to dig and I was on about £40 for lining it, which was all good money in those days.

“On payday, when they got paid in cash, there was a Yorkshire Bank and Trustee Savings Bank at the camp so they could put their cash into the bank.

“When they got paid, they’d go into Clitheroe and run wild, and they’d often get arrested for being drunk or fighting.”

Most workers lived in single bedrooms in large huts, but there were some in detached or semi-detached bungalows for married men’s accommodation. The canteen served food 24 hours a day, there was a full-time doctor on site, a bar that closed at 10pm, and a recreation room that showed films once a week, brought from the Longridge cinema.

When the tunnel project was completed, the camp buildings and all the machinery were dismantled and taken away.

Margaret recalls: “It was done so quickly I hardly remember it happening. It suddenly went quiet. After all those years of noise from the generators, some people found it difficult to sleep because they’d got so used to it.”

Today few traces of the old Ellerbeck Camp can be seen, but the Bowland Tunnel is still doing the job for which it was built by the Cementation Co Ltd for the former Manchester Corporation.

Jim is proud of his contribution to the project. He said: “It cost millions to build in those days. It would cost billions now.”

Margaret added: “I wish I’d known about Jim before I wrote the book. He could have had a whole chapter to himself.”

Margaret’s book “Ellerbeck Camp” is available from Slaidburn Village Archive (www.slaidburnarchive.org) for £5, all proceeds for the Archive.