The Glenfield Tunnel is one of the world’s first steam railway tunnels and is just over one mile long. It was designed by the famous railway engineer George Stephenson and built between 1829–32 under the supervision of his son Robert.
It forms part of the Leicester & Swannington railway network, one of the first to be built in the world. The railway was designed to bring coal from the North West Leicestershire coalfields into Leicester, to then be trans-shipped to the canal for distribution all over the country. The first obstacle to this major venture proved to be the ridge extending from Gilroes to Glenfield village which required a tunnel a mile long.
The project to build this tunnel really tested its engineers, involving techniques that were then virtually untried. Faulty trial drillings suggested the bore would be through stone and clay, when, in fact, much of the bore would turn out to be in running sand. This necessitated a great deal more work and expense. The tunnel had to be lined throughout in brickwork between 14” and 18” thick, backed by a “wooden shell” where running sand was encountered. Bricks for the lining, after dissatisfaction with the original supplier, were made in an on-site kiln. Owing to the problems encountered, the tunnel construction ran well over the proposed budget of £10,000, finally costing £17,326 12s 2½d. which is well over a million pounds in today money. However, the finished job was straight and level and was in use for over 130 years.
The first section of the tunnel was officially opened on 17th July 1832 and was marked by a special train for the Leicester and Swannington directors and 300 guests. Hauling it was “Comet” a locomotive provided by Robert Stephenson.
Glenfield’s tight clearances required lower, narrower carriages with bars over the windows to prevent decapitation. It is even rumoured that at the opening the engine’s funnel struck the tunnels roof, showering soot over those in open carriages.
When the railway closed in the 1960s, the redundant tunnel was bought by Leicester City Council for £5. Early inspections in 2000 however revealed serious flaws in the fabric of the tunnel which would necessitate reinforcement of the structure. The tunnel is not very far underground and it must be remembered that there were no buildings above it in 1832. Now, however, the area is built-up over its whole length and the risk of tunnel collapse (as had happened elsewhere), was unthinkable. A series of reinforced concrete hoops had to be designed and installed in the tunnel at a cost of £500,000 around 2007-8.
The Leicestershire Industrial History Society, have extensive records of the Leicester & Swannington Railway. A 600 page book (on CD) detailing the whole history of the Leicester & Swannington Railway, with many photographs including those taken during the tunnel reinforcing, is available from the Society for £5.
For more information go to www.lihs.org.uk. The society also lead guided tours into the first section of the tunnel. Contact them directly on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website for more details.