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  • The Glenfield Tunnel, when it opened in 1832, was the longest steam railway tunnel in the world, over 1 mile long
  • It was designed by the famous railway engineer George Stephenson and built under the supervision of his son Robert
  • It forms part of the Leicester & Swannington railway network, the first steam railway in the Midlands and one of the first in the world

One of the earliest steam railway tunnels

The Glenfield Tunnel, when it opened in 1832, was the longest steam railway tunnel in the world. Just over one mile long, it was designed by the famous railway engineer George Stephenson and built between 1830 and 1832 under the supervision of his son Robert. It forms part of the Leicester & Swannington railway network, the first steam railway in the Midlands and one of the first in the world.

Why was the tunnel built?

The railway brought coal from the North West Leicestershire coalfields into Leicester, to then be distributed by canal all over the country. The biggest obstacle to this project was the ridge extending from Gilroes to Glenfield village that required a tunnel. Its construction proved a huge challenge with engineers having to line it throughout with bricks made on-site. The project ran heavily over budget but resulted in a tunnel that remained in use for 130 years.

An engineering challenge

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.

Robert Stephenson banner
Robert Stephenson by Maull & Polybank, 1856

The first section of tunnel is opened

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 tunnel’s roof, showering soot over those in open carriages.

Saving Leicestershire’s heritage

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 around 2007-8.

The Leicestershire Industrial History Society, have extensive records of the Leicester & Swannington Railway. The society lead guided tours into the first section of the tunnel. Visit their website for more details.


Roman Leicester

(47- 500) A military fort was erected, attracting traders and a growing civilian community to Leicester (known as Ratae Corieltauvorum to the Romans). The town steadily grew throughout the reign of the Romans.

Medieval Leicester

(500 – 1500) The early years of this period was one of unrest with Saxon, Danes and Norman invaders having their influences over the town. Later, of course, came Richard III and the final battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought on Leicester’s doorstep.

Tudor & Stuart Leicester

(1500 – 1700) The wool trade flourished in Leicester with one local, a former mayor named William Wigston, making his fortune. During the English Civil War a bloody battle was fought as the forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town.

Georgian Leicester

(1700 – 1837) The knitting industry had really stared to take hold and Leicester was fast becoming the main centre of hosiery manufacture in Britain. This new prosperity was reflected throughout the town with broader, paved streets lined with elegant brick buildings and genteel residences.

Victorian Leicester

(1837 – 1901) The industrial revolution had a huge effect on Leicester resulting in the population growing from 40,000 to 212,000 during this period. Many of Leicester's most iconic buildings were erected during this time as wealthy Victorians made their mark on the town.

Edwardian Leicester

(1901 – 1910) Electric trams came to the streets of Leicester and increased literacy among the citizens led to many becoming politicised. The famous 1905 ‘March of the Unemployed to London’ left from Leicester market when 30,000 people came to witness the historic event.

Modern Leicester

(1973 – present day) Industry was still thriving in the city during the 1970s, with the work opportunities attracting many immigrants from all over the world. While industry has declined in recent years, excellent transport links have made Leicester an attractive centre for many businesses. The City now has much to be proud of including its sporting achievements and the richness of its cultural heritage and diversity.

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