It was a tough and dangerous life building the railways that Victorian England needed. It was particularly dangerous for those whose job was to help to create the tunnels that linked the various industrial towns in the hilly West Riding.

That was made tragically clear in the early winter of 1874 when two fatal accidents, very similar in their circumstances, occurred within the space of a little over three weeks at tunnels being constructed along the line between Bradford and Halifax.

The first took place on October 13 at Northowram, where a shaft was being sunk for driving a tunnel under Queensbury.

According to newspaper reports at the time, at about 7.15 on the Saturday evening the iron cage had been raised to the mouth of the 29 yards-deep shaft. George Sutcliffe, the father of the man who was soon to lose his life, was putting a bucketful of cement into an iron skip which was then on the landing stage of the shaft when, without warning, the engine tenter started the engine and the skip was drawn up to the pulley.

The rope broke, setting the cage free to crash down on to the wooden doors at the top of the shaft which broke, letting it hurtle down the shaft and land on three men who were working at the bottom.

Pit-sinker Richard Sutcliffe, the 30-year-old son of the man at the top, died instantly from head injuries. Two other men, Herbert Evans and Thomas Pride, were injured.

An inquest held at the Royal Oak Inn at Ambler Thorn heard the engine man, William Saddle, admit that he could not say what had prompted him to start the engine. He said it was his own fault, and no-one else was to blame for it - although one witness said that the signal for starting the engine was very quiet, implying that the engine man might have thought he had heard it when he didn't.

It seems to have been a tragic lapse of concentration by a man who, the inquest heard, was a competent and careful employee who did his work well and was sober at the time of the accident.

The jury returned a verdict of "accidental death" and suggested that the signal should be made to sound more loudly.

The shock waves locally from that tragedy were still echoing through the community when another occurred only a short distance away, at the Clayton tunnel, where four shafts were sunk so that the headings could be driven simultaneously from eight different points. The work went on night and day, with no pause and throughout shift changes.

That was initially put forward as a possible reason for the catastrophe that took place early on the Monday morning of November 3 when, again, a corve or tub was made to go in the wrong direction.

"Two engine drivers were changing shifts at the time of the accident and it may be some explanation relating to the tragedy may be found in that fact," speculated the minutes of a Clayton Board meeting held the day after the accident. However, it was later discovered that one of the drivers, still befuddled by drink from the previous night, had pulled the wrong lever.

The Halifax Courier's report on "another shocking and fatal calamity" described how four men were about to descend to work in one of the shafts in a corve.

"It was necessary that the tub should be lifted a little in order that the trolley on which it was standing might be run back. The banksman ordered the engine driver to hoist a little, and he did so. The trolley having been withdrawn, he gave the order to lower, but either from some mistake or carelessness the engine had not been reversed and when it started, instead of lowering, it drew the tub to the top of the head gear and backwards over the pulley. One of the men, it is supposed, was thrown out before the corve reached the pulley and fell to the bottom of the shaft, a depth of 110 ft. He was, of course, horribly smashed and died in about five minutes. The other three men were drawn over the pulley and fell to the ground about five yards from the pit mouth with the corve after them. They were all very seriously injured, the height from which they had fallen being 45 ft."

The man who died at the scene was named as Thomas Coates, a former police constable who was working as a labourer in the tunnel. Another man, William Elliott, who had been taken to Bradford Infirmary with a fractured pelvis and internal injuries, died the following morning.

It must have been a bad time for the engine tenters on the Bradford-Queensbury railway, and for those who relied on their skills for their own safety as they excavated the tunnels that were vital to create the railway network that made such a difference to the lives of people living in the triangle formed by Bradford, Keighley and Halifax.

A memorial in Clayton churchyard reads: "In affectionate memory of the late Thomas Coates who departed this life November 4th 1874, aged 27 years, also William Elliott who departed this life November 5th 1874 aged 20 years. They where (sic) killed at No 1 shaft of the Clayton Tunnel, caused by the neglect of the man in charge of the engine.

Take warning at our sudden death Make ready every day To follow us into the earth We tell you watch and pray."

  • My thanks to Mark Neale for alerting me to these two stories and providing the raw material on which this article is based.