Dinner marks historic date for rail tunnel

By Dan Santy Wednesday 09 January 2013 Updated: 14/01 15:34

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Buy photos » Members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers celebrating the historic dinner attended by the father of the railways, George Stephenson, and his son Robert in 1837 at the Dun Cow Inn in Dunchurch. (s)

ENGINEERING enthusiasts gathered to mark the 175th anniversary of an historic dinner which marked the completion of the Kilsby railway tunnel.

Dressed in Victorian costume, members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineeres were celebrating the dinner attened by the father of the railways, George Stephenson, and his son Robert in 1837 at the Dun Cow Inn in Dunchurch.

It marked the end of work on the Kilsby tunnel - the biggest challenge faced by the men building the London to Birmingham railway line in the first year of Queen Victoria's reign.

John Wood, past president of the Institution of Mechanical Enginners, attended the commemorative dinner.

He said: "George and Robert Stephenson were the two first presidents of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and as members we were hugely excited to be able to mark this anniversary at the very same location where this dinner took place on December 23 1837.

"It was during this dinner at the Dun Cow Inn, which lasted over 12 hours, that Robert Stephenson’s staff presented him with a silver soup tureen to mark the completion of the tunnel."

Even by today's standards the digging of the stretch of tunnel, nearly a mile and a half long, was a major feat of engineering - especially when the presence of quicksand in the earth nearly put a stop to the job altogether.

And adding to the problems were around 1,250 labourers who worked hard and played hard, causing frictions with villagers due to their drinking, thieving and dog and cock fighting tendencies, according to F.B. Head who documented the project.

William Whellan, who also followed the work at the time, wrote: "Difficulties of an unusual character presented themselves during the completion of this tunnel. These arose from the existence of an extensive quicksand in the line of the tunnel.

"Extra shafts were sunk, and four powerful pumping engines erected, which continued to pump from the quicksand for six months, with scarcely a day's intermission, at the rate of 1,800 gallons per minute, till at length the difficulty of tunnelling in the sand was reduced, though the operation was still one of extreme difficulty and danger."

Under pressure to solve the problem or stop altogether, Robert Stephenson persevered and eventually succeeded.

But the work, planned to cost under £100,000, ended up with a bill for £300,000 because of the problems.

The last of about 30 million bricks was placed in position June 21 1838, just over four years after the first sod was cut, and shortly after Kilsby railway tunnel was opened to commercial traffic.

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Buy photos» A painting of men working on the Kilsby railway tunnel and (below) A steam train passing through the tunnel. (s)

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Buy photos» A steam train passing through the Kilsby tunnel. (s)

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