Wonders of the World: The Mersey Tunnel

When I was a boy I loved reading about ‘Wonders of the World.’ Not merely the Ancient Wonders like the Colossus of Rhodes but also the more modern ones, such as the Grand Coulee Dam. It never occurred to me to wonder how a thing got ‘Wonder of the World’ status and it still doesn’t. So I hereby present our very own Liverpool and Wirral Wonder of the World: The Mersey Tunnel.

There was a railway tunnel before it, and another road one after it, but say ‘The Mersey Tunnel’ round here and everyone knows where you’re talking about. It’s our Wonder of the World.

It's official. From 'Wonders of World Engineering' magazine, 1937. How it works.

And it’s official. From ‘Wonders of World Engineering’ magazine, 1937. How it works.

I’ve always loved it but never thought of seriously exploring it until one of those September Heritage days a couple of years back when Sarah suggested we go and have a look. So we did, and she took a load of pictures. But since I wasn’t writing a blog then, they’ve lain unused.

Then last Friday, when I took this photograph of the lovely George’s Dock ventilation and control station at the start of my North Docks walk, I remembered our visit to the Mersey Tunnel in 2011 and decided I would now write about it.

Beginning where last week's South Docks walk finished.

Pier Head, Liverpool. The George’s Dock Ventilation and Control Centre for the Mersey Tunnel.

First, a bit of history.

When it was opened in 1933, then ‘officially’ opened here in 1934 by a passing king and queen, this was the longest underwater road tunnel in the world.Opening

It had taken over eight years to build and of its 1,700 workers, seventeen had lost their lives during the dirty and dangerous work of its construction.Tunnel construction 3

Tunnel construction 2

Tunnel construction

As you can see, the Tunnel is circular. The roadway occupies the top half. The bottom was intended to be for a train or electric tramway, but that never happened. We’ll see later what it’s used for now.

As well as the main tunnel, two dock extensions were constructed at either end.

As well as the main Tunnel, two dock extensions were constructed at either end, controlled by traffic lights originally.

Only the Liverpool dock exit is still in use. Seen here in the 1940s, with the Overhead Railway in the foreground.

Only the Liverpool dock exit is still in use. Seen here in the 1940s, with the Overhead Railway in the foreground.

I’d admired the architecture of the Tunnel and its ventilation shafts all my life. But I thought the shafts were just that, air intakes. I knew nothing. But I was about to find out a lot more.

We visited on a National Heritage Day, but actually you can go all year. Four visits a week.

We visited on a National Heritage Day, but actually you can go all year. Four visits a week.

Like here, you get a bit of history before the tour itself.

Like on here, you get a bit of history before the tour itself. It was clearly a different world in the Tunnel’s earlier years. Women were allowed to clean it, but not design it or build it.

Then they take you to the Control Room.

We are taken to the Control Room.

This room is the control centre for this Tunnel and the Wallasey one.

If you like machinery, and I do, it is jaw-droopingly beautiful.

If you like machinery, and I do, it’s like a 1930s science-fiction version of what the future was going to look like.

Tunnel06

All analog meters and hand-friendly manual buttons and levers.

Elegantly simple air flow controls.

Elegantly simple air flow controls.

Tunnel08

And yes ‘George’s Dock’ it says. We’ll be hearing more about that later.

Tunnel09

Sadly, though, none of this beautiful stuff does anything anymore. The 1930s sci-fi future has been and gone. Flash Gordon has left the Metropolis.

A couple of computers cope with everything a room full of machinery used to do.

And a couple of computers cope with everything this room full of controls used to do.

What's happening and where.

What’s happening and where.

Plus the inevitable CCTV.

Plus the inevitable CCTV.

Next we’re taken to see some real and enduring Wonders of this World.

You see, when the Tunnel was first designed they were just going to have air intakes, ventilation shafts were air could flow in and out naturally. But it’s explained to us that early on in the construction period, a shorter tunnel in New York was having trouble with drivers becoming drowsy with the petrol fumes. Therefore they decided powered ventilation would need to be designed and installed ( much more about this and what it did to costs and future tolls here). And it’s this powered ventilation we’re here to see. This tall building is not just an air shaft, you see, it’s a working machine, as are the other ventilation shafts you might have seen on both sides of the river.

We're in the realm of heavy engineering here.

We’re in the realm of heavy engineering here.

Climbing higher and higher up the building.

Climbing higher and higher up the building.

The building was constructed around the immense machinery in the early 1930s.

The building was constructed around its immense machinery in the early 1930s.

And the fans have gone on working, all day every day since. Without failure.

And the fans have gone on working, all day every day since. Without failure.

Motors get changed now and then, but the immense fans are all originals. replacing them would mean taking the building apart.

Motors get changed now and then, but the immense fans are all originals. Replacing them would mean taking the building apart.

If this seems like a boyish appreciation of ‘stuff’ then It’s fair I should report that we both stood there with tears of wonder in our eyes, seeing, hearing and feeling the heft and the glory of the human ingenuity displayed before us.

They don't just move the huge volumes of air through the tunnel, they cool it and warm it as necessary too.

They don’t just move the huge volumes of air through the tunnel, they cool it and warm it as necessary too.

And everywhere you look there is careful design. Nothing in here will 'just do.'

And everywhere you look there is careful design. Nothing in here will ‘just do.’

After the ventilation tower we’re taken down. To The Tunnel itself soon. But first, to the George’s Dock.

Now I’d always assumed this old dock had been filled in when the Three Graces (Liver, Cunard and Port of Liverpool Buildings) were constructed early in the 20th Century. But this close to the river the reclaimed land is by no means dry, as we’re about to find out.

We’re taken to an opening in one of the cellar walls, where in a darkness too deep to photograph we can just make out the arched foundations of what we’re told is the Cunard Building. Then, with a practised flourish, our guide throws a stick tied to a rope through the opening and we hear a splash as it lands in water. On the surface the George’s Dock may be gone, but deep down around the cellars here, it lives on.

Much, much deeper down next…

We enter The Tunnel.

We enter the Tunnel.

Standing on a small observation platform you might have noticed as you’ve driven through, we’re in the top half of the circular tunnel, where the roadway sits, half a mile or so from the Tunnel entrance. And our guide won’t let us take photos here. ‘You might distract the drivers,’ she tells us. ‘They probably think you’re all police officers anyway!’

Next it gets even better. We go down into the bottom half of the Tunnel. Where, as you may remember from the photograph of it being built, the train or tram was going to run.

This photograph.

This photograph.

And here it is. Instead of tramlines it's carried all kinds of telephone lines and services over the years.

And here it is, the tunnel beneath The Mersey Tunnel.

Instead of tramlines it’s carried all kinds of telephone lines and services over the years, we’re told. Including, at the moment, broadband cables between Liverpool and Wirral.

This is special.

This is special and I feel very privileged to be here.

Next we walk along a pathway to the side of the lower tunnel you can also see from the black and white construction photograph above.

Walking out under the bedrock of the Mersey to see one of the latest additions to the structure down here.

Walking out under the bedrock of the Mersey to see one of the latest additions to the structure down here.

When you’ve driven through the Tunnel over the last few years you may have noticed green doors to the side of the roadway in several places. Going through any of these doors would take you down to one of several new Refuges under the main Tunnel.

Places of safety.

Places of safety.

In any state of emergency.

In any state of emergency.

We are here. Under the river and about to surface.

We are here. Under the river and about to surface. As you can see the Refuges are all connected to a route to the surface, should it be needed.

Leaving the building at the end of our tour, Sarah finds that the attention to detail in the place’s design extends everywhere.

Even in the toilets.

Even in the toilets.

The tiles on the floor.

The tiles on the floor.

And the frame of the revolving exit door.

And the frame of the revolving exit door.

Outside, this somehow Egyptian theme continues.

Tunnel30

Tunnel35 Tunnel34 Tunnel33 Tunnel32

Tunnel36

As if conscious that what's been built here is a pyramid. A Wonder of the World.

As if conscious that what they were building here was a pyramid. A Wonder of the World.

And a wonder it is. One you’d be well advised to go and explore. It’s not just a hole in the ground to drive through you know.

Sarah took all the colour photographs here. Apart from this one, of course.

Sarah in front of one of the original Tunnel toll booths. She took all the colour photographs here. Apart from this one, of course.

Credits
As well as being a work of engineering genius, The Mersey Tunnel is a work of art. Here are the credits for the artists:
The Mersey Road Tunnel was started in 1925, to a design by consulting engineer Sir Basil Mott. Mott supervised the construction in association with John Brodie, who, as City Engineer of Liverpool, had co-ordinated the feasibility studies made by consultant Engineers Mott, Hay and Anderson. The main contractor was Edmund Nuttall. In 1928 the two pilot tunnels from the Liverpool and Wirral sides met to within less than 25 millimetres (1″) of their aim.

The Tunnel entrances, toll booths and ventilation building exteriors were designed by architect Herbert James Rowse, who is frequently but incorrectly credited with the whole civil engineering project. Their decoration is by Edmund Thompson. These are Grade II listed buildings. More than 1.2 million tons of rock, gravel, and clay were excavated; some of it used to build Otterspool Promenade, and some to fill the old quarry in Storeton Woods.

Of the 1,700 men who worked on the tunnel during the eight and more years of its construction, 17 were killed.

At the time of its construction it was the longest underwater tunnel in the world, a title it held for 24 years.

15 thoughts on “Wonders of the World: The Mersey Tunnel

  1. Gerry

    Superb post, Ronnie. Loved everything about it and learned a lot. Especially enjoyed the Wonders of Engineering diagram – as kids, our books and comics often had informative diagrams like that. Not sure they do now. Never knew about the lower deck – maybe it could be used for a Wirral tram link (though there is the underground, I suppose). And where are those buddha -like black figures?

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thank you Gerry. I’m glad I remembered Sarah’s photographs and the wonder of our day there. The Wonders of Engineering diagram reminded me of the style of the Eagle comic from the early 1960s.

      The black figures are set into the outside walls of the Ventilation building.

      Reply
  2. stan cotter

    Oh am I so glad you remembered these photos Ronnie, they’re fabulous and extremely informative. I’ve travelled through here so many times I couldn’t begin to count them. In my early days cycling through, when the chain came off my fixed wheel and some old dear shouting at me “You’re not allowed to stop here!” my reply was unprintable. I may say each way cost 6d and had to be in the slow lane.

    I visited the Pumphouse in Birkenhead a few years ago, where the water is pumped out of the railway tunnel, and they told me at one point on the Liverpool side the Mersey Tunnel road roof is only three feet from the river bed. A daft friend of mine asked ‘Is that high tide or low?’

    The docks entrance in Liverpool I used when I missed the boat on Sunday mornings, when my mates were on it waving goodbye to me, whip through the tunnel and wait for them at the other side.

    I could go on forever Ronnie, but so many thanks for all of your blogs, they’re fantastic. And not forgetting the lovely Sarah, of course.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thank you Stan, lovely to have such detailed memories of bike-riding in the tunnel. And your informant in the Pumphouse is pretty accurate. This from the Mersey Tunnel Users website : “The tunnel is not very deep, with the lowest point being only 170 feet below high water level in the river. (At one point, mid river, there is only 4 feet of solid rock above the tunnel).”

      Reply
  3. Marram Grass

    I wish you’d say ‘Birkenhead’ rather than ‘Wirral’, The former being where the tunnel actually goes. ‘Wirral’ is a local authority not a place, although it does contain around one half of *the* Wirral.

    Reply
  4. lindsay53

    Once again a fascinating post, Ronnie. Thank you for making this obviously wonderful feat of engineering interesting to a veritable non-engineer like myself. Also, flabbergasted that the conception was as early as the 1930’s. Truly ahead of its time & a deserved world leader. Loving the way you’re making history & geography really interesting. Thanks for that!

    Reply
  5. Desmond Bannon

    My grandfather was one of the 17 who died in the construction of the tunnel. There is a little plaque with the names of the men who died. His name was Patrick Durr from Roscommon in Ireland.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thank you Desmond. This post is therefore now dedicated to the memory of Patrick Durr from Roscommon and all of his co-workers, including the other sixteen who died.

      Reply
  6. Tommy Little

    Great post Ronnie, when I went on the tour a couple of years ago we were told that the lining panels on the walls were self cleaning but the installer never mentioned that rain was needed to assist the cleaning.Thanks again.

    Reply

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