The Clifton Hall Tunnel Collapse 1953

Clifton Hall tunnel lay on the on the Patricroft-Molyneux Junction line, adjacent to Clifton station on the L&Y route to Bolton. It opened in 1850, promoted by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway mainly as an attempt to stymie a rival proposal. By the time of opening, control had passed to the LNWR and it was principally used to serve nearby collieries.

The tunnel – known locally as Black Harry – was 1298 yards long and was troublesome throughout its life. Eight shafts were sunk during construction, none of which were retained for ventilation and none of which were marked in the tunnel. It was bored through unstable ground, mostly clay and wet sand, which made it very wet in places and it was patched many times. After a small amount of mining subsidence, it was twice reinforced with steel ribs made from old rails, and these covered all but 282 yards of the tunnel’s length by 1926. It was in this section that the collapse occurred.

On 15th April 1953, a ganger noticed some bricks had fallen onto the tracks and that more were peeling from the roof. All traffic was stopped to allow repairs, and it was decided to use steel ribs to reinforce the damaged area. Over the next two weeks, further land movements were detected and cracks started to develop. On the 28th April at about 5.35 a.m., the tunnel roof failed directly beneath an old construction shaft. Witnesses in the street above (Temple Drive in Swinton) described a loud cracking noise underground, after which two houses (no’s 22 & 24) collapsed into the ground, killing all five people inside. The side wall of number 26 was also sheared off, but thankfully its occupants were rescued. This house, as well as number 20, was later demolished.

It was soon decided not to reopen the line as it had little traffic. Work to stabilise the tunnel began the day after, and was completed nine days after the collapse. Both sides of the roof fall were firmly packed with ashes, and the tunnel was then filled with colliery waste by the NCB. It was subsequently sealed and both entrances buried and landscaped. The line south of the tunnel was closed immediately and that to the north retained for colliery traffic until 1961.

The official enquiry found that the collapse was caused by “an inherent weakness in the construction of the tunnel”. When the old shaft was examined, rotting timbers were found amongst the wreckage. It was determined that these had been used to brace the shaft when it was filled in after the tunnel was built, and that over time they had corroded, increasing the stress on the walls of the shaft. When they gave way, the full load of the shaft was transferred to the tunnel roof. The enquiry also found that engineers had been hampered by the wartime loss of records relating to the tunnel, including the location of some old shafts.

This was not the last time the tunnel caused problems. In 2007, cracks appeared in a building used by Age Concern. Because of its condition, it was demolished. A few weeks later, a crater appeared next to Swinton Register Office, and the road was closed for several weeks while repairs were carried out. It was subsequently discovered that drilling had disturbed the fabric of the tunnel.

As for the rest of the line, it is traceable on Google Earth for about half a mile south of Clifton, close to the north portal of the tunnel. It becomes visible again south of the A580 and some of it has been turned into a footpath until it reaches Monton Road, not far north of the M602. Beyond there, the alignment has disappeared. On Temple Drive, there is still a gap in the houses, with only a couple of sheds now occupying the site.


Wikipedia (for the accident report), for a fuller explanation and photographs.
Lost Railways of Merseyside and Greater Manchester, Gordon Suggitt, Countryside Books


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One Response to “The Clifton Hall Tunnel Collapse 1953”

  1. Edie Says:

    Regarding the black Harry tunnel that collapsed in 1953, a lot of people think the old lines that ran under the A580 and between Dorchester road and overtake are where the walk path is now, sorry but wrong, the original lines of two were 20-30 feet down in a large gully central not to the left like the walk path now, dig down and ye shall find, I remember this well as a kid me and my brother would play on the black Harry over the garden fence from Dorchester road down the drop slope and onto where the tracks once laid, and go under the bridge that connected butter mere with over dale and down under A580 then down Eccles fields where the old viaduct railway bridge was all broken we would race the old lines on our bikes up and down the hills, them were the good old days, now for a really cool bit, my uncle Ronnie swindles actually filled the black Harry in with the jcb and let me do some and write my name in the ground, that was truly the end of an era, where the cricket ground was near the infant school was the opening to the tunnel right were the few trees on left are we used to swing on a rope from the left tree if still there, me and my brother would pack hovis sandwiches and trek of all over black Harry and down Eccles fields and be back for sundown, wow we were lucky lads we had all that to explore and play on.

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