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The Navvies Memorial in Otley

This strange crenellated building on the edge of the West Yorkshire market town of Otley first caught my attention a few years ago. I’d been coming to Otley to sample the local ales since being a student but had never noticed this memorial before but walking next to All Saints Parish Church whilst training as a guide it jumped out at me as you just don’t expect to see something quite like this.

The accompanying display board explained that the building was The Navvies Memorial, a Grade II Listed structure which commemorated the Navies (or navigators) who died whilst building the miles of local railway track in the nineteenth century.

Researching a bit more I found out that between 1845 and 1849 The Leeds & Thirsk Railway company wanted to build a new route from Leeds to the North to open up trade between West Yorkshire and the North East.The engineer Thomas Grainger and Contractor James Bray were tasked with the job, but as part of the task there was the huge challenge to cut a 2 mile tunnel, 7.6m high through rock at depths of 88 meters in some places between Airedale and Wharfedale.

The tunnel needed to link Horsforth with the Arthrington Viaduct which was to take the railway over the River Wharfe. The tunnel would have to pass directly beneath the village of Bramhope.

To complete the project (one of the longest tunnels in England at the time) required a vast amount of labour and over 2,300 navvies were employed in roles such as quarrymen, stonemasons, tunnellers, labourers and carpenters to work 12 hour shifts, seven days a week.

It was back breaking and dangerous work, much of the tunnel excavated by hand with picks and shovels in the dark. Men were lowered down air shafts in buckets into damp cramped spaces which were constantly at risk of flooding. Other risks included landslips, falls, explosions and constant roof collapses.

Labourers came not just from Yorkshire but also across England and Scotland and from as far away as Cornwall. They lived in very basic accommodation, usually wooden “bothies” in Bramhope, creating a sort of shanty town along the track, some brought their families living in poor conditions off a meagre wage for long hours.

Sadly 23 of the men were recorded to have died whilst building the tunnel at the time, but since then many more deaths have been uncovered.

The memorial was built on completion of the tunnel on Church Lane in Otley next to the graveyard of All Saints parish Church. It was built by the contractor and is an exact replica of the North portal of the Bramhope Tunnel. It not only stands as a monument for those who died building the tunnel but all those navvies who lost their lives building England’s vast railway network during the massive railway boom of the 1800’s.

Bramhope Tunnel North Portal - Photograph by Mark Currie as used on Visit Otley display board

Since its completion in 1849 it has been restored a number of times in 1913, 1988 and most recently in 2018. To celebrate the 170th Anniversary of the tunnels completion in 2019 a book by Angela Leathley of Otley Conservation Taskforce was written, entitled What Lies Beneath which tells the story of the lives of the navvies who worked on the tunnel. A 30 minute documentary was also made by Catapult Films called The Navvies who Built the Bramhope Tunnel. Both are still available if you want to find more.

The trailer to the documentary can be seen here:

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Sep 26, 2020

Superb snapshot of industrial history and photos which we take for granted but use the tracks and tunnels today built by the Navigators with loss of life, another most interesting blog from Tim Barber

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