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SEVENOAKS RAILWAY TUNNEL

 

 

November 2014

 

Paul Dunn, a member of the Industrial History Group of U3A, described at our meeting on 11 November how local rail travel changed beyond all measure in the 1860s.
Until 1862 residents of Sevenoaks had to go by road to Tonbridge to catch a train to London (by way of Redhill).
Then the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway was extended from Swanley to Bat and Ball, and the following year the South Eastern Railway gained royal assent to a line from Lewisham to Sevenoaks and Tonbridge.
This required two long tunnels. The Polhill tunnel (1 mile 849 yards) was cut through the chalk of the North Downs, which was easy to work.
The Sevenoaks tunnel, from Tubs Hill to near Weald (1 mile 1691 yards) had to be driven through the harder greensand ridge.
A fine drawing of work in the cutting at the north portal appears in the Sevenoaks Historical Dictionary.

The thick woodland of Sevenoaks Common meant that the line of the tunnel was not easy to survey, and work of preparation took some months.
The thirteen access/ventilation shafts had a maximum depth of 394 feet, nearly double the depth at Polhill. Some shafts survive in private gardens, others almost unnoticed in odd byways along the route.
Skips on cable winders powered by horses provided access for the navvies and for hauling up the material that had been excavated. Excess water was brought up in tubs.
Underground flooding, where the overlying clay and soil joined the greensand, led to the resignation of the first contractor, but also to a new source of water for the town.

The contractor built huts for the navvies, and a tin chapel that also served as a school. Living conditions were very bad, the huts overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and with inadequate sanitation. Infectious diseases, including smallpox, were rife, a serious concern to the Nuisance Removal Committee of Sevenoaks.
The chairman wrote a letter to the Home Secretary about the disgrace, a letter that came to the attention of Karl Marx (Das Capital, chapter 25, an unexpected source for local history).
It took five years, but the tunnel was finally opened in 1868, the most expensive railway project of the day.

 

Shoreham And District
Historical Society
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The Shoreham Society
The Kent History Federation and
The Kent Archaeological Society

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