The Victoria Tunnel, running under the grounds of the Hancock Museum, was used as an air raid shelter during WW2.
During the Second World War the Victoria Tunnel, running underneath the grounds of the Hancock Museum, was adapted into an air raid shelter. The Victoria Tunnel was initially opened on the 7th April 1842 in the midst of the Industrial Revolution when the coal trade was booming in the North East. Before the opening of the tunnel, coal was transported by horse and cart through the streets of Newcastle. However, this was a slow and inefficient process, not to mention unpopular with the local residents. The Spital Tongues Colliery was one of the largest coal mines in the Newcastle area, and with high demand for coal there was a great need for better transportation. The Victoria Tunnel was 2 miles long, and a single railway track was used for wagons to carry coal. The tunnel fell out of use in the 1870s when the the Spital Tongues pit closed, removing any need for the tunnel.
Nearly a century after its opening, the tunnel was repurposed as an air raid shelter. In 1939, with the outbreak of war, plans were drawn up to convert the existing Victoria Tunnel into a communal air raid shelter. The city engineer, Percy Parr, led the designs which hoped to provide shelter for 8,000 people. The curator’s report on museum work from 1938-9 makes special reference to the air raid precautions, revealing its effects on museum work. The museum was forced to rehouse some of its collection, as a result of the threat posed by air raids.
“At the time of the international crisis in September, 1938, attention was again turned to measures for the protection of the building and many valuable treasures it contains.”
A plan for the new air raid shelter was completed in 1940, which can be seen below. The NHSN archive holds the original document.
To the right of the plan the Hancock Museum can be seen with the tunnel running underneath its grounds. The renovation sought to add 16 additional entrances to the tunnel, but, due to logistics and financial restrictions only 7 were constructed. Significantly, an entrance is located at the Hancock Museum.
The tunnel starts at the Town Moor, running down to the River Tyne. The tunnel was later extended to the Royal Victoria Infirmary hospital.
The final cost of the overhaul of the tunnel was £37,000 as it was fitted with wooden benches, bunkbeds and chemical toilets, electrical lighting was also added to the tunnel. Another concern was coal dust which had to be cleaned out before use. The shelter was unpopular among locals and described as being dark and damp. However, the tunnel was undeniably safer than being above ground with the risk of air raids. A civil servant later visited the tunnels, noting that “It occurs to me that, as this is a mining district, the persons who will shelter in this tunnel are possibly better fitted constitutionally to resist underground and damp conditions than those in the South”.
In the Report of the Council of the Natural History Society of Northumbria from 1939-1940 reveals how the opening of the air raid shelter in the Victoria Tunnel actually benefited the museum. It reduced the threat posed by air raids to the museum and its visitors because the air raid shelter had an entrance at the museum, and as such visitors and staff could easily access it. As such, the museum began to readmit visitors in early May 1940. This helped the museum avoid absolute closure during the war.
Some of the remnants of the fixtures and fittings can still be seen in the tunnel. These images taken in the 1980s show the remains of bathtubs and seats.
Inside the Victoria Tunnel. Images Courtesy of Brian Pears
After the war, many of the fixtures were removed from the tunnel and the entrances boarded up. Today, the only accessible entrances is at Ouse Street, while the entrance at the Hancock Museum, although visible, is sealed.
During the Cold War, the tunnel was marked as a potential nuclear bunker should tensions escalate. Plans were drawn up to repurpose the former air raid shelter but fortunately, the threat subsided and the tunnel was not required. Today, the tunnel can be viewed on guided tours organised by the Ouseburn Trust.
At the library of the Natural History Society of Northumbria at the Great North Museum: Hancock, we hold ‘Victoria Tunnel An Ouseburn Trust Project, Newcastle’s Hidden Heritage’ which provides a greater insight into the history behind the Victoria Tunnel.
Written and researched by Ashleigh Jackson, a History and English Literature undergraduate student from the University of Edinburgh on a summer placement with the Natural History Society of Northumbria.