‘A tunnel wide’
Beaminster’s Horn Hill Tunnel was briefly one of the civil engineering wonders of its time, as well as improving the town’s economy. Andrew Headley tells its story.
Published in November ’10
The revolution in transport caused by technological advances is comparatively recent. Less than two centuries ago, even a reliable network of roads and a sophisticated railway system – never mind the motor car and air travel – lay in the future. Little surprise, then, that many inhabitants of villages and small towns in Dorset never travelled more than a few miles from their birthplace. It also meant that the economic health of an area was dictated by its geography to a much greater degree than it is today.
West Dorset in the early 19th century provides a good example. Perhaps the most important feature to its economy was the Bridport Harbour, not yet re-christened West Bay. Through the harbour, which was greatly improved by major works in 1824, came not only the raw materials for the rope industry of Bridport but every kind of commodity destined for Dorset, Somerset and East Devon, both for other manufacturing processes and for domestic consumption. Finished goods would pass the other way, to be exported all over the world.
Goods being transported to and from the harbour could move comparatively easily to the east and west, but to the north, the road to the hinterland of Somerset and on to Bristol had to overcome the barrier of Horn Hill, north of Beaminster. The top of the hill is some 650 feet above sea level and the road climbed almost 500 feet to reach it in the mile and a half from the town. Of all West Dorset, Beaminster was the town most affected by this restriction on the easy movement of the products of its trades such as cloth-making, tanning, clock-making and the manufacture of sacking and sailcloth.
Giles Russell, who was a solicitor with a practice in Beaminster, recognised what an advantage it would be if the problem of Horn Hill could somehow be resolved. He surely discussed the matter with his nephew by marriage, Samuel Cox; he was treasurer of the Bridport 2nd District Turnpike Trust, which owned the road over the hill, and was also a maker of sailcloth and so a typical representative of the town’s business community. Russell’s vision was clearly matched by his energy, because he not only conceived the idea of a tunnel through Horn Hill but raised loans and contributions to meet the £13,000 or so that the project would cost. He himself and Samuel Cox each gave £2000, but the list of contributors giving £50 or £100 includes Beaminster-based drapers, grocers, coopers and twine and thread manufacturers.
A parliamentary bill was necessary and Giles Russell helped to draft that, too. It was passed in March 1830 and a month later, the first sod was cut with much ceremony. The gentlemen dined that night at the White Hart, while free cider was distributed to the townspeople in the Square. A contemporary account says of them: ‘Their countenances seemed to brighten at the prospect of earning their own bread, instead of being degraded paupers.’ The brightness of their countenances may have had something to do with the free cider, and degraded poverty may be a slight over-statement of what the consequences would have been had the tunnel not been built, but Giles Russell and his supporters had no doubt about the significant effect that it would have on the town’s prosperity.
The Horn Hill tunnel was an exceptional civil engineering achievement for its time. It was only a year earlier that the Stephensons’ ‘Rocket’ had won the Rainhill trials, so no railway tunnels existed. There were fewer than half a dozen road tunnels existing or under construction in the country; ironically, one of these was being built through Thistle Hill near Charmouth, a few miles away, and it is surely a reasonable guess that this gave Giles Russell the idea for his tunnel. Some canals ran through tunnels, but these were low, narrow affairs so that bargemen could propel their boats by pushing off the walls or roofs with a pole or even their legs.
The Beaminster tunnel is 115 yards long, twenty feet high and twenty yards wide, so more generously proportioned than its near-neighbour at Charmouth, which is 73 yards long. The supervising engineer was Michael Lane, who had been recommended by Marc Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel), with whom he had worked on a tunnel under the Thames at Rotherhithe. Horn Hill was a stepping-stone to a distinguished career for Lane, who went on to become Principal Civil Engineer for the Great Western Railway.
Michael Lane must have been either a hard taskmaster or an inspiring leader, because the whole job was completed in only a little over two years. There was just one fatality: one William Aplin was killed by ‘a quantity of earth falling on him’. Ironically, this accident took place only three days before the tunnel was opened, and it was commemorated by a cross painted on a large stone at the spot where William Aplin died. For years there was a tradition that anyone walking or cycling past the stone with a pot of paint would stop and re-paint the cross.
On 29 June 1832, the tunnel was opened to the accompaniment of even greater celebrations and rejoicing than had marked the cutting of the first sod. A 21-gun salute was fired from the top of Horn Hill, fireworks were set off from the church tower and a hot-air balloon ascended from a nearby field. The men who had worked on the tunnel were paid a day’s wages for taking part in the procession (each carrying the tools of his trade) and were also given a bonus of 2s 6d, which no doubt ensured a busy night for the town’s sixteen inns. Once again, the gentleman dined at the White Hart, with Giles Russell as the guest of honour – although Michael Lane, strangely, was absent – and were entertained by a song especially written for the occasion. It nine verses of rather glutinous sentiment include:
The yielding soil, through able hands,
A tunnel wide displays;
And Lane’s efficient aid demands
Our warm, admiring praise
In swelling streams may cheering wealth
To Beaminster descend:
And ever joy-inspiring health
Her social sons attend.
Echoes of this celebration survived for some fifty years, with a ‘Tunnel Fair’ being held on Horn Hill every Good Friday. On the centenary in 1932, a peal was rung by the ringers of St Mary’s parish church.
Did the Horn Hill tunnel change ‘degraded paupers’ into ‘social sons’ enjoying ‘cheering wealth’? Only up to a point, although the reasons had more to do with outside events than with the concept or construction of the tunnel. First, imports of flax and hemp through Bridport Harbour began to fall at about this time. Second, Crewkerne, the Somerset town most accessible by the tunnel, declined in importance. Most significant of all, the Railway Age was dawning, bringing about a revolution in transport and communications.
However, the importance of the tunnel even today, carrying traffic on the A3066, should not be under-estimated. When it was closed for repairs towards the end of 2009, shops in Beaminster reported a distinct falling-off in their trade. This was the first major work on the tunnel since 1968 and involved the strengthening of the lining and improvements to the lighting and drainage. Since few people these days walk or cycle along such a busy road, the memorial to William Aplin had become obscured by roadside debris, and not the least pleasing aspect of the 2009 works was that it was cleaned up and re-painted.
2 GWR Museum/Borough of Thamesmead
3 Beaminster Museum
4 Beaminster Museum