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Queensway Tunnel celebrates 80th birthday

GALLERY; Day when 200,000 people turned out to see Mersey modern age wonder

Written by . Published on July 18th 2014.

Queensway Tunnel celebrates 80th birthday

EIGHTY years ago today, 200,000 people turned up at Haymarket to witness the opening of one of the wonders of the modern age.

The construction of the Queensway Tunnel had taken nine years and 1,7000 men had been involved in what was the most costly piece of engineering of the time.

It's inauguration came not just with the full royal patronage of King George V and Queen Mary on July 18, 1934, but with hundreds of yards of extravagent green silk curtains covering its mouth. Stories about just how big a deal it was have filtered down through generations of families in Liverpool.

Peggy Ornellas was 10-years-old at the time and vividly remembers the historical moment.

Img111Royal turn out

“Being a very small 10-year-old, all I could see were feet and legs of people surrounding me and I thought I’d never catch a glimpse of the King and Queen,” said Peggy. “Suddenly a tall gentleman asked my mother whether she would like him to pick me up. With her blessing I was lifted onto his shoulders and I felt like I was the tallest person there.

“I remember to this day how excited I felt seeing King George cut the tape with Queen Mary by his side and the crowds of people cheering. I have just celebrated my 90th birthday and this is one of my treasured memories I’ve always shared with my family.”

She will be revisiting the moment at a special open day tomorrow (Saturday July 19) to mark the tunnel’s anniversary. The venue is the tunnel's ventilation shaft on The Strand, the George’s Dock building which, designed by Herbert J Rowse in 1932) is itself something of an architectural and engineering wonder.

There, say Merseytravel, the public can see the extent of what goes on to keep the tunnels operating safely and efficiently. It will include pre-booked tunnel tours, an exhibition and film and a chance to meet the tunnels police and engineers, if that sport of thing floats your boat. Visitors can also see one of the original giant fresh air fans, which , say organisers, generates enough fresh air in one minute to fill six Olympic-sized swimming pools and which they could do with right now down at the United Utilities sewage plant on Regent Road.

The Birkenhead tunnel, as it has become known, was the most expensive and ambitious municipal enterprise in the UK when it was officially opened.


It was built following concerns in the 1920s about the long queues of cars and lorries at the Mersey Ferry terminal and construction of the first Mersey road tunnel started in 1925, to a design by consulting engineer Sir Basil Mott.

Seventeen men were killed during the tunnel’s nine-year construction and James Brown, nephew of one of them will also attend. He said: “I am the nephew of the first person to be killed outright on the construction of the tunnel, James Herbert Brown, who I am named after. He is listed on the memorial at the Pier Head and we also have the commendation certificate awarded for the holing through of the tunnel, which I’ll be sharing with guests at the open day.”

Just before the official opening, 80,000 walked through the tunnel, paying sixpence each to charity.

Although only three at the time, Colin Skelton, was there to celebrate:

“In 1934 I was three years old and I believe that I was carried through the tunnel when the public were allowed to walk through. I later remember as a schoolboy being shown how the ventilating shaft works and then being stuck for some time in a lift with others and having to keep a stiff upper lip so as not to appear as a wimp.”

Gerry Scott always remembers stories about his grandfather being the first bus driver to go through the tunnel. He said: “My grandfather was the first person to drive a double deck bus through the Queensway Tunnel for height and width clearances. For this he received an engraved medal, which I saw many times as a child until my grandfather passed away about 25 years ago.”

Nowadays 35,000 vehicles a day use the Queensway Tunnel. That would have been a lot of ferries across the Mersey.

*Queensway Tunnel 80th Anniversary Open Day, Saturday July 19, 10am-4pm, George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station, The Strand, L2. Free.

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