Otley’s Navvies Memorial

The Bramhope tunnel was built between 1845 and 1849 and the Navvies Memorial in Otley is dedicated to the men who lost their lives building the tunnel, as well as the thousands of other navvies who helped build the nation’s railways. 

At the time of construction, the Bramhope Tunnel was one of the longest rail tunnels in the country and formed part of the ambitious Leeds and Thirsk Railway that was designed to open up trade between the burgeoning economies of West Yorkshire and the North East.

The proposed route faced several major obstacles, but perhaps none was greater than the ridge that lies between Airedale and Wharfedale that required the building of the 2.138-mile (3.441 km) tunnel that passes under the village of Bramhope to link Horsforth with the Arthington Viaduct that takes the line over the River Wharfe to Harrogate and beyond.

The tunnel, engineered by Thomas Grainger and built under contract by James Bray, required the manpower of thousands of navvies who worked tirelessly in the most challenging of conditions to complete the project.

Those navvies are commemorated in a memorial standing in the northern extension of the graveyard of All Saints Parish Church in Otley, West Yorkshire. The Navvies Memorial, a replica of the crenellated north portal of the Bramhope Tunnel and a Grade II listed building, is in memory of the men who died building the tunnel – but also stands in tribute to all those who lost their lives building the vast network of railways across the country. It represents the only national memorial to the navvies.

The entrance to the Bramhope Rail Tunnel

A documentary film and book were produced in 2019 to commemorate the 170th anniversary of the opening of the Bramhope Tunnel that links north Leeds to North Yorkshire. Both projects pay tribute to the thousands of navvies who worked in horrendous conditions to make building the tunnel a reality.

The 60-page paperback book, What Lies Beneath, written by Angela Leathley of the Otley Conservation Taskforce, covers the hard and dangerous life of navvies during the rapid expansion of the railways in the 19th century. The book includes several photographs and illustrations depicting navvy life.

The viaduct in Arthington that takes the line over the Wharfe Valley to North Yorkshire

Mark Currie from Catapult Films produced a 30-minute documentary, The Navvies Who Built The Bramhope Tunnel. The film features footage from inside the tunnel alongside interviews with local historians, Geoffrey Forster, Barbara Winfield and Neil Simpson, plus contributions by Otley musicians Serious Sam Barrett and Greg Mulholland from the band Summercross. As well as shedding light on what the life of a typical navvy was like in the 1840s, the film also tells the tragic tales of how some of the men died.

Both the book and film are available at £5 each from Otley Core with all proceeds going towards future maintenance of the memorial. The film is available on DVD, which also includes 3 extra short films – Restoration of the Navvies Memorial, Three Navigators 1846 (a poem by Matthew Stoppard) and Bramhope Tunnel Monument (a performance by singer/songwriter Serious Sam Barrett).

To see an edited (10 minutes) version of the film, The Navvies Who Built The Bramhope Tunnel, please click here: https://vimeo.com/327022296

As well as the film and book, two walking leaflets, as well as two celebration postcards, are available free via Otley Core.

At the time of the anniversary, Chair of Otley Town Council Cllr Ray Georgeson said: “In Otley, we are extremely proud to have the country’s only memorial to the brave navvies without whom the country’s network of rail lines would not have been built. To be able to tell their story in both the book and film will allow an important, but perhaps little-known, part of Britain’s history to live on beyond the 170th anniversary of the opening of the tunnel.”

The navvies project was supported by financial contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Railway Heritage Trust, Otley Town Council, Otley Conservation Taskforce, former Otley Town Mayor Cllr Nigel Francis’ 14+1 Appeal and a private donation by an Otley businessman.