Local history Woodhead’s forgotten tragedy
Monday 8th May 2017 11:04 Glossop Chronicle Nostalgia Posted by Adam Higgins

By Lisa Burns

High on the moors above Glossop lies a lonely field behind an isolated church which could hold the secrets of a tragic past.

It is here that the remains of people who died in devastating circumstances are believed to have been laid to rest.

It is thought the bodies of ‘navvies,’ who built the first Derbyshire to Yorkshire Woodhead Railway Tunnels in the 19th century, and the bodies of their wives and children, lie beneath the windswept moors in the High Peak.

The tragic families lived near the tunnel in a quickly built ‘shanty town’ at nearby Saltersbrook.

There isn’t a stone or a cross on any of the graves on the bleak and lonely patch of grass behind St James’ Church, Woodhead, on the moors which lie above the Victorian industrial cities of Sheffield and Manchester.

None of the victims’ last resting places have ever been marked.

The land in front and at the side of the 18th century church is full of marked graves.

Their old headstones record the long ago passing of villagers from nearby Woodhead and Crowden.

The graveyard also houses some marked graves of the navvies who were killed while building the double tunnel, and their families who died as a result of living in primitive conditions.

The address on their headstones is given as Woodhead Tunnel, where they were working. Some of the men were killed in accidents, but others might have died when cholera broke out in their shanty town.

The 18th century building is now Grade II listed and has many Victorian slate gravestones alongside the unmarked graves of the navvies.

The building is kept locked, but still occasionally holds Anglican services.

It stands almost 800ft at the head of the Longdendale Valley and now has fewer than 40 people living within a four mile radius, therefore services at the church are currently few and far between.

The church and the graveyard, which had no graves before the mid-18th century, are seen as being one of the most desolate sites in the country.

The poor living and working conditions of the navvies – and occurring deaths – earned Woodhead the reputation of being ‘the railwayman’s graveyard.’

The men constructing the tunnels lived in poverty and as such, many of them, and their families, died as a result.

Many of these tragic people were buried at the isolated graveyard of St James Chapel.

But though the gravestones tell the tragic tales of navvies working on the tunnel, the field behind the church has been left bare.

For more than 100 years there have been rumours that some of the tunnel workers and their families – who were Roman Catholic and were not allowed to be buried in an Anglican churchyard – were buried behind St James in the ‘unconsecreted ground.’

Other rumours suggest the field was used to bury victims of cholera, which swept through the Saltersbrook site.

The navvies came to the area to help construct the first railway line between Manchester and Sheffield between 1839 and 1845.

Some 1,500 men, including their wives and families, flocked to the site for work on the three mile long parallel Woodhead Tunnels which took the railway lines under the hills of the Pennines.

Woodhead was for a time, the longest tunnel in the country.

The navvies worked on the first two Woodhead Tunnels and lines with the western portals of the tunnels at Woodhead and the eastern portals at Dunford Bridge, near Penistone, South Yorkshire.

It was a lonely place for the navvies and their families and accommodation had to be built for and by the workforce.

They also had to build stables for the horses, a magazine for the gunpowder for blasting the rocky ground and cart tracks were laid across the moor and machinery assembled upon it.

The first Woodhead Tunnel was opened in 1845 and cost £200,000 to build. While Woodhead Two was completed in 1853.

The navvies, who worked on the building of the two tunnels, lived and worked in appalling conditions.

In the 1840s there was no compensation for death or injury while working and the railway engineers resisted efforts to provide their workers with safe working conditions, adequate housing and sanitation.

Because the working and living conditions in and around the tunnels were so poor many navvies died.

During the excavation of the first tunnel by the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway, 32 navvies were killed and a further 250 were seriously injured.

The death rate among the navvies who built the tunnels between 1839 and 1852 was actually higher than that of the soldiers who fought at the battle of Waterloo.

This led to a Parliamentary enquiry, called the Woodhead Tunnel Scandal, but its findings were not acted upon for years.

A third Woodhead tunnel was opened in 1953, following the closure of the older two.

Passenger services ended in 1970 and the last train passed through in 1981.

The once busy sounds of the men and trains working on the moors have long gone and all that remains now are the gated up tunnel openings and the windswept graves of the workers on the lonely Derbyshire moors.