How the king marvelled at our ‘Mersey Miracle’

Bob Edwards is the author of the book Liverpool In The 1950s and created the www.LiverpoolPicturebook.com website which currently has in excess of 2.3 million viewers worldwide. In this column Bob aims to bring you some of the wonderful history of our great city along with some photographs that illustrate our past, we hope you enjoy it!
MANY of us use the Mersey Tunnels without ever thinking of what a miracle of engineering they truly are – and certainly were back when they built. In 1922 a committee was set up between Liverpool, Birkenhead, Bootle and Wallasey to draw up plans for a crossing. The crossing was probably intended as much for business use as for motorists. The ferries and railway could cope with the passengers, but they could not cope very well with goods traffic. There was to be a tramway in the bottom half of the Tunnel. The work during the construction would also help to reduce unemployment. The committee was chaired by Sir Archibald Salvidge from Liverpool. He was the main driving force in getting the crossing. The plan for a tunnel was ambitious, it would be the largest underwater tunnel ever built. Another major decision was how the construction was to be financed. The government wanted the crossing to be free of any Tolls, but after several years of negotiations it was agreed that the government would pay half the construction cost, one quarter would come from the rates in Liverpool and Birkenhead and one quarter from Tolls for a period of up to 20 years. (The running costs of the Tunnel were to come from the rates.) This was authorised in a 1925 Act and a Mersey Tunnel Joint Committee was formed comprising of Birkenhead and Liverpool Corporations. About this time the proposals for the tramway were put on hold. There were various possible reasons for this. One was opposition from Birkenhead who wanted to protect their Ferries, another was that the government had said that they would reduce their contribution if a tramway was laid. The Tunnel would however still be excavated and built for most of its length with a massive space under the roadway designed for the Tramway. A further Act was needed in 1927 mainly because the siting of the Birkenhead entrance was changed, which led to an increase in costs. The Tolls were now to apply for up to 25 years. In 1928 there was a further Act to again change the Birkenhead entrance and also to move the Liverpool entrance from Whitechapel to the Old Haymarket. But the overall cost and Toll period was the same. 1933 saw yet another Act. This time the costs had increased by a massive 40%. This seems to have been mainly due to an incident in an American road tunnel, and a decision that there had to be a massive improvement to ventilation. (This of course wouldn’t have happened with a bridge!) As the government would not give any more money, the Tolls were now to last for up to 40 years. While all these Acts were being passed the actual construction began at end of 1925. Two pilot tunnels were started from Birkenhead and Liverpool, the lower tunnel was driven in advance of the upper tunnel and boreholes were driven in advance of the heading to give due warning of any difficulty that might have to be encountered. Twenty-seven months after the start of the work the two headings met. This was a very important occasion.
Sir Archibald Salvidge (left) with the mayors of Liverpool and Birkenhead
Sir Archibald was dressed in oilskins and gum boots as he broke through the thin wall of rock. A party of distinguished members of the Liverpool and Birkenhead Councils exchanged greetings 150 feet below the River Mersey. It was a mammoth undertaking involving thousands of workers. The engineers in charge were John Brodie, Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, and Basil Mott. The main tunnel (there were branch tunnels at either end) is two miles 230 yards long. The width of the roadway in the main tunnel is 36 feet between the kerbs, which allows for four lanes of traffic. In the branch tunnels the roadway is 19 feet wide. Thus the capacity of the Mersey Tunnel is 4,150 vehicles an hour, spaced at intervals of 100 feet apart and moving at a speed of 20 miles an hour. At this speed vehicles run through the tunnel in six and a half minutes. The tunnel has an internal diameter of 44 feet and the bottom of the tunnel at its lowest point is 170 feet below the level of the Mersey at high water. This enormous tunnel, burrowed beneath the river, is a monumental feat of engineering skill
King George opens the tunnel
On the 18th July 1934, over 200,000 people gathered at the Old Haymarket to watch King George V and Queen Mary, officially open the Queensway tunnel. Amongst those chosen to welcome the Royal party were Lord Mayor Councillor John Strong, Sir Thomas White, Chair of the Joint Tunnel Committee, Lord Sefton and Chief Constable A.K. Wilson. Liverpool City Police Band provided the music. There was no doubting what the king thought of the engineering feat and he said: “I thank all those who have achieved this miracle. I praise the imagination that foresaw, the minds that planned, the skill that fashioned, the will that drove, and the strong arms that endeavoured in the bringing of this work to completion. “May those who use it ever keep grateful thoughts of the many who struggled for long months against mud and darkness.” His Majesty King George V, 18th July 1934