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The Mersey Tunnels, England

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Thanks mainly to the 1964 song 'Ferry Cross the Mersey' by Gerry and the Pacemakers, many people will already be aware of one route across the Mersey River, which separates Liverpool from the Wirral Peninsula. But the ferry is by no means the only way to travel across. There are in fact three separate tunnels that span the river.


For those unfamiliar with the county of Merseyside, it is located on the north-west coast of England at the mouth of the River Mersey. On the right-hand bank of the river, we find dominating the skyline the city's two cathedrals (the Gothic Anglican and the futuristic Catholic Metropolitan, also known as Paddy's Wigwam) the tall, mushroom-shaped St John's Beacon and the Liver Buildings (atop which are perched the infamous Liver Bird statues). On the left bank, we find Birkenhead, New Brighton and Wallasey, which act as points of contact between the people of Liverpool and those of the 'Wirral Peninsula' (known to locals simply as 'Wirral' or, slightly dismissively, as 'over the water').

For many generations, the people of Wirral have felt themselves slightly superior to their Liverpudlian (or 'Scouse') neighbours. Indeed, it's not uncommon for some residents to claim they are actually residents of the county of Cheshire (a bordering county, to the south of Merseyside). Conversely, residents of Liverpool often refer to Wirral citizens as 'plastic Scousers', their softer accents and better housing being seen as equally as important as their geography in making them not-quite 'pure' members of the Liverpool race.

Despite this apparent antipathy, the very fact that Liverpool was an important trade port - and that many of the wealthy traders had their homes in Wirral - meant that the position of the River Mersey was, in some ways, more than a little inconvenient. If travellers wanted to get to the other side by land, they faced a lengthy journey back down the estuary towards Runcorn or even Warrington and an equally lengthy journey back - a trip that, in the 19th Century at least, could take the best part of half a day to complete, leaving little time for business transactions before the traveller had to begin the journey back.

Of course, this is a journey that very few people would ever make, as the regular ferries that went from Liverpool's Pier Head to Birkenhead, New Brighton and Wallasey were more than enough for most. But what if you had to transport something heavier than a ferry could cope with? The River Mersey was not easily bridged - even as far inland as Runcorn it's wider than the River Thames in central London. Additionally, with Liverpool being one of Britain's major ports, a bridge would be too easy a target for sabotage. No, the only solution was not to go over the water, but under it.

The Rail Tunnel and Queensway

The first tunnel to be constructed under the Mersey was the Mersey Railway tunnel. Opened in January, 1886, by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) it was the British Isles' first underwater railway and the first to be converted from steam to electric traction. The first Mersey road tunnel, open to the public, wouldn't appear for another 44 years. That tunnel would cost nearly £8 million, employ 1700 men and take nearly nine years to complete, which at the time made it the single greatest municipal enterprise ever undertaken in Britain. Tunnelling began from the Liverpool side on 16 December, 1925, and from Birkenhead on 10 March, 1926. The two tunnel projects finally broke through and met on 10 April, 1928, an event that was commemorated by the mayors of Liverpool and Birkenhead shaking hands at the meeting point. To show the level of accuracy to which the two teams worked, it was discovered that the tunnels had diverged just 2.9 cm from each other based on the original plans.

The completed tunnel (or tunnels, as the tunnel was subdivided in two for traffic going to and from the city centre) was 44 feet in diameter and 2.9 miles long. Over 1,200,000 tons of rock and clay were excavated, with the debris relocated to form the Otterspool Promenade to the south of the city, and to fill a spent quarry at Storeton, Birkenhead. The entrances to the tunnel were designed by noted architect Herbert Rouse, who had studied at Liverpool University.

The first road tunnel was finally opened on 18 July, 1934, by King George V, accompanied by his wife, Queen Mary, in whose honour the tunnel was named 'Queensway'. The opening ceremony was held at the Birkenhead end with the Merseyside Police Band providing the music1, after which the Royal couple were driven to the other end and on to their next engagement, the opening of another feat of Liverpool engineering: the East Lancashire ('East Lancs') Road2.

To commemorate the event, 150,000 local children were awarded medals and the city held a week of celebrations, which included a ceremony of remembrance at the Cenotaph at St George's Hall in the city centre. The first toll charge for the tunnel was between one and two shillings, depending on the horsepower of the vehicle.


In the mid-1960s, a fork-lift truck was bought to help with congestion caused by broken-down cars. But as the decade went on, it became obvious that a second set of tunnels would be required. By 1967, development on a second set of twin tunnels began, located nearer to the mouth of the estuary, linking Liverpool with Wallasey. A huge drill, known as 'The Mole', was employed to dig both of the twin tunnels that would form Kingsway. It was the largest tunnel-boring machine in the world at 45 feet in length and weighing in at 350 tons. Work on the tunnel was delayed after the discovery of a major fault of shattered rock 1200 feet from the Wallasey shore. The problem was solved by the construction of an 'umbrella' of reinforced concrete to bridge the fault.

The first lane of the tunnel was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 24 June, 1971, and named Kingsway in honour of her father King George VI. Surprisingly, the opening ceremony took place while the second lane was still being completed. In fact it wasn't opened until 13 February, 1974. Thousands of people were invited to walk the length of the tunnel with coaches laid on at the other end to ferry the eager tourists back over the other side.

Now, all three tunnels continue to service the city of Liverpool and have been a contributing factor in the phasing out of the more famous Mersey ferries, which today operate on a vastly reduced service, operated almost solely as a tourist attraction.

Further Reading

1Whether or not this had any bearing on the tunnel gaining its own police service later on was not disclosed.2Although the East Lancashire Road runs from Liverpool towards Manchester, it was mainly built by Irish navvies brought in as a cheap labour resource, much to the disgust of local workmen.

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