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16 October 2014
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The Binnian Tunnel - The Tunnellers

About 150 men were involved over the three year period and the story of how they achieved their fantastic goal is almost unbelievable.

ML 1030

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The Binnian Tunnel - The Tunnellers

From Left to right above: Bobby Davey, his brother Willie and Tom Newell, three of the many courageous men who burrowed underground for three solid years. The scene behind them is, of course, Slieve Binnian
Bobby & Willie Davey, and Tom Newell

A courageous workforce

About 150 men were involved over the three year period and the story of how they achieved their fantastic goal is almost unbelievable. In September 2001, Your Place & mine was able to find three men still living in the Annalong area who worked inside the tunnel. Fifty years since they'd been underground, Brothers Willie Davey and Bobby Davey met with Tom Newell and recounted to us how the job was done and what the conditions were like.

Pictured right (From left to right): Bobby Davey, his brother Willie and Tom Newell, three of the many courageous men who burrowed underground for three solid years. The scene behind them is, of course, Slieve Binnian.


Bobby Davey
Bobby Davey

Drilling & Blasting

The process of tunnelling followed a cyclical routine of; drilling a precise pattern of deep holes in the rock face, setting up explosive charges in those holes, blasting the section of rock away and then 'mucking out' the debris. Each time the routine could take many hours. At certain points the engineers would come to inspect the progress and calculate the straightness of the line.

When the charges of dynamite were set off the tunnel behaved like a giant peashooter and there are stories of unsuspecting workers near to the tunnel-mouth being blown off their feet. Although the workers at the face remained inside during blasting it was the done thing to stand in one of the 'lay-by' sidings where the locomotive and skips parked. Bobby Davey learnt this the hard way as he explains here..

Listen to Bobby Davey - Dynamite


Click here for an Interactive Blasting Demonstration
Demonstration

How it worked

Using explosives to drive a tunnel is an exacting process and was done with great care. Precise amounts of explosive charge must be employed and in a calculated way.

Click the diagram on the left to view an interactive demonstration of the blasting process that was used.


Willie Davey
Willie Davey

The hole that joined them

When the two squads of tunnellers eventually did meet in the middle on the 6th December 1950, the final bore-holes were just inches out of alignment with each other. How did they manage to achieve that level of accuracy? Willie Davey, the man who drilled the final hole, explains how the shift bosses hung candles from the ceiling to gauge the straightness of the tunnel's progress.
Listen to Willie Davey - How we kept it straight...

A historic photograph from 6th December 1950. Click on the picture to view a larger interactive version showing the names of those men who'm you have named so far
6th December 1950. Click on picture to view a larger version

the day when they met...

On that day in 1950 when the two squads of men finally met in the middle there was much celebration and sense of history in the tunnel. A group photograph was taken. The Davey brothers were there but the photo became lost somewhere in the last fifty years. Willie Davey told us (in September 2001) that he had long ago given up hope of ever seeing this photograph again. However we asked on the your place and mine website if anyone knew where this photo might be. Now, thanks to your responses to that appeal, the picture has been rediscovered... and here it is.

When it was first put on the website we then asked if you could name any of the men. You have. Click on the photo to see a much larger version with the names of the men you gave us.

Willie Davey (middle) and Richard Meade King who was an Assistant Engineer with the firm of Binnie, Deacon & Gourley. The man in the striped jumper is believed to be Leslie Hanna.
Willie Davey (middle) and
Richard Meade King who was an
Assistant Engineer with the firm
of Binnie, Deacon & Gourley.
The man in the striped jumper
is believed to be Leslie Hanna.

Tough conditions

Work in the area was hard to come by and men took work wherever they could get it. Squads were recruited from various trades. Some came from Mourne quarries and were used to tough conditions and working with dynamite. A great attraction to working on the tunnel was that the pay was around half a crown an hour which was about threepence more than local quarrying work paid. Although some, like Willie Davey, remained with the job for its entire duration, many men only stayed a few weeks or even days, unable to put up with the heavy work and tough conditions.

Working conditions were pretty dreadful by today's standards. The further they drove into the mountain the harder it became and the longer it took to clear debris away to the outside world. As they neared the middle of the tunnel, the two teams had to travel a mile in near darkness, breathing diesel fumes and stale air laden with granite dust and dynamite fumes. That was before they even started their shift. The three men reflect on the conditions they spent over 3 years working in.

Listen to discussion about working conditions

The work went on seven days a week by two shifts working 12 hours each. There was a rotating pattern where night shifts and day shifts swapped over at weekends and one full day off was about as much relaxation as they got. Even when work had to stop one winter for a fortnight due to very bad snow making the mountain inaccessible, the work squads still had to report to their foremen in order to be paid.

Despite the working environment and the obvious danger of using explosives to drive a tunnel under millions of tons of granite, not one worker lost his life in the building of the tunnel, indeed there were very few accidents at all.

As you would expect, life on a job like this was not without its lighter moments and practical jokes were often played at the expense of others. Willie Davey tells us two tales of pranks between the workers.

Listen to stories about practical jokes

Sandy Heaney
Sandy Heaney

Record breaker

Sandy Heaney is one of the few men who worked at both ends of the tunnel. Although he spent time at the Dunnwater face, he was later a Shift Boss on the Silent Valley heading

Sandy's shift held the record for the longest length (or "pull" as they called it) of tunnel driven in a single shift. It is reported to have been 160 feet. When asked about it Sandy told us that they "just hit it lucky" but his contemporaries who hold him in high esteem tell us that he was an excellent shift boss and got the very best from his team of men. Perhaps the record pull can be put down to both factors.

Drilling & Blasting

Sandy had his fair share of problems with the blasting process. When the holes had been bored and the dynamite was being set up a device known as a "clock" was used to check that all of the connections were sound and that the explosions would take place in the correct sequence and at the right interval. Sandy described what happened when the clock reported a fault.
Listen to Sandy - Dynamite Clock Failure

When it failed to go off...

Another thing which caused great concern was a "misfire". This was when some of the dynamite charges didn't go off. Someone had to go back to the rock face and inspect it. This was both important and dangerous. There was always the potential for a team to start drilling into the rock for the next 'pull' with live dynamite sticks still lurking in the rock. There were also differing schools of thought about setting up a charge. Sandy explains here how a Scottish tunnel 'ganger' preferred to use sticks of sand in between the sticks of dynamite to fill up the space. This however increased the incidence of misfires.
Listen to Sandy - Dynamite Misfires
Sandy Heaney and Tom Newell examining the photograph of the tunnellers meeting in the middle
Sandy Heaney & Tom Newell

The day the roof came in

The tunnelling process ran into severe difficulties when soft ground was encountered. (You can read about this in detail in the " Engineers " section of this site.) Sandy was there at the face when the pneumatic drill punched through into a void and water and sand, under enormous pressure, blew it back out of the hole. There was no mistaking that they were possibly in great danger of the roff caving in and there was a sense of panic. Some of the workers actually turned from the workface and ran to get out of the tunnel.

Sandy chats here with his old workmate Tom Newell about the incident and how it brought the tunneling to a complete standstill for months.

Listen to Sandy - Disastrous complications
Sandy receiving his commorative plaque from the CEO of the NI Water Service on the occasion of the 50th anniversary reunion.
Sandy receiving his commorative plaque
from the CEO of the NI Water Service
on the occasion of the 50th anniversary reunion.

Counting sheep...

Although many of the workers made their own way to work by foot or bicycle, there was a bus which would collect men from various points around the countryside and deliver them to the tunnel heading. Sandy recalls a humerous traffic incident involving sheep. What is particularly interesting is the method of reparation that the company used.

Listen to Sandy - Sheep

See the other sections in this article:

Binnian Front Page | Intro & Background | The Tunnellers | The Engineers | Archive Photos | Then & Now | Contemporary Photos | Official Opening | The Reunion | Can you help?


Your Responses

Alex Smith May '06
I have a school project and it involves a kid who blows up part of a mine with 2 sticks of dynamite. We are fitting it in to a novel and so needs a lot of description. I was wondering. How do you set up dynamite inside a mine?

 

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