Posted by: wrha | May 9, 2020

Building the Waverley Route – The story of the Whitrope Contract, 1859-62

The Border Union Railway from Hawick to Carlisle was divided into a series of contracts, each of varying length and features. Here we concentrate on the Whitrope Contract.

These extracts were taken from the reports of the Engineers on the Border Union Railway. They have been compacted & compiled to make for easier reading and arranged in chronological order.


The project commenced in September 1859, the Contractor was William Ritson and the resident Engineer was J.A.Harrison with John F Tone as the North British Railway engineer for the section Hawick to Newcastleton (Penton to Carlisle used Mr. Jopp as Engineer).

At 4 miles 5 furlongs in length, from Shankend to Whitrope Burn, this was certainly the most difficult section of the line comprising as it did the 15-arch Shankend Viaduct and the 1208-yard long Whitrope Tunnel, with five shafts and a large amount of water pouring into the tunnel.

The tunnel had been constructed under the site of a lochan that was fed by a number of streams. There was also the need to divert the road and build a large bridge where the railway crosses the Turnpike Road and the Whitrope Burn, this structure was later known as the Golden Bridge on account of its building cost.

The section of line from Shankend to the tunnel was also problematic on account of the topography running as it did along the side of Shankendshiel which caused the embankment to slide down the hill; this was exacerbated by the appalling weather which lasted for most of the almost three years that it took to complete the two contracts.

The volume of the cuttings to be made on this contract was 282,469 cu yds, which in total is about the same as the huge Ninestane Rigg Cutting, which is the Northern boundary of the Riccarton Contract.

At the beginning of the project most of the workmen were engaged on the Tunnel as would be expected, 197 men worked on the tunnel often twenty four hours per day including some miners whom Mr. Ritson had brought from his project in Wales at Briton Ferry.

The Whitrope contract was worth £72,000 and at the end it cost just over £76,000.  The project was supposed to be finished on 20th August 1861 but because of the appalling weather and the water pouring into the tunnel, the first passenger train actually ran on 1st July 1862.

The Shafts were numbered from the north and shaft number 1 was commenced on 16th November 1859 and the other shafts on 3rd October.  The deepest shaft was number 3, which amounted to 276 feet deep.  The problems with the water manifested themselves from the beginning.  A horse gin was constructed to pump out the water, this proved of only limited use.  It was only when a steam pump was finally hauled up from Hawick that the water level could be reduced.  Sadly a number of horses died of exhaustion in trying to reduce the levels before the steam pump arrived.

In October all the land had been purchased and three cuttings were in progress and a start had been made to all five shafts in the tunnel and a temporary “way” had been laid from the turnpike road at Limekilnedge along the line of the tunnel.  The shafts are all in red sandstone and the dimensions of each are 9ft x 7ft.  At this stage there is no sign of water but that changed very soon after.  17 navvy huts had been built and others were in progress.

By November 27 gallons of water per minute were pouring into shaft 4 and progress on this shaft has been stopped.  The number of men employed has now reached 316 men.  A temporary railway has been built along the tunnel; a steam engine to pump out the water from shafts 4 and 5 has been purchased and is “on the road”.


In February, the weather was very bad and it has proved impossible for the men to “stand out”, the number of men has reached 393.  A horse gin (an example of which is shown below) has been erected at shaft 1 but the weather has been too bad to use it.

Wanted Quarrymen Limeburners Carlisle Journal Fri 20 Jan 1860

In shafts 2 and 3 the water ingress was running at 1210 gallons and 495 gallons per minute.  The pump obtained for shaft 4 was removed on Nov 30th 1859 and moved to shaft 2 and another was ordered which is now here and will take about one month to get working.

On shaft 5 a 12hp movable steam pump was stated to be on site and about to be erected, it was be in action three days” after the fine weather returns”.

The temporary railway over the tunnel had now reached 100ft north of the summit.

The turnpike road had to be realigned and this was completed in January, the burn which previously ran along the projected line of the railway was almost rerouted by February and a culvert had been built, this was the only masonry work which could be done in the month because of the weather.  Some work has been done on the internal fittings for the platelayers’ cottages.

“82 out of 150 navvy huts have been erected at Shankend and Langburnshiels, another 50 will be erected when the weather improves.”

Mr. Ritson asked for more land to be purchased to improve drainage and to provide against landslips between Shankend and Langburnshiels.

By the 16th March 1860 the foundations for bridge 200 (the golden bridge) were in progress and building should start as soon as the frost permits, the cottages were nearly complete.  110 temporary buildings had now been completed.

whitrope tunnel diagram

A cross section of the tunnel can be found here: Cross section PDF

Shaft number 1 was complete in March 1860 and work started on the headings using a double horse gin to remove stone and water, now running at about 300 gallons per hour. In this shaft a steam engine will soon be put into use.

Shaft number 2 was recommenced on the 15th March after two months of inactivity.  A set of 7.5 inch pipes were used to clear 23,000 gallons of water from the shaft in 19 hours using the steam engine.

Shaft 3 had to be lined because there was evidence of creeping that was endangering the men.  Shaft 4 was still at a standstill in March for want of a steam pump. One has been ordered from Messrs R & W Hawthorn.  In shaft 5 material was being drawn out by the steam engine and water hauled out using 100 gallon tubs.  At this shaft and shaft 1 sump holes have been made 7ft wide, 7ft deep and 20ft long.

In April 1860, the golden bridge (bridge 200) had been constructed up to the springing and foundations had been deepened because of the soft mud.

The bevel wheel of the horse gin broke but was quickly repaired on shaft 2 the engine and pumping gear was erected.  The engine on shaft 4 was erected at last.

The incline road over the tunnel has been completed and the engine to operate it has arrived on site.  Clay and slate have been found at the bottom of the tunnel, this will add considerably to the cost.

By May the number of men had reached 437, by this time it was stated that” the ground was so saturated with wet weather over the last six months that there was a considerable danger of slippage of the embankment.  The contractor is carefully preparing the footings for the embankment and letting them dry out before proceeding.”

The first death on the contract occurred in April 1860 when tragically a 40 year old subcontractor named Samuel Lambert was killed on shaft 2 on the 21st when he fell from a rope while he was ascending the shaft, Mr. Ritson was stated to be in no way to blame, the man was stated to have been reckless. “This has caused some delay.”  There wasn’t much progress on shaft 3; an engine that was erected at the summit will be used on the incline and on this shaft.  Work was recommenced at shaft 4 in May now that the engine is working.  There were problems with the foundations for both the bridge and the culvert that will entail extra cost.

BUR Whitrope Tunnel accident Carlisle Journal Friday 27th April 1860

By June the number of men had reached 522 plus 78 horses, which has been the average for the last few months.  By June we should have expected the ground to have dries out but this has not been the case.  Work was being carried out on the bridge that crosses the Whitrope Burn.  By June the first 118 ft. of the tunnel was completed at full size at shaft 5.  It was concluded that because of the nature of the stone the tunnel would need to be lined.

In June shaft 2 was nearly complete, the sump was being dug.  In shaft 4 a strong feeder of water was encountered. but work recommenced on the 6th June.

On 1st June 1860 at the bottom of shaft 5 the first stone of the masonry was laid without ceremony, this would be equivalent to the laying of the foundation stone in a building.

By July work still hadn’t started on the Shankend viaduct but finally Ritson has contacted Mr. Elliot of Stobs Castle and has permission to use a quarry at Wilson’s Shoulder close to the track to provide stone for the viaduct.  The alterations to the earthworks for the Whitrope Road were complete and preparations were in hand to spread the stone to surface the road.  Shafts 1, 2 and 5 were complete. ” Many horses working on shaft 3 have been killed and rendered useless due to the heavy nature of the work” but the large steam boiler that is now on site hopefully will alleviate the problem when it is installed.

Early on the 9th July another “large water feeder was pricked.  The men had to retreat from the tunnel even though at the time the steam pump was lifting 218 gallons per minute”.  The length of the stroke was increased and the level of the water decreased as a result.  The heading (the horizontal shaft) from shaft 1 has reached cutting number 30.  943 yds to go to the northern heading from shaft 5!  Lining of the tunnel will be required throughout because of the nature of the material.

BUR wanted Navvies, Wallers, Carlisle Journal Tues 31 July 1860

In September 1860 the contractor was still striving to find large enough stones at Wilson’s Shoulder to form the footings of the viaduct.  In October four of the footings had been started, a year after the project was started. It was stated that they have reached clay and slate rock between 3 and 5 feet below the surface.

In October Ritson was in touch with the agent of Sir William Elliott who had a quarry with better stone but Sir William had gone away and nobody knew where he was; no mobile phones in those days!  The centres of the Golden Bridge had been turned.  Much time was spent cleaning out Shaft three from the damage caused by the water that was contained in it before it could be pumped out, and problems remained with shaft four with the flow of water continued unabated. Another auxiliary shaft was formed to expedite the work on shaft five.

It was stated that the quality of stone produced by the quarry at Wilson’s shoulder is very inferior and therefore progress on the viaduct was very slow.

By November the number of horses was the same as previously and the 22 hired horses are used to bring material up from Hawick.  Nearly 50% of the earthworks had been completed.

In December it was said that some horses were used to bring coals up from Canonbie, this was used for heating in the dwellings and mainly to make quicklime for the preparation of mortar.

Finally at last Sir William Elliot was contacted and agreed to allow his land to be used for quarrying at a charge of £550; the quarry is about a mile from the viaduct at a place called Culing Bank.  In December all the shafts had reached the base level.  Some delays were experienced in shaft four because of the pumps breaking down.


whitrope tunnel built


In January 1861 an attempt was made to use water from shaft one to feed the engine but there was too much clay sand etc. in the water.

In shaft two a workman was killed by a fall of stone from the roof, another miner had to have his leg amputated and another was seriously injured.

BUR Whitrope Tunnel accident Carlisle Journal Friday 11th January 1861

In shaft five a full size section of the tunnel had been driven to a distance of 12 ft.

In February, the contractor had laid 1600 yds of temporary way towards the quarry for the viaduct and quarried a considerable amount of stone.  More pumps were put down at shaft 5 a considerable feeder of water has been found 276 yds north of the shaft. A great deal of water has prevented any work on the tip and the shaft mouths.

In March it was necessary to divert a 100yd length of the Slitrig (Langburn) near Langburnshiels because it was impossible, due to the wetness of the soil, to stabilise the embankment without the bottom of the embankment being in the river and therefore being eroded.

Mr. Ritson has acquired 22 more stonemasons to accelerate progress on the viaduct; this has required some additional temporary houses.  The new quarry at Culing Bank has yielded a very excellent quality of stone.

In April 1861 the piers and the south abutment of Shankend viaduct are now founded and have been built up to 14 feet above the surface. 31 masons are now employed on this; a total of 136 men on this part of the project.

323 men are now working on the tunnel in three eight-hour shifts, the greatest number were on shaft 5 where 105 employed including 20 miners and 21 masons.  52 men have been working on pumping of the water from the foundations of the Shankend Viaduct.

In May the number of men on the whole Whitrope section had reached 642; the early part of the month was spent cleaning out cuttings and preparing the roads after the bad weather; on the viaduct there were 47 masons and 52 labourers; including quarrying the total number of men is 158. This quantity of men is not sufficient to complete the viaduct in time so Mr. Ritson is to take on an additional 25 masons.  Due to the soft nature of the material of the north abutment, it was necessary to increase the depth of the foundations by 6 to 10 feet.  The masonry on the viaduct was stated by the engineer to be excellent and the stones are large and of superior quality.

The heading between shafts number 1 and 2 in the tunnel has been widened so as to allow full size earth wagons access was completed.

In July it was stated that to prevent erosion of the embankment by the Slitrig a small groin would have to be constructed. 90 additional wagons have been purchased or are on the road to speed the movement of soil.  4243 yds of fencing have been erected out of 14,000 yds;  5276 yds of rail had been laid out of 16,040 yds. Just over 16% of the ballast had been laid by July.  The Shankend viaduct should be complete by 9th November. Mr. Ritson was taking on as many miners, masons and labourers as he can find.

In August the amount paid over to the contractor was £44,233 out of the £72,000 total value of the contract and 952 men were employed plus 63 horses. ” The problematic embankment 26 near Langburnshiels is now standing firmly and will be completed more quickly than expected.  Mr. Ritson has purchased a small locomotive for the purpose of bringing material between the tunnel and Shankend.”

In September Mr. Tone stated that the number of men was now 975 plus 69 horses. In October the number of men had exceeded 1000 and stood at 1084 and in November 1152.  Great difficulty was being experienced in getting the railway locomotive from Hawick to Langburnshiels because of “the frequent abrupt turnings in the road”; it was stated to be about half a mile away from its destination.  At this stage about 11 of the 15 arches had been “turned”.  Track laying had been progressing apace with 239 yds being laid in the month and 4500 cu yds of ballast having been put down.

On 30th September the masons working on the viaduct went on strike because a ganger had threatened to dismiss two of their number for coming to work late.  The masons marched to Hawick led by a fiddler.” They had a rare night’s fun” according to the Hawick Advertiser as if to celebrate them joining “the big shop of the unemployed”. 22 fresh men have been recruited to replace them according to the Hawick Advertiser.

In late September 1861 the last section of the tunnel was complete so that it was possible for a man to crawl through the last opening; a party was thrown by the contractor according to the Hawick Advertiser.

In December 1861 the number of men had risen to 1234 and at the beginning of 1862 it had reached 1368 plus 89 horses. All the arches had been completed; this was the peak of activity on the Whitrope Project.




By February 1862 the tunnel was almost complete and water could now be allowed to flow through it, the section between shafts 3 and 4 had still to be completed.  Some problems were still being experienced with slippage of the embankment at the south end of the Shankend viaduct following very heavy rain; ballast material is now being hauled up to the line between Shankend and Langburnshiels. One of the embankments was affected by the heavy rain with slippages of eight to ten feet along a 100-foot section.

A railway locomotive arrived in Newcastleton on 14th February that caused great excitement; some directors and engineers rode on it from Scots Dyke to Hermitage.  Only about forty years earlier the good folk of Copshawholm were astounded to see a wheeled vehicle for the first time in their town, namely Sir Walter Scott’s horse drawn coach.

Work on the cuttings at Shankend, Wilson’s Shoulder and the North End of the tunnel is now taking place 22.5 hrs per day.

In April 1862 the Viaduct was now complete except for minor finishing off.

In May the weather was said to be very favourable for once, Shankend Station was under construction and it was said that the permanent way would be ready for inspection by the Board of Trade in ten days.

1285 men were still employed but most of these will dispensed with shortly apart from the platelayers. Only 300 cu yds of earthworks were still to be done out of 282,469 cu yds!

Captain Tyler inspected the work from Riccarton and in mid June it was stated that the line from Hawick to Riccarton Junction was finished subject to inspection by the Government Inspector.

On the 21st June 1862 Captain Tyler reported that the line was ready for opening apart from some slight signalling modifications at Riccarton Junction. The first goods trains ran on the same day sometimes with passenger coaches attached. The first goods to pass directly from Edinburgh to Carlisle were some bolls (sic) of flour for Carrs of Carlisle.

The line was opened without a formal ceremony from Hawick to Carlisle on 1st July 1862, just under three years since Mrs. Hodgson cut the first sod in September 1859.  It was in fact almost one year behind schedule.

On 30th June the Mail Coach from Carlisle to Hawick ran for the last time.

On Saturday 12th July excursion trains ran from Hexham to Melrose and Edinburgh; unfortunately few passengers alighted at Hawick “as we have little to induce strangers to stop here” according to the Hawick Advertiser.

Originally published as a display for Whitrope Heritage Centre, it has been reproduced here together with additional material as part of our historical articles series during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Written by Bill Morrison, David Tough and Matt Stoddon. Illustrations by Matt Stoddon.

Further photos and details about Whitrope Tunnel can be found at the following web pages, that we can thoroughly recommend:

Copyright WRHA 2020. No part of this article may be reproduced without express permission.