Hidden Labyrinth: England's Drakelow Tunnels

Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was inevitable that tragedy would strike. On October 31, 1941, three men blasting through the sandstone in Kingsford Country Park in Worcestershire, England, were caught as large chunks of rock rained over them. The explosions had caused portions of the roof to collapse over their heads. By the time rescuers cleared the scene, it was too late. All three were dead.

The dirty and dangerous work of excavating well over a million cubic feet near Birmingham, England, took eight grueling months, and four more people would lose their lives. But nothing slowed their progress. The site had been earmarked as a place to house an airplane engine factory—one so well-disguised that it would be impossible for the German Luftwaffe flying overhead to identify it. Known as the Drakelow Underground Dispersal Factory, it brimmed with activity for years before taking on a series of increasingly peculiar uses. With over 3.5 miles of tunnel winding through the rock, it’s become a relic of wartime security—and for some, a place where the ghosts of the laborers who perished sometimes return to make their presence known.

 

In 1937 and with the support of the Air Ministry, the Rover car company of Great Britain began opening “shadow” factories that supplied the Bristol airplane manufacturing plants with parts for their Hercules and Pegasus engines. (The label came from the idea they operated in the shadow of the more accomplished and specialized airplane factories.) When one of the plants was bombed in Coventry in November 1940, it became clear that an additional, covert location would be needed in order to supply parts and take over production in case one of the other plants was compromised by a German assault. The British government selected Kingsford Country Park, an attractive woodland which featured a mass of sandstone that could potentially endure a blast from above.

Work began in July 1941. The government had selected the respected engineering firm of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners to plot the underground tunnel system, which ran in a grid pattern to offer structural support in case of an attack. The four main tunnels were to measure 16 feet wide and feed several ancillary chambers that made up an area around 0.6 miles wide and 0.6 miles long.

An entrance to the Drakelow Tunnels is surrounded by trees
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

To accomplish that, workers would have to penetrate the sandstone. They used gelignite, an explosive preferred for blasting through rock, to create the entrances; after that, other explosives were used to continue boring into the site.

The work was precarious, as evidenced by the three deaths just a few months into the project. Other times, it seemed as though the chaos of the worksite lent itself to some unfortunate luck. Conveyor belts were installed to move the displaced earth. When two workers felt compelled to ride the belt rather than walk out of the tunnel after a long day, they were unable to jump off and wound up being mangled by the machinery. A woman, Mary Ann Brettel, was run over by a dump truck. Eric Harold Newman, a security officer in charge of overseeing supplies, was also hit by a motor vehicle.

The workers probably breathed a sigh of relief when work finished in 1942. From there, Rover moved in hundreds of employees to work on the airplane engine parts. It was a full, bustling factory encased in rock, with no natural light available and air supplied through ventilation systems. To help offset discomfort during long shifts, Rover offered a series of amenities to workers. They installed a games room and a billiards table for recreation; they designated one area as a concert hall, where entertainers would perform; a bar was set up so they could unwind after their shift was over. Eventually, they used the loudspeaker system to pipe in music that helped diminish the clinical sound of machinery.

The end of the war in September 1945 brought a halt to production, which restarted only intermittently for tank engines and other projects over the next several years. It was clear the effort of constructing and maintaining the tunnels should result in their continued occupation, but how best to make use of the space was open to debate. What can you do with a bomb-resistant shelter when no bombs are around?

Initially, it was turned over to the Ministry of Works in 1958 and used as a storage facility. With the advent of the Cold War, an obscured tunnel network became attractive as a location of last resort in the event of a nuclear attack, and a portion of Drakelow was converted to a Regional Seat of Government in 1961. In the 1980s, it was partially refurbished to include dorms and other additions to support a small government staff in case of a cataclysmic event.

A clock hangs inside the Drakelow Tunnels
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the time tensions eased in the 1990s, the British government saw no need to continue tending to the tunnels. The site was decommissioned and sold to private owners in 1993, who initially planned on using the land as a residential and commercial property and sought to demolish the network of tunnels. Lobbying by the newly formed Drakelow Tunnels Preservation Trust helped bury those plans. The trust believed the tunnels were of historical significance, having been utilized during a war and remaining ready in the event of an unthinkable nuclear disaster. And so the chambers remained standing, though perhaps not totally empty.

 

In 1993, a caretaker walking the grounds of Drakelow claimed he heard a slow and melodious song reminiscent of the 1940s. He searched everywhere for a possible source of the music but found nothing. The only thing capable of producing sound was the loudspeaker system, which hadn’t worked in years.

In 1996, another watchman accompanied by guard dogs alleged his canine companions began barking without provocation. Before long, a mist began to rise in the tunnel. The man searched for a possible fire in and out of the area. When he attempted to go back in, his dogs whined and dug their feet in. They didn’t want to return.

Such stories have been enticing for paranormal enthusiasts, who take guided tours of the tunnels provided by the trust. The area has also been the site of training for the military and law enforcement as well as some filming for movies and television. The trust is still hoping to raise funds for further restoration work, but thus far it’s been little more than painting.

Tourists at Drakelow today might see computers, radios, and other amenities put in during the Cold War scare of the 1980s. They may experience sudden drops in temperature or strange noises. If they think they smell something odd, however, it might not be their imagination. In 2016, a caretaker was convicted of allowing dealers to grow marijuana in some of the tunnels.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER