Peter Bruff: Ipswich's Brunel ... and the Builder of Stoke Hill Tunnel

Peter Schuyler Bruff was born on 23 July 1812 in Portsmouth. He shared his birth year and birthplace with another great Englishman, Charles Dickens. He received his early training from the notable civil engineer, Joseph Locke, and from there he joined the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR) circa 1840. He worked on building the rail link between the ECR London terminus at Shoreditch and Colchester. In 1842 he was dismissed by the ECR for devoting too much of this time to developing Colchester Port at the expense of his railway duties. Their loss was our gain in Ipswich.

The ECR had been unwilling to extend the line to Ipswich on cost grounds. Bruff envisaged that this rail link was important and needed to be constructed. To that end he contacted John Chevallier Cobbold. With the help of the latter and some disgruntled directors of the ECR, the Eastern Union Railway Company (EUR) was formed. Bruff eventually became the company engineer and in that role he equipped it with motive power and latterly managed the entire operation. When the EUR was later absorbed by the more powerful ECR in the 1850s he had the exquisite revenge of becoming its Chief Engineer. Bruff moved his growing family to Ipswich and finally settled at Handford Lodge (it is recorded in the 1881 census as 61 Handford Road) in 1846. He lived there until his death in 1900 when the Lodge was demolished. Even in Suffolk I think that is a long enough period to claim him as our own.

The EUR line from Colchester to Ipswich opened on 11 July 1846. A small railway station had been built in time for the opening. It was situated on the south side of Stoke Hill where Croft Street now stands and was used as the main passenger station until the present building was erected in 1860.

There were many construction problems involved in completing the line. The first difficulty encountered was the passage of the line through or round Stoke Hill. The company decided to bore a tunnel through the hill. This was Bruff's first and only tunnel. Although quite short at 361 yards long, it was built on a very tight curve and was the first of its kind in the world. The big problem with the hill is the existence of springs within it; these haw been a nuisance throughout the life of the tunnel. The springs may have been part of an old course of the River Orwell and certainly bones were unearthed at the south end of the tunnel during initial excavations which were the remains of animals drowned in the river thousands of years ago.

The first stage entailed the excavation of three vertical shafts positioned at intervals along the length of the tunnel route. Each shaft was commenced by the same method as used when sinking a well. A few courses of bricks were laid on a kerb and earth then excavated from beneath the kerb so that the kerb and bricks sank to a lower level. More brick courses were laid and the process repeated until a brick lined shaft was formed. The tunnel itself was then excavated sideways from the shafts. It is interesting to note from one of Bruff's reports that the tunnel was taken through at its full size before any brick lining was added. Bearing in mind the crag and sand composition of much of the hill, Bruff must have used vast quantities of timber supports to prevent any collapse. In fact subsidence did happen at one stage when a crater about ten yards across and ten feet deep appeared in Belstead Road. Luckily no tunnel workers were hurt because at the time the men were enjoying their breakfast! Work began on the tunnel in December 1845 and the final bricks were laid on 15 August 1846. This is an amazing achievement bearing in mind it contained brickwork which was five to six feet deep in places and set in cement with iron banding. Not a single navvy was lost in the construction of the tunnel, which is surprising when one considers the problems encountered and that concurrently a hundred lives had been lost in the building of Brunel's Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway in 1841.

The three vertical shafts were finally filled with sand and gravel and this caused great problems in the 1980s when BR electrified the main line. Water continually seeped down the shafts and unfortunately their precise location had not been marked on any surface map then extant. Eventually the shafts were found and a special mix of fly ash and cement pumped into them which reduced the seepage.

As for Bruff, another impressive local edifice he built was the superb viaduct at Chappel. He built the railway from Ipswich to Bury and from Stowmarket to Norwich. Outside his railway interests he built the Victorian low-level sewer in Ipswich, and he is remembered for building much of Clacton, including the pier, and Frinton and Walton-on-the-Naze.

The only memorial to Bruff in Ipswich is a group of etched or engraved panels positioned above the booking windows in Ipswich Station. They purport to show an abstract image of the tunnel but I could not make any sense of it at all. I spoke to a railway official and he said that it is best viewed at night with lights shining behind it. The lights are there but are never switched on. There was a plaque positioned to the left of the panels but this has now been removed. I spoke to a number of officials at the station before I found any employee who had heard of the panels or Peter Bruff. It is a sad reflection on our town that there is a statue commemorating Prince Obolensky and yet people like Bruff and John Chevallier Cobbold have no such lavish monument. These two men brought the railway to Ipswich and hence immeasurably contributed to the prosperity of the town. I guess it helps to have the financial support of a billionaire like Mr Abramovich.

My sources for this piece were: East Anglia's First Railways by Hugh Moffat, published by Terence Dalton; Ipswich Engines and Ipswich Men compiled and edited by Jill Freestone and Richard W Smith, published by the Over Stoke History Group; The Great Eastern Railway by Cecil J Allen, published by Ian Allan.

[Source: Peter Bruff: Ipswich's Brunel ... and the builder of Stoke Hill Tunnel by Mervyn Russen. Ipswich Society Newsletter, October 2009 (Issue 177).]

Links: Ipswich Society Image Archive; Suffolk Heritage Explorer entry (includes map); Historic England 1953 photograph