Peter Bruff, the Brunel of East Anglia and the Builder of Stoke Hill
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
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 185 Os 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 recently 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
'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