It’s extraordinary how far Around Wellington reaches these days. In January we published a story on a planned community drama depicting the building of the Whiteball rail tunnel in the nineteenth century http://bit.ly/WAfJS3. Six months later reader Marie Fellows, who lives in Corfu, has added an intriguing detail to the personal stories associated with the building of the Whiteball Tunnel, prompted by the Actiontrack Performance Company’s ambitious project
Here’s her story: “Some 40 years, ago after the death of my mother, I found a document relating to the death of my great-great grandfather which said he had died in ‘Oakum Rugs in the county of Devon at the Whiteball Tunnel’. Eventually. we identified the place as Holcombe Rogus. When we traced his death certificate, we found the cause was a ‘frenzy of intoxication’.
Further research via Exeter County Records unearthed the following in the Exeter Flying Post of 27 July 1843: ‘A fearful Accident occurred on Thursday week at the White Ball Tunnel. Whilst a man was descending the shaft in a bucket, the rope broke when a few feet from the surface and he fell to the depth of at least 160 feet. When taken up he was found quite dead, both arms broken and the body otherwise dreadfully mangled.’ My Great Great Grandfather’s death certificate says that he died on 19th July. Does the newspaper report refer to his death? It’s likely that, if there had been two deaths in the same week, the reporter would have noted them.”
Marie discovered that her Great Great Grandfather was referred to as a ‘navvy’ which, as a journeyman carpenter, is how he would have been classed had he worked on the tunnel during its construction. In 1841 over one thousand navvies were drafted in to excavate the tunnel, housed in makeshift huts on Whiteball Hill where they lived for three years.
The story of a drunken navvy descending into the Whiteball Tunnel in a bucket and falling to his death may not make it into Actiontrack’s final performance narrative but the connection between the local community – past and present, Wellington’s widespread diaspora and a ambitious creative project has been made.
Report: Gill Paltridge