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By Peter Turvey on

An Interesting Post About Boring Machines (for Making Tunnels)

Whenever I go to London by train I see the civil engineering works outside Paddington Station for the new Crossrail link. There is a big hole ready to take the giant German-made tunnelling machines which will soon start work boring the Crossrail  tunnels under London.

These amazing pieces of engineering are often scrapped after their job is done. They are far too large to fit in any museum, so we have a model of the similar machines used to bore the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s. 

However, at our Large Object store at Wroughton in Wiltshire we have one of their very much smaller ancestors, the Whitaker Tunnelling machine.

The Whittaker Tunnelling Machine (Credit: Peter Turvey)

Ours was built about 1922 and used for early Channel Tunnel exploratory work.

Like modern machines it has a revolving ‘cutter head’ at the front to chew through soil or soft rock, and is gradually inched forward as the tunnel is excavated.

Whitaker Tunnelling Machine - Cutting Head (Credit: Peter Turvey)

How it came to the Museum is a fascinating story. Abandoned for nearly 70 years outside the short tunnel it excavated near Dover, the machine was rescued in the 1990s, restored, and presented to us.

Yet there is a sombre side side to its history – the Whitaker Tunnelling machine was originally developed to drive tunnels under the German lines during the First World War, so that so that huge caches of explosives could be fired under them to break the stalemate on the Western Front.

The forthcoming anniversary of that destructive conflict reminds us how conflict is often a driver for technological change for good or ill.

6 comments on “An Interesting Post About Boring Machines (for Making Tunnels)

  1. Douglas Whitaker was my great grandfather, I am always trying to learn a bit more about his projects and what if anything is left. Is this boring machine still on display?

  2. On my way to London yesterday I saw the first Crossrail Tunnelling machine being assembled at Royal Oak just outside Paddington Station.

    Here’s a link to a photo I took from the train

  3. I was working for AMEC (Fairclough) Tunnelling back in 1991 when Paul Varley managed to obtain the finances and personnel to excavate the machine from its grave at Folkestone Warren. At the time I was also studying at university but managed to use the machines restoration as my project. The project forms part of Paul Varleys informative book “From Charing Cross to Baghdad” which gives the history of channel tunnel attempts but focuses on Douglas Whitaker. At the time Paul tried to trace members of the family by placing adverts in the Leicester newspapers, the best he did was his housekeeper! Oh to have access to Katie and her family 21 years ago! When the machine was unveiled back in 1991 in its full glory at the Tunnelling Exhibition firstly, then at the Eurotunnel Exhibition Centre, one of the miners who actually worked on the project attended. It was an honour and a privilege to meet him. Douglas and his family were, in my opinion a very influential family in mechanical engineering and I, even now have a great interest in their work. It was only recently that I found out where the machine is, and have contacted Peter Turvey about visiting the machine with a few friends. I just havnt got around to it yet. Actually there are a few of us who were involved at the time who would like to visit!!

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