Last of the navvies: Irishman who dug all-night Tube line
Tommy Harvey and his Tunnel Tigers’ pivotal role in opening up the Victoria Line
Tommy Harvey in Kilkee Co Clare with a photograph of himself and other workers digging the underground in London. Photogaph: Brian Gavin/Press 22
The Irish have had a hand in London’s underground network since the first sod was dug and the world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan Line, opened in 1863.
The Victoria line, which - with the Central line - will now run for 24 hours every weekend, was dug much later and runs much deeper.
Going from Brixton in the south in to Walthamstow Central in the north-east, the Victoria Line was built in the 1960s. It was the first new tube line in London for 50 years. Used by 200 million passengers each year, it is envisaged that the all-nighters that the Victoria Line will now pull shall also pull in more passengers.
Tommy Harvey from Doonbeg, Co Clare was one of the men who helped to dig the tunnels in which the Victoria Line now runs. “We were known as ‘The Tunnel Tigers’,” he says proudly.
Harvey left his home in 1955, got the boat in Dun Laoghaire and headed to the bright lights of the English capital. “I went because that was the trend. All the youth went to London then.”
Born in 1939, Harvey was 19 when he left Ireland. He had finished school a few years earlier and worked with his father in the family small holding. He knew people in London. “A couple of my brothers were there,” and his good friend from Doonbeg. Martin Haugh, had arrived just before him too.
“Martin and I lived together in Cricklewood. We kept the Galtymore busy,” he says, laughing at his memories of London’s famous Irish dancehall.
At first, he worked in “the building game”, before he moved on to the Victoria Line. He explains his job in simple terms. “We were miners. You had a lead miner and then a second in command and the rest of the men were miners.”
His fellow miners came from different countries including Ireland, England, Scotland and Poland, and they would all spend years in the dark doing eight-hour shifts. Those hours did not include the time it took the men to decompress to avoid getting the bends.
“Before we started work, we would all go into a chamber to get compressed. It was a big, steel chamber and you went in there for a few minutes then the doors opened on the other side and you went to the small loco to carry you in. As the tunnel got longer you needed transport to take you into the face.”
“It was pitch black down there,” he says. “You never saw daylight until you came up again.”
So why did he do it?
“Oh the money was good. That’s why we went down there. We weren’t there for the craic, we were there for the money. Especially given that we were working with compressed air. You had to be in good health to go down there. You had to be fit and your body had to be right.”
It was dangerous work.
“When you finished your shift you come back into the chamber and get decompressed to get the compressed air out of your body. So they’d drop in a couple of buckets of coffee and you’d sit in the chamber for an hour-and-a-half to get the air out of you. But some people went home and late at night, they might get the bends. The compressed air wouldn’t be out of their system. So you wore a disc around your wrist on a band saying you were a miner working with compressed air so they would bring an ambulance and carry you straight back to the chamber for more decompression,” he says.
Harvey was lucky. He never had to go back. But it was common enough. “The bends were very, very painful,” he says. “You’d go mad with the pain. It really hurt. It did. You had to go back,”
Did anyone die in the tunnels that he helped to dig?
“People died there alright... I knew one fella who got killed on night in the pit bottom. He put his hand on a live cable and it blackened him to death. He was a Galway man and he wasn’t down under his proper name. His mother came into the morgue and she took down the wrong name and put his correct name up. He was a young man. A man about 25 or 26 years of age.”
Men working on the Victoria Line, as in any tunnel, were most likely to get killed sinking shafts to the tunnels, he says.
“Another friend of mine, a Kerry man, who was as young as me, was in a pit bottom on Christmas Eve and they were sending down big timbers. One of them came off the sling and killed him dead. It was very sad.”
After his London life in Cricklewood, Shepherds Bush, Hammermith and Kilburn Harvey returned to Kilkee for a holiday, met his Dublin wife and in 1970 they came back to Ireland to be married. He has stayed. “I got married and I’m contracted here ever since,” he laughs.
This weekend in London, thousands of people can enjoy the Victoria Line all night long as they take the line that Tommy Harvey and his fellow miners built.
Mind the time gap
London launches a 24-hour service on the London Underground at midnight on Friday, August 19th . Trains will only run on the Central Line and Victoria Line to start with. Services on the Jubilee, Piccadilly and Northern Lines will be added later this year.
There won’t be any trains at night during the week, either. For the time being underground trains will only run all night on Friday and Saturday. They will run every 10 minutes and standard off-peak fares will apply all night, with the previous day’s travel cards will remaining valid until 4.30am.