Proposals for a road crossing the Mersey go back to at least 1825. It was nearly a 100 years before much happened. Passengers had 2 main ways of crossing from Liverpool. There were ferry boats to various points on the Wirral peninsula; by the 1920's they were carrying about 35 million passengers a year. The trains were carrying over 10 million passengers a year.
In 1866 an Act was passed for the construction of a railway tunnel under the Mersey linking Birkenhead and Liverpool. Construction started in 1879 and was completed at the end of 1885. The trains were originally steam driven. But the problem with smoke led to electrification in 1903. (Twenty years after the first electric railway opened at Brighton.)
In 1922 a committee was set up between Liverpool, Birkenhead, Bootle and Wallasey to draw up plans for a crossing. The crossing was probably intended as much for business use as for motorists. The ferries and railway could cope with the passengers, but they could not cope very well with goods traffic. There was to be a tramway in the bottom half of the Tunnel. The work during the construction would also help to reduce unemployment. The committee was chaired by Sir Archibald Salvidge from Liverpool. He was the main driving force in getting the crossing. When it was decided that the crossing route would be between Liverpool and Birkenhead, Bootle and Wallasey left the committee.
A major decision was whether it would be a bridge or a tunnel. It was thought that a tunnel would be much cheaper to build and maintain. They also thought that a bridge could be damaged or block the river if there was a war. Any bridge supports on the river bed might have caused silting.
The plan for a tunnel was ambitious, it would be the largest underwater tunnel ever built.
Another major decision was how the construction was to be financed. The government wanted the crossing to be free of any Tolls, but after several years of negotiations it was agreed that the government would pay half the construction cost, one quarter would come from the rates in Liverpool and Birkenhead and one quarter from Tolls for a period of up to 20 years. (The running costs of the Tunnel were to come from the rates.) This was authorised in a 1925 Act and a Mersey Tunnel Joint Committee was formed comprising of Birkenhead and Liverpool Corporations.
About this time the proposals for the tramway were put on hold. There were various possible reasons for this. One was opposition from Birkenhead who wanted to protect their Ferries, another was that the government had said that they would reduce their contribution if a tramway was laid. The Tunnel would however still be excavated and built for most of it's length with a massive space under the roadway designed for the Tramway.
A further Act was needed in 1927 mainly because the siting of the Birkenhead entrance was changed, which led to an increase in costs. The Tolls were now to apply for up to 25 years.
In 1928 there was a further Act to again change the Birkenhead entrance and also to move the Liverpool entrance from Whitechapel to the Old Haymarket. But the overall cost and Toll period was the same.
1933 saw yet another Act. This time the costs had increased by a massive 40%. This seems to have been mainly due to an incident in an American road tunnel, and a decision that there had to be a massive improvement to ventilation. (This of course wouldn't have happened with a bridge!) As the government would not give any more money, the Tolls were now to last for up to 40 years.
While all these Acts were being passed the actual construction started at end of 1925. It was a mammoth undertaking involving thousands of workers. The engineers in charge were John Brodie, Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, and Basil Mott. The main tunnel (there were branch tunnels at either end) would be 2 miles 230 yards long, and it would be wide enough for 4 lanes of traffic with a total interior diameter of 44 feet.
The tunnel is not very deep, with the lowest point being only 170 feet below high water level in the river. (At one point, mid river, there is only 4 feet of solid rock above the tunnel. Perhaps they were lucky that they didn't get very very wet!) The pilot tunnel between Liverpool and Birkenhead was completed on 3 April 1928 when Sir Archibald Salvidge broke through the last rock (he hadn't done any of the rest of the digging!). Margaret Beavan, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool then shook hands with Alderman Frederick Naylor, the Mayor of Birkenhead. There were in fact 2 pilot tunnels, with the one for the roadway above that for the tramway.
The construction continued through various difficulties with excavation and drainage, and the unfortunate deaths of workers.
1,200,000 tons of rock were excavated using explosives and pneumatic drills between 1926 and 1931. The rock went to fill in Storeton Quarry on the Wirral side and to Dingle and Otterspool on the Liverpool side. The general technique used was to excavate and line the top (road) half of the tunnel, and then to excavate and line the bottom (tramway) half of the tunnel.
The main Mersey Tunnel has a circular section for most of it's length, presumably due to the tramway. There is a branch tunnel on each side of the river. The branches are semi circles with just a shallow space beneath the roadway. Part of the land sections of the "tunnel" were not tunnelled; they were built using cut and fill techniques; this includes the part which runs below Dale Street down towards the river.
The construction of the tunnel was massive in itself, but it also involved construction of gigantic ventilating machinery, shafts and buildings. The final cost of the tunnel and all the machinery etc was just over £6 million. With land and other bits and pieces this came to nearly £7 million or £7.5 million if you add the cost of borrowing during the construction.
The Tunnel was eventually brought into use on 17 December 1933, with an official opening on 18 July 1934.
Over 200,000 people gathered at the Old Haymarket to watch King George V and Queen Mary, officially open the Queensway tunnel.
As the national anthem played and the curtains began to rise, few were aware that the electrical mechanism had failed and instead two men were stationed either side, raising the curtains with hand cranks.
The Royal car led the way through the tunnel to Birkenhead, where three miles of crowds awaited their arrival, clambering on roof tops and hanging on to chimneys to obtain a better viewpoint.
On arrival, the Royal Party was introduced to Birkenhead's oldest inhabitant, 102 year old Sammual Gillingham. The party then went on to officially open Central Library on Borough Road, replacing the old library, demolished to make way for the tunnel entrance.
In the days that followed, the tunnel turned into something of a tourist attraction, with crowds watching the steady flow of traffic travelling between Liverpool and Birkenhead.
Liverpool entrance around 1960