Brave souls who braved Sheffield's notorious 'Fiery Jack' tunnel 'deserve better' than needle-strewn dumping ground

It is a fascinating part of Britain’s railway heritage yet Sheffield’s notorious ‘Fiery Jack’ tunnel today lies largely forgotten.

By Robert Cumber
Monday, 17th May 2021, 2:17 pm

The 300-yard long tunnel, built more than 170 years ago to link Wicker and Bridgehouses stations, was famed as one of the steepest ascents on the nation’s rail network and the drivers negotiating it in the days of steam engines required commendable skill and courage.

Today, the entrance off Brunswick Road, near the Wicker Arches at the junction of Spital Hill and Savile Street, is boarded up and frequented by drug addicts, with used needles strewn across the ground.

Now a rail enthusiast has called for the tunnel’s history and the achievements of those who designed and operated it to be honoured by cleaning up the entrance and installing a plaque or information board nearby, possibly outside the 24-hour Tesco Extra.

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The Grade II-listed entrance to the famous 'Fiery Jack' tunnel in Sheffield

David Wrottesley said: “We know Woodhead tunnel was bad but this must have been horrendous! A cloth over the face and they (maybe just a driver before firemen were introduced as engines got more complicated) will have been very glad to get out after five minutes up and very concerned at ‘stalling’ in the tunnel.

“It was essential that signalmen in Wicker at the bottom agreed with the Bridgehouses man at top that uphill movement must have a ‘clear’ run.

“I stand back in amazement and respect the skill and courage of such men who worked it, and I think they deserve better than a needle-strewn tip at the historic portal.

“I think a Transport Trust blue plaque or notice should be installed at Tesco to recognise and respect it.”

Mr Wrottesley has unearthed an article from the Railway & Canal Historical Society which suggests the tunnel opened in 1846, rather than 1847 as previously believed, and in December that year a pointsman was killed while attempting to uncouple some wagons at the Wicker entrance.

Just over a year later part of the tunnel collapsed and it had to be shortened slightly before reopening in 1849.

The tunnel, with its daunting one-in-25 gradient, briefly carried passengers but remained in use for freight until the line closed in 1947.

There are various theories about how the tunnel got its name, with one being that passengers were burned alive inside following an accident.

But Mr Wrottesley, who worked for British Rail as a timetable manager for Sheffield, believes it was the smoke and sparks created by trains attempting the steep climb which lent it the moniker.

"I think ‘Jack’ may have been a skilled famous or infamous driver of some renown, at either Grimesthorpe or Bridgehouses, who really performed a noisy, luminous, smelly, gas smoky ascent through this tunnel which gave the reputation of ‘Fiery Jack’,” he said.

Maxine Stavrianakos, Sheffield Council’s head of neighbourhood intervention, said: “Sheffield City Council own this land and the Environmental Protection Service clears the area monthly.

"Drug use, litter and needle waste is discussed regularly at the monthly waste meeting attended by the council and all key partner agencies.

"We provide drug use patrols and provide a needle exchange where users can safely return any used equipment.

"Help and information about drug and alcohol use and the support that is available is at or by contacting START on 0114 3050500.”