A mighty upheaval when the railway came to Lewes

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IT IS hard to imagine the upheaval caused by the construction of the railway in Lewes during the mid-19th century.

There are no figures available to show how many railway workers settled in the town between 1845 and late 1847, a period of intense activity.

But, as Gregory Mitchell put it in a Master’s Degree dissertation in 1995, the number, together with reports of squalid living conditions and disordely behaviour, was certainly sufficient to make a considerable impact, as was their wholesale departure once the lines had been completed, not least for the town’s magistrates.

Although the bulk of the navvy army came from the agriculturally depressed Midlands and East Anglia (also some from Ireland), a proportion were recruited locally.

The major feat was the Lewes tunnel which involved hundreds of men working day and night with elementary equipment while horse-drawn wagons removed vast quantities of earth and chalk.

Conditions were hazardous and accidents were regularly reported.

Several million bricks were required for the tunnel, mostly made locally. Indeed it was common practice for brick making and tunnel excavation to place virtually side by side.

l Rouser seems to remember reading somewhere that when excavation was taking place under the castle, and before the brickwork was put in place, a fossilised shark was found embedded in the chalk.

Unfortunately, it was allowed to stay where it was.