When things go Bump...the Tunnel Ghost
Ivan Broadhead in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire Life, January 1980
When the wind is whistling mournfully through the trees on a crisp moonlight night, they say you can hear choking cries emerging from the inky blackness of Blisworth Tunnel through which runs the Grand Union Canal. They are the imprisoned ghosts, or
'boggarts' in boatman slang, from a tragedy which occurred over a century ago in 1861. Canal steamer 'Wasp' entering the northern entrance of the tunnel found that due to repair works a wooden channel or 'stank' had been built in the centre which was only wide enough for one vessel. The 'Wasp' slowed to pick up a
carpenter who had finished his shift and then steamed forward steadily until it unexpectedly met a narrow boat being 'legged' through from the opposite direction.
Unfortunately the engineers had just stoked up the boiler a few minutes
previously so thick smoke was pouring from the steamer's stack. Before it could slow down the two vessels had collided and within minutes the channel was a smoky hell as choking men fought desperately to
disentangle their craft. The 'Wasp' crew attempted to race the steamer to the open air, leaving the unfortunate leggers who had passed out in the fumes. One of the crew fainted and fell into the water where he was drowned, another died through suffocation, while the helmsman collapsed and fell overboard as the boat emerged into the daylight. The water revived him so that he was able to clamber back aboard and shut off the steam. Out of the gloom it was discovered that a hitch-hiking carpenter was also dead and the two engineers who had fallen against the furnace door had received ghastly burns. Even today people going through the tunnel say they experience a sickening sensation of
suffocation near the Buttermilk Hall air shaft (sunk to give more ventilation after the disaster) and the cries of the drowning and choking men sound in the darkness.
Intriguingly, there were problems during the tunnel construction in about
the same place.
There is a variation in the story that perhaps also points to the Buttermilk Hall area. People have said they briefly see a fork in the tunnel with a flickering candle-light and they hear a baby crying. This 'ghost' is often mentioned on the internet. Interestingly, there could have been a fork in the tunnel, or at least in the initial headings for the tunnel under the Buttermilk Hall air shaft. An earlier attempt at a line for the tunnel probably used that air shaft. The line that was finally adopted, also using the same shaft, was rotated relative to the first line by about 10 degrees counterclockwise and an additional air shaft that is presently off-line might be the reason for a 'forking' impression. See the article on this website dealing with the tunnel construction. Since the repairs to the tunnel it is likely that the bore near the air shafts will have been tidied up with the concrete circular sections.