Frank Aman & The Solent Tunnel

Frank Aman was born in Cheshire and for many years was agent to the Earl of Egremont who, with Sir John Blundell Maple, helped him promote the Solent Tunnel scheme. He was keen to improve communications between west Wight and the mainland after buying the Totland Bay Estate. A contentious figure, Aman prohibited indiscriminate sunbathing on the foreshore at Totland. A High Court action followed in 1934 over public rights of way on the Estate. When it failed to reach a satisfactory solution, he closed all paths awarded to the Estate, believing his rights were still being challenged.

Aman held several public offices, being a member of Surrey County Council and representing Freshwater on the Isle of Wight County Council. During the First World War he held an important executive position in the government department responsible for the supply of timber for use in the trenches. His other principal business and brainchild was the Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company, known as the Sandbanks Ferry, which was incorporated in July 1923. He and his two sons, Gerard, an engineer, and Arthur, a stockbroker, were instrumental in the formation of the Company.

Aman was a member of the Needles Golf Club, played cricket for Denbighshire, was a successful point-to-point jockey, and was an accomplished billiards and snooker player. He died in 1959.

There have been various schemes for constructing a permanent crossing between Lymington and the Isle of Wight. Among the ideas which have been advocated was a Solent Bridge between Hurst Beach and Colwell Bay, a distance of approximately three-quarters of a mile. The proposed structure was to have been similar to the Forth Bridge, with a lifting centre portion, to allow ships to pass through. Another suggestion was to use train ferries, similar to those in use on the cross-Channel routes. However, they would have been subject to the unpredictable English weather and would have been rather clumsy for the close confines of the Solent.

The only idea which was given serious consideration, and came anywhere near to fruition, was the construction of a Solent tunnel. Its principal promoter was Frank Aman, who began  petitioning for a tunnel in the 1890’s.

Three main routes were proposed: Fawley to Cowes, Stokes Bay to Ryde and Lymington to Yarmouth, the shortest route and the most suitable, because it was flat on both sides and thinly populated.

In 1901, this decision became official as an Act of Parliament charged the London and South Western Railway and the Freshwater, Yarmouth and Newport Railway, to build a branch line between Lymington and the Isle of Wight.

The rail would have left the Lymington branch line just north of Ampress, and run to the west of Buckland Rings and through Pennington, just south of the spot shown in this picture, where a new station was to be built, and then on towards Keyhaven. A spur to Milford, with a station, was also planned.

There was strong opposition to the scheme in Lymington. One of the main opponents was the mayor, Villiers Dent, who feared that Pennington would develop as a town at the expense of Lymington.

Frank Aman and other local businessmen formed the Keyhaven Syndicate in 1901 and started purchasing land in Pennington, Milford and the Isle of Wight to allow for the construction of the railway.

The line would have been 7.5 miles long, including a two and a quarter mile tunnel under the Solent. The line would have burrowed under Golden Hill on the Island, to emerge alongside the Yar estuary, where it would have joined the Freshwater to Yarmouth & Newport Railway.

It was to be lined with brick, apart from the section under the deepest part, where iron was to be used. Steam traction was to be used on the surface section of the line, but electric traction was proposed for the tunnel. This was because of the problem of the accumulation of smoke in the tunnel and the steep, 1 in 40 gradients at either end. A coal-fired power station was to be built on Keyhaven marshes, to generate electricity. The estimated cost of building the tunnel was £535,000, with the capital set at £600,000, to be raised by the issue of £10 shares

There was to be a pier and landing stage for ocean-going vessels, together with wharves. The steamers could discharge their goods and passengers, who could be transferred directly onto trains, without the need to go up Southampton Water.

In 1912 an experiment was conducted with the help of a local Lymington man, Peter Vince. A liner docked at Hurst Castle to unload mail, which was transported up the Keyhaven River by rowing boat, and transferred to a waiting car, which took the mail to Brockenhurst Station where it was loaded on to the London-bound train.

The five main promoters of the Solent Tunnel scheme:

  • The Right Hon Augustus Arthur, Earl of Egremont
  • Sir John Blundell Maple MP
  • Frank Gerard Aman
  • Richard William Evelyn Middleton
  • Robert Cunningham Murray

They bought the London and South Western Railway for £85,000, with the intention of turning the Lymington to Freshwater railway line from a branch line to a main line, to cater for the larger number of passengers hoping to get from the Isle of Wight and the ships docking at the Keyhaven pier to London as quickly as possible.

There were many people, aside from the investors, who were in favour of the Solent Tunnel. This included Mr Erksine Pollock, who when the matter was discussed before a Select Committee of the House of Lords, told them the Isle of Wight, except during the summer months, had no way of communicating with or reaching the mainland and vice versa between 5pm and 10am because the paddle steamers stopped.

Another organisation that supported it was the War Office who believed the tunnel would make the Isle of Wight easier to defend if it was invaded. However, they did want full control of the tunnel if it came to an invasion and a way to block the tunnel.

Whichever side of the argument for the Solent Tunnel people were on, it did not alter the fact that actually building the tunnel would be extremely difficult.

As the major railway construction was coming to an end it would not have been the ‘navvies’ – highly experienced men and boys who moved from railway to railway, blasting tunnels, laying track and constructing railway embankments – who would build the Solent Tunnel but rather inexperienced locals.

Although a lot of navvies came from an agricultural background, the work of a navvy was so physically demanding that it took a full year of constant work to become one and grow accustomed to the physical exertion required.

Tunnelling was the most dangerous part of the navvies’ job as they were working deep underground with gunpowder, often in nearly complete darkness and with the risk of the tunnel collapsing on top of them.

Along with the practical difficulties of tunnel building, the Solent Tunnel scheme was further hampered by the death of two of the main promoters, Sir John Blundell Maple and the Earl of Egmont.

Sir John Blundell Maple

In 1913, Sir Sam Fay, who now ran the Freshwater, Yarmouth and Newport Railway, was rumoured to be considering running trains from the North of England and the Midlands to the Isle of Wight. However, the start of the First World War in 1914 brought about the end of the Solent Tunnel Scheme.

Interest was revived by Frank Aman in 1923 when the Channel Tunnel was proposed, but the railway company showed no real interest. He tried one last time in 1935 with a poll of Isle of Wight residents, the majority of whom were in favour of the scheme, but didn’t want to pay for the Tunnel through an increase to their rates.

The Solent Tunnel Scheme was completely abandoned in 1939 at the start of the Second World War.

Share this:

Follow us on social media or join our newsletter

Get in touch with St Barbe

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.