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Report (Permission Visit) - Nelson Research Laboratories' Tunnel, Stafford, 2012 | Underground Sites | 28DaysLater.co.uk

Report (Permission Visit) Nelson Research Laboratories' Tunnel, Stafford, 2012


Fuzzball

28DL Full Member
28DL Full Member
Hello!
I had a delve into some photos from years past and found a couple of snaps from a short permission-visit of a short tunnel under Stafford Uni. I had at the time thought about posting these but was waiting to access another part of the tunnel system and take better pictures of both. However, none of that materialised, and the pictures quickly disappeared into time, until recently. So here's those snaps and some British computer/electrical development history and Stafford trivia concerning it. It's text and archive heavy, but there are some pictures of my visit, too! I'd also love to know if anyone also visited this place or has any further or updated info on it all! :D At the bottom of this page, I've added links to the excellent websites which contain the info (and more) for this mini-report.

During my time at Staffordshire University's Stafford campus (called Beaconside), I'd heard that there was a cold-war era tunnel rumoured to exist under the uni that led to both the MOD base next-door as well as the satellite campus up the road...and potentially beyond! It all sounded too cool to be true: A uni with a secret cold-war era abandoned thingy underneath?? Riiiiiight. And inevitably, a dull reality-check seemed proven when a uni official confirmed that there was no such thing. Damn. However, there were...subtle...indications shuffling around that there could well be the remains of some sort of subterranean facility. There's the not-so secret history of the Beaconside campus hosting R&D of fledgling computer technology in the late '50s to the late '60s, some of the resulting computer tech being on permanent exhibition in the uni's School of Computing. Then there was a WW2 connection to the nearby satellite campus... But, still despite this rich history there was no sign of a tunnel/bunker etc anywhere on campus. Ho hum. But, while in my last year at the uni, I got talking to a security guard, who one evening casually asked if I'd visited "the tunnel under the library"....(!!!!) Fast forward a week and myself, plus an intrigued housemate, found ourselves in said "does-not-exist" tunnel. Lucked out.

Stafford has quite an impressive and profound history regarding electrical technology. It apparently started when Siemens built a factory in the town in 1901. However, In 1919, as part of war reparations, Siemens' UK assets (including the Stafford factory) were funnelled into the creation of English Electric. After WW2, EE set-up the Nelson Research Laboratories two miles east of Stafford, in a disused WW2 aircraft engine testing facility in Blackheath Covert. These old buildings were somewhat unfit for purpose and there's some amusing anecdotes of how resident rodents frequently caused damage to the computers. After the NRL moved out and the old buildings demolished, the rebuilt and renamed site - now Blackheath Lane - became the nursing and midwifery schools of Staffordshire University in 1992.

And speaking of Stafford Uni. The campus was simply farming land called Beacon Hill until the early 1960s when the Staffordshire College of Technology was built (at the behest of EE). This became a polytechnic in 1972 and the area was renamed as Beaconside. As well as EE's Blackheath Site, EE also raised a three-winged building at the fringes of the Beaconside College campus. visible on vintage maps as the Nelson Research Laboratories. EE created the DEUCE computer system which was tested at both these NRL labs. What's more, when NRL vacated the three-winged building in the '80s - two wings were demolished and the remaining wing was absorbed by the College and became the campus' Nelson Library. It's this library that I camped-out in most nights during my final year of assignments and is where I befriended the security guard. It's also where the useful section of the tunnel could (can still be???) accessed. These maps (Library of Scotland, Oldmaps.co.uk, Google) depict the same area showing the growth of the sites.

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1950s. The Beacon Hill (now Beaconside) is left and Blackheath Covert (and Lane) right.

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1960s slightly zoomed-in view of the same area from map above.
New College campus on left. Nelson labs (far left) and labs on BlackHeath Lane (far right).

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1980s. Slightly zoomed out from previous map.
The College is now a Polytechnic. Nelson labs is now the library building (under the Depot)
And Nelson labs on Blackheath Lane (perhaps abandoned?) still remain for now.


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Circa early 70s. Blackheath Lane Nelson Laboratories.
Potentially some of the old brick WW2 buildings also appear on site?
The entrance to the tunnel would/is most likely a brick hut to the left of this picture.


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Circa early 70s. Blackheath Lane Nelson Laboratories. Same car-park.
The newly-extended College or Polytechnic main building can be seen in the distance on right.


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The College in 1964 just after opening.
The Nelson Labs can be seen at top-right and the middle wing of that block of those labs is the one that remains today.
The stairs to the tunnel might likely then have been just behind that inset frontage.
The warehouse-type buildings to the left still remain
to this day and can be seen at the top left of the picture below.


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The former College/Polytechnic/Uni campus today(ish). Weston Road is just out of shot at the bottom of this picture.
The Octagon used to house the School of computing and exhibited items from EE and Nelson Labs' work.
The remaining Nelson Lab wing can be seen top-right under the car park.


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Today. The former university's Octagon School of Computing is bottom left. The library (and former Nelson Labs) are now a Nursery. Nursing campus and former Labs.
The red line indicates the route of the tunnel accessible (at least when I visited).
The pinkish line indicates the tunnel I haven't been able to see and which might or might not be accessible and where it likely terminates. Could there be further branches??


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This is the remaining wing of the former Beaconside Labs, once the Uni's Nelson Library, now a nursery.
The tunnel was accessed underneath the main stairwell to the far left of the building.


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The nurses' and midwifery block of the former uni on Blackheath Lane.
This was the site of the secret 1940s labs and later Nelson labs.
The most probable entry to the tunnel is apparently the brick hut with the red door.
Contrast this view with the first picture from the '70s taken from roughly the same spot.

So.... now the tunnel itself, finally. To access was simply to descend a flight of stairs below the main internal staircase inside the Library. Usually the tunnel staircase had a partition around it. When at the base of this stairs in the basement, there was a short narrow corridor stacked with old chairs and tables which then opened out into the view below. The tunnel itself wasn't the most exciting thing in the world, but after so long of wondering about this place, it was satisfying to know that loitering around the uni after graduating and getting an SU job had also led to finally seeing the tunnel!
There didn't seem to be any indication of the tunnel's former use or any stuff to get excited about, sadly. And the fact it was blocked-off was a bit disappointing, but still..... very atmospheric!
What was particularly cool was that the further the tunnel extended out from under the library, the wetter and more decayed the tunnel got. As soon as the tunnel was without the protective foundations of the Library, the bare land above made it's presence felt. The regimented strip-lighting devolved from fully functional to useless, rusted, gooey splodges of metal.

The tunnel seemed a very simple construction of a metal framework assembled above was could have been a cut-and-cover trench, before being bricked at the sides and then topped with concrete slabs.

As for the usage of the tunnel itself and how old it is, well it'll of been when the Labs were built with the College in 1964, as there was nothing on-site before then. It's doubtful therefore that these tunnels would have been around when Blackheath was being used in the 1940s, despite the work there being top-secret. Most likely these tunnels would have simply been a convenient way of strolling between the two Lab sites while musing over "mainframe store parity errors caused by rats", adjusting your bow tie and smoking a pipe, while cutting-edge computer development took place at either end.
Mad Men meets the IT Crowd. (Or in America it'd be The M.I.T Crowd perhaps).

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Looking down the tunnel to Blackheath as we entered from the library.


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The bricked-up entrance to the branch that led into the MOD section (I think that area is now a Police college).


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The bricked-up end which used to lead to Blackheath Lane. The brickwork actually seemed fairly recent(?)


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Looking back towards the Library entrance.
The blocked-off branch to the MOD is to the right in this pic. And behind the camera is the other blocked-off bit.


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Yummy icing and crumbly metal pastry.

----- BONUS TRIVIA ROUND -----
English Electric was absorbed into GEC the Group in 1968. Incidentally, the GEC was in partnership with Alsthom. They operated this former EE factory and social club in Stafford on St Leonard's Avenue, until it closed in 2018 and was then demolished. Did anyone explore this place (pictured below) while it was abandoned?

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A D.E.U.C.E computer drum. This was one of the exhibits featured in a cabinet at the School of Computing at Staffs Uni for the
Staffordshire University Computing Futures Museum.
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.

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The DEUCE mainframe computer in an imagined setting.

So, who was Nelson? To me, Nelson will always be the mysterious barman in the series Life on Mars. But anyway, Nelson was a clearly respected managing director of EE in the 1930s.

Further reading. After having a nose into some more history about Computing and electronics in Stafford, it turns out that there's further connections to our old and sorely missed friend Pyestock NGTE,
together with Marconi and many other firms and establishments which have contributed to technology, society and provided the odd abandoned site here and there.

Thanks for having a ganders, and try to remain calm.
 

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Fuzzball

28DL Full Member
28DL Full Member
Very detailed and thorough report it has to be said! Good effort :thumb
Oh, tanks very much! :-) All archive credit goes to the two guys who wrote the history on those websites though, otherwise I'd have been stumped as there's not much else online about Nelson Labs, and still seems like the libraries in Staffordshire are shut. Perhaps there's further info and photos in some book! I wish I had more photos though! But then, it was only a short stretch of tunnel left. It'd be fantastic if there is more tunnel still accessible. Might be worth contacting the owners of the former uni site perhaps to see.
 

myke

28DL Full Member
28DL Full Member
First picture looks to have a high pressure gas main and regulator on the right so still in use for services at that time and if still in use will have to be accessible.
Well researched post shame you could not acces further
 

Fuzzball

28DL Full Member
28DL Full Member
[/QUOTE]
First picture looks to have a high pressure gas main and regulator on the right so still in use for services at that time and if still in use will have to be accessible.
Well researched post shame you could not acces further
Yes! I forgot to mention that I saw that while down there. This is a very good point! Perhaps that's why part of that tunnel was kept in operation, as well as for storage.
Indeed, it was a curtailed thrill. But, I'm heading back up to Staffs to visit a friend so I might make some enquiries and see if I learn anything new. I'll post any new developments or potential visits on here in case anyone wants to have a look as well.
 

raisinwing

28DL Regular User
Regular User
Cool report, enjoyed reading that! Certainly worth a bit more noseying.

Coincidentally I was only reading about the Nelson Research Laboratories the other week, as I believe it was a kind of sister site to the complex up near Kidsgrove?
 

Fuzzball

28DL Full Member
28DL Full Member
Cool report, enjoyed reading that! Certainly worth a bit more noseying.
Coincidentally I was only reading about the Nelson Research Laboratories the other week, as I believe it was a kind of sister site to the complex up near Kidsgrove?
Thanks! I'm not from a computer or programming background myself, so this was and is new to me. It seems like there's only one or two people recording this history as well, so it's one of those cases whereby we'd have nothing to go on with if they hadn't done the original research. Cool! What else did you find out? Anything related to this place? Or maybe some other facilities that may still exist in some form? Kidsgrove was where the production model of DEUCE was built, and sold by EE, I believe. Now it's the Nelson Industrial Estate, which seems to be mostly houses. By the way, this was a DEUCE being tested in the Beaconside/Beacon Hill Nelson labs, though i'm not sure where this particular room would have been in that three-winged complex.

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Absolutely, i'm going to nose some more, seems worth it potentially! It's such a fascinating history anyway, I'd forgotten just how rich Stafford's history is. You had two large asylums there, there's a prison, loads of factories, there's the MoD, the research labs, even a frickin' secret WW2 manufacturing base.... and it's quite a small place, is Stafford!
I really miss the Nelson Library. I first listened to and got into the electronica duo Boards of Canada while studying there, and their tracks are all about science and nostalgia. Plus the Library had a "tech dungeon" where obsolete video and film kit was kept, it was a dusty old room adjacent to the staircase to the basement/tunnel. A friend and I played one of the UMATIC tapes we found at the abandoned RAF Honiley / Lucas labs in Warwickshire. It was a tape depicting a wireframe animation of an engine and was made in 1982! Really cool.
Damn... I miss that library. I spent like two years in that building on mini adventures!!

Anyway, rambling aside, I'd like to find out if there's other entries to the tunnel and its current status, plus whether there's any further plans or images of the Labs. Be nice to have some further info to add at some point and give a bit more visually to the story. Post if you find anything too!
 

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