The Tower on Sunny Hill

The Tower, Sunny Hill, Milford
1839 – Listed Grade II

The Tower, also known as Stephenson’s Tower, is square in plan, and is sited over Milford Tunnel, at the very top of Sunny Hill. It is four storeys in height and has openings on each floor and is, at present, roofless. The Tower was built c.1839 by the North Midland Railway Company, at the time when Milford Tunnel was being driven through The Chevin, when the section of the railway line between Derby and Belper, which opened in 1840, was being constructed.

The Tower, Sunny Hill, Milford

The Tower is a real landmark for Milford residents and, due to its elevated position, can be seen clearly from afar, especially from the eastern edge of the Derwent Valley. For many years it was believed that it had served as a siting tower to survey the line. More recently it was proposed that it was a semaphore tower, used in the early days when there was only one line going through the tunnel, to display signals to indicate to engine drivers using the tunnel whether the line was clear.

A new study, by railway engineer and industrial historian Ian Castledine, based on the extant archaeological evidence, suggests neither of these earlier theories are correct. It now appears that the tower was built to house a vertical steam winding engine for raising waste material from nearby shafts during the building of the tunnel, in order to hasten its construction. One such shaft now used for ventilation can be found immediately south of The Tower on the golf course.

The line’s engineers were George and Robert Stephenson, assisted by Frederick Swanwick. Vertical winding engine houses of this type were not unusual in the coalfields of the North East of England, from where the Stephenson’s hailed, so it is likely this technology would have been familiar to them.

Ian Castledine delivered a paper on this subject to the Second International Early Engines Conference held at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley in October 2021. It can be read here. Courtesy of the International Early Engine Conference, copyright of Ian Castledine and the IEEC, for personal use only.

It should be noted that The Tower is on private land and so cannot be accessed from Sunny Hill/North Lane. It is only 50 yards from the track though and so can be readily seen from there.