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Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The Dark Side of Dimmingsdale.

 After mooring up below Swindon Lock we were soon on our and up through that one and Marsh lock close by.


On the left is the OS map from 1900 you can see that the tow path runs on the west side of the canal, right through the iron works and under the three canopies over it for sheltered cargo working. On the right is the OS map from 1921 with the works extended to the north and a tramway running along the old towpath that has been transferred to the east bank. The is a greater length for covered working too.

As soon as you are free of Marsh Lock I feel it is a little like the Leeds Liverpool Canal, but round the corner is the Botterham staircase Locks.

The Botterham Lock cottage has no real road access as the Smestow Brook is right behind it.

Helen is in the bottom of the two locks with the top lock looming above. They still have the original cast iron bridge at the foot of the lock. Not sure about the hand rail though!

Looking a little more like October in 2020 is the run up to Bumble Hole Lock with the sloping bridge just before it.

The next locks are the Bratch flight of three locks. Just at the foot of which is a lovely Victoria pumping house for the water works there, with towers gorbelling and coloured brick work effects. There was the inevitable short delay but we were soon been helped up the locks, that most people will know look like a staircase but there is a very short pound with side ponds between them.

The octagonal lock keepers house seems to be the star of the show, but there is another just down the cut at Stewpony and on the Smethwick pound in Birmingham. (Vandals burned it down as soon as it was rebuilt, so has gone to ruin last time I passed that way).

It was a lovely afternoon as we passed through Awbridge and Ebstree Locks and found a spot to moor up for the night just above Dimmingsdale Lock where there are a couple of berths on the off side.

It is a lovely spot with few comings and goings and we soon had the fire lit. and caught up with a few inside jobs.

Very close to where we were moored a boatman called Charles Stokes had just passed through the lock at on his way to Compton when at around 16:30 on Saturday 30th November he spied something odd at the mouth of the weir that led round the lock. Charles was the son of Henry and Annie who had been boat people themselves. In 1891 The three of them were in Chester aboard the ARENIG, Charles was one and Annie the only other crew. In the end Charles was the oldest of 5 all born in Wolverhampton except one born in Kinver (on a boat?).  He married Hannah Green and they had two lads. By the time of WWII they were ashore with Charles working as a carter for LMS and his sons working in the motor vehicle department for the same company. On the day in question we don't know what boat he was on but using his boat hook he soon realised that it was the body of a young girl floating face down. He left her there and hurried onward to Wightwick Lock where he alerted the Police.

The police hurried to the spot and recovered the body It turned out to be a young girl of between two and three with blond hair. She was wearing a saxe blue coat trimmed with grey fur with vest petticoat and liberty bodice and a strawberry coloured machine knitted dress with champagne or yellow coloured slippers with a pearl like button. So far very tragic but by no means uncommon as deaths in the canals by accident, suicide, or other, were not uncommon. What was not common that the body had been weighted down with a fire brick weighing around 6lbs that had been tied around her waist with a rope like a soldiers lanyard. The was she was dressed suggested that it was not the daughter of a boatman. The Police continued to drag the canal in case it was a double tragedy. Nothing else was found. No girls were reported missing.

The inquest was delayed several days to allow the Police enquiries to continue but eventually it was carried out. The pathologist stated the girl was well nourished and healthy and had been in the water for a week to a month. There were no signs of violence on the body and there were no distinguishing marks. He stated that it would not have been possible for her to tie the knots in the lanyard herself. Despite there been no water in the lungs or stomach he came the cause of death as probably drowning due to the cold water causing the lack of inhalation. The verdict was given as willful murder of a person unknown. On Friday 6th December the small body was buried at Tattenhall Church. Due to the kindness of a woman parishioner who took sympathy she was not buried in a paupers grave and a proper service took place. The casket was collected by by a hears drawn by two horses and escorted by members of the investigating police force. Superintendent Jeffery was also in attendance. There were several wreaths on the coffin and the plaque on the coffin stated 'Unknown child found drowned'.

The Police enquiries continued with them asking along the canal and taking the dead girls clothes in to schools along the canal to see if the children recognised them. Even more macabre was that they dressed a small girl in the same clothes and photographed her to post the pictures in several newspapers! However this tactic worked and the result was that the name of Elsie May Maiden, age 22, was put forward as the murderer. She was the youngest of three of John Maiden who was a shepherd on a farm near Shifnal. Her address was given as Manor Lodge Shifnal in Shropshire. The dead girl was said to be Beryl Gloria Maiden who was 2 and 7 months when she died. At her initial  arraignment at Wolverhampton on Monday 3rd February 1930 she was charged with the willful murder of Beryl between 26th October and 30th November. At the hearing there were large crowds outside the court and all available seats were taken as the case had received great publicity. Edith May was dressed in a blue coat edged with fur and a close fitting hat. She was accompanied by a prison Matron. She had been arrested by Superintendent Jeffery. She made no comment when charged. He father, brother and brother in law were present. Following information received Super. Jeffery and his wife went to an address, West Acre at Compton, to interview Elsie May. When questioned she stated that her daughter had been given to a couple in Walsall. When asked for the address she couldn't remember but told him that they had moved to London. She had put and advert out and had met them in a confectioners, but she had burned the letter. She also said that she had heard from them at Christmas and that the girl was fine. When shown a photograph of the girl she stated that it wasn't her daughter as she had dark hair, like herself. The policeman admitted at first he was inclined to believe her but when she admitted that she had taken her he told her that he was going to take her in for questioning she said; 'Oh I put her in myself, Oh, help me, what will they do to me, don't let them'. She was remanded to appear at the next Staffordshire assizes. The whole thing took eight minutes.

You can imagine if this had happened today, the mainstream and social media would have gone wild and the trial would be talked about everywhere, with many people having already made up their minds about the affair not knowing any facts.

The trial in Stafford took place on Tuesday 4th March and the story was revealed. The evidence of the police and pathologist was given and then new witnesses were called. It seems that Beryl was born 17th April 1927 and rejected straightaway by her mother, Elsie. The child's photograph was recognised by Rose Hope Symons who was a porter at Dudley Union Workhouse. She had been bought to the Workhouse by a Mrs. Beatrice Muriel Falkener of 2, Foundry Street, Princes End, Tipton. When questioned Mrs. Falkener stated she took her there as she was suffering from pneumonia and they could look after her better there. It seems that not long after Beryl's birth she had been given to the Falkener's as they has recently lost a baby son. She has stayed with them happily for about two years. Elsie May had occasionally sent along 10s to assist with the upkeep, but nothing regular. When she had been compelled to take Beryl to the Workhouse she had written to Elsie May but had received no reply. She wrote a second letter and indicated that she did not want the child, and never would. Eventually on 13th November 1929 Elsie May had gone to the Workhouse with her mother Edith Elizabeth Maiden to pick up the child. They then went to the home other other daughter, Mary Elizabeth Broxton at Shifnal where she lived for two to three weeks. The mother visited every day. One weekend Elsie May came along and said that she got upset every time she saw her daughter, and had found her another good home. The family went along with them to the station to see them off, but Beryl was never seen alive again. The proceedings were halted when Elsie May collapsed and had to be revived. She later gave evidence that she remembered getting off the the train at Wolverhampton and vaguely recalls taking a bus, but nothing else until she woke up in a hedge bottom near Dimmingsdale Bridge. The defense called a Doctor who stated that there was such a condition brought about by stress called masked or massed epilepsy that is manifested by mental rather than physical blackouts that could last from 3 to 4 hours to a day. Elsie May pleaded not guilty and following the Judge's summing up the jury retired. 80 minutes later the Foreman was asked by the Judge their findings and they admitted that they could not reach a verdict. The judge talked with them and after a further short deliberation the foreman stated that there was no chance that they would reach agreement. The Judge agreed and the jury was dismissed and a retrial at the Birmingham Assizes ordered. The press seemed to suggest that as there were two women on the jury there would never be agreement, and in those days a majority decision was not permissible.

Well what a roller coaster ride of emotions for the reader. First abhorrence at the abandoning of the child by her mother, then disgust at he being dumped at the workhouse. The hope that things would work out once Elsie May's mother and sister had got involved, and ultimate dread at the end result.

The retrial was heard at the Birmingham Court on Wednesday 19th March 1930. Elsie May was in the dock between two prison wardresses and looked extremely pale. The main body of evidence was rehashed and we learned that Elsie May had 'been company' with Laurence Tooth a couple of times a week and he had visited her in prison too. He was the same age and was the son of a baker in Tettenhall, Wolverhampton. Once again the jury withdrew and after a short time they reappeared. The Prison Doctor stood by Elsie May and supported her in the dock when the result was given.

There were great cheers when they found her not guilty. Her lawyer asked the judge for the formal dismissal of the case and once given she descended the steps of the dock into the courtroom and fainted into the arms of her mother. This was not the ending I had been anticipating when I started following this very sad case. I wanted to know the circumstances of the conception to know if that was the reason for the rejection. I wanted to know more about the ad hoc way that arrangements were made for children and I felt that Elsie May's fate would be sealed as a woman who was felt to have abandoned a child, never mind it resulting in that child's death. Throughout the trial Beryl was referred to as 'it', which sort of makes you realise where society was at the time.

I have looked to find Elsie May and it seems that she married a John Edward Elkes in 1933 at Shifnal. In 1939 he was a plumber and waterworks attendant living at the water works cottages at Stanton, Shifnal. He died in 1979 in Shifnal. Elsie May seems to have survived him and died at Shrewsbury in 1984. I can find no record of them having children.



Saturday, 27 February 2021

More wood for charcoal than coal for iron these days.

 Last October we were coming up to the end of out time on the canals for the year and were near the bottom of the Stourbridge Canal when we set off for another day.

Like all the best October days there was a special light and the sun was shining but still a little chill in the air. All it really needed was more brown and gold leaves on the floor and the smell of wood smoke in the air. The bottom end of this canal is quiet and pretty.

We were soon at the Stourton Locks, the first gives a lovely view for the gardens of the houses below it. The second ducks under the main road.

The third and fourth are in a lovely setting and with the junction being a little below makes a great spot for a bit of gongozzling. 

I have often wondered if folk really need signposts on the canals? There are not that many turnings or junctions so you wont have to put up with 'third on the left and the second right after the pub' stuff, never mind that most seem to go about glued to their phones these days anyway, on the GPS etc.

The aqueduct over the River Stour may not appear to be  over a major watercourse but can be a torrent in winter. Just by here is also the confluence with the Smestow Brook that the canal follows closely for a good period. The land that you can see is part of the Prestwood Estate. The house can not be seen from the canal, or at least I haven't, but it was an old established estate that belonged to the Lords of Dudley Castle until the 1550's. It was then sold to Sir John Lyttelton and then eventually sold on to Thomas Foley, the iron master. He settled it on to his son Philip. He rebuilt the house and the family lived there for the next 250 years. It was sold out of the family in the 1920's and became a tuberculosis sanatorium and later an old folks home with 40 beds. The other buildings around the main hose also seemed to have been converted to the same and are now under one management.

Just before the next lock is Gothersley Round House remains. 

The Smestow Brook valley was the location of many forges from Medieval times as there was a copious supply of charcoal.  Smestow used to be spelled Smestall untilthe 1800's and comes from the Anglo Saxon for 'Place of the Smiths'. The brook was the power for waterwheels and there seems to have been an iron works here since the mid 1650's rather than just a small forge. At this time it was part of the Foley Iron Empire. It developed further once Dud Dudley a great name for the illegitimate son of the 5th Baron of Dudley) had started the process of smelting iron using coal/coke rather than charcoal which was in short supply. It increased further when the Staffs. And Worcs. canal was built as the movement of coal limestone and iron ore and the finished products were much easier, so cheaper.

Gothersley Iron Works in 1903 showing the Round House by the canal.

In 1825 they were still puddling iron as they advertised for an overseer. It was to let as a wire rod mill a few years later but it stated that it could still be used for the charcoal iron trade and had a complete train for sheet metal and mechanical guide iron trade. (Does this mean rails for the railways, the first of which opened in 1825?). It was sold in 1833 and seems to be predominately a sheet iron producer. In 1838 a workman was killed by a piece of the flywheel that shattered and hit him in the head. The inquest found that the flywheel had been in poor repair for a while. Does this indicate that the upkeep of the works was not as it should be? The flywheel features in another incident in 1851 when a youth, who was employed to oil parts of machinery that were only accessible by somebody small, went missing. It was thought by the other men there that he had been sent on an errand by the foreman as happened. After four hours a search was made and he was eventually found at the bottom of the flywheel bit in a puddle of cold water. The flywheel was stopped and he was recovered, and found to be unconscious. This was very fortunate as if he had tried to escape the pit he would have been crushed by the wheel. He had had a part of his clothing snagged in some machinery and flung into the pit. He was recovering, so had obviously survived. In 1853 Joseph Maybury went bankrupt working the iron works at Gothersley, but it was still working as a sheet metal mill in 1877. In 1888 a woman was committed for stealing watercress from the mill pond where it had been planted as another source of income. Once more in 1890 the works was up for sale again. The wheel was described as a 25 HP breast driven water wheel with a fly and speed wheel. A sheet iron rolling train was there along with shears and moulding out and annealing furnace warehouse and other buildings.. It seems that it became redundant not too long after this and on the OS map of 1921 there is no trace of the works at all.

These are the remains of the Round House in 1989. 
It was built around 1805 and was for the wharfinger to live in to watch over the works wharf on the canal. As can be seen on the map above attached to the right hand side of the tower was another building that added to the accommodation. It must have been a busy place at one time as the Smestow Brook was so important that when James Brindley drew up the canal route he was prevented from interrupting the flow of the Brook and meant that he had to carry it it over the canal at Dunstall, Bridge 63. In Victoria's reign there were still 30 water wheels operating on the brook. The round house continued to be lived in after the works closed and up until the 1920's when it was left to decay. It was the site of nefarious acts so in the end it was made safe and the base left as a sort of picnic area.

The delight of this canal is enhanced by the regular outcrops of the sandstone of the area and after Gothersley Lock is Rocky Lock, well named

Next comes Greensforge Lock which reveals in the name past industry. There is also a chance to see one of the old mills on the other side of the Brook. We stopped for water but didn't stay for a visit to the Navigation pub that has been here for a few hundred years.  We stopped the other side of Hinksford Lock where ther is a pumping station that access the aquifer of the sandstone to provide water for Bilston when built.


Wednesday, 24 February 2021

A Boatmans Life.

 We had a lovely walk around the Buckpool and Fens reserves and ponds on a nice day and then we set off the next day to head down the Stourbidge locks.

The top locks is just by Leys Junction and between here and the next lock, on the offside, a new industry was set up at the end of the 1800's. Well new to the area, and taking advantage of the clays found in the coal seams around the area. This was the making of encaustic wall and floor tiles, that were the archetype Victorian tiles

At Lock 3 it looks like there should have been a wharf over by the road to the left of this photo, but I can see no evidence of one on old maps. That is despite there being Nagersfield old Colliery and the later  Nagersfield Brickworks just beyond. It would have been very convenient for a loading berth.

I'm pretty sure this is Lock 4.

And I have obviously gone back after preping the next lock to close up after the boat. The Samson and Lion Pub is just over on the right.

In September 1924 the body of Noah Webb was recovered from the canal near Lock 5. Noah was 62 but there was nothing unusual about finding bodies in the canal, from new born babies to aged folk, as the papers were full of suicides, murders and accidents. Hundreds and hundreds found their way into the canals. This is possibly why, as a child, my Mum always emphasised the dangers of the canal. What made this stand out was the fact that Noah was a well known boatman and had been born on a narrow boat and lived only about 200 yards away, so was the last person you would think would have ended up in the canal. He had been born in 1862 the eldest son of a boatman. They were living ashore in Ledbury, Herefordshire, so must have worked the Hereford and Gloucester Canal and River Severn.

By 1871 Henry and his with Eliza (from Tewksbury) were to be found on a narrow boat on Crescent Wharf, which was just by what is now Cambrian Wharf at the top of the Farmer's Bridge locks.  He was called a Master so I assume they owned it. Their boats name was the 'Henry and Anne', the names of their 2nd and third children. I expect that they must have another boat named 'Noah' too! By the next census Noah was a boatman, at 18 but his father was publican in Lower Delph. In 1880 Henry had six boats but through bad luck and bad trade he lost them all and got into debt. He seems to have been fiddled by the trusted person he used to wind up his affairs and he still owed money in 1888. He appears to have sold his boats to a man called Humphries,  In 1881 he was the publican at the Britannia beer house with his wife and seven children. It was in Lower Delph and he remained there 1878 until 1882. In 1885 he was working for Humphries but on ruinous terms as he went to work for him as boatman but on terms that he should pay for any repairs! In 1891 he was on a boat called 'Staffordshire' moored at Eton? It definitely says on the canal so maybe this was on the Slough Arm. He had his wife and four of his children, two sons 12 and 8 and two daughters 19 and 14, as well as a Mate called William West.

In 1881 Noah was 18 at home at the Brittania, but written as a boatman. In 1883 he married Emma Hollies in Dudley. In 1891 we find Noah on a boat called 'Samuel' moored at Silvertown, West Ham, London. This is part of the Royal Docks estate and was probably there for a cargo of sugar. He just had a Mate with him, Thomas Parsons age 16. Meanwhile his wife and six children were at home at the Delph waiting for him. By 1901 they had taken a beer house, The Stores, in 1900, but Noah was still heading off on the boats, so was probably just to give his wife something to do! As if she needed anything else to do with all the children. The first pub was opened in an old shed to serve the navvies that constructed the new locks that opened in 1858 and was found close by the bottom of the flight. It was knocked down in 1938 and a new pub built called the tenth lock. In turn that has been demolished this year and bungalows are to be built on the site. Eventually they had 13, of which 9 survived. However between 1905 and 1911 Emma died and Noah is found at the Stores still but also as a boatman. There were still 8 children at home. 

I think that Noah may have been the first steerer of the steam narrow boat 'Vulcan' that worked between Birmingham and London as a fly boat working general cargo in 1908. He would be working to Fellows Morton and Clayton account at that time. Noah seems to have started to make his way with his haulage business by 1911 as his eldest son was a horse driver at 25, next a boatman on the canal next another horse driver and another working on the boats. It was said that at one time he owned 40 horses and nearly as many boats. He seemed to be a regular on the run to London and was a recommended carrier by the Stourbridge Canal Co. In 1912 he was fined 2s 6d for contravening the Canal Boat Act. One of his boats was found at Tipton not having a Registration Certificate,  not supplied with a water can and no bilge pump. Noah Webb, in his defense, stated that normally this boat would have been on the London run, and would then be fitted with all this equipment but presently it was going to Cannock for coal and as the men did not live aboard it he did not think it necessary. He also ran a carting business in the area, coal and slack from pits to wharves mainly. He seems to have been a bit of a character as he was fined for being drunk in his own pub, and was lucky to keep the licence! He was also found guilty of cruelty to his horses and in 1911 was fined £5 and the cost of putting a horse down. The fine was high as he had been caught several times. He also lost a horse in an unusual way as it was swallowed up in a 25' x 8' x 6' hole that appeared due to subsidence near his pub. It fell and broke its neck, so was buried where it lay. 

I glimpse at the trials of a boat owner were revealed in a court case of 1911. Noah Webb had given Joseph Adams £7 10s on a Friday to take a pair of boats and two horses to London and back, with his wife and two men. He heard rumours and headed to Birmingham to find the two boats and everything other than the steerer! He then went his home and when questioned vaguely stated that he got off the boat and 'lost' the money so couldn't continue. Noah then gave him a further 30s and told him he had to start the trip on Saturday morning. Noah checked the next day and he was still there so he employed somebody else at £6 to take the boats. In court Noah stated that he could make £1 a day from his boats. He was claiming £10 from Adams. The Court granted him the £10 but at 10s per fortnight. Four months later he was back in court as he had only received 7s and Adams was given 40 days in prison as well as the 10s per two weeks.

Over his life in the area Noah Webb was documented as pulling at least 2 bodies out of the canal and now it was his turn to end up there. He had been to the pub to pay his 'club' money but everybody styated he was sober when he left in the evening. He was greeted by passers by a couple of times but ended up in the canal about 200 yards from his home. It just goes to show we all need to take care on locks and by the canal.

We are now down to Locks 9 and 10. These two are as close as you can get to been a staircase pair, but they do have a tiny pound between them. There are great views down the cut to Dadford's Shed and the Red House bottle kiln.

Looking back at the pair of locks 9 and 10.

Known as Dadford's shed it was a transhipment shed for the basin alongside. Dadford was the builder of the canal.

There are still several glass cones surviving in the area, but this one at Redhouse Glassworks is the best preserved at the old Stuart Crystal works/museum. Over the road is the Whitehouse Glassworks museum, and there were several more works in the area.

The old flour mill a little past the glass cone would have been a source of traffic for the canal judging by the warehouse doors in the centre of the building. It has now been converted to flats.

At Wordsley Junction we continued straight on. The trip down the arm to the Bonded Warehouse and Stourbridge is well worth it, but no time on this voyage.

Helen heading off without me! Just a little past the bridge is a small aqueduct over the River Stour. We didn't go much further and found a length of piling with a view across to New Wood.


Saturday, 20 February 2021

Brick by Fire Brick.

 We set off the next day in light mizzle with the forecast set to brighten up somewhat and we didn't have far to go on this October day in 2020

We were soon at the top of the Delph Locks. The lock behind was on the original site but as you can see the old route veered off to the left. After the old flight closed the arm still served lime kilns and a saw mill. The locks in the flight in view were opened in 1858 and make a lovely run up or down. I always say on the blog when we pass this way, that if they were out in the country somewhere flocks of tourists would be gongoozling but hardly a soul saw us pass. Admittedly it wasn't ideal weather for it.

In November 1880 the top lock, behind me in this picture, was the scene of a lock rage incident. Samuel Hollis was coming up the flight and was approaching the top lock with his hand Thomas Bates. At the same time Joseph Foster and his mate Charles Wells were approaching from the top! There was the inevitable dispute about who would take the lock, but it couldn't be resolved and Hollis opened the top p[addles and Foster the bottom ones. And the argument continued. Meanwhile the pound with the timber yard on, Roberts and Cooper Co. filled and eventually flooded the yard. Mr. Cooper sped up to sort it out, but Hollis said it's nothing to do with me 'he opened the bottom paddles'. And of course Foster said it was nothing to do with , 'he opened the top paddles!'. In the end one of the yard workers found a windlass and closed the paddles. They were taken to court for wasting BCN water. The maximum fine was £5, but they were fined 25s plus costs each.

The old stables is now used for the volunteers etc. I'm not sure why there would be a stables along the flight, but then again why now! It seems to have been builot around WWI. There was a toll house below lock No.4 until the same time when it moved to next to the top lock.
In 1863 there was another case of lock rage that didn't end well. William Knibbs was on his way up at No.5 lock. John Male, the Nine Locks Lock Keeper was with him. Cornelius Wood was from a boat descending and was sent down by his steerer to ready the lock but had to return with the bad news. The steerer was David Allport stormed down demanding the reason why he wasn't given the lock. As he passed William, who was sitting on the lock beam, he gave his a push and he fell in the lock. The water was 15' down and 5' deep. They fished him out pretty quickly but he was found to be dead. He was put on a cart and taken to his house Rock's Hill which was close by the bottom of the flight. A subsequent autopsy found that he had drowned but had received a blow on the back of the head that must have knocked him out. Allport was eventually taken to Stafford Assizes and in March 1864 found guilty of manslaughter. The jury said there should be leniency though and he was given 6 months hard labour.

I love the waterfall by-washes that really roar in wet weather. You can clearly see the route of the old locks to the right.


At the bottom of the flight are these two arms. They accessed the Delph Firebrick factory. The second arm wasn't built until after WW1. On the other bank was a gas works.

This area of Brierley Hill seems to specialise in the production of Firebricks. The clay for these was one of the seams that was below the coal mines of the area. So although the coal may have been worked out the pits still provided the clay. Behind these offside moorings can be seen old brick ovens of part of a subsidiary of the Brettell Lane Works

The main Brettel Lane Works were accessed from the canal via a wide arm that left the canal here. They were owned by George King Harrison, a self made Victorian. He was born not far away at Coalbournebrook, Amblecote, and was put into banking at the Stourbridge and Kidderminster Bank by his father. However he soon got into commerce with his cousin William King Perrens when they took over existing fire clay works in Lye. They extended and modernised and bought others in Cradley and Wilencote that came with coal mines too. In 1866 they took on a small firebrick works on Brettell Lane and then purchased old pits at Nagersfield and Hawbush close by. They rebuilt the Brettell Lane plant and made it the finest fire clay factory in the area. An electric tramway was built from the Nagersfield pit, to the north, to the new plant. In 1875 Perrens retired and GKH continued to run the business until a couple of year before he died in 1906.

Fire Bricks being loaded.


The basin to the Brettell Lane works can be seen bottom right with the factory and kilns around them, along with the tramway going under Brettell Lane and heading to the top left corner and Nagersfield.

This monument is next to the canal on Brythill Drive that is just past the Brettell Road Bridge. As well as the numerous fire brick works here about just by the bridge there was also an iron and steel plant, and on the off side was a chain and anchor works. Maybe this is what the anvil represents on the top. This is on the disused  colliery on the bend just above Brettell Lane bridge in the map above.

We were soon at Leys Junction and for the first time turned right up the Fens Branch to have a look see. An adventure.

I haven't witnessed lock rage on quite the above scale, but it has been mighty close to fisticuffs several times. I always try to remember that most people on the canals are reasonable folk, but the odd idiot who thinks the world revolves round them is not worth losing your cool over. Just think of the first case in this blog!


Monday, 15 February 2021

Bye Bye Brum.

 After another great stay in Birmingham our schedule meant that we had to move on. It turned out that we did a fair bit longer than we had planned.

The New Main could found to be boring as it is wide and fairly straight and very rarely has any distant views, if any. However there is plenty to see along the way, and once you have plied the route a few times it is easy to tick off the miles as you pass them. Here we have passed the Winson Green Soho Loop and the Soho factory site, and Smethwick Junction and are just passing the toll bar and gauging dock just before the Engine Arm aqueduct that carries water for the system from Rotton Park Reservoir. It is a shame that the greenery has been allowed to grow on the toll island is it will only damage the brick work.

This photo shows why the canals are often styled a green lung or corridor as the greenery cuts off the bustling city beyond, cuts out much of the noise and pollution and brings in the birds and mammals that you can hear and spot as you travel along. The Smethwick pump house is just round the corner.

Having passed through the Galton tunnel and under the majestic Galton Bridge you pass through the cutting by Chance's glassworks and soon pass under the old main line on the Steward Aqueduct. Then is the modernist view of the M5 motorway with its feet planted in the canal and futuristic advertising screen  above.

At Dudley Port Junction we turned left into the Netherton Branch. On the turn  off the New Main Line was the old Groveland Colliery that was disused soon after the canal was cut through to the tunnel. On the right are the toll cottages and in the middle  of the canal can be seen the toll island. The bridge in front is the Tividale Aqueduct where the old Main Line crosses over and on the left was the Hullbridge Colliery.

The Netherton Tunnel was the last large tunnel to be built on the canal system and it was built for two way traffic with a towpath on each side. It was desperately required because of the bottleneck caused by the Dudley Canal Tunnel. This was a single way tunnel, with not towpath and with only about 6' height above the water. Legging through could take 3 and 12 hours and sometimes days when the water levels were low. All boats had to raise up three locks to approach the Dudley Tunnel and then drop down three to regain the canal system again, been very wasteful of water.

In 1855 an Act of Parliament was sought to construct a canal between the New Main Line and the Dudley Canal of 21/2 miles with a tunnel under the Rowley Hills of 3020 yds long. the Canal would be 27' wide. This was largely made possible by the facility of the London and Northwestern Railway Co guaranteeing the investment at 4%. They had done the same in 1884 to the sum of £2 million and had never needed to use it as the dividend paid had always been above this. This time they would ensure that the investment of £200,000 was covered. They considered that to improve the Dudley Tunnel would be £1000,000, but they may as well have a new tunnel built to modern standards. The original estimates were that to drive the tunnel would be £170,000, to purchase the required land would be £12,000, and sundry other costs£56,000. The Act gave them permission to impose a toll of 4d a ton of cargo through the tunnel until the construction was paid for. The required Parliamentary Acts were quickly acquired and by October tenders were being sought for construction of the canal and tunnel.

The first sod was cut by Lord Ward who was a major landowner in the area with mines and pits galore. (Most sources seem to give the date of turning the first sod as 31st December for some reason, but the report was in the paper on 29th and as can be seen below the spade used was inscribed with 28th December). In fact at the start he had been against the construction as it would affect his lands, but had been won over by the fact that his businesses would prosper due to the great amount of trade and cheaper freight charges. It was thought that the freight on the carriage of coal would reduce by 1s 6d per ton once the tunnel and canal was completed. He was presented with a spade inscribed with 'Presented to the Right. Hon. Lord Ward for purpose of turning the first sod of the new canal and tunnel to be called Netherton Tunnel on Friday 28th December 1855'. On the reverse it said ' Sir. George Nicholls. KCB Chairman, Messrs. Walker, Cooper and Bringes, Engineers and Mr. George Meakins, Contractor.. After the initial ceremony they company of 300/400 adjourned to a pavilion near the Oakum site, where Lord Ward gave a lengthy speech about the history of the iron trade of the area, it gowth being linked with the growth of the canal and rail systems, and admitted that he was anti the tunnel and canal at first but was one over by the benefits to trade to be brought about by it. Sir Nicholls responded and invited Lord Ward to again dine with them in two years time when the canal was to be completed. They then left to attend a meal at the Dudley Arms Hotel where 200 sat down and following the meal and after the Loyal toasts had many speeches starting to the landlords and Lord Ward, the Iron and coal masters, the engineers and many any more. In fact the 'party' did not break up until the small hours!

Construction started at both ends and seventeen shafts dug down from the surface between 160 and 200 ft apart. The land above the tunnel was changed for ever by the spoil brought up from the tunneling. The tunneling was dangerous and nine were killed and eighteen seriously injured. Five died by being hit by skips falling down the shafts. One time the foreman was rising up the shaft from below when a skip, which I take to be a small rail wagon for moving the spoil, fell down the shaft and struck him in the lifting tub!. It was felt that these numbers were acceptable at the time. The number of men employed at the site also brought problems for the local community due to the drinking, violence and thievery that went on. They must have also brought money to the economy though. By November 1857 the BCN realised that they would need to raise more capital as they were over running the budget.  A further £25,000 was required to purchase old mines and £10,000 more for other land. There was also the cost of obtaining the new Act to increase the funding at £10,000. A further £30,000 was required for the cutting of the tunnel and the rest was required to by the interest on the loans until the new canal started earning money.With the construction of the tunnel trouble had been found with the geology of the district as well as the hillside being riddled with old mine workings. Practically they found that they needed to line the tunnel for three quarters of its length and massive buttresses at the entrances. However they only had 470 yards left of tunneling. They required a further £100,000 of capital and again the LNW Railway gave security on the full amount.

The construction missed the original delivery date of December 1857 and by February 1858 they were expecting to be completed by early summer that year. It was eventually on Friday 20th August 1858 that the canal and tunnel were ceremonially opened. The BCN officials and some invited guests boarded seven narrow boats at Broad Street and with much fanfare and with banners and flags flying they departed sailed to Dudley Port. Here they paused to take on more guest that had arrived via the train. They then proceeded through the tunnel, the banks of the new canal being thronged by the workers. The passage took 24 mins and once at the other end Sir Nicholls stood stood at the bow of his boat and raised the toast to the success of the tunnel. The captains of the boats then uncorked their large stock of good wine and other refreshments and there was general merriment to return the toast. After a brief  stop they continued down the canal. As well as the opening of the Netherton Branch Canal and Tunnel the party were off to celebrate the opening of the Two Lock Line that provided a short cut on the Dudley Canal, missing out the Blowers Green lock and shortening the distance for through boats. Having dropped down the two locks they continued to The Delph where another opening was to take place. This was the newly constructed flight of six locks that descended to the level of the Stourbridge Canal. The top and bottom locks remained but the original middle seven were reduce to six. From the top of the flight they boats then turned and headed for the Park Head Locks at the mouth of the Dudley Canal. Here they left on foot for the Dudley Hotel once again. Two hundred again sat down to a banquet and many more were treated to an excellent repast on the seven boats that were moored at the Lodge Farm Reservoir.

In the beginning the tunnel was lit by Gas light. The cost of installation was to be over £37 and it was estimated that it would consume a million cu ft of gas a year. It was later lit by electricity and this photo must have been taken then unless lit for a special occasion. The electricity was generated by a little hydroelectric plant that took water from the Old Main Line at Tividale Aqueduct near the northern portal. The power house was a little brick building on the toll island. I'm not sure when it was left unlit, probably since the 1950's, but you only have the light of seven ventilation shafts of the seventeen that are left open now.

By September that year there were 1000 boats passing through the tunnel every day but the next year it was revealed that the takings from the new tunnel did not cover the interest on the loan, short by £1000 to £1500, but the BCN continued to pay a dividend over over 5% as trade over the whole system grew due to the through trade created. Following the completion we have an insight into the items used in the construction of the canal and tunnel as various sales were held for surplus equipment. In March 1858 George Meakin had for sale 20 short legged superior and powerful cart horses and all their harness and a year after the completion he had horizontal engines and their boilers, 6 mortar pans with rollers and shafts etc, 3 flat colliery chains 200 yds long 6" iron pump, 1 horse mortar mill, one pug mill, circular saw bench with blades, 16" lathe, 60 wrought iron skips, 40 wooden skips and 50 pit trolleys. It shows what a large enterprise it had to be, and what good profit Meakin must have made to auction off this equipment at the inevitable loss from when he purchased them!




Just two of the original 17 construction/ventilation shafts of the Netherton Tunnel. I feel a walk coming on next time we pass to find them all.. On the left is one in the middle of a roundabout in Tividale and the other is in housing on Packwood Road.

It is two way working but still if on your own the length of the tunnel means that sometimes you lose concentration and need all the width! The tow paths are gated. Indeed in 1933 people who wandered in to the tunnel were fined for cycling in the tunnel, but I suppose they only lock the gates when they are working on one side or another as it would be a long way to go back if you got half way! The tunnel has had various repairs and at on time it was closed due to vapour and 'fug' from phosphorus. It seems that there was a ghostly light emitted by the gas too. It was being dumped in an old pit nearby so whether it leaked out of the boats, or through the ground I'm not sure.

The tunnel access come in from the top right corner and this map of 1884 shows just how busy and industrial the area would have been and was also a crossroads with the Dudley canal No.2 Canal heading off to the bottom right, through the Lappal Tunnel and joining the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. The Dudley No.1 Canal heads off down at the bottom to join up with the Stourbridge Canal and to the top left is an arm to more pits and works. The Bumble Hole loop was part of the old canal before the new, and straight, tunnel access cut it off.

We were considering stopping at windmill End, but decided to carry on after stopping to top up with water, despite the rain.

Brewin's Tunnel was dug in 1838 and passed through an igneous intrusion. It caused a bottle neck to boats so in 1858 it was opened up with just the high level bridge left. This would be one of the construction sites that the boats carrying the dignitaries from the opening of the the Netherton Tunnel would have seen on their trip.

There was plenty of room at the Waterfront near Merryhill so availed ourselves. There was a trip to the shopping, one to the Batham's brew house and the following day a cooked breakfast at the Wetherspoon's opposite. Always a pleasure to stop here. My mouth has started watering at the thought of a pint of Batham's now!!