The Birmingham Canal Navigations

The canal was built to transport coal from the Black Country coalfields in the Wednesbury area into Birmingham. James Brindley surveyed a possible route in 1767 and in the following year an Act of Parliament was Passed to allow the construction to go ahead. The route followed Brindley's survey from Birmingham to Wednesbury, then on to Bilston via Bradley and to Wolverhampton and Aldersley Junction on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.

A company letterhead.

Broad Street Basin, Wolverhampton and the first lock in the flight of 21 down to Aldersley Junction.
The circuitous route followed the natural contours to avoid as much large-scale engineering work as possible, and the total distance of 12½ miles as the crow flies was covered in just over 22½ miles.

After the Act had been Passed, James Brindley was appointed as engineer to the newly formed Birmingham Canal Company, and work soon got underway. The section from Birmingham to Wednesbury opened on 6th November, 1769 and the canal reached Wolverhampton in August 1771.

All that now remained was the difficult 1½ mile section to Aldersley Junction which involved a drop in height of about 150ft. It required a flight of 21 locks and took about 13 months to complete. During this time relations between the Birmingham Canal Company and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Company became somewhat strained, because the Birmingham canal didn't reach Aldersley Junction until 4 months after the opening of the Staffs & Worcs Canal. This section opened on 21st September, 1772, just 8 days before Brindley's death.

The last lock (number 21) before Aldersley Junction.

The Birmingham canal was a great success. Large quantities of coal, limestone, sand and Rowley ragstone were transported far more cheaply and quickly than ever before, benefiting both the canal company and the mining companies alike. The canal company would go on from strength to strength as the canal expanded and other canal companies were taken over.

The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal

The canal was originally planned in 1782 to connect the Black Country coalfields around Wednesbury to Coventry, in order to capture some of the lucrative coal haulage work from the Birmingham Canal Company.

The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal.

The two canals would be in direct competition and this resulted in many battles in Parliament as the Birmingham Canal Co. vigorously opposed the new venture. Eventually an agreement was reached and the proposed route was shortened to run from the Coventry Canal to a junction with the Birmingham Canal in the centre of Birmingham. This ensured that the coal traffic would still use the Birmingham Canal and the company's profits would not be affected by the new venture.

The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal opened for business in 1789, but through traffic was not allowed until the agreement between the two companies was finalised in 1790. The new canal became an instant success and the two companies joined forces in 1794 to become the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN).

The Wyrley & Essington Canal

The Wyrley & Essington canal was planned to link the coalfields of Wyrley and Essington to the Birmingham Canal at Wolverhampton. An Act of Parliament was Passed on 30th April, 1792 to allow the work to commence. Much of the finance came from Wolverhampton businessmen, principally the Molineux family. Work soon started under the canal company's engineer, William Pitt. There were two branches, one to a colliery at Essington and the other to Birchills near the centre of Walsall. The canal joined the Birmingham Canal at Horseley Fields and opened on 8th May, 1797. Being a contoured canal and following an extremely circuitous route, it became known as "The Curly Wyrley".

The Walsall Canal

On 17th April, 1794 an Act of Parliament was Passed to allow work to begin on an extension of the canal from Wednesbury to Walsall via Darlaston.

In 1799 the Walsall Branch of the Birmingham Canal Navigations opened from Walsall to Moxley, and the entire canal opened for business in 1809.

One of the larger features is the James Bridge aqueduct which carries the canal over Bentley Mill Way and the River Tame. It was completed in 1799 and is now a listed building.

James Bridge Aqueduct.

Walsall Canal above James Bridge Aqueduct.

The Anson Branch from the Walsall Canal at James Bridge to coalmines and a quarry at Bentley opened in 1830 with an extension (the Bentley Canal) to the Wyrley & Essington Canal at Wednesfield.

In 1841 an extension was built between the Walsall Canal at Walsall and the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Birchills Junction.

The Dudley No. 2 Canal

This was planned in 1792 to connect the quarries at Netherton to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Selly Oak.

An Act of Parliament was Passed in June 1793 and work got underway under the supervision of the company's engineer John Snape. Unfortunately he died in 1796 and so his assistant William Underhill took over. The canal ran from the Dudley Canal for nearly 11 miles, just over 2 miles of which ran through a tunnel at Lapal. The canal suffered from many problems, mainly due to subsidence. The Lapal tunnel had to be closed in 1917 following a roof fall.

The Dudley No. 2 Canal near Netherton.

The BCN Main Line

By the 1820s the BCN carried a lot of traffic which was greatly hampered by the 22½ mile circuitous route. Something had to be done to speed the flow of traffic and so in April 1824 the engineer Thomas Telford was engaged to survey the canal with the idea of shortening and improving the route.

The aqueduct carrying Brindley's old canal over one of the offshoots of  Telford's main line; the Netherton Tunnel Branch.
In his report of December, 1824 he recommended that many of the bends should be cut off and a new straight line be built between Smethwick and Bloomfield which would shorten the canal by 7 miles, and remove the locks.

He also recommended that a reservoir should be built at Rotton Park. Work on the improvements began in 1826 but it took until 1838 for everything to be completed, mainly because of lack of funds for the very expensive work.

On 5th February, 1840 the BCN amalgamated with the Wyrley & Essington Canal and in 1845 the BCN was leased by the London & Birmingham Railway, and from 1846 by its successor the London & North Western Railway.

Also in 1846 the BCN amalgamated with the Dudley Canal (Dudley No. 1) and the Dudley No. 2 Canal.

The Netherton Tunnel.

Another view of the Netherton Tunnel.

This would eventually be good news for the Dudley No. 2 Canal because in 1858 the Netherton Tunnel opened to provide a direct link to the BCN and remove the bottleneck caused by the narrow Dudley tunnel and the Lapal tunnel.

Work began on the 27ft. wide, 3,027 yards long Netherton Tunnel in December 1855. The new tunnel allowed the use of two-way traffic and so was a great improvement over the two one-way tunnels.

The Tame Valley Canal

The Tame Valley Canal runs from Doe Bank junction on the BCN to Salford Junction on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal.

Work on the project, one of the last new canals to be constructed in the Black Country, began in 1839 and took five years to complete. There were many engineering difficulties to overcome.

Building works included high embankments, the Piercy Aqueduct, Spouthouse Lane Aqueduct, and 13 locks.

The canal opened for business on 14th February, 1844.

One of the locks on the Tame Valley Canal.

Return to the Canals
and Industry Menu