By the later part of the 18th century, the growing industries, particularly in Birmingham, had an expanding appetite for coal from the Black Country, especially for the vast deposits in the area around Wednesbury and Tipton.

Road transport was not a viable option, because many of the local roads were totally unsuitable for heavily laden vehicles. A few roads were adequate, particularly those looked after by turnpike trusts, but most others were in a poor state, totally unsuitable for wagons and carriages in winter, or after a period of heavy rain, when they were dangerous for travellers. The solution to the problem was to build canals, which eventually resulted in a complex canal network that for many years was essential to the growth of the Black Country.

The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal

The first canal in the area was the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, connecting the River Severn at Stourport to the Trent and Mersey Canal at Great Haywood. It was surveyed by James Brindley (his last completed canal), which used Brindley’s contour method that followed the natural land contours wherever possible, to avoid the building of locks and tunnels.

Work began at Stourport in 1768 and the canal was navigable as far as Compton in November 1770. Building work progressed rapidly, and the whole 46½ miles of canal was declared open at the company's board meeting on the 28th May, 1772. Much of the capital costs were provided by Wolverhampton tradesmen and landowners, who greatly profited from the new canal, which was extremely successful for the first 40 years of its life, until the newly completed Worcester & Birmingham & Canal acquired much of its coal traffic.

There are only 43 locks along the whole length of the canal, 31 of which raise it about 292 feet above the Severn to the summit plateau starting at Compton. The remaining 12 locks lower the canal from Gailey to the junction with the Trent and Mersey Canal at Great Haywood. Three of the locks at the Bratch, in Wombourne, are unique in Britain because they are built close together and appear to be a staircase.

A narrow boat ascending the Bratch locks, at Wombourne.

In 1835 the Birmingham & Liverpool Canal opened, joining the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Autherley Junction. The 39½ mile-long canal extends to the Ellesmere & Chester Canal at Nantwich and was engineered by Thomas Telford and built at a cost of £800,000 to link Liverpool with the Birmingham Canal Navigations, which at the time carried about 3 million gross tons of goods, much of which was coal. It was of no great benefit to the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, even with its charges, as the new traffic only travelled along the canal for about half a mile between Autherley and Aldersley Junctions. The Birmingham & Liverpool Canal is now part of the Shropshire Union Canal.

The BCN - Birmingham Canal Navigations

The Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) was built to transport coal from the Black Country coalfields in the Wednesbury area to Birmingham. In January 1767 a public meeting was held in Birmingham to discuss the building of a canal that would connect Birmingham to the Shropshire and Worcestershire Canal via the Black Country's coal mines, and Wolverhampton. By August, sufficient capital had been raised to fund the project, and a Bill allowing construction was passed in Parliament in February 1768. James Brindley was appointed as engineer, and the Birmingham Canal Navigations was incorporated on the 2nd March, 1768.

Work soon got underway. The section from Birmingham to Wednesbury opened on the 6th November, 1769 to transport coal from collieries at Hill Top. In 1770 the canal arrived at Tipton, and reached Wolverhampton in August 1771, but the final downhill section to Aldersley Junction took another year to complete, because it required the building of 21 locks. Initially 20 locks were built, but because of the large drop at the bottom lock, an extra lock was added. The Canal opened on 21st September, 1772, just 8 days before Brindley's death.

Lock number two on the downhill section 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, from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, was covered in just over 22½ miles. The 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 went from strength to strength as the canal expanded and other canal companies were taken over.

By the 1820s the BCN carried a lot of traffic which was greatly hampered by the circuitous route. Something had to be done to speed the flow of traffic and so in April 1824 Thomas Telford was engaged to survey the canal with the idea of shortening and improving the route. Many of the bends were cut off and a new straight line was built between Smethwick and Bloomfield, which shortened the canal by 7 miles.

Old Turn Junction on the BCN at Birmingham.

Boats moored at Gas Street Basin, on the BCN at Birmingham.

The Stourbridge Canal

Another offshoot of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal is the Stourbridge Canal, which was built as a link to Stourbridge from Stourton. The canal was originally surveyed by James Brindley in 1766 when he was surveying the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, but nothing could be done until an Act of Parliament was passed in April 1776. At the same time, the Act authorising the construction of the Dudley Canal was passed. It runs from Dudley to the Fens Branch of the Stourbridge Canal.

The Stourbridge Canal came into use on 3rd December, 1779 and for many years was extremely successful, due to the many local industries that it served.

The Dudley Canal

The Dudley Canal, promoted by Lord Dudley, was 2¼ miles in length and included a flight of nine locks at Black Delph and a reservoir at Woodside. Work was completed on the 24th June, 1779, and opened with the completion of the Stourbridge Canal in December of the same year. As the canal was totally dependent upon the Stourbridge Canal, the decision was taken to construct a tunnel beneath Dudley so that the canal could be extended to join the BCN. An Act of Parliament allowing the construction was passed on the 4th July, 1785 and the 3,172 yards long tunnel opened for business on the 15th October, 1792. The canal also took a lot of traffic from the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, offering a faster route to Birmingham.

Read the story of the Dudley Canal Tunnel

In the late 17th century the east side of Castle Hill and southern Tipton was part of the Earl of Dudley's Coneygree Deer Park. Most of the remainder was farming land. This all began to change as people started to exploit the mineral wealth in the area. Coal mines and limestone mines began to appear. Initially mining was on a small scale, but when the canals appeared it all changed.

In 1792 a canal was planned 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 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 the 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 the 8th May, 1797. Being a contoured canal and following an extremely circuitous route, it became known as "The Curly Wyrley". On the 5th February, 1840 the BCN amalgamated with the Wyrley & Essington Canal.

Other extensions to the BCN

The Walsall Canal was built under the terms of an Act passed by Parliament on the 24th June, 1783, which included the Toll End Branch. It was surveyed and designed by John Smeaton, the first self-proclaimed civil engineer. The canal had eight locks at Rider's Green, and reached Wednesbury in 1786. It finally opened to Walsall in 1799.

An Act in 1874 allowed the Broadwaters branch to be extended through Darlaston to Walsall. The whole stretch from Ryders Green to Walsall became known as the Walsall Branch.

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. 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 Netherton Tunnel.

Another view inside the Netherton Tunnel.

Successes and Improvements

The large quantities of coal, limestone, raw materials, and finished goods that were transported on the canals at the time, made the canal companies very wealthy, greatly benefiting their shareholders. Large factories sprung-up alongside the canal, and the population of many local towns rapidly grew thanks to the employment on offer. The cost of some of the items for sale in the shops fell due to large scale manufacturing and ease of transport, which led to a greater variety of goods being found in the shops.

The large scale textile and garment manufacturers in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire relied on the canals to transport their goods, which could quickly be delivered to the Midlands, reducing the cost of clothing, and increasing the variety that was available.

The canal network was connected to sea ports, so that manufacturers could easily export their products. Many imported goods were readily available for the first time. The falling cost of coal reduced people’s heating bills and the large amount of raw materials and goods that were transported, allowed traders in the local towns to easily provide the expanding population with all of their needs.

In the 20th century the canals lost much of the commercial traffic because of competition from the railways and a massive increase in road transport. By the 1950s, many canals had closed or were in terminal decline. When railways were nationalised in 1948, commercial traffic was actively encouraged, but road transport continued to dominate, especially when motorways were built in the 1960s.

Luckily canals had a new lease of life, thanks to the many volunteers who actively carried out work to repair and reopen them. Many of the canals were no longer navigable. In 1948 the canals came under the control of the British Transport Commission. In 1962, under the Transport Act, the canals became part of the new British Waterways Board. As leisure boating on the canals became popular, money was available for restoration and conservation projects. By the 1990s grants were also available from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In 2011 the canals came under the Canal & River Trust, and their popularity for leisure activities greatly increased. Today there are large numbers of narrow boats on hire for holidays on the canals. So much so that their future is now secure.

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