Birmingham Canal

I recently posted about the Rotton Park Junction on the Birmingham Canal, and how the loop was formed. This is the nearest thing the inland waterway system produces to an oxbow lake, and we all know how exciting that is for geographers. So, I thought I’d write on that canal a little more.

The idea of the canal in the first came from Birmingham’s business leaders of the day – among them Matthew Boulton, whose foundry just happened to be on the route agreed on. The Act was lobbied through parliament and passed in 1768, James Brindley was appointed post-haste, fresh from his success with the Bridgewater Canal, and construction started. The route actually began in Wednesbury, which you won’t find on the route of today’s Main Line – this was included in the Act though as a branch to the coal mines between Wednesbury and West Brom, and became the original route of the canal. From there it found a contour-based, circuitous route to Smethwick via the valley of the nascent River Tame. Soft ground in Smethwick meant that the hill had to be tackled with six locks up one side to the summit, and six locks back down to Birmingham level. These aren’t the location of today’s locks, but ran parallel to the section now crossed by Galton Bridge – Matthew Smeaton later improved this ascent to three locks each way, which is what we have now, but that wasn’t til 1790.

At the bottom of the locks, the canal wound a looping route into Birmingham, via Boulton’s foundry, the foot of Cape Hill, Soho and Hockley and Ladywood, culminating near what is now Brindley Place in 1769 – the same year as Watt patents his steam engine, and Wellington and Napoleon are born.

Birmingham Canal in 1769

However, Acts of the day were very concerned with competition being an efficient improver of public services (this was the early heyday of industrial capitalism, after all), and it was stipulated that the canal had to reach Wolverhampton within 6 months of opening. It looks like some opening dates were jigged around and in 1770 work started towards Wolverhampton. This new section left the existing line just above Spon Lane in Smethwick, took a loop around Oldbury town centre, then took up a not-quite-straight North-West line towards Tipton (later to become the centre of the canal universe of the West Midlands). Then comes a winding course around Wednesbury Oak, Coseley and Bradley taking in collieries, iron works and the like – this area was the lunar landscape of popular perception of the black country. Then via Ettingshall, Monmore and Wolverhampton, the canal reached the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Aldersley, in just enough time to stop the S&W company taking advantage of the Act to open their own connection and charge their own tolls. The main line, with its Wednesbury branch, was complete, and Birmingham and the Black Country were suddenly connected to the Severn and soon to the Trent valley with its varied connections. Brindley died shortly before its completion; born this year was David Ricardo – difficult to say whose influence on the era was greater.

Birmingham Canal in 1773

The world of canal management was a thoroughly competitive one, and mergers, acquisitions, hostile takeovers, negotiations and sometimes pitched battles were rife (just as they were when the railways sprung up). Shareholders in the Birmingham Canal seem to have been particularly aggressive, and any new canals were opposed vigorously. The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company sprung up next and proved a thorn in the side of the current monopoly-holders, so much so that the Birmingham Canal Company immediately acquired them, forming the Birmingham Canal Navigations. This is the company responsible for the region’s web of waterways and its various oddities.

They were always at the forefront of the competition though, and by the mid 1820s, they didn’t just have to negotiate tolls with the Staffs & Worcs but had competition in the Black Country from the Dudley Canal, which linked with the S&W via Stourbridge, and from the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, which not only linked the centre of Birmingham (in fact, Gas Street Basin where the Birmingham Canal terminated) with the Severn at Worcester, but also joined up with the Dudley Canal to completely bypass the BCN. That’s not to mention the Grand Union Canal and Stratford Canal dominating the South-East of Brum. Time for action: as David Harvey would probably put it, a technological fix to overcome the limits of capital(ism) – a new main line, a motorway of the canal world.

Engineer du jour Thomas Telford was brought in for this, and consequently surveyed the old line, describing it as little more than a crooked ditch. His new line demonstrated the engineering improvements of the past 70 years and ploughed straight through the summits and soft ground that had given James Brindley such difficulty. Telford cut eight miles off the route from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, including a brand new artificial valley in Smethwick, doing away with the old locks, and a tunnel at Coseley cutting out the whole five mile of the Wednesbury Oak Loop. The old canal wasn’t filled in though; a series of loops and branches were created when the new line cut through – hence Icknield Port Loop and others like it. They mostly exist to this day, quiet backwaters compared to the arrow-straight main line, towered over by factories and decaying apparatus. The new line ends up more like a network – a fast through route supplied by branches and loops leading to the collieries and works of the day, and a pretty impressive achievement considering that all this was in place, along with a nationwide web of interlinked waterways, by the time Victoria took her throne.

Birmingham Canal in 1838

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