Smethwick: canals upon canals

There are few particular advantages to working an admin role within a university, but one of the best is called Shibboleth. This wonderful beast allows me, a layman, full access to academic papers, a host of archive sources, and most excitingly, the University of Edinburgh’s Edina Digimap, a complete rendering of the complete series of historical OS maps from the earliest in the mid-C19 to the 1990s. Obviously, this is completely amazing for about a million reasons – today, I’ve been exploring the joy of annotating the maps.

The exciting thing about this is that when you annotate one map, you can compare and contrast the others at different times, scales and so on. This was particularly useful when tracing the history of some blocks for Block Capital; I can trace over a very close scale map from the 70s, then work out the exact location of the block in 1887.

I’ve been looking at Smethwick today, a famous location in the Black Country’s canal system. If you’re familiar with the area you’ll know it as a morass of waterways, jutting off hither and thither. There’s actually a great deal of method to it all, however. The map below shows the state of the canals in the Soho/Smethwick/Oldbury area in 1890.

Smethwick Canals: 1890
Smethwick Canals: 1890

The first canal through the area, marked red here, was completed in 1769, making it one of the earliest true canals of the era. It was surveyed and engineered by James Brindley, fresh from his success with the Bridgewater Canal in Lancashire, and the original route ran from Hill Top, West Bromwich, to the centre of Birmingham. It’s said that the price of coal in Brum halved overnight when the canal was opened. You can get a little idea from this of it’s curvy nature – Brindley built canals along a contour where possible, as well as aiming to reach as many collieries and works as possible.

Smethwick presented a particular change – the ground was too soft for a cutting, so Brindley took 6 locks to go up and over the summit. This was phase 1 of the canal – in 1772 the remainder of the canal all the way to Wolverhampton was opened (shortly after Brindley’s death) – the junction was made at Spon Lane, leaving the route to Hill Top as a branch, later to be known as the Wednesbury Old Canal. It’s marked in dark red above.

The cutting was improved by John Smeaton, engineer to works on the Calder & Hebble Navigation, Lee Navigation, the Forth & Clyde and Birmingham & Fazeley Canals and various harbours and bridges. He cut a new line parallel to the original to improve the congestion; if you look down walking along Bridge Street you’ll see the two existing canals, and just to the north the vestiges of the original line running under what used to be the Surrey Works – brass bedsteads a speciality. The canal now is Smeaton’s cut, marked here in pink.

Smeaton's Cut: 1890
Smeaton’s Cut: 1890
Brindley's Smethwick Locks, by planetearthisblue, Creative Commons licence.
Brindley’s Smethwick Locks, by planetearthisblue, Creative Commons licence.

Similarly to the Dudley Tunnel, congestion was again a major issue here more than almost anywhere else on the canal network. By the early nineteenth century the canal was 50 years old and

…little more than a crooked ditch, with scarcely the appearance of a towing path, the horses frequently sliding and staggering in the water, the hauling lines sweeping the gravel into the canal, and the entanglement at the meeting of boats being incessant

The above was from Thomas Telford, who was called in to survey for improvements by the Birmingham Canal Navigations. In the intervening years, engineering had improved greatly and Telford was able to navigate through the difficult Smethwick soil to create a vast new cutting, the Galton Valley, named after Samuel Galton of the Lunar Society. I’ve marked it in blue here, along with the Engine Arm, a new feeder from the Edgbaston Rezzer, creating its spectacular aqueduct in the process. It was also the New Main Line that cut through the swooping line of Brindley’s original to give the various loops evident today in Hockley, Icknield Port, Soho and Cape Hill.

The whole system stayed like this until the mid twentieth century when the original summit cutting was filled.

Smethwick: 1958
Smethwick: 1958

It’s definitely interesting tracing the changes through time like this – I’ll post some of my tower block maps some time. I have just realised that I posted something very like this before, so hope you like maps

3 thoughts on “Smethwick: canals upon canals

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