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Stourbridge Branch Canal

Inland waterways of Stourbridge and the surrounding area.

An examination, by

Graham Fisher M.B.E.

Numerous websites these days carry a section marked FAQs, or Frequently Asked Questions. This is nothing new, and for many years now one of the most frequently asked questions I have encountered is ‘what can you find so interesting about the cut?’

This is entirely understandable since, to the initiated, the sight of a stretch of water drifting serenely through the landscape may not at first appear remotely inspirational. However, the answer to this particular FAQ is emphatically ‘a great deal, if one just scratches below the surface’.

The truth is, our wonderful inland waterways offer so much to such help satisfy such a wide range of interests and aspirations, from nature lovers to boaters, fishermen to industrial archeologists, cyclists to environmentalists, hydropower specialists to fibre optic technologists and much more. Even just somewhere to enjoy a pleasant stroll with the dog. And, here’s one to test Poirot’s little grey cells, how is it possible to traverse the country from the east coast to the depths of Wales and from the far north of England to the south coast, without once negotiating so much as a minor road? Canal towpath, that’s how.

So, in this occasional series of features, I propose to expand upon our waterways, in particular those that fall within the gambit of Amblecote History Society, and to build up a portrait of the many facets that are inextricably linked to our local canal in terms of its history, its present and its future. Do join me on the journey, you may be pleasantly surprised.

But first, to establish the big picture, I will commence with an overview as to how our inland waterways system developed.

Inland Waterways and ‘Canal Mania’, a guide to how it all started ....

Prior to the industrial revolution transport had been mostly confined to packhorses and wagons travelling along ancient dirt tracks that were dustbowls in summer or quagmires in winter, and unreliable river navigations that despite rudimentary modifications were still at the mercy of the fluctuating weather for much of the year.

It had not always been thus; two thousand years ago the Romans created a network of roads that were a vital component in their imposition of efficiency, justice and military might. When the Empire eventually succumbed, a besieged Rome recalled her troops leaving the indigenous population to their own devices amidst chaotic scenes described by the Venerable Bede. ‘When the Romans departed the British abandoned their cities and fled in disorder. They were driven from their homes by Picts and Scots and sought to avoid starvation by robbery and violence, their internal anarchy adding to the miseries inflicted on them by others.’

After the Romans had finally retreated their legacy of roads, like their fine cities, decayed. Almost in desperation the Church offered enticements to anyone who would repair the rutted tracks and at the reformation an obligation was placed upon parishes to maintain roads between market towns. But at the dawn of the industrial age neither rutted track nor unreliable river could be called upon to play its part.

A system of mass transportation was required as a matter of urgency to feed the demands of the new order. It had to be reliable, it had to be efficient and it had to be cheap. But above all it had to be on a huge scale.

And thus the scene was set as, with an aura of the faintly unconventional that seems so often to define archetypical British eccentricity, one of the most seismic transport revolutions the world has ever witnessed was heralded by the romantic misfortunes of a sickly young man ...

The canal age arrives...

Regarded as the inspiration for a frenetic period of waterways construction now referred to as ‘Canal Mania’ (though for some the point is a contentious one as the Sankey Navigation was serving collieries at Parr and Haydock some four years earlier) the totally man-made Bridgewater Canal owes its existence in no small measure to a broken romance when, following the collapse of his engagement arrangements with Lady Hamilton, the disconsolate Francis Egerton 3rd Duke of Bridgewater turned his attentions from problems of the heart to problems of transporting coal from his father’s mines at Worsley near Manchester.

The young Francis, sixth son of Scroop Egerton the 1st Duke of Bridgewater, did not enjoy the best of health and to alleviate the ravages of chronic tuberculosis was taken on the Grand Tour. As part of his recuperative travels he had seen, and been impressed by, waterways engineering both at home and on the Continent. He had shown considerable interest in the Grand Languedoc Canal in France, later to become known as the Canal Du Midi, and had also noted developments nearer to home on the St. Helen’s ( Sankey ) Canal. On his return to England he joined the London social set and became involved with Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, a widower and member of the socialite Gunning family. A scandal in the family concerning Elizabeth’s sister caused the Duke to break off the relationship whereupon he developed misogynist tendencies to the extent that he would not permit female staff in the house and instead devoted himself to business.

Developing his interests together with his agent John Gilbert, he searched for a solution to both transport and drainage problems around the estate. Resurrecting an earlier idea purloined from Scroop the two explored the concept of building a canal to Manchester. Millwright James Brindley became involved as, although not originally from a waterways background, he had been working with the Duke’s brother-in-law on a project to link the Rivers Trent and Mersey. The result was a lock-free canal eventually extending in total to almost 40 miles though now more noteworthy for its innovation than its scenery of largely unremarkable flatness.

The first section of the ‘Duke’s Cut’, as it is also known, opened in 1761 and included the Barton Aqueduct over the River Irwell, an impressive early example of a canal traversing a river. Originally made of stone there was widespread concern that it would collapse and it was given the pejorative nickname of Castle in the Air. Although requiring some strengthening shortly after opening it survived until 1893 when it was replaced during the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal by a metal swing bridge that is still in use today.

By 1765 the canal extended into the city, dramatically slashing the cost of coal. Immense capital outlay was quickly countered by high profitability and various branches were added including one that afforded access to the Manchester Ship Canal.

The success of the Bridgewater, though a key element in Canal Mania, did not per se immediately spark a rash of canal construction for reasons both pragmatic and logistical. Routes had to be surveyed, Acts of Parliament passed and finance raised. In many cases opposition from local landowners was also intense and so it was some years before the impetus swung into an unstoppable movement, with the peak of Canal Mania considered by many to be around the early 1790s.

Developments in the Midlands

Early canals were built by a contour method in which the waterway wherever possible followed the natural level of the land. This method kept navigational structures such as locks, tunnels and aqueducts to a minimum but did mean that the overall distance travelled was greater than necessary, with corresponding additional costs. When in a later era Thomas Telford adopted his brash approach to taking the canal in as direct a route as possible the overall distances travelled were reduced dramatically, though such a simplistic comparison is not entirely proper since the earlier construction was of a time when large centres of population were not so common and the convoluted route allowed outlying settlements access to the new transport medium which they otherwise would not have enjoyed.

In the Midlands, a major powerhouse in the industrial revolution was the area bounded by Birmingham and the Black Country. It was said that if an item wasn’t made in this area it wasn’t made anywhere in the world. Fortunes in the burgeoning iron-making industry were based on coal, iron ore, limestone (used to remove impurities from the ore) and fireclay. All were to be found in profusion around these parts and so it is small wonder that the area became criss-crossed with canals.

From James Brindley’s original line of 1772 connecting Birmingham with Aldersley - the first section opened in 1769 bringing Wednesbury coal into the city - the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) evolved into a conglomeration of waterways on three different levels; the Wolverhampton (473 feet above sea level), the Telford (453 feet) and the Walsall level (408 feet). The Wolverhampton level alone extends from Smethwick to Wolverhampton, Birchills and Ogley and includes the Dudley Canal from Tipton to Parkhead, the truncated Wednesbury Oak Loop, the abandoned Lord Hays Branch, the truncated Cannock Extension Canal and the Daw (Doe) End and Anglesey Branches. The highest navigable point is now Titford Pools (511 feet) though the abandoned Essington Branch was some twenty feet higher. Water supply to such levels was always fraught and when this particular branch lost its mining activity the canal quickly followed suit, a pattern that was to be widely repeated. Mining subsidence was also a constant problem throughout much of the network.

The BCN is veritably littered with features that even from a contemporary standpoint are hugely impressive, none more so than Dudley Tunnel which is a striking 3,172 yards long. The similarly inspiring Netherton Tunnel is 3,027 yards long and opened 80 years later in 1858 to relieve congestion at the Dudley Tunnel, the claustrophobic bore of which had become a serious bottleneck. Netherton Tunnel was the last to be built in the canal age and was of cavernous dimensions allowing boats to pass, with twin towpaths and lighting for 24-hour operations.

The advent of rail led to the demise of many canals but the proximity between rail and canal around the BCN ensured profitable trading long after it had ceased elsewhere. By the 1970s the lack of trade and general abandonment had shaved some 60 miles off the network leaving 114 miles or so remaining today. And yes ’tis true, this is more than Venice.

Take your pick on how the Black Country, that intriguingly nebulous and wonderfully esoteric corner of South Staffordshire of which her sons and daughters wax lyrical, acquired its name. One anecdote describes how Queen Victoria, her sensitivities offended by the pall of the indigenous industry, ordered the blinds of her carriage lowered as she passed through by train. Then there is the more plausible tale of the visitor from foreign climes who, seeing the smoke from furnaces hanging heavily across the Stour Valley, described to how he had ‘never seen a country so black’. Alternately one may go with the suggestion that the term actually existed well before the industrial revolution, with outcrops of coal scarring the landscape and colouring the soil.

It is indeed true that whilst many areas have spawned thriving coal industries on seams no thicker than a few feet, the famous 10-yard seam of black gold running through Staffordshire has left an indelible mark on the very fabric of the area from which it derived not only its name but its culture and heritage, both of which are extant in abundance to this day. It is equally true that during the heyday of canal construction there was a need for a connection to access the plentiful mineral resources, which included iron ore, limestone, fireclay and sand lying to the west of the region. All these were either singly or in combination essential in the production of many things, not least glassmaking. It was in accessing these vital components that the entrepreneurs of the day turned to waterways.

As early as 1667 the visionary engineer Andrew Yarranton (1619-1684) had, under authority of an Act of 1662, carried out substantive works towards exploiting these resources by making the diminutive River Stour navigable between Stourbridge and Stourport. Alas, his considerable achievement of transporting coal to Kidderminster and beyond was short lived and around 1670 the works were destroyed by massive floods. No appreciable efforts were undertaken for a further century until the formation of the Company of the Proprietors of the Stourbridge Navigation. One of the promoters was the ironmaster Thomas Foley (1616-1677) whose estate was in Great Witley, west of Stourport, but whose strong Stourbridge connections are commemorated to this day in the liberal association of his name on civic landmarks. Others included the Earl of Stamford and landowner John Hodgetts, through whose land the canal would pass. An artificial waterway was proposed to run a little over three miles from Stourton on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal to the town of Stourbridge. Following six years of construction the S&W would eventually open throughout in May 1772, but it was in 1766, whilst James Brindley was still surveying its southern section, that the Stourbridge team commissioned him to survey their line and produce a route plan. Having done so, the proposals faltered; the success of the Stourbridge Canal depended upon the S&W being completed and it was to be 1779 before the Stourbridge Canal was opened throughout between Stourton and Black Delph. It was the arrival of another notable local entrepreneur that breached this impasse and secured the vital connections.

John, 2nd Viscount Dudley & Ward (1725-1788) assumed his title in 1774. His quest for improved communications saw him supply capital for the development of local turnpikes throughout the Black Country and he advanced in total some £6200, an enormous sum at the time, to various local turnpike trusts. Even so, their limited application for the movement of heavy materials except over short distances, coupled with existing canals being either of little direct value or too far from the Dudley estates, exercised him considerably. A visionary par excellence and owner of much mineral-imbued land he almost immediately joined the Stourbridge Navigation Company. A modified route that included the link to Stourbridge but also extended to Black Delph was drawn up by Robert Whitworth, who had worked with Brindley on the S&W. However, in 1775 it was decided at a public meeting in Stourbridge there should now also be a line through to Dudley. A bill was submitted but was withdrawn in the face of fierce opposition from mine owners and rival canal operators in Birmingham. Almost to a man they opposed the new canal on the grounds that the petitioners would 'lose all prospect of reaping any fruit of their labour.' Doubtless they justifiably feared the loss of markets along the Severn since the junction of the S&W with the Stourbridge Canal at Stourton lay 13 miles closer to Stourport than that of its junction with the Birmingham Canal at Aldersley which was connected by 1772.

To counter opposition Lord Dudley, whose various local backers not surprisingly included glassmakers, cleverly decided to divide the opposition by splitting the proposals whilst maintaining the same line. The ruse succeeded and separate Acts for the Stourbridge and Dudley Canals were obtained in 1776. This unusual arrangement meant that two separate companies built what amounted to the same continuum of canal and effectively operated as one unit, with the enterprise subsequently deriving far more revenue from its branches than from the main cut to Stourbridge. The Stourbridge Canal as we know it today opened throughout three years later in 1779. The Dudley line through to Parkhead opened in the same year; this had proved easier to build due to its shorter length and fewer locks, inferring that progress on the Stourbridge had been comparatively rapid. And thus the line as originally planned from Stourton to Stourbridge, with its Bonded Warehouse and Canal Company Offices situated at the latter’s ter minus, is nowadays seen merely as a branch off the actual main line as built, which continues through the ‘Stourbridge 16’ locks and on towards The Delph. Maps predating the canal clearly indicate the existence of glassworks for which the canal was evidently constructed to accommodate; in view of the involvement of glass proprietors in its construction this is hardly surprising. Conversely there were others that came after the canal was built to take advantage of the new transport medium.The Stourbridge Canal rises through four locks from its junction with the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Stourton Junction, just off the junction of the A458 Bridgnorth Road with the A449 at a spot that despite the demolition of its eponymous roadhouse will forever be known as Stewponey. Despite its proximity to the conurbation, this section is arguably amongst the prettiest in the country and meanders through what is to this day still verdant countryside, closely following the line of the adjacent River Stour. After passing over a small but distinguished two-arched aqueduct, it veers off to the right along the Town Arm to Stourbridge whilst the Main Line rises from Wordsley Junction through the ‘Stourbridge 16’ Locks.

The lock numbers decrease as they climb upwards. Just beyond lock 13 the canal passes the defunct White House Glassworks and under the aptly named Glasshouse Bridge to the far from defunct Red House Glass Cone. A few yards further along the canal the Albert Glassworks lay virtually next door to Red House. Immediately prior to Glasshouse Bridge, opposite White House, on the towpath side, the large wall bordering the towpath denotes Richardson’s Wordsley Flint Glassworks. The site is now occupied by light engineering units.

 

Directly opposite to Red House Glass Cone a small footbridge bridge carries the towpath over the former entrance to Joburn’s Basin. In the 19th century it served an iron and brass foundry. This in turn became a corn and seed mill, latterly a garden centre, and is now occupied by modern housing. High quality silver sand was brought to the glassworks here and hereabouts from Leighton Buzzard and elsewhere via the Grand Union Canal and Birmingham Canal Navigations. This is thought by some to be the origin of the naming of Silver End off Brettell Lane although a more credible explanation derives from the fate of Moor Lane Glassworks when, in 1823 and at a time of poor trade, the owner declared bankruptcy. The following year the site was leased for 14 years to Joseph Stevens and his brother in law Joseph Silvers - hence the connection - at an annual rent of £80 in an enterprise that was to be the forerunner of Stevens & Will iams, latterly Royal Brierley Crystal.

The Dock is an intriguing area notable for its wooden transshipment warehouse. Variously known as Bantock’s Shed after a local carrier Thomas Bantock and Dadford’s Shed after the canal’s engineer Thomas Dadford Jnr, it has enjoyed a chequered history. (The shed is also known locally as the 'Black Sheds' Ed.). Damaged by arson attacks and vandalism it lurched perilously close to demolition until being saved by enthusiasts from the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society and subsequently becoming a base for a group of waterways artisans in the 1990s. The locks adjacent to the cottage above the shed are still widely referred to as ‘the staircase’ but they are in fact not, since in a staircase pair the top gate of one lock is the bottom gate of the next. There was a staircase here once and although it was replaced in the 19th cent ury by the current, separate, locks and intermediate pond (Jake’s Pond) behind the cottage, the name has stuck. The Dock took its name from the dock that lay by lock 11 and was well established as a community by 1840. Its collection of housing and a shop are now almost overwhelmed by more modern development but it does not require a great leap of the imagination to envisage what it would have looked like in its heyday.

Between locks 4 and 5 lies a boundary fault below which the coal seams were too deep for cost-effective extraction. The practical ramification of this is the complete absence of mining subsidence downstream, which is certainly not the case in the opposite direction. The locks here, as elsewhere along the flight, show the characteristic groove marks of countless towropes biting into the copings and wall edges. The Samson & Lion Public House once provided stabling for boater’s horses whilst a short distance away, near lock 2, is the site of the very same Bottle & Glass pub that was removed brick by brick and rebuilt at the Black Country Living Museum, where it is still in regular use.

At the top of the 16 locks the Fens Branch continues straight ahead to Fens Pools that were constructed as reservoirs. Whilst still acting as feeders the pools nowadays are a designated nature reserve and enjoy the distinction of forming the largest area of open fresh water in the Borough of Dudley.

The adjoining Stourbridge Extension Canal was part of a separate company’s unsuccessful initiative to link the Stourbridge with the Birmingham Canal. Quickly superseded by the railway that mirrored it for much of its length it was destined to reach less than two miles further on where it served collieries and brickworks before terminating in a basin near to Oak Farm in Kingswinford, passing en route through what is now the Pensnett Trading Estate. It currently extends little further than the site of the former stop lock near to where the Bromley Branch veered off. The ¾ mile Standhills Branch and the shorter Bromley Branch were both intended to access the western extremity of the coalfield and were surrounded by pits. Both arms are long infilled and whilst still traceable by the serious enthusiast they are, for all practical purposes, truly lost.

The Main Line exiting to the right at the top of the locks wends its way toward The Delph via a landscape that has changed considerably in recent years but which is still true to its industrial roots, which include the sites of former bottle works and limekilns. The original tunnel at Brettell Lane was opened out in the 19th century; the considerable improvements to the Dudley line in 1858, including construction of Netherton Tunnel , suggest the work here to also be dated to around this time. The landscape is still pockmarked with the evidence of former pits and mining operations. Fireclay, used to make bricks for furnaces and pots for glassmaking, was also extensively extracted. Such operations could bring canal proprietors into conflict with mine owners and there were strict rules as to how close the mines could encroach on the line of the canal. Unfortunately these rules were not always adhered to and on 14th November 1903 the line at Wheeley’s basin near Bowen’s Bridge spectacularly collapsed, or ‘crowned in’, into mine workings that had undercut the canal. Three miles of water were lost and whilst there was mercifully no loss of life the damage was extensive. Today, little trace remains of the catastrophe and the Stourbridge Canal continues unremarkably to the foot of Delph Locks. Here it rises via the Dudley Canal to access the equally charismatic world of the Birmingham Canal Navigations. An arcane world in which different rules seem to apply, they are for another day.

Meanwhile, back on the Stourbridge Canal, times were prosperous throughout much of the 19th century. Profitable trade was accompanied by relatively little maintenance and, especially when compared with its subsidence-prone neighbours, it suffered remarkably little slippage. The deleterious effects of competition from first rail, then road, was exacerbated by the inexorable closure of the mines and by the time of Vesting Day on 1st January 1948, when the waterways were nationalised and control was ‘vested’ back to Government, little commercial traffic remained.

The fate of many waterways depended largely on how they had performed in the war. Those towards the east, which were deemed to have contributed little to the war effort, were excluded from nationalisation. Largely in view of its own commercial success the Stourbridge Canal was duly nationalised. Under the stewardship of the British Transport Commission there then followed a sad period of near-terminal decline.

The renaissance of inland waterways as a leisure amenity is now a well-documented tale but clear signs that the tide of abandonment had turned were in evidence by May 1967 when the Main Line was reopened in a culmination of a three-year endeavour by the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society (SWCS) with the assistance of numerous other groups and the co-operation of the British Waterways Board (BWB). This somewhat more enlightened assemblage arose from dissolution of the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive of the British Transport Commission in 1953 that was replaced by a Board of Management. A decade later in 1963 The British Transport Commission was itself replaced by the British Waterways Board (BWB), the forerunner of today’s British Waterways (BW) that came into being in 1988 following reorganization. The initiative of co-operation between BWB and volunteers was at that time in its infancy and this restoration is believed to the first occasion that professional BWB staff and unremunerated volunteers worked together. Undoubtedly it was the model for subsequent restoration schemes and the Stourbridge example established a pattern that continues to this day.

Times certainly change. From our contemporary and more health-conscious perspective it is difficult to envisage how back in 1967 the festivities were sponsored by a well-known tobacco company. But it would be doubly difficult for anyone below middle age to recall the sorry state that our canals in general, and the Stourbridge Canal in particular, had been permitted - indeed actively encouraged by some - to degenerate. There was even talk of the moribund Town Arm being infilled for a road between Stourbridge and Wordsley. The list of those who were instrumental in reversing this trend reads like a Who’s Who of Restoration Pioneers but central to these must be the stalwarts of the now-infamous ‘Battle of Stourbridge Cut’ of five years earlier. The tale of their ‘defiant dragline’ breaking the mud to permit access to an isolated Town Arm is now the stuff of legend and the moment has been widely acclaimed as the catalyst for the burgeoning nation-wide restoration movement that followed.

The intervening years have witnessed changes to the Stourbridge Canal that would have been simply unimaginable to its promoters. The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society, formed in 1959, begat Stourbridge Navigation Trust. Formed under the auspices of SWCS but now an independent organisation in its own right, SNT has in turn perpetuated the famous name of Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd, which operates its increasingly popular boat excursions from outside the restored Bonded Warehouse. This building, itself a derelict hulk at the eleventh hour of demolition just a couple of generations ago, was saved by SWCS and has since proved a highly successful venue for all manner of meetings and community functions. The recipient of a Civic Trust Award, it was granted Grade 2 listed status in 1980. Stourbridge Locks, together with important artifacts such as Dadford’s Shed, have been transformed from a motley array of derelict eyesores to a busy through-route accessing the famous Delph Locks Conservation Area, the gargantuan Merry Hill Shopping Centre and thence virtually all points on the waterways compass. Yet remember this is merely around the immediate area of Stourbridge; just extrapolate these accomplishments across the entire network and one can begin to appreciate the sheer transforming power that was unleashed from this very spot by those visionary campaigners of the 1960s.

Waterways transport and glass
      An observation …

The Stourbridge Canal opened throughout in 1779, the adjoining Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal (SWC) seven years earlier in 1772. Whilst several glass companies, the New Dial and what was to become Stuart’s for example, came to its banks to take direct advantage of the new transport medium, there were those who were already established prior to its arrival. Coleman’s, a Tyzack House built around 1612, lay on the River Stour near Hungary Hill close to where the railway viaduct now passes overhead - the stepping stones across the river a short distance away gave name to the area that is still extant today.

Other works followed, and by 1704 there were at least a further half a dozen along the course of the Stour, a line that the Town Arm of the canal would eventually mimic. Although the canal was never destined to serve Coleman’s site it did mean that several glasshouses were already established along what could loosely be called the canal corridor many years before the arrival of the canal itself. Whilst all were within striking distance of the Stour, this would have been ineffective as a transport medium since the works of Yarranton, that despite great aspirations, proved of limited use, and were ultimately destroyed by floods. The alternative was packhorse along rutted roads, with all that entailed for breakages and economies of scale.

And so the arrival of the canal, with its significantly higher carrying capacity, shorter traveling times and minimal breakage, must have proved an unimaginable boon. Furthermore it slashed the prices of raw material such as coal, which could now be transported in what we would recognise as industrial quantities. As Guttery (From Broad Glass to Cut Crystal, 1956) relates: ‘If the canal and its collateral had been designed for the convenience of the glasshouses instead of the mines on Pensnett Chase, their route could not have been more happily planned; no glass-house in the district (save the Heath) was as much as a quarter-mile from some branch of the canal; some stood on its banks (Bague’s, Wheeley’s and Richard Bradley’s), to others, such as Coalbournbrook and the Platts, basins brought materials directly into the works premises.’ (sic)

Little wonder that there was cross-pollination on the various Boards of Directors between canal company proprietors and glassmakers, and indeed anyone with an interest in large-scale transfer of goods such as the ironmasters. John Ward, 2nd Viscount Dudley and Ward, was exercised by the efficient movement of his commodities and, though he gave a considerable amount of money toward the upkeep of the turnpikes, he clearly saw the writing on the wall; the construction of the Stourbridge Canal in just six years from his assuming his title is as remarkable as it was far sighted. In the first six months of 1798 alone it carried 44,000 tons of coal and other goods at a profit to the company of over £1,500. The second half of 1824 saw this increased to 92,600 tons. Shares in the Stourbridge Navigation Company stood at £350 each in 1793, easing to £280 by 1851. A dividend of £14 7s (£14.35p) per share was paid in 1801.

The peaking of these industries commensurate with the height of canal transport in the 19th century was no coincidence. The rapidly expanding waterways system, as yet not seriously impinged upon by the impending railways, enabled large quantities of high quality sand to be imported. A staple in the production of crystal for which Stourbridge was becoming worldfamous, records indicate that it was coming from as far afield as Ireland, Leighton Buzzard and Kings Lynn. In August 1804 ‘20 tons of fine sand at thirty-two shillings (£1.60p) to the ton’ were delivered by canal to ‘Messrs Honeyborne and Batson of Moor Lane’ (later to become Stevens & Williams). Similarly in the first six months of 1805 over 9 tons of lead, 5 tons of ashes and 25 tons of sand reached the company from Liverpool by canal. Further afield, black bottles were being carried by water between Bath and London. The census of 1861 identified that over 1,000 Stourbridge residents were involved in the glass trade and that by this time eleven major glassworks were located on or by the Stourbridge Canal

The waterways also provided a conduit outwards for finished goods. The completion of James Brindley’s visionary Grand Cross scheme linking the rivers Severn, Trent, Mersey and Thames by inland waterway meant that the likes of Stourbridge now had direct access to the Great Ports and thus anywhere in the world. From Stourbridge and southwards via the SWC to Stourport and hence the Severn to Bristol; northwards along the SWC to the Trent & Mersey Canal, turning left to the Mersey and right to the Trent and the Humber; via the BCN and Grand Union Canal to London, the Thames and the south, and to the east via the Middle Level Navigations. The arrival of the waterways opened up virtually the entire country both internally and beyond its shores, with the canals of the Midlands being the clearing-house.

Epilogue and author’s comments

When compiling an overview of this nature, which has roamed from the earliest waterways around the world through to a more contemporary appraisal of our local canals, one must be wary of creating any impression of seamlessness. There have, of course, been many momentous changes to our inland waterways, some of which are alluded to in this text. However, one of the greatest transformations of modern times has occurred as recently as July 2012, when the former British Waterways officially handed custody of much of the canal and river network to the new Canal & River Trust. As its name implies, this is a charitable organization that is intended to be free from the shackles of government control in developing and promoting our inland waterways for the 21st Century via the ‘third sector’. It is a bold move, and one in which anyone can become involved. http://canalrivertrust.org.uk gives comprehensive details of the Trust and its work.

At a more parochial level, there are any number of societies with inland waterways at their heart, and a few key words tapped into your browser will reveal, amongst others, Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society, Stourbridge Navigation Trust, Fellows Morton & Clayton Trips, Dudley Canal Trust, Birmingham Canal Navigations Society, Lapal Canal Trust, Worcester Birmingham & Droitwich Canals Society (the Droitwich Canal having recently been reopened) and many more; with apologies to those not mentioned.

2012 has been an interesting year for both local waterways and Stourbridge Glass aficionados. In what I described at one event at Hagley Hall as a ‘perfect storm’ of celebrations, the likes of which will never coincide again, we have seen the 400th anniversary of the Stourbridge Glass industry, 50 years of the studio glass movement, 100 year since the Titanic went down (almost certainly loaded to the gunwales with crystal by Stuart, situated alongside the Stourbridge Canal Main Line), the biennial International Festival of Glass (possibly the best one to date), the recreation of the Portland Vase at another canalside glassworks (Ruskin Glass Centre), and the 50th anniversary of the ‘Battle of Stourbridge Cut’. This last event has passed into folklore as being the catalyst for what is now seen as the national restoration movement and established practices of volunteers working with the authorities in a model that is still used to this day.

I do hope that you have enjoyed this romp across the local scene, and assuredly expect you to find what you seek on our local waterways. There is - as I mentioned at the very start of this piece - something there for everyone, whether you be a boater, fisherman, naturalist, cyclist, botanist, industrial archaeologist, geologist or even just someone looking for somewhere nice to walk the dog; it’s all on our canals. And, by and large, it’s all free.

For further reading on the local canals and the glass industry, then permit me to refer to my own work which examines both aspects simultaneously. Jewels on the Cut, an exploration of the Stourbridge Canal and the local glass industry, is available via this very society. For a detailed look at the Stourbridge Canal itself, then Stourbridge Canal (Towpath Guide No. 3) by J. Ian Langford is still pretty much the one to beat.

Enjoy the canals and stay safe by the water.

Graham Fisher MBE
      Kingswinford
      October 2012