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Village History

200 years of canal history

Posted on March 30 2015 at 9:49:12 0 comments

Map

As the canal that winds through the Village area celebrates its bicentenary, John Hemingway of the Worcester-Birmingham & Droitwich Canals Society provides a history of this important waterway.

The Worcester & Birmingham Canal was initially allowed by an Act of Parliament in 1791. For several years before that there had been much controversy over the proposal for a navigation.

Concern was apparently raised by the Birmingham Canal Company, who were keen to protect their own water supplies, and in particular The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Company who wanted to protect their own boat trade on to the River Severn.

There was also much opposition from some land owners in allowing a canal to be cut through their estates.

Various routes had been proposed by the Worcester Canal promoters before the one we know today. This route was surveyed by canal engineer John Snape and eventually accepted by Parliament with a very slim majority of just two.

Even though royal assent was granted, the canal was not completely opened as a through route until 1815. Construction commenced from the Birmingham end and eventually reached Selly Oak, followed by Kings Norton and then as far as Hopwood in 1797.

This included two tunnels, one at Edgbaston and the 2,726 yards (2,492.7 metres) long tunnel at Kings Norton.

It was reported that there was much illness and injuries sustained amongst the navigators, or “navvies” as they became known, particularly during the arduous tunnel excavations.

Hopwood Wharf became an important terminus on the canal, receiving many boats laden with items such as coal from the Black Country. The return journey also enabled farmers in the area to have their grain transported up to Birmingham and beyond.

Boats were initially towed along the canal by horses, hence the term “towpath’’, and were “legged” through Kings Norton (Wast or West Hills) Tunnel, while the towing animals were walked over the top to meet the boat at the other end and continue the journey.

This method of transporting goods will seem very slow and difficult by today’s standards but at the time these new canals were mostly successful in the task they were built for.

There were many shareholders who profited through tolls paid for by the passage of boats.

The Worcester Canal Company, unfortunately, had financial problems resulting in many delays progressing the line of the navigation. It was not until 1807 that the canal reached Tardebigge at the area which became known as The Old Wharf (where Anglo-Welsh Hire Boats are now sited).

This became a very important trading terminus until Tardebigge Tunnel was opened to what we now know as the New Wharf.

Further financial problems and even more delays occurred, including the construction of all the locks. The company decided to use narrow locks in order to save water which limited the tonnage carried per boat.

The Tardebigge Flight alone has 30 narrow locks, and in the canal’s early days it used to have a lift instead of the deep top lock we see nowadays.

The Worcester traders may well have been wondering if the canal would ever reach them, but the 58-lock long canal finally did in 1815.

The official opening was in December that year amid much public interest, and included band music and cannon fire. The Worcester-Birmingham & Droitwich Canals Society intends to replicate these celebrations by arranging church bell ringing along the length of the canal on December 5 this year.

The Worcester & Birmingham Canal benefitted from connections with the Stratford Canal at The Kings Norton Junction, where the latter put in place a guillotine lock (now a listed structure) to protect their water supplies; the Dudley No 2 Canal, now referred to as the Lapal Canal, at Selly Oak Junction and due to be restored into the adjacent park; the Droitwich Junction Canal at Hanbury which linked with the Droitwich Barge Canal making two connections to the River Severn and international trade; and the Birmingham Canal in Gas Street, when the two canals were connected at Worcester Bar instead of loading and unloading into another boat across that structure.

Guillotine lock

Boats carried many different cargoes including coal, fertilizers, flour, grain, chocolate (particularly for Cadbury’s), salt, bricks, limestone and other building materials to name a few.

There were many wharves and basins developed for canal transport including the Alvechurch Coal Company based at Hopwood, Wynn’s Brickworks based at Alvechurch and Dixon’s farm produce from Tardebigge Old Wharf.

Canal trade fluctuated, as with most businesses, and competition from railways became a big threat to the canal. After World War II the waterways were nationalised, with many closures – including the Droitwich Canals – having already happened.

The Inland Waterways Association was formed as a result of a meeting between Tom and Angela Rolt and Robert Aickman aboard the narrowboat Cressy just above the top lock at Tardebigge in 1945.

Campaigns to save waterways have mushroomed since then – which is just as well, as a report published in 1965 stated that there was no commercial traffic on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, except at the Birmingham end, and that pleasure boating was becoming very fashionable.

Diglis Basin in Worcester was stated as being “a popular yacht basin and mooring site” and it could also accommodate wide beam boats. Elimination of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, except for Diglis, in order to reduce the deficit and running costs, was a real threat which, fortunately for us all today, did not materialise.

The Worcester & Birmingham Canal is now an extremely popular amenity for boaters, walkers, joggers, anglers, cyclists, nature watchers and the like, and it is important for societies like ours to make sure this continues for future generations.


CANALSIDE CELEBRATIONS

A series of events is planned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Worcester-Birmingham Canal:

May 1–4: St. Richard’s Festival, Vines Park, Droitwich

May 15–17: Alvechurch Beer and Boat Festival, Alvechurch Boat Centre

June 12–14: Worcester Canal Festival

July 10–12: Kings Norton Village and Canal Festival

The Society is working in partnership with groups, such as ABC Leisure, The Worcester Canal Group, The Weighbridge pub and many others in order to organise these events.

If anyone wishes to enter their boat, sponsor the event book a trade or charity stall please find details on the society’s web site: www.wbdcs.org.uk

The Worcester-Birmingham & Droitwich Canals Society (WBDCS) gathers in the Meeting Room of the Alvechurch Boat Centre, just behind the Weighbridge pub, on the evening of the first Tuesday of every month (8pm start), except July and August, when walks and trips are often arranged.

Anyone is very welcome to attend even if you are not a member. The Society also produces its own monthly, full colour, magazine called 58.


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