The history of the canal and tunnels

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Work began on Lord Dudley and Ward’s branch canal from the Birmingham Canal to his Tipton Colliery and a 227-yard tunnel to his limestone mines under Castle Hill.

2nd April

Acts for the Stourbridge Canal and Dudley Canal were passed by Parliament.

6th June

The first meeting of the Committee of the Dudley Canal Company. Major shareholders were Lord Dudley and Ward, Thomas Talbot Foley and other local businessmen. One of them, Abiathar Hawkes, was appointed Treasurer and Thomas Dadford Sr was the engineer. The planned route for the new canal was from a junction with the Stourbidge at Black Delph in Brierley Hill, through land owned by Lord Dudley and Ward, to two terminal basins in fields called Great Ox Leasow and Little Ox Leasow and owned by Foley.

1st June

Aris’ Birmingham Gazette reported that the branch from Tipton to Castle Mill is complete. This was known as Lord Ward’s Canal and Tunnel.

24th June

Original Dudley Canal completed.

Proposals for an extension from the northern end of the Dudley Canal with five locks to raise the level of the canal to about that of Lord Ward’s Canal (the Wolverhampton Level) and to link the two with a tunnel.

4th July

King George III gave his assent to the proposals and the Act for Dudley Tunnel and locks at Parkhead was passed.

5th July

John Snape and John Bull started to survey the tunnel, including sites of construction shafts (probably 12).

19th September

Aris’s Birmingham Gazette published the specification for the tunnel: width 9′ 3″ (2.8m), depth of water 5′ 6″ (1.68m), head room 7′ (2.1m), estimated completion date 25th March 1788. The consultant engineer was again Thomas Dadford Sr and the resident engineer was Abraham Lees. John Pinkerton was employed as contractor to undertake the construction.

October

Work starts at the Parkhead end of the tunnel.

January

Contractor’s work is deemed to be unsatisfactory. Payments to Pinkerton are suspended and two members of the Dudley Committee (Isaac Pratt and Richmond Aston) are appointed to oversee the work taking place at each end (Pratt at Parkhead, Aston at Castle Mill).

February

Dudley Company resolves to take over the construction of the tunnel.

Thomas Dadford Sr resigns to take a more lucrative position with the Trent and Mersey Co. Work starts on the junction between Lord Ward’s Canal and the new tunnel, to be known as Castle Mill Basin. Isaac Pratt assumes overall charge.

October

John, 2nd Viscount Lord Dudley and Ward died. His successor, William, does not share his enthusiasm for canals.

May

Isaac Pratt lays down his responsibilities and in June Josiah Clowes is appointed as engineer to complete the tunnel for one Guinea per day plus expenses

The Dudley Canal Tunnel is reported open to traffic on 15th October.

The 1791 Act for the Worcester & Birmingham Canal prompted the Dudley Company to extend its canal to Selly Oak, since it would have access to Birmingham without incurring high tolls imposed by the Birmingham Company and to Worcester and beyond. Eventually it would also provide a shorter route to London via the proposed Stratford, Warwick & Birmingham and Warwick & Napton canals, the existing Oxford Canal and the Thames. The Act for the 11-mile Netherton Canal, subsequently known as the Selly Oak Extension or Dudley No.2 Line, was obtained on 17th June 1793 and it was reported on 28th May 1798 that the canal had been completed. Problems with construction of the 3,795 yard Lapal Tunnel, the fourth longest in the country, delayed completion. Dudley Tunnel was cut through solid rock throughout, but much of Lapal Tunnel, which had the same profile, passed through wet and faulted marl and similar material. Repairs were necessary early in 1801, probably due to failure of the walls, and the tunnel continued to collapse from time to time. When 19 ft of side wall failed on 15th June 1917, the BCN Company decided to close it.

The stop lock, which kept the level of the Dudley Canal 6 inches below that of the Birmingham and had been built in the tunnel between Quarry Pit and the branch to Dark Cavern, was moved to Tipton Green Junction, at what is now known as Batson’s Wharf.

A tunnel was built from Castle Mill Basin to a cavernous basin at the East Mine on Wren’s Nest Hill. This was extended in 1815 to an equally large basin in the West Mine, two thirds of a mile from Castle Mill. The surface workings of the West Mine are known as the Seven Sisters.

Thomas Brewin was appointed Superintendent Agent on 25th December, a post he held until becoming the Company’s Clerk in 1824. Brewin, a local colliery owner, had been a proprietor of the Company since at least 1805 and became a major shareholder. Though not an engineer, he was an astute businessman and was responsible for the success of the company during the latter part of its independent existence.

Owing to continual problems along the original Dudley Canal and in the tunnel due to mining subsidence, embankments and cuttings were avoided on the Netherton Canal. As a consequence, it followed a tortuous route between Parkhead and Windmill End, with a particularly sharp ‘hairpin’ bend at Lodge Farm. Brewin consulted with Francis Downing, principal mining and minerals agent of the Earl of Dudley’s estates, on removing several of the bends and Jeremiah Matthews produced a survey of the improvements. This also included a proposal for a canal between Dudley Woodside and Lodge Farm that was later built as the Two Lock Line. Some of the cut-offs were implemented, but the bends at Lodge Farm were replaced by a tunnel that was called after Brewin. A reservoir was constructed between the diversion and original line.

The Limekiln Branch, from the Birmingham Canal to the fine bank of kilns in what is now the Black Country Living Museum, was built under the direction of the Trustees of the Dudley estates, held in trust from 1833 to 1845.

Brewin introduced an ingenious arrangement near the western portal of Lapal Tunnel to speed up the passage of boats. This consisted of a second-hand steam engine coupled to a scoop wheel that lifted water past a stop gate. The gate was opened to assist boats from Selly Oak. Pumping was discontinued in October 1914, owing to the great age of the engine and a decline in traffic.

The Dudley and Birmingham Canal Navigations companies amalgamated. At the final committee meeting of the Dudley company on 30th June Brewin, then aged about 69, was thanked profusely for his unstinting service to the company over a period of many years. The stop lock at Tipton Green was no longer required and thereafter the two canals were on the same level. The only sign that the lock existed is the narrows at the wharf. A few years later the link from the Limekiln Branch to the tunnel approach was built.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science visited the mines. The famous geologist Sir Roderick Murchison gave a speech in Dark cavern with thousands of people present. He had proposed a new geological period called the Silurian era that included the limestone for which Dudley and its mines are among the best examples in the world.

It is said that a record 41,000 boats used the tunnel during this year. This made the Birmingham Company realise that Dudley Tunnel was just too small to take the number of boats that used it. After various ideas to increase the capacity of the Dudley Tunnel were decided against, the company began construction on a new tunnel two miles away to the south, near the town of Netherton.

Netherton Tunnel, one of the improvements to the Dudley Canal by the Birmingham Canal Navigations Company, was completed. It is 27 ft wide and 16 ft high and has two towpaths. At about 1¾ miles in length, Netherton Tunnel is slightly shorter than Dudley Tunnel. It was lit by gas which was later replaced by electric lighting. The power was generated by a turbine at Groveland Aqueduct, Tividale, which carries the Old Main line over the Netherton Tunnel Branch.

The southern section of Dudley Tunnel had been affected by mining subsidence throughout its existence and had been the cause of litigation between the canal company and colliery owners. About 200 yards were rebuilt to larger dimensions in that year. The bore then suddenly reduces to that of the 1792 tunnel and, since the Parkhead portal gives a false indication of the headroom in the tunnel, a gauge has been fitted.

Blower’s Green Pumphouse, the headquarters of the Trust, was built to house the recirculating pump that replaced the earlier one on the Grazebrook Arm. The new pump raised water from the Level Pond to the Birmingham Level or Wolverhampton Level, or between the Birmingham and Wolverhampton levels.

The British Transport Commission propose to close the tunnel.

A protest cruise was organised by local canal societies which raised the issue to local people and more trips were organised.

Dudley Tunnel was officially closed to traffic after no boats had passed through since the 1950s.

The railway bridge which carried the main Stourbridge to Wolverhampton line was found to be unsafe. This bridge crossed the Dudley Tunnel portal at Tipton. The railway wanted to replace the bridge with an embankment which would mean that the tunnel would be sealed off. So a ‘last opportunity to see the tunnel’ cruise was organised; as a result of this a group was formed which was called the Dudley Canal Tunnel Preservation Society.

Dr Beeching’s nation-wide railway closures made the railway line above the tunnel defunct, so the entrance to the Dudley Tunnel was granted an unexpected reprieve.

The Dudley Canal Tunnel Preservation Society became Dudley Canal Trust and work started to restore the waterway. They borrowed equipment off British Waterways, Dudley Council and local contractors.

The Dudley Dig and Cruise was organised on 26/27 September. Over the weekend over six hundred people cleaned out two lock pounds and one lock chamber and repaired quantities of brickwork. Later that year on the other side of the tunnel the Lord Ward Arm was restored and at the end of the weekend the first boat for many years passed up the arm.

The approach canals to the tunnel and the basins within the tunnel system were dredged, during which 50,000 tons of mud were pulled out of the canals. During this year the locks at Parkhead were also reopened and the first boat for ten years navigated the flight.

The final preparations for the reopening commenced. At Easter the tunnel and canal were reopened with almost 14,000 people in attendance.

The Trust had been operating public trips since the tunnel reopened. To propel the boats through the tunnel the method of legging was used. This became extremely tiring for the crew, so the Trust decided to convert its trip boat to electrical power and employed its first fulltime member of staff to run the boat. The boat was named Electra and it was the first electrically power narrow boat in the world. It is still in service today although it has had a new passenger section built in 1981.

The Black Country Living Museum opened on the site next to the Tipton portal.

The southern end of Dudley Tunnel had begun to collapse about 350 yards from the 1884 section. Because of this the tunnel was closed to through traffic once more.

Plans were made to open up one of the limestone mines called Singing Cavern. In order for this to happen a new tunnel would have to be constructed and the whole mine would have to be rock bolted.

23rd April

The cavern was opened by Neil MacFarlane M.P. and John Wilson, Chairman of the M.E.B.

Because of increased passenger number the need for a round trip became apparent. Plans began during this year and it was decided that a new tunnel should be built to link up Singing Cavern and Little Tess mine where an audio visual show would tell visitors the geology of the hill and mines.

The silt was dug out of the 19th century tunnel linking Little Tess with Singing Cavern. During this operation an old wooden limestone boat was found in the silt and it was decided to try to raise the boat to preserve it. In November of that year work started on the new tunnel to Castle Mill Basin.

The new route was opened on 25th April by councillor D.H. Sparkes, chairman of Dudley’s Economic Development Committee. The Trust took over an historic working boat called Bittell, a 1930s BCN icebreaker tug built for Stewarts and Lloyds at Halesowen. For more information on Bittell, see our historic boats pages.

The Trust’s fourth trip boat was created to keep up with the public demand and was named Richard after one of the Trust’s officials. Also during this year money was found from different funds to restore the fallen section of Dudley Tunnel. The whole project would cost approximately £730,000. Work started in February and was completed on 16th April 1992. The work included the breakout of the 1792 brick lining and replacing it with a concrete tube.

The tunnel was reflooded in April and the opening ceremony took place in the summer. The total works including resurfacing the towpath cost £1.8 million.

The triple junction at Parkhead was restored. This involved digging out the Pensnett Arm and Grazebrook Arm. The bridges which spanned the arms were rebuilt and the towpath was resurfaced.

To pull private boats through the tunnel the trip boat had to pull them through. This meant that a trip boat had to be lost from taking passengers which meant that the Trust was losing money so the idea of a tunnel tug was thought of. The final design was to have a boat that was 40 feet long and it was to be powered by batteries. Also a diesel generator would be placed in the bow, this would be used on the open canal to recharge the batteries as they were being used. It was named after John C. Brown who was the main BW engineer in charge of the 1992 restoration, he died suddenly a few years later so the Trust named the boat in his memory.

Also during this year the Trust took over the disused Blowers Green Pumphouse in Peartree Lane. This was to become their offices, education centre and workshops. Previously the building was a steel stockholders warehouse and the two cranes still remain in position. Originally there were two steam pumps inside which we think might have pumped water from the bottom of the Delph or Nine Locks in Brierley Hill back up to the Birmingham level at the top of Blowers Green Lock. The engines were removed some time during the 20th century. Today the building is used throughout the year for administration and educational purposes.

Portal construction began.

Portal building opens at Todd’s End, Tipton.