History Of The Tunnels


History of the Tunnels


Work began on Lord Dudley and Ward’s branch canal from the Birmingham Canal to his Tipton Colliery and a 250-yard tunnel to his limestone mines under Castle Hill.


2nd April – Separate 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 Abiathar Hawkes, was Treasurer. Thomas Dadford Snr. was appointed engineer. The planned route for the new canal was from an end-on junction with the Stourbridge Canal at Black Delph, Brierley Hill, through to two terminal basins at Ox Leasow adjacent to Peartree Lane, Dudley.


1st June – Aris’ Birmingham Gazette reported that Lord Ward’s Canal and Tunnel branch from Tipton to Castle Mill is complete.


24th June – The Dudley Canal was reported completed to the Stourbridge Canal.


Proposals for an extension from Ox Leasow to meet up with Lord Ward’s Canal and tunnel at Castle Mill were put forward, involving a 1½ mile tunnel and the building of five locks at Ox Leasow, later called Parkhead.


4th July – King George III gave his assent to the proposals and the Act for Dudley Canal Tunnel and locks at Parkhead was passed.

5th July – John Snape and John Bull started to survey the tunnel, including the sites of the twelve construction shafts.

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 Snr 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 Canal Company resolves to take over the construction of the tunnel. Thomas Dadford Snr 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 at Parkhead eastwards to Selly Oak, since it would have access to Birmingham without incurring high tolls imposed by the Birmingham Company. 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. Then it was reported on 28th May 1798 that the canal had been completed, though problems with construction of the 3,795-yard Lapal Tunnel, the fourth longest in the country, had delayed it.


The unique underground stop-lock, which had kept the level of the Dudley Canal 6 inches above that of Lord Ward’s tunnel was moved to Tipton Green junction, at what is now known as Batson’s Wharf.


A tunnel was started 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 East 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 canal tunnel due to mining subsidence, embankments and cuttings had been 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 being no longer required, the level in the tunnel was reduced by 6” to that of the Birmingham, 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 east, near the town of Netherton.


Netherton Tunnel Branch was opened by Lord Ward in August. It was 27 ft wide and 16 ft high and had two towpaths. At just short of 1¾ miles in length, Netherton Tunnel was originally lit by gas which was later replaced by electric lighting in 1915. 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. Just over 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 was built to house the steam powered 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 proposed 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.


The Dudley Tunnel Branch was abandoned by Act of Parliament as no boats had passed through, officially, since the 1950s.


The railway bridge, which carried the main Stourbridge to Wolverhampton line over the Dudley Tunnel portal at Tipton was found to be unsafe with several cracks in the supporting brickwork. British Rail proposed replacing the bridge with an embankment which meant 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 nationwide 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 onto the proposed Black Country Museum site.


The Dudley Dig-In was held 1-3 October on the canal arm which is now in the Black Country Museum. Again volunteers cleared and shifted an incredible amount of weeds, silt and mud to clear the canal.


A Restoration Appeal for the whole of the Dudley Tunnel Branch was launched, enabling the approach canals to the tunnel and the basins within the tunnel system to be dredged. This resulted in 50,000 tons of mud and debris being pulled out of the canal, the locks at Parkhead were restored with the support of British Waterways and Dudley Borough Council and the first boat for ten years navigating the flight.


The final preparations for the reopening commenced. At Easter the tunnel and canal were reopened with almost 14,000 people and 300 boats in attendance.

Two men laid on their backs legging through Dudley Tunnel


The Trust had been operating public trips since the tunnel reopened. To propel the boats through the tunnel the traditional method of ‘legging’ had been used. As this was very tiring for the crew, the Trust decided to convert its’ trip boat to electric power using batteries, and employed its first full-time member of staff to run the boat from September. The boat was named Electra and it was the first electrically powered passenger carrying narrow-boat in the country. 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.


A section of brick-work lining at the southern end of Dudley Tunnel had begun to collapse about 240 yards from the end of the 1884 rebuilt section. Because of this the tunnel was closed to through traffic once more, although fortunately the short trips for the Black Country Museum visitors were able to continue unaffected.


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 for access 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.


Due to increasing passenger numbers, the need for a round-trip through the mines became apparent. It was decided that another new tunnel should be built to link up Singing Cavern with Little Tess, where an audio-visual show would tell visitors the geology of the hill and mines, using a currently blocked up tunnel connecting the two areas of underground mines, and a new tunnel from Castle Mill Basin to Little Tess.Boat steering through Dudley Tunnels


The silt was dug out of the 19th century Rock 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 from 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 1930’s 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 failed section in the main Dudley Tunnel, the project costing 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’ cast in situ, of 110 yards (100M) in length.


The tunnel was re-flooded in April and the opening ceremony took place in the summer. The total works included reinstating and resurfacing several towpaths locally at a cost of £1.8 million.


The unique triple junction at the top of Parkhead Locks was restored. This involved dredging out the Grazebrook Arm and the purchase of the Pensnett Canal from the Lord Dudley’s Estate, which was then dug out from scratch, brick-lined and re-watered. The bridges which spanned the arms were rebuilt and the towpath was resurfaced.


To take private boats through the tunnel a trip-boat had to pull them through, which meant the Trust losing its’ availability for at least 2 hours. The obvious solution was a specially designed tug, which could also act as a rescue boat in case of a trip-boat failure, and as a general run around vessel for inspection and special visit purposes. The final design was with the assistance from British Waterways, and included a diesel generator to supplement the electric motor on longer trips on the open canal. The Trust decided to name it “John C. Brown” after the local B.W. engineer who was in charge of the 1992 restoration project, who died just three years after the tunnel reopening.

During this year, the Trust also took over the disused Blowers Green Pumphouse in Peartree Lane, Dudley at the foot of Parkhead Locks. This became the offices, education centre and workshops/stores and enabled us to leave our previous small industrial unit we had rented in Tipton. Our volunteer architect, Keith Tyler, completely gutted the old steel stockholders use of the building and gave the Trust a lovely spacious useful set of rooms, meeting and social places to occupy.

Having had a great deal of experience and success at holding “Santa Specials”, for British Waterways at Tardebigge in previous years, the Trust decided to offer the same experience at Dudley – but this time in a real Grotto in the limestone mines!


We at last received permission to have ‘ingress’ and ‘egress’ lanes off the Birmingham New Road (A4123) onto Todd’s End Field, for visitors to the tunnel to access our tripping operation, independent of the Black Country Museum visitors. Shortly afterwards, we had “Brown” directional signs erected.


With plans and funding at an advanced stage for a permanent building for the Trust’s headquarters at Todd’s End Field, a ‘temporary’ wooden building was purchased and erected on the field opposite the entrance, and the Pumphouse was vacated, but used for storage and social meetings.


January – A start was made on the foundations for “The Portal” building.


4th March – H.R.H. The Princess Royal officially opened “The Portal” building and took a trip aboard the “George” round the limestone mines and tunnel.


The Trust took on the running of the restaurant from the original contractor and named it “The Gongoozler”, a traditional name to anyone who liked doing absolutely nothing except watch boats messing about on the water!