Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) is a network of canals connecting Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and the eastern part of the Black Country. The BCN is connected to the rest of the English canal system at several junctions. At its working peak, the BCN contained about 160 miles (257 km) of canals; today just over 100 miles (160 km) are navigable, and the majority of traffic is from tourist and residential narrowboats.
The first canal to be built in the area was the Birmingham Canal, built from 1768 to 1772 under the supervision of James Brindley from the, then, edge of Birmingham, with termini at Newhall Wharf (since built over) and Paradise Wharf (also known as Old Wharf) near to Gas Street Basin to meet the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal at Aldersley (north of Wolverhampton).
The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, from Birmingham to Tamworth, followed in 1784 with the Birmingham Canal Company merging with the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Company immediately, to form what was originally called the Birmingham and Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Company. This cumbersome name was short-lived, and the combined company became known as the Birmingham Canal Navigations from 1794, as the network was expanded.
** – Birmingham Canal – **
On 24 January 1767 a number of prominent Birmingham businessmen, including Matthew Boulton and others from the Lunar Society, held a public meeting in the White Swan, High Street, Birmingham to consider the possibility of building a canal from Birmingham to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal near Wolverhampton, taking in the coalfields of the Black Country. They commissioned the canal engineer James Brindley to propose a route. Brindley came back with a largely level route via Smethwick, Oldbury, Tipton, Bilston and Wolverhampton to Aldersley.
On 24 February 1768 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow the building of the canal, with branches at Ocker Hill and Wednesbury where there were coal mines. The Staffordshire and Worcestershire company was given the right to make the connection to their canal if the Birmingham company failed to do so within six months of opening. On 2 March Brindley was appointed engineer. The first phase of building was to Wednesbury whereupon the price of coal sold to domestic households in Birmingham halved overnight.
Vested interests of the sponsors caused the creation of two terminal wharves in Birmingham. The 1772 Newhall Branch and wharf (now built upon) originally extended north of, and parallel to Great Charles Street. The 1773 Paradise Street Branch split off at Old Turn Junction and headed through Broad Street Tunnel, turned left at what is now Gas Street Basin and under Bridge Street to wharves on a tuning fork-shaped pair of long basins: Paradise Wharf, also called Old Wharf. The Birmingham Canal Company head office was finally built there, opposite the western end of Paradise Street.
By 6 November 1769, 10 miles (16 kilometres) had been completed to Hill Top collieries in West Bromwich, with a one-mile summit pound at Smethwick. Brindley had tried to dig a cutting through the hill at Smethwick but had encountered ground too soft to cope with. The canal rose through six narrow (7 foot) locks to the summit level and descended through another six at Spon Lane. Water was brought from purpose-built reservoirs: Smethwick Great Reservoir (now built upon, holding 1514 locks of water), another smaller pool at Smethwick (holding 500 locks), and then from Titford Pool to supply the summit level.
In 1770 work started towards Wolverhampton. On 21 September 1772 the canal was joined with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal at Aldersley Junction via another 20 locks (increased to 21 in 1784 to save water). Brindley died a few days later. The canal measured 22⅝ miles, mostly following the contour of the land but with deviations to factories and mines in the Black Country and Birmingham. A branch led to Matthew Boulton's Soho Manufactory.
In 1784, after two years of counter-productive attempts at legislation, the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Company (created to propose a competitive canal from the coal fields to Birmingham and also a link to the Coventry Canal at Fazeley) merged with the Birmingham Canal Company (ten years later the name of the merged company was changed to the Birmingham Canal Navigations Company) and the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal was started. This created an even greater need for water to supply the thirteen locks at Farmer's Bridge and eleven at Aston, all running downhill and taking water out of the Birmingham system.
The changes were made in two phases with a new cut to the side to remove two locks from each end and lower the summit by twelve feet, and then another parallel cut another six feet lower, removing another lock at each end and the provision of a parallel set of three locks at the Smethwick end. In 1790, after 2½ years, the cutting was completed. The canal was closed for only 14 days. The lowered summit was at the Wolverhampton Level and simplified water supply. Water was also pumped from several local coal mines. The Spon Lane engine was removed and sold but the Smethwick Engine continued to be used to pump used water from the Birmingham Level.
The Act allowed for branches to extend from the main line, and for private wharves and basins. In May 1821 the loop of the main line around Oldbury was bypassed by a straight cut, shortening the route between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Over the next thirty years, as more canals and branches were built or connected, it became necessary to review the long, winding, narrow Old Main Line. With a single towpath, boats passing in opposite directions had to negotiate their horses and ropes. As traffic grew the locks at Smethwick Summit were still a constriction.
** – New Main Line – **
In 1824 Thomas Telford was commissioned to examine alternatives. He famously travelled the route of the Old Line and reported the existing canal as:
Telford proposed major changes to the section between Birmingham and Smethwick, widening and straightening the canal, providing towpaths on each side, and cutting through Smethwick Summit to bypass the locks, allowing lock-free passage from Birmingham to Tipton. Telford's proposals were swayed by the threat of a new Birmingham to Liverpool railway. His suggestions were accepted and he was appointed chief engineer on 28 June 1824. By 1827 the New Main Line passed straight through, and linked to, the loops of the Old Main Line, creating Oozells Loop, Icknield Port Loop, Soho Loop, Cape Loop and Soho Foundry Loop, allowing continued access to the existing factories and wharves.
A year earlier he had built an improved Rotton Park Reservoir (Edgbaston Reservoir) on the site of an existing fish pool, bringing its capacity to 300 million imperial gallons (1,400,000 m3). A canal feeder took water to, and along, a raised embankment on the south side of the New Main Line to his new Engine Arm branch canal and across an elegant cast iron aqueduct to top up the higher Wolverhampton Level at Smethwick Summit. The reservoir also fed water to the Birmingham Level at the adjacent Icknield Port Loop.
The Smethwick Summit was bypassed by a 71 foot cutting through Lunar Society member Samuel Galton's land, creating the Galton Valley, 70 feet deep and 150 feet wide, running parallel to the Old Main Line. Telford's changes here were completed in 1829. Telford designed a cast iron bridge, the Galton Bridge, to span his cutting. It was cast in the Horseley Iron Works, as was the Engine Arm Aqueduct and many of the wide roving bridges.
In 1837, after Telford's death, a new section of his planned canal was opened together with the 360 yard Coseley Tunnel, complete with double towpath, cutting out the long detour around Coseley and Wednesbury Oak, and therefore relegating it as the Wednesbury Oak Loop. As with many of the branch canals on the BCN, most of the Wednesbury Oak Loop became officially abandoned from 1954, but the northern stretch remains navigable to the British Waterways workshops at Bradley.
By 1838 the New Main Line was complete: 22⅝ miles of slow canal reduced to 15⅝; between Birmingham and Tipton, a lock-free dual carriageway. It was also called the Island Line as it was cut straight through the hill at Smethwick known as the Island.
In 1892 the Smethwick Engine was replaced by a new pumping house between the old and new canals, just north of Brasshouse Lane Bridge in Smethwick.
Late in the 20th century, a pair of concrete tunnels near Galton Bridge were built to carry the Telford Way road. Ryland Aqueduct, carrying the canal over the main A461 road at Dudley Port, Tipton, was rebuilt in the late 1960s. In 1990, its bare concrete structure was painted blue and white and included an image of a canal barge crossing an old-fashioned brick aqueduct.
The Smethwick Summit - Galton Valley Conservation Area protects the Old and New lines between the Birmingham city boundary and Spon Lane locks.
** – Birmingham and Fazeley Canal – **
The story of the Birmingham and Fazeley begins in 1770, when the Birmingham Canal Company was seen as having a monopoly. At the time, the coalfields at Walsall did not have canal access, and a public meeting was held at Lichfield on 18 August to discuss an independent link from Walsall to Fradley Junction on the Trent and Mersey Canal, passing through Lichfield.
Opposition from local landowners resulted in the plan being shelved, but a further plan was proposed at a meeting held in Warwick in August 1781, for a canal to run from Wednesbury through Fazeley to Atherstone, which was the end of the Coventry Canal at the time. The plans were changed somewhat in October, but shareholders in the Birmingham Canal saw it as a serious threat.
Two bills were put before Parliament in 1782, one for the Birmingham and Fazeley, and a rival one from the Birmingham Canal for a branch from Wednesbury to Walsall. Both sides opposed the other's proposal, and both bills were defeated. The promoters then opened negotiations with other canal companies, to ensure that when the canal was built, it would be part of a larger network. In 1782, they obtained an agreement from the Oxford Canal Company that they would complete the route to the River Thames at Oxford, one from the Coventry Canal that they would extend their canal from Atherstone to Fazeley, and agreed that they would complete the Coventry Canal's route from Fazeley as far as Whittington, as the Coventry Canal company could not finance the whole route.
The Trent and Mersey would finish that link by building the remainder of the route to Fradley Junction. A second bill was put before Parliament, and at the same time, the Birmingham Canal presented a scheme for a canal from Riders Green to Broadwaters, near Walsall, with eight branches, and a second canal from Newhall to Fazeley. The Birmingham and Fazeley was authorised by an Act of Parliament obtained in 1784. The new company and the Birmingham Canal merged soon afterwards, becoming the awkwardly named Birmingham & Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company.
John Smeaton was the engineer employed by the Birmingham and Fazeley, but work did not start immediately, as he was also responsible for the Riders Green to Broadwaters line, which was completed first. The project did not go smoothly, as there were disputes between James Bough, the superintendent of the canal company, and Pinkertons, who were the civil engineering contractors employed to carry out the work. The issue concerned the cement that the Pinkertons were using.
Work on the Fazeley line began in April 1786, with Bough still acting as superintendent, and the Pinkertons responsible for the construction of the section between Minworth and Fazeley. In late 1786, George Pinkerton found out that the levels, which had been surveyed by Bough, were wrong. Samuel Bull, the engineer for the canal company, investigated and reported that Pinkerton was right. The Pinkertons started to work on the project from January 1787, even though the contracts were not signed until May. Bough made a series of allegations that Pinkertons' workmanship and the materials used were of poor quality.
The company stopped paying Pinkerton in late 1788, as the costs were exceeding the original estimates, and the contract was taken away from them in February 1789. There was then a financial dispute over money which had been paid to Pinkerton as "extras", but which the company then claimed were overpayments. Some £2,750 was at issue, and the case rumbled on for a decade, until a court case in 1801 gave him only £436 of the claim. Unhappy with the outcome, Pinkerton justified his position, but his remarks about John Houghton, the Company Clerk, were deemed to be libellous, for which he was fined and spent some time in prison.
The canal was completed in August 1789. The benefits of the co-operation with the other canal companies were that when all the links were completed in 1790, it immediately generated a great deal of freight traffic. This created problems, as the flights of locks at Aston and Farmer's Bridge became congested, and this became worse when the Warwick Canal built a junction onto the Digbeth Branch. The problem was not solved until 1844, when the Birmingham and Warwick Junction Canal to the south east and the Tame Valley Canal to the north west were opened.
The name of the Birmingham & Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company was changed to Birmingham Canal Navigations in 1794.
The canal is now regarded as running from the BCN Main Line at Old Turn Junction (near the National Indoor Arena), Birmingham to the Coventry Canal at Fazeley Junction, just outside Tamworth. The length of this stretch is 15 miles (24 km), and it includes 38 locks. From Old Turn Junction, 13 locks drop the level of the canal by 81 feet (25 m), after which there is a short flat stretch from St Chads Cathedral to Aston Junction. There is a one-mile (1.6 km) branch called the Digbeth Branch Canal which runs from the junction to Typhoo Basin and contains 6 locks. A short cut runs from near the end of the branch to the Grand Union Canal at Bordesley Junction.
Below the junction there are another 11 locks, which form the Aston flight. Holborn Hill bridge carries the railway to Aston station over the canal, just before the bottom lock of the flight is reached. At Salford Junction, the Tame Valley Canal runs to the north west, and the Grand Union Canal runs southwards, while the Fazeley heads eastwards.
Two more locks continue the descent at Minworth, and the character of the surroundings changes from an urban and industrial landscape to open countryside. There is a short 57-yard (52 m) tunnel at Curdworth, after which fields and flooded gravel pits line the canal. At Drayton Bassett, an eccentric footbridge with Gothic-style towers crosses the canal, close to Drayton Manor Theme Park, after which Fazeley is reached, where the canal joins the Coventry Canal.
The 5.5-mile (8.8 km) stretch which extends northwards beyond Fazeley Junction to Whittington, near Lichfield, was built by the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Company, although it was built on the route authorised by the Coventry Canal's Act of Parliament. This section is now regarded as being part of the Coventry Canal.
Historically the canal started at Farmer's Bridge Top Lock (the real Farmer's Bridge Junction), where it met the already existing Birmingham Canal Newhall Branch. That branch has now been built over, with only Cambrian Wharf surviving. The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal forms part of the Warwickshire ring.
At Common lock 10, on the lower lock tail, an inscription can be found in the stonework. It reads: "Pax Missa Per Orbem, Pax Quaeritur Bello", which translates as "Peace Is Sent Throughout The World, Peace Is Sought Through War". The inscription comes from two coins, the first part from the Queen Ann Farthing, and the second part from the Cromwell Broad.
** – Gas Street Basin – **
The Birmingham Canal, completed in 1773, terminated at Old Wharf beyond Bridge Street. When the Worcester and Birmingham Company started their canal at a point later known as Gas Street Basin the Birmingham Canal Navigations Company (BCN) insisted on a physical barrier to prevent the Worcester and Birmingham Canal from benefiting from their water. The Worcester Bar, a 7-foot-3-inch-wide (2.21 metres) straight barrier 84 yards (77 metres) long was built perpendicular to the run of the two canals. Cargoes had to be laboriously manhandled between boats on either side.
The Worcester and Birmingham Canal opened between Birmingham and Selly Oak on 30 October 1795 but took until 1815 to complete to Worcester, at which time, after much lobbying by iron and coal masters and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal Company, an Act of Parliament was passed to open up the bar and the bar lock was built. There were toll offices either side of the bar lock and tolls were collected by each company from boats using the canals. The Worcester Bar still exists, with boats moored to both sides of it. It is connected to Gas Street via a footbridge reconstructed to a design by Horseley Ironworks of the 19th century.
During the 1990s much of the area around the basin was redeveloped and older buildings refurbished. The wall and ramp down from Gas Street, the Tap and Spile pub, and the neighbouring building are all grade II listed, as is the Martin & Chamberlain building built on top of the Broad Street Tunnel. In 1973, the basin featured prominently in the Cliff Richard film Take Me High. A canal-side cottage there was used as the home of a character in the long-running soap opera Crossroads.
** – Boat Trips – **
Discover Birmingham’s Canals and it’s Industrial Heritage on one of Sherborne Wharf’s luxury passenger narrowboats. Your cruise on one of their three passenger narrowboats will depart from the International Convention Centre Quayside, opposite Brindley Place, the bustling heart of Birmingham. You will cruise along quiet stretches of the canal which first brought commercial life to Birmingham and was the start of the first industrial revolution over two hundred years ago.
The City Heritage Route covers the Oozells Street and Icknield Port loops of the original James Brindley Canal, a section of the Sir Thomas Telford’s Main Line and the area around the National Indoor Arena and the International Convention Centre before going through the Worcester Bar at Gas Street Basin and turning to disembark at the ICC.
Departures are at 11.30 am, 1.00 pm, 2.30 pm and 4.00 pm. (Approximate duration of 65 minutes)
Their Narrow Boat ‘Ariel’ runs a special ‘Waterbus Service’ around the canals of Birmingham all year round. This service operates 1/2 hourly, daily, from 10.30 am to 5.00 pm.
Round trip £4 or £1 per stop.
The Waterbus stops at:
For more details on any of the above please contact them.
Moored up at Brindley Place, ‘George’ the Floating Coffee Co. offers a chance to rest those weary legs, relax and choose from a range of beverages, light-bites and meals or just have some ice cream or gateau!
The ‘Coffee Boat’ is normally open from 9 am – 5 pm, 7 days a week. (opening limitations will apply during winter months). They are also available for ‘Private Evening Bookings’. ‘Birthday Parties’ and special occasions.
Location : 22 Cambrian Wharf, King Edwards Road, Birmingham B1 2AN
Transport: Birmingham New Street (National Rail) 11 minutes or Bus. Bus routes: 9, 10, 12, 12A, 13, 13A, 13B, 126, 829, 829A, X8 and X10 all stop close by.
Opening Times : Boat Trips see above.
Tickets : Boat Trips see above.
Tel: 0303 040 4040