1st Ordnance Survey Map of the BCN, printed in 1889

250 Years BCN

When looking at history old county boundaries and where names must be recalled, Birmingham and Aston were both located in the county of Warwickshire. Handsworth, Smethwick, Tipton and West Bromwich belonged to Staffordshire, whilst parts of Oldbury were in Shropshire. Within these areas were mineral extraction, metal working and water mills. For export purposes the terms Birmingham Goods and Wolverhampton Goods were once used to distinguish between the produce of these two manufacturing districts.

Medieval roads provided transport links to the River Severn and River Trent as well as the various towns such as Coventry, Dudley, Kidderminster, Lichfield, Walsall and Warwick. Several roads were improved as turnpikes during the eighteenth century and the collection of tolls assisted with the maintenance of such routes. The turnpike from Birmingham to High Bullen, near Wednesbury provided the means of transporting goods and coal. The mining of coal occupied a substantial area that included Bilston, Tipton, Wednesbury and parts of West Bromwich. There were also seams of ironstone mixed with the coal and that ironstone had been converted in water powered blast furnaces using charcoal. Near Birmingham, at Aston, was Aston Furnace that used the water from Hockley Brook to power the bellows for the blast and refine the iron ore to make pig iron. Elsewhere the waters of the Rivers Stour and Tame were harnessed for similar charcoal furnaces.

William Wood was an ironmaster located in Wednesbury that made iron by the established charcoal method, but also experimented with coal. Unfortunately local supplies of coal often contained sulphur which made any iron produced too brittle for use. Not all coals however had sulphur and some coals came to have a use in the iron making process, particularly with water powered processes of working pig iron up to wrought iron. These were called the finery and the chafery processes where again charcoal was mixed and heated with iron to make it malleable. Dud Dudley recorded a certain success using coal to smelt coal, before the English Civil War. Though such claims were discredited by twentieth century historians, there remains a belief that some success was achieved.

Coal did come to have an increasing use in manufacturing processes including the working of non ferrous metals of copper and tin and alloys such as bronze and brass. Birmingham came to excel in the working of metals to produce items called “toys” which included small metal items such as buckles. There was also a steel works in Birmingham that provided steel for the local toy industry and there was a demand for acid to clean metal. Samuel Garbett built up a sulphuric acid supply business, in Scotland, to assist with the various processes to make a finish product in Birmingham, such as steel. The manufactured acid required transport from his chemical works using existing coastal navigations, rivers and roads. Samuel Garbett was a keen supporter of improving transport links to Birmingham.

Transport of coal by turnpike was at a high relative cost, and ways of reducing that cost were considered important enough for the improvement of river navigation from the Trent, and using the Tame as a means to reach Birmingham or a point close to it.  However the conflict of those proposing a river navigation and the water mill owners keen on keeping the water for their exclusive use was often a barrier to progress.  

The term “industrial revolution” came to symbolise the use of canals, steam power and the coke smelting process, but thought must given to the notion that this “revolution” was one of a series of industrial revolutions of which the improvements in water mills and establishment of sheep farming are other examples, as are in modern times the internal combustion engine, the silicon chip and computer technology in general.

Yet the decade that began in 1760 heralded in the start of a revolution in industry that was the have a major influence for the future and pave- the- way for the canal builders. Some three years before John Wilkinson had established an iron smelting furnace at Bradley close to the turnpike there. Instead of charcoal, Wilkinson used coke to smelt iron and employed steam power in his works. At this time steam power was used for draining mines using a type of engine called the Newcomen Engine that pumped water through a reciprocating action of a beam. It was possible that Wilkinson used this reciprocating action to drive the bellows of the blast. There were few local sources of water at Bradley for that option to be used.

There were a group of coal masters that were now well established in this district. Their only means of transport remained the county road or the turnpike. By 1766 serious attempts were being made to promote canals to serve the East & West Midlands. Earlier surveys by James Brindley and John Smeaton had failed to get a canal link from the Trent to Lichfield and Tamworth. With the success of the Bridgewater Canal, which linked Manchester with the Worsley Coal Mines, an incentive for other canals to be built became possible. James Brindley devised a scheme to unite the Mersey, Severn and Trent with a canal network, but another proposed scheme had the potential to wreck this plan. 

This was the Macclesfield Canal with proposed links to the Weaver and the Bridgewater Canal. A lengthy enquiry at the House of Lords, where Brindley gave evidence, led to the Macclesfield scheme being delayed and at the same time (1766) Parliament authorised the construction of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal (the Wolverhampton Canal) and the Trent & Mersey Canal (the Grand Trunk Canal) and Brindley was engineer to both projects. Proposal for a canal from Birmingham to the coal mines were made at the soon after. These suggestions were changed for a canal from Birmingham to join the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal at Aldersley and the act was granted in 1768 (Royal Assent on February 24th, 1768- 8 Geo III). Brindley was appointed engineer and work commenced on building all three waterways once the acts of Parliament had been granted. The Birmingham Canal Act had the complication where the county of Shropshire was omitted and a separate act was required to amend this error (Act April 21st 1769 9 Geo III).

With all such projects work was started on the major engineering obstacles first. With the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal work started certain locks along the route from Compton down to Wombourne. With the Trent & Mersey contractors started at Harecastle Tunnel and later the long aqueduct over the Dove near Burton on Trent. Construction was progressing with the two Brindley canals when work finally started on the Birmingham. 

With the Birmingham Canal contractors went to work on sinking shafts for Smethwick Tunnel. Horse Gins were purchased and the shafts began at Smethwick, but quicksand was encountered and the first of several route changes for the Birmingham Canal was made. Samuel Garbett was a member of the canal committee, but he regularly clashed with the chairman William Bentley especially later as the canal building entered the second phase through Oldbury to Tipton. Construction was in the first instance concentrated on the section between Birmingham and West Bromwich. It was a winding narrow convoluted waterway that followed the contours of the land at what became in later times, the 453ft od level.William Bentley together with Josiah Wilkinson did much to get the BCN act through Parliament and then did all in his power to ensure the canal was built as soon as possible. Brindley’s assistants Robert Whitworth and Samuel Simcox had direct control of the making of the BCN.

Because the Smethwick Tunnel could not be made the decision was taken to take the canal up through 6 locks to a short summit (at 491 ft od) placed between Smethwick and Spon Lane. Here streams and a supply from the Smethwick Great Reservoir fed the summit level. Another six locks were needed to take the canal down again to the original level (453 ft od). From here the canal was level to the West Bromwich mines whose owners included the Wood family.

The first section to open was on November 6th, 1769. It is this date that it being commemorated by a BCNS cruise on November 2nd 2019. The canal terminated near coal mines near Wednesbury, but still within the parish of West Bromwich.

Snapes Map of the BCN (1777), amended 1817
Snapes Map of the BCN (1777), amended 1817


The original terminus of the 1769 route was at a wharf for Bilston coal master Thomas Tomkys. The canal also served John Wood’s colliery. This area was known as Golds Green. The canal was extended in 1817.

1st Ordnance Survey Map of the BCN, printed in 1889
First Ordnance Survey map showing the BCN, printed in 1889 

This map shows the canal when most of the mines had closed.

The route through to reach the original Birmingham terminus was particularly circuitous  as the 453 ft contour took the waterway near the Cape at Smethwick and through Winson Green before meeting the turnpike at the top of Spring Hill. Passing under the turnpike by a bridge the canal then headed for Rotton Park where it crossed Edgbaston Brook at the top of the valley. Turning back the canal followed the valley side toward Monument Lane, which had been an early Roman Road. Turning again the canal headed for a sharp bend called Sandy Turn and then went onto the Oozells Estate before turning yet again and travelling roughly along a straight course to Mr Farmer’s Bridge. From there the route curved northwards to the first terminus beside the original Dudley Turnpike where the high ground of Easy Hill ended.  Easy Hill included the home of John Baskerville, the Birmingham publisher.

Snapes Map of the BCN Newhall Branch from 1777
Snapes Map of the Newhall Branch 1777

The canal terminus, in 1769, was at the Wharf to the east of the road, and later the turnpike was altered to join up with Friday Street. The canal was also extended by a end on junction with a canal originally promoted by Charles Colmore that crossed the original turnpike route by an aqueduct.

Construction work began on April 11th 1768 with George Holloway as clerk of works and William Wright as surveyor. As built, this first part of the BCN (over 10 miles long) passed mainly through fields and gardens. The canal was lined by quick hedges. Where possible bridges were made as the wooden swivel type, masonry bridges were constructed in busier locations such as Farmer’s Bridge and the locks at Smethwick. There were stop gates at specific points and 32 bridges on this navigation when the first section opened. 15 narrow boats were in use at that time for the coal trade, which George Holloway had arranged the construction of after advertising for timber required for the building of such boats.


Comments 2

  1. Maps help to understand how the waterways developed. For the BCN there are many sources which include the ordnance survey, parliamentary plans, tithe maps and a host of private surveys relating to the sale of land.

    The BCN has changed much since the first section was opened to traffic and it was the first bit of a James Brindley narrow canal. The first part of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal was opened to traffic northwards from Stourport in 1770, and with the Trent & Mersey, this too had a short section finished in March 1770

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