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Company of Proprietors of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal Navigation


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal Navigation: legal and administrative records 1797-1871, plans of the canal 1789-late 19th century, water supply 1791-1920, wharves 19th century, vessels 1797-1802, Birmingham West Suburban Railway Viaduct 1873.



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Administrative /​ Biographical history

The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal already linked Birmingham and the River Severn when a Bill for a similar route was introduced in 1786. Those who wanted a navigation that was more direct than any currently built or planned, and avoided the notorious Stourport-Worcester stretch of the River Severn, submitted it. The Bill failed, as did another in 1790 for a canal that followed a slightly different path. The chief opponents were the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, the Birmingham and the Dudley canals. Opposition was still strong for the 1791 Bill that did pass, but concessions resulted in a canal from Worcester that went near to, but did not connect with, the Birmingham Canal. This became known as the Worcester Bar, and forced all interchange goods to be transshipped. It was inconvenient and meant that traders had to travel further down the Birmingham Canal, thereby paying more tolls. It was replaced in 1815 by a lock. Many of the companies who claimed a potential detrimental effect demanded some sort of financial compensation. The Worcester and Birmingham Canal Navigation agreed to almost every demand, but in practice rarely had to pay. In 1793, the Dudley Canal realised that this new canal could actually prove beneficial, and retracted its previous hostility. John Snape and Josiah Clowes surveyed for a broad canal, but financial pressure and the practicalities of joining with the narrow Dudley and Stratford canals meant that a narrow canal was built. All bridges and tunnels, however, were built broad. Thomas Cartwright was appointed engineer. Work started at Birmingham. The junction with the Dudley Canal at Selly Oak was reached in 1795; that with the Stratford at King's Norton a year after. Work slowed down significantly after 1797 because of money problems. The situation was exacerbated by the number of shareholders who defaulted on their calls, and the fact that the treasurer owed the company several thousand pounds, which was not repaid in full until 1815. Cargo services were established on the completed part of the navigation. So slow was the progress that Benjamin Outram suggested building a tramroad. The scheme was approved, but got no further than the planning stages. It took until March 1807 to finish the 613-yard Shortwood Tunnel and reach Tardebigge Old Wharf. There, a large basin and wharf was constructed and was well-used by the coal and corn trade. A regular passenger service ran between Alvechurch and Birmingham. A year and a half after the wharf opened, the company were pleased and relieved by the traffic statistics they had. John Woodhouse became engineer in 1809, but was succeeded two years' later by William Crosley. John Woodhouse was initially employed specifically to design a lift at Tardebigge, because the water supply was felt inadequate for all the necessary locks. The lift was ready in June 1808 but not tested until 1810. The results were satisfactory and had the support of many proprietors; yet the company decided to build locks after all. A major disagreement broke out between the two groups of supporters. William Jessop and John Rennie were both consulted. Both agreed the lift had worked, but Jessop thought the water shortage made it the practical answer whilst Rennie believed the machinery would be unable to withstand constant use and would cause greater problems than any water shortage. The dispute was resolved when it was discovered that there was enough water for locks after all. A lock replaced the lift in 1815. Finally, the 30 miles of canal were finished in December 1815. It had reservoirs at Tardebigge and King's Norton and another was built in 1832 at Upper Bittall to cope with the volume of traffic. The Worcester and Birmingham Canal drew water from the rivers Rea and Arrow. Lower Bittall Reservoir was built to provide compensation water to the mills along those rivers. As well as Shortwood Tunnel, there were also tunnels at West Hill, Edgbaston, Tardebigge and Dunhampstead. All were shorter than Shortwood; the smallest, Edgbaston, reaching 105 yards and was the only one with a towpath. There were 58 locks, including a flight of thirty near Tardebigge Tunnel and two barge locks to the River Severn. Pickfords started a fly-boat service immediately the canal opened. Traffic built up steadily and the company encouraged it by reducing tolls until it was one of the cheapest navigations to use. More warehouses were built at Diglis Basin within 5 years of the canal opening to cope with the salt trade. This was exactly what the company needed, because they were crippled by debt. No bank would lend them money because of their poor credit history. Reorganising their finances saved them some money and the shareholders became the only source of money bar tolls. It was fortunate for them that they did not have to wait long for traffic to build up, because the canal was expensive to maintain. The very first, and very small, dividend was paid in 1821. Just as it seemed the Worcester and Birmingham Canal's financial troubles were becoming less of a burden, a new worry emerged. In 1825 the company expressed concern that railways would take trade; for the time, however, the canal was about to enter an era of greater prosperity. In the 1830s, rock salt deposits were discovered at Stoke Prior. Money from tolls increased and at its peak in 1837 the dividend was quadruple that of 1821. In 1830 the canal acquired a 21-year lease of the Lower Avon Navigation. This could partly have been so that places on the Lower Avon could have their coal supplied by the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, rather than the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. That same year, the proposed Gloucester and Birmingham Railway came to the canal company's attention. Share prices began to fall in anticipation, and they and the dividend fell further once the railway was completed. The Birmingham and Gloucester Railway ran parallel to the canal. When it opened in 1841, it took almost all the canal's very profitable salt trade. Many of the canals had reduced tolls and introduced other financial incentives, but they could not control the weather. The first winter the railway was operational, frost caused delays on the canal. Many traders opted to send goods by railway rather than wait. To counteract the effects of the railways, the Worcester and Birmingham company fought to get the River Severn improved. In 1848 it started a carrying business in conjunction with the North Staffordshire Railway and Canal Carrying Company. The 25-year lease on the Coombe Hill Canal expired in 1850. The Worcester and Birmingham Canal were keen to renew, at a lower rent, but the negotiations obviously went on for too long because another company got the lease. An attempt to ally with the Birmingham Canal to jointly reduce tolls failed, leaving the Worcester and Birmingham Canal to cut tolls independently. In 1852 an Act was obtained to build the Droitwich Junction Canal from Hanbury Wharf to join the Droitwich Canal. This would eliminate the need to transport the coal and salt by land between the two points. The nominally independent company quickly allowed the Worcester and Birmingham Canal to lease it. A year later, the company leased the Droitwich Canal itself. The Junction canal was finished in 1854. It was 1 ¾ miles long with 7 locks. Subsidence later became a problem. No more dividends were paid after 1864. This, and their extremely large debts, made them amenable to an offer to buy the canal and convert it. Several times the bills were rejected due to opposition, and the canal company's financial situation worsened. In 1868 they had failed to make mortgage repayments and a receiver was appointed. When their lease of the Lower Avon ran out in 1872, they were in no position to renew it. The Sharpness New Docks Company bought the canal in 1874, including the Droitwich navigations, and was thence on known as the Sharpness New Docks & Gloucester & Birmingham Navigation Company. A major improvement programme was begun. The navigations were dredged, locks were altered and tunnel tugs were put on. It did little to halt the decline of traffic and without subsidies, conditional on the canal remaining open, the Worcester and Birmingham would almost certainly have closed before the twentieth century. Even so, it made a loss from 1886 and by 1926 the subsidies did not cover the deficit. Up to World War One, the revenue from the Droitwich canals did not cover the cost of maintaining it. After years of disuse, in March 1938 the Sharpness company successfully applied to close them. The Worcester and Birmingham Canal was nationalised in 1948. Commercial traffic continued to use the Worcester and Birmingham Canal until 1961, although in the last years it was mainly coal to the Royal Porcelain Company and chocolate from Cadbury's factories and stores. It was kept open because of the pleasure cruisers, an interest that has increased in recent years. For further information on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of the West Midlands'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain the complete original structure of record-keeping from the records held for this company. The fonds has been arranged into series by subject, which is how some of the records may have originally been kept. The company's legal and administrative records have been placed first, followed by plans of the canal. These are followed by records concerning water supply. These progress through plans of wharves and vessels. At the end of the collection are plans relating to Birmingham West Suburban Railway Viaduct. The records within each series have generally been arranged chronologically while keeping records relating to each other together. This means that some records may fall slightly out of the chronological sequence. The records concerning water supply have been split into two subseries - culverts and reservoirs. The records within these subseries have generally been arranged chronologically while keeping records relating to each other together. This means that some records may fall slightly out of the chronological sequence.

Associated material

[See also: BW120 for records of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal during other periods of ownership]