Home  / BW165


Company of Proprietors of the Birmingham Canal Navigations


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Birmingham Canal Navigations



Reference code


Access Status

These records are available immediately for research

Administrative /​ Biographical history

In 1767 following the failure of the Trent and Mersey Canal to make a branch to Birmingham, local interests in the town proposed a canal from Birmingham to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal near Wolverhampton. James Brindley carried out the survey and the Act was passed in 1768 with the help of Mathew Boulton and other members of the Lunar Society. The resulting company became known as the Company of Proprietors of the Birmingham Canal Navigation. Brindley was appointed engineer, and assisted by Robert Whitworth and Samuel Simcock, he completed the length of narrow canal from Wednesbury to Newhall Street in Birmingham, via Tipton, Oldbury and Smethwick in 1769. Coal traffic from Wednesbury to Birmingham began immediately with the first boatload of coal delivered from West Bromwich to Birmingham on 6th November 1769. The canal company controlled trade. Following pressure from the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Company construction on to Wolverhampton began in 1770. The cutting to Aldersley Junction on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire via the 20 (later 21) locks at Wolverhampton was completed in 1772. The canal was now 22 5/8 miles long, following a very twisting course with 32 locks in three flights at Wolverhampton, Spon Lane and Smethwick, and there was a 4 3/8 mile long branch to Wednesbury along the original line and a short branch to Ocker Hill. The canal did well - the company had a monopoly on traffic in the area and made enough profit to finance improvements. By the early 1780s a rival canal was promoted from Wednesbury to Fazeley on the unfinished Coventry Canal. By 1782 an agreement had been reached whereby the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Company would build a canal from Fazeley to Fradley and the Coventry Canal Company would finish the line from Fazeley to Atherstone. The Birmingham canal company decided to oppose this and promoted a canal linking its own canal to Fazeley. The Act was passed in 1783 sanctioning the construction of canals between Farmers Bridge on the Birmingham Canal and Fazeley and between Rider's Green on the Wednesbury Branch and Broadwaters near Walsall, John Smeaton being engineer for both projects as Brindley had died in 1772. In 1784 the promoters of the original canal to Fazeley amalgamated with the Birmingham Company, the company's name being changed to the Company of Proprietors of the Birmingham and Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Navigations. By 1786 Smeaton had completed the Riders Green line to Walsall via 8 locks at Riders Green. The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal was completed in 1789, being 20 ¾ miles long with a total of 38 locks dropping the canal from Farmers Bridge to Fradley on the Trent & Mersey via the section from Fazeley to Whittington Brook built by the Coventry Canal Company. From 1794 the company was known as the Company of Proprietors of the Birmingham Canal Navigations and an Act passed in 1794, authorised non-canalside industries to construct their own links with the main canal system. As a result, over 500 additional private arms and wharves were constructed. In the meantime Smeaton was attempting to improve water supply to Brindley's summit at Smethwick with reservoirs at Smethwick and Titford and back pumping at Spon Lane and Smethwick locks. Increased traffic from the Riders Green and Fazeley canals meant this was not enough and it was decided to lower the summit to the level of the long Wolverhampton pound. This was done by eliminating three of the locks at Spon Lane and Smethwick. At Spon Lane the three remaining locks were duplicated. The work was completed in 1790. The canal company opposed many rival schemes, including that of the Dudley Canal Company in 1792 to join the Worcester & Birmingham at Selly Oak (even though the Worcester & Birmingham had no connection with the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) as there was a physical barrier at their junction known as Worcester Bar). This barrier was finally removed in 1815. The canal company welcomed other schemes when they were going to lead to additions to the BCN. These included the Wyrley and Essington, which was authorized in 1792, and the Warwick and Birmingham in 1793. The canal company also supported and built a canal to Walsall as an extension of their Riders Green Branch, which opened in 1799. By the 1790s traffic was very heavy and proposals were made to straighten Brindley's very twisted original line, but nothing was done due to war with France and financial problems within the company. By the1820s congestion on the BCN was causing serious problems, there was the threat of railways and a possible new rival in the form of the proposed Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal running from Wolverhampton to the Mersey. In 1824 after the war had ended the government sent Thomas Telford in as part of their scheme to institute public works. The first work on improving water supplies was completed in 1826 with the opening of a new reservoir at Rotton Park. The line between Birmingham and Smethwick was straightened with a double towpath in 1827. This was followed in 1829 by the bypassing of the 1790 summit with a deep cutting extending on one level from Birmingham to Tipton where there were three new locks at Tipton Factory taking the canal up to the Wolverhampton Level. Finally the length from Bloomfield near Tipton to Deepfields was straightened with a new tunnel at Coseley. The new main line opened in 1837 shortening Brindley's route by 7 miles. Crossing the new main line were many new bridges, one of which was a road bridge known as Galton Viaduct. Galton Viaduct was the largest single span bridge in the world when it opened, crossing the largest man made cutting in the world at that time. Telford's improvements added to the congestion at Farmers Bridge Locks. There was no room to duplicate the locks due to the large number of canalside works so a new route following the River Tame was proposed. Acts were obtained for the Tame Valley Canal in 1839 and 1840, which opened in 1844 from the Walsall Canal near Ocker Hill to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal at Salford Junction. It was 8 ½ miles long with 13 locks at Perry Barr and avoided the locks at Aston and Farmers Bridge. Another canal, the Birmingham & Warwick Junction, linked into the Warwick & Birmingham Canal to the east of the city, allowing the centre of the city to be completely bypassed. In 1840 the Wyrley and Essington Company merged with the Birmingham Company. The result was the Rushall Canal at 2 7/8 miles long with 9 locks opened between the Daw End Branch of the Wyrley and Essington and the Tame Valley Canal in 1847. Two other links were completed at this time, a link from the Walsall Canal to the Birchills Branch of the Wyrley and Essington was made via 8 locks in 1841 and the Bentley Canal, 3 3/8 miles long with 10 locks from Wednesfield to the Anson Branch of the Walsall Canal opened in 1843. Water supply was a constant problem. The main reservoirs were at Cannock Chase, Rotton Park, Lodge Farm and Sneyd, the most important being Cannock Chase which was built by the Wyrley and Essington Canal Company in 1800. The Company of Proprietors of the BCN relied heavily on back pumping with pumping engines at lock flights at Ashted, Perry Barr, Walsall and Park Head on the Dudley Canal. Engines were also used at Ocker Hill where water was pumped between the Walsall and Wolverhampton Levels and Smethwick where water was pumped from the Birmingham to the Wolverhampton Levels. The main source of water however came via an agreement with the South Staffordshire Mines Drainage Commissioners, whereby water was pumped from coalmines in the area. Railways made their first appearance in 1838 with the arrival of the Grand Junction Railway, which ran from Birmingham to Liverpool and Manchester. On the arrival of the railways, the BCN allied itself with the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). An Act of 1846 allowed the canal to be leased to the LNWR with the BCN continuing to manage it. At the same time the Dudley Canal Company merged with the Birmingham company. The Act specified that the rent for the canal system should take the form of a guaranteed 4% dividend that the railway company would make up from its own resources if necessary. This gave the BCN security in the railway age and enabled it to develop alongside the railways. Canal-rail transhipment depots were built at Wolverhampton, Great Bridge, Bloomfield and Hawne and a total of 41 railway basins were built from the 1850s to take advantage of the BCN System's proximity to the industries that had developed alongside it. In order to access new colliery workings more canals were built. In 1854 the level 5 5/8 mile long Cannock Extension Canal was authorised to run from the Wyrley & Essington at Pelsall to basins at Hednesford. This opened in 1863 and via 13 locks at Churchbridge dropped to join the Hatherton Branch of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. In 1850 the feeder from Cannock Chase Reservoir was made navigable and became the Anglesey Branch. Netherton Tunnel, built in 1858, connected the Dudley Canal to the Birmingham network, providing an alternative route between the Birmingham and Dudley and Stourbridge canals. To cope with the extra traffic this would bring, the Dudley Canal was straightened at Park Head with the Two Lock Line being built in 1858. Also in 1858 8 new locks replaced the 9 Delph locks at Brierley Hill on the Dudley Canal. With the increase in railway competition canals became less profitable, although tonnage and receipts were still good on the BCN, operating and maintenance costs were rising. From 1874 the LNWR were regularly called upon to guarantee the 4% dividend. In 1906 at the time of the Royal Commission the BCN totalled 159 miles with 216 locks but subsidence from mining under the BCN system became a major problem. This led to the Two Lock Line closing in 1909 and Lappal Tunnel near Selly Oak closing in 1917. In addition in 1920 Gibsons Branch and its extensive basins in the centre of Birmingham were closed. After the First World War road competition had a severe effect on tonnages carried on both the railways and the canals. The BCN, however, remained busy during and after the Second World War. A million tonnes were carried on the system through the 1950s. However in the 1950s and 1960s the contraction of coal mining meant that traffic fell away. After nationalization in 1948 the BCN passed to the British Transport Commission. Parts of the system were closed down throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Ogley Locks on the Wyrley and Essington closed in 1954, Park Head Locks closed in 1962. Dudley Tunnel having not been used commercially since 1951 closed, and in 1963 the Cannock Extension north of the A5 road bridge closed due to subsidence. In 1967 coal carriage ended on the BCN and in 1974 the last commercial traffic on the Birmingham main line carried chemical waste from Oldbury to Dudley Port. By the 1970s about 52 miles had been abandoned but the main routes still remain open under British Waterways. For further information see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canal & River Navigations', Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of the West Midlands' and S R Broadbridge's 'The Birmingham Canal Navigations Volume 1 1768-1846'.