A SHROPSHIRE SURVIVOR
How parts of a little-known but once extensive network of canals could be revived
On a hillside in Shropshire stands a small Victorian industrial town. A tile works and a coal mine stand either side of a canal wharf, complete with loading crane. A plasterer, a plumber and a printer ply their trades. At the heart of the town is the New Inn, surrounded by shops including a butcher’s, a ironmonger’s and a chemist’s – which advertises that a full set of artificial teeth in solid gold can be purchased for the sum of five guineas. Meanwhile, the newsagent’s announces the return of local volunteers following the relief of Mafeking…
It’s a re- creation, of course. The dozens of historic buildings have been painstakingly dismantled and re-erected to create the Blists Hill Victorian Town museum, while volunteers in historic costume add to the authentic feel of the experience for visitors. The canal is real enough, though. Not only that, but it’s a rare fragment of a once extensive system of tiny ‘tub-boat’ canals serving the coal mines and ironworks of an intensely industrial area of eastern Shropshire, and overcoming difficult terrain with inclined plane boat lifts.
Take a walk along the towpath, heading away from the town, and you’ll see the remains of the last surviving example of these: the mighty Hay Incline, which raised boats over 200ft (the equivalent of up to 30 locks) in just four minutes. And on your way there, you might just come across some more volunteers – not wearing Victorian floral hats or bowlers, but the safety hard-hats of the Waterway Recovery Group.
So what’s their plan for the future of this forgotten relic of the tub-boat network? Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at its past... The first section opened in 1768, right at the start of the canal-building era, and had a link to one of its great pioneers. Lord Dudley built the Donnington Wood Canal running eastwards for 5½ miles from his coal mines at Donnington Wood to Pave Lane on the Wolverhampton Road south of Newport. His brother-inlaw was the Duke of Bridgewater and, just like the famous Canal Duke, he created navigable mine levels taking his boats underground to load coal. It made sense to use small craft, about 20ft by 6ft 4in, which became something close to a standard as the network developed.
There were no locks on the main canal, but its two-mile branch from Hugh’s Bridge to Lilleshall featured a flight of seven. Curiously, there was no physical junction between main line and branch, which met at different levels: cargoes were transhipped by being
raised and lowered by a hoist in a shaft connected to a tunnel.
Next on the scene was the short and level Wombridge Canal, opened in 1788 to carry coal and ironstone from Wombridge via Wrockwardine Wood to Donnington, where it joined the Donnington Wood Canal. Around the same time the Ketley Canal was also built, initially as an isolated canal, to carry coal and iron from Oakengates to Ketley. Although short, it had one important feature: an inclined plane lift raised and lowered craft 72ft, carrying the small box-like boats on ‘cradles’ running on rails. Britain’s first inclined plane to carry boats, it saved time and water compared to locks. It showed the advantages of tub-boats (towed in trains of 12 by a single horse but worked up the incline one at a time), in an era when a full-size narrowboat lift would have been less practicable.
The success of the Ketley incline was the key to the next waterway: the 7¾-mile Shropshire Canal, which was to run north-south, linking the three existing canals to the Severn. Crossing hilly country with a shortage of suitable water supplies, it relied heavily on inclined planes, with no fewer than three – as well as three tunnels.
From the Wombridge Canal it climbed the Wrockwardine Wood incline to reach a summit level connected to the Ketley Canal near Oakengates. Continuing south, a branch led to Coalbrookdale while the main line descended the Windmill incline and the greatest of them all, the Hay incline, to end by the Severn at transshipment wharfs near Coalport Bridge. Engineer Thomas Telford regarded it as a demonstration that by adopting small tub-boat dimensions, canals could be built over almost any ground.
Hot on the heels of the Shropshire Canal’s opening in 1794 came the final canal, the Shrewsbury: opened in 1796, it ran for 17 miles from Shrewsbury via Wappenshall to Trench, where yet another inclined plane raised it 75ft to meet the Wombridge Canal. In addition there were 11 locks, built to 80ft by 6ft 7in to take four tub-boats.
Finally, the shaft and tunnel arrangement at Hugh’s Bridge was replaced by another inclined plane, bringing the total in this small area of Shropshire to six. The system didn’t last
‘Ironically it was Thomas Telford’s namesake, Telford New Town, whose development obliterated much of the canals’
long at its maximum of almost 40 miles. Changes to local industries saw arms and branches close from 1800 onwards.
On the positive side, the network gained a navigable link to the outside world in 1835 with the opening of the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction and its Newport arm linking to the Shrewsbury at Wappenshall. A decade later, amalgamations saw both of these become part of the Shropshire Union (which also leased the Shropshire Canal); and that in turn came under the London & North Western Railway.
By the 1850s, the Shropshire Canal was suffering badly from subsidence, and in 1858 most of the main line including both Wrockwardine Wood and Windmill inclines was closed and replaced by a railway line. But that wasn’t quite the end: there was still local traffic at the southern end, and even after the Hay incline ceased operation in 1894, trains of tub-boats still ran for three quarters of a mile from Kemberton and Halefield collieries to Blists Hill ironworks, until the furnaces ceased production in 1912.
At the same time, the northern part of the system was also declining, with the Donnington Wood going out of use around the turn of the century, Trench incline carrying its last boat (and indeed the last to be carried on an inclined plane in Britain) in 1921, and the LMS Railway abandoning the remaining lengths of the Shrewsbury in 1944.
Sadly, they haven’t fared well since abandonment. Not that canals built for 20ft by 6ft 4in craft and reliant on inclined planes would be easy to assimilate into the leisure network anyway, but it might have been worth preserving at least some relics of this interesting system. Ironically, given his glowing endorsement of the area’s canals, it was Thomas Telford’s namesake, Telford New Town, whose development obliterated much of them. Today, other than on the Shrewsbury Canal west of Wappenshall, traces of these waterways are scarce.
All the more important, some would say, to preserve what’s left – and fortuitous that the best surviving section is within the Blists Hill museum site.
While the New Town was being developed, to its south, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was beginning its work to preserve and interpret six square miles of industrial heritage surrounding the historic Iron Bridge.
The Trust now manages ten museums and 25 other heritage sites – including Blists Hill. This has been developed since the 1970s as a re-creation of an industrial town of around 1900, including the existing three quarters of a mile of the canal plus the surviving remains of an ironworks, a brick and tile works and a coal mine as well as many replica and re-located buildings.
The other museums include the Coalport China Museum which stands alongside a further short length of canal below the incline.
To give an impression of how it would have looked, the inclined plane was fitted with second-hand ex-railway rails (only a
short length of the originals survived on the short ‘reverse slope’ at the top). Part of the canal holds water, and at times there have been efforts to re-water the rest; but it’s fair to say it hasn’t been kept in the best condition as museum resources have been concentrated elsewhere.
Now, however, there are plans to put it in good order and make it a feature that the museum can be proud of, and a reminder of an important but neglected part of waterways history.
Museum Trustee John Freeman was commissioned by the Trust to compile a report on the feasibility of restoration. His work forms the basis of a proposed programme of restoration which began recently with WRG’s Forestry Team and London regional group paying a joint weekend visit.
Combined with visiting working parties from the nearby Shrewsbury & Newport Canal Restoration Trust plus Blists Hill’s own team, some very good progress has been made on clearing fallen and overhanging trees which were threatening to block the canal and towpath – and they will be back for more. But that’s just the start.
The canal runs high along a hillside, and to protect it from breaches there were three narrows built, each with provision for a set of stop-planks (and referred to as ‘stop locks’ even though they differ from the usual use of the term). These conveniently divide the canal into four sections – and enable the work of reinstating it to be tackled in stages, which is very useful when rewatering each section and checking for leaks before going on to the next length.
THE PLAN IS:
STAGE 1: planning, permissions, surveys, tree clearance work
STAGE 2: clearance and repair of first stop lock, restoration of wharf wall, raising of water level in first section, towpath surfacing
STAGE 3: channel clearance of second section and second stop lock, towpath surfacing and rewatering of this section
STAGE 4: channel clearance of third section and third stop lock, towpath surfacing and rewatering of this section
STAGE 5: channel clearance of final section to inclined plane, lining of bed, rewatering up to lift approach basin
We’re currently in stage 1, so there’s plenty to go at before it’s fully restored through to the incline. But then what?
John foresees a boat being put on it – the museum has a genuine original tub-boat, but it has what have been described as ‘genuine holes in the hull’, so one idea is for a replica to be built as a project by a local technical college ‘to demonstrate how the canal and Hay Inclined Plane functioned’.
The report stops short of actually suggesting putting the inclined plane back into order – but John suggests, slightly tongue in cheek, what a great way it would be of getting visitors from the Blists Hill Victorian Town to the Coalport China Museum.
Blists Hill: original tile works on the left, re-created Victorian town to the right
The canal is almost dry and overgrown in places
One of three sets of stop-plank narrows
The WRG team gets to work
Looking down the slope of the inclined plane
The ‘reverse slope’ at the top of the incline
The lower canal by the Coalport China Museum
Blists Hill’s re-created Victorian main street