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.


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

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