Thursday, 28 January 2010


A sudden flash of realisation
January 2010

I am no Paul on the road to Damascus, but even I have the occasional blinding flash of realisation.

The sad thing is that when these moments of insightful illumination come along, and I share my new perspective with those around me, my bubble is usually pricked. Others tend to point out that far from residing in the intellectual valley way below me, that have already passed my new found vantage point and are actually standing of a loftier pinacle than my own.

Cannock Extension Canal looking towards Pelasll Common

So, at the risk of displaying an alarming gap in my watery knowledge, let me share my latest new found realisation.

Most canal historians will know that the northern sections of the BCN were among the last significant canals built, and also the last to remain in commercial operation. I am talking  here about offshoots of the Wyrley and Essington Canal like the Cannock Extension Canal (1863) and the Wyrley Bank Branch Canal (1857). The question is, why were they built so long after canal mania had faded away elsewhere?

The answer came from my research into the lost canals of the Black Country, and all those hundreds of abandoned mine shafts which litter the maps of the late 1800's. The heavy metal industry of the Black Country was initially powered by the rich coal measures that existed in the area, but the records tell us that by 1850 most of the coal had been extracted and an alternative source was needed to keep those furnace fires burning bright. Whilst a hundred years before the industry would have upped and moved to the the new coalfields, the Black Country  infrastructure was by then set in place and the coal needed to come to the industry.

As coal could still be found in the Cheslyn Hay / Cannock / Brownhills / Norton Canes area to the north of Wolverhampton, and crucially the ground was on the same level, expediency dictated an extension of the lockless canal network to reach these new sources of energy. Simple and obvious really, but not an issue that had ever really occurred to me before.

BCN Joey Boats, including a 'Hampton' in the middle. From Pinfolds Bridge circa 1930.

The fact that these new coalfields were on a level, and didn't need locks, allowed an outsized 'super narrowboat' called the 'Hampton' class (Wolver-Hampton) to be developed. These large day boats  measured 88ft by 7ft 11in and could carry over forty tons of coal, nearly twice that of a standard motor boat. These dimensions were the absolute maximum permitted by the various bridges and corners of the Wolverhampton Level of the BCN. 
The northern coalfields lasted nearly a century before they too were exhausted, but by then the needs of the industrial area they served had altered and coal was no longer the essential ingredient it once had been.

Now I know you will be saying "but that's so obvious Captain", but it wasn't obvious to me!

Whilst it's good to have an idea of the canal layouts, the dates of their construction and closure, it's even more important to understand the driving forces behind the changes.

So, if like me you didn't appreciate the temporary nature of the Black Country coal mining industry, and the impact this localised energy crisis had on the transport infrastructure, you do now! And if this was somethhing you always knew, you can sit on your lofty intellectual pinnacle with a knowing smile playing across your lips and lob rocks of scorn in my general direction.


Anonymous said...

No worries - I am kneeling at your feet and chanting 'I'm not worthy". I hadn't appreciated the history of the Cannock Extension Arm and we've even taken the boat there!

Sue, nb Indigo Dream

Captain Ahab said...

Now you have put a scene from "Waynes World" in my head!

Halfie said...

Captain, I, and I suspect most other readers, never tire of being reminded of the hows and whys of our heritage. There are few who do know it all (and even they will be interested to see if their thoughts match yours). Even if this particular history has already been told, it will be tucked away in a book somewhere, or on a less frequented part of the internet. What you, and others who comment on the canals, do is bring it to OUR attention, that is, your current readers. Every new (or old) interpretation adds to the pleasure we get from knowing about our past.

(I didn't know either.)

Don't stop!

Captain Ahab said...

I given me real pleasure that my postings bring pleasure to others.

Thanks for your words of encouragement.

The weather has kept me away form the Black Country for a few weeks, but tomorrow I am off with Tilly to take a look at the last bit of the Cromford Canal in Derbyshire - which will be a bit of a landmark after 12 months of visits.
Capt A