Claytons of Oldbury
by Alan H Faulkner (1978)
Well, Christmas is almost upon us once again. The tree is up, the turkey is about to be cooked and the sprouts have been simmering for the better part of 6 months.
My Christmas came a little early this year when Ian and Karen from Nb Tacet sent me a copy of Claytons of Oldbury to read. Claytons were one of the largest carriers on the BCN as its working days came to a close and this booklet gives an in depth review of their origins, divisions, bases, cargoes and boats.
It is fact heavy to be sure, and anecdote light, but don't let that put you off if you have an interest in the BCN.
The business can be traced back to 1842 when William Clayton set up a general canal haulage business at Salford Bridge, moving to Saltley about 20 years later and became specialised in the movement of crude tar by 1875. Crude tar, and associated chemicals, were a by product from the many gas works which peppered the major cities and towns of England. By 1889 the general carrying business had been merged into the new Fellows Morton Clayton and Co with the bulk tar traffic handled via a new company, Thomas Clayton (Oldbury) Ltd which mainly served Midland Tar Distillers. By 1935 they established a new base in Oldbury, next to the Titford Junction and the Tar Distillers under what is now the elevated section of the M5. If you need proof, stick your boat into reverse below the Titford bottom lock and you will be rewarded with clouds of black tar and a smell which will clear even the most congested sinus.
Claytons business grew and diversified, establishing a base in London and winning contract work to move liquid cargoes from Runcorn as well as gas works business from Leamington Spa and Banbury. All in all their fleet grew to total about 70 craft at the outbreak of the second world war and over 90 in 1952, including 60 horse boats and 16 motors plus their butties.
The end came suddenly. North Sea Gas came ashore in the early 1960's and almost at a stroke all the coal fired gas works closed leaving Claytons with no trade. That was the end of Claytons and, by and large, that was the end on the BCN as a commercial concern.
So what about those boats? Well, they were built on contract or acquired second hand from all over the Midlands, but from 1916 they were names alphabetically with one letter each year so Alde and Adder were added to the fleet in 1916 and Blyth, Bourne, Bannon, Boyle, Brent and Beaver added in 1917 and so on. Many boats were bought in from other carriers and, as we all know, there is no bad luck associated with changing canal boat names. This alphabetical naming continued till 1939 with motorboat Usk and then the war came and new craft acquisition pretty much stopped till 1949 and then the practice lapsed.
The tar boats were unusual in that they had their holds converted into huge integral tanks with tar pumped in and out - a boat could be loaded or unloaded in 15 mins. As a result they were distinctive with their sealed decks and bolted down inspection hatches. A feature on the BCN used to be the amount of oil and tar in and around the locks - and now I know where it came from. It must have been a filthy job with long arduous hours.
This is just a taster of Claytons of Oldbury, but you probably get the drift.
The last page of the book contains an intriguing list of all their boats from 1916 and it is interesting to scan down the list and see which craft have been preserved. Spey is very much in evidence as is Dove plus of course the venerable Gifford which resides at the Ellesmere Boat Museum.
My friend Tony has a working boat moored in Gas St Basin, with a hold cover fitted to resemble a Claytons tar boat. He used to own an ex Claytons boat way back in the 1960's and I searched the list in vain for mention of a Trent. I am guessing that maybe a handful survive either as a whole or in part?
I will leave you with an understated image of Christmas preparations aboard Hamble in the 1940's:
Happy Christmas one and all.