Birmingham and Fazeley Canal History
A canal was proposed which would connect the Wednesbury coal fields just north of Birmingham to the Coventry Canal. The Trent & Mersey, Oxford and Coventry companies fully supported the proposal as the new route would also be used to finally complete an unfinished portion of the Coventry Canal which was preventing a through route from Manchester to London. However, the neighbouring Birmingham Canal company bitterly opposed the scheme as it already had a lucrative coal carrying business in Wednesbury using its own Wednesbury Canal.
The new canal was proposed to run from Wednesbury to Fazeley, the Coventry company agreed to make a connection from the end of its existing line at Atherstone to Fazeley where it would meet the new canal. The new company would then continue its line to a half way point between Fazeley and Fradley where the Trent & Mersey Company would complete the connection to Fradley Junction. This rare multi-canal effort was known as the Coleshill Agreement.
Major battles were fought in Parliament, with the 4 companies involved in the Coleshill Agreement on one side and the nearby Birmingham Canal Company on the other. In the end it was the Birmingham Company who won and it took over the Coleshill Agreement.It proposed a route using the existing Wednesbury and Birmingham canals to the centre of Birmingham and then a brand new canal would continue the route to Fazeley.
The new canal would need a long flight of over 20 locks to climb down from the north eastern side of the Birmingham plateau with around a dozen more locks spread throughout the rest of the journey to Fazeley.
The new route was named the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and the company took on the new name of “The Birmingham and Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company”.
The eminent John Smeaton was appointed as engineer on the new Birmingham & Fazeley route.
He was also employed to solve congestion problems on the Birmingham Canal near the point where the Wednesbury Canal met it.
The Birmingham & Fazeley was complete but through traffic was not yet possible as sections of the other canals in the Coleshill Agreement were not ready. In particular, the lethargic Coventry Company had to be cajoled into keeping its part of the agreement.
The Coleshill Agreement was completed and the Birmingham & Fazeley was officially opened. Instantly it was a roaring success in terms of boats passing through, boats could now travel from Birmingham to London or to the north via the new route. Previously the only routeto London was via a long trek around Wolverhampton to the river Severn (though other rival routes were being built) and then via the new Thames & Severn Canal. The Coleshill Agreement shortened the route to London by 52 miles!
The Birmingham and Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company had the good sense to shorten its name. (The cost of putting their logo on all their warehouses must have been costing a huge amount in paint alone)!! The company went for the opposite extreme and renamed themselves BCN, which of course stands for Birmingham Canal Navigations.
The Warwick & Birmingham Canal opened connecting Warwick to the ever growing industrial areas of the Midlands. The new route entered Birmingham on the south east side of the town, dropping through 6 locks into the town centre at Digbeth Basin. At its terminus a short connecting arm named the Digbeth Branch was built travelling just ½ a mile north west, up through 8 locks to join the Birmingham & Fazeley. Within a year the Warwick & Birmingham Canal became part of a route to London which cut another amazing 89 miles off the journey between London and the Black Country. This took a lot of traffic away from the canals in the Coleshill Agreement though the new route made the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal even busier in central Birmingham.
The BCN Company had a virtual monopoly of the waterways in the Black Country. As well as the Birmingham & Fazeley, Birmingham Main Line, Walsall and Wednesbury canals, they also now owned the Wyrley & Essington Canal and were soon to amalgamate with the Dudley Canal. Extensions were constantly being built and many sections were modernised.
As the 1840’s went on an amalgamation with a railway company became unavoidable. In most areas of Britain railway companies were either forcing the closure of canals by taking away their trade or were simply buying the canals and closing them down. However, this was not the case in Birmingham and the BCN actually grew and improved under railway control. The take-over deal allowed the canal company to keep control until the waterways began to make a loss.
While most canals in the country were suffering from lack of boats, the BCN were having problems due to too many boats. The Farmers Bridge Flight in central Birmingham was completely overloaded, in March 1841 4,877 boats past through the flight. The lock flight had been built with duplicate locks (a parallel flight) to allow traffic to move in both directions but even this was not enough. As well as the intended coal from Wednesbury the flight was serving through boats from Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall, Worcester, Coventry, the Potteries and London.
The company opened the Tame Valley Canal and Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal to provide a bypass for boats using the northern BCN. Both of these connected with the Birmingham & Fazeley at Salford Junction. Following this the Birmingham & Fazeley carried fewer boats but the BCN as a whole continued to make a healthy profit for a further 25 years.
With trade beginning to drop the railway company (London & North Western) took control of the BCN. The reasons for the loss of profits were numerous but the major factor was the decline in coal as the Black Country mines were becoming exhausted. Also, new factories etc. were not being built on the congested sites around the canals but along new roads and near to the railways. The railway company did not seek to close down the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal however, they kept it open and well maintained. The BCN continued to hold its own against all other forms of transport though the World Wars and the decline of Black Country coal slowly but surely reduced the canal’s trade. Following WW2 the whole of the BCN was nationalised, goods were still being carried on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal but there were certainly no traffic congestion problems any more.
Coal carriage ended leaving only a small amount of other trade on the canal. By this time a small amount of pleasure craft had begun to use the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal.By this time much of the inner-city sections were run down, warehouses were derelict, formerly busy arms were closed and blocked off and the canal was often full of rubbish.
The infamous 1968 Transport Act listed the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal as a “cruiseway” which meant it would be kept open for pleasure craft but not developed for commercial use. At this time there was still a small amount of commercial carrying though this ended during the early 1970’s.
The country’s first ever inner-city canal redevelopment took place on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal at the top of the Farmers Bridge Flight. Cambrian Wharf was cleaned up and stripped of its derelict buildings. A new pub was opened and moorings were created for pleasure boats.
The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal survives today though the landscape around the canal has dramatically changed since it was built in the 1780’s. Farmers Bridge flight is now hidden among old warehouses, new office blocks and high bridges. The duplicate lock flight is now closed but the flight is well used by pleasure boats.
The towpath had always been strictly out of bounds to the general public in working days, access points were not well known and the canal in general was hidden from public view. During the early 1990’s the towpath was re-paved and access points were clearly sign posted.The towpath now provides an excellent inner-city traffic-free route for walkers, joggers and cyclists. The northern sections of the canal are much more rural and the mixture of countryside, historic town–scape and modern day city-scape provide a very interesting boat ride or walk.
Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Route
The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal begins at Cambrian Wharf in Birmingham City Centre. On foot this can be reached by walking a few yards north on the towpath from the bridge on King Edward’s Road.
The original route of the Birmingham (main line) Canal also used to pass through Cambrian Wharf, swinging north east for a few hundred yards to its terminus at Newhall Basin in the town centre.
However, the line to Newhall Basin has long since been filled in and the Birmingham Canal now ends where the Birmingham & Fazeley begins. Cambrian Wharf was the first ever inner-city redevelopment of a canal side area. It was refurbished during the early 1970’s.
Old closed off areas were opened out, warehouses and buildings were restored and a new pub with a canal theme was built. The area proved very popular and paved the way for many inner-city canal schemes which are currently under development in the mid 1990’s.
Just past Cambrian Wharf the long Farmers Bridge lock flight begins its climb down from the Birmingham plateau. Thirteen narrow locks head north east, usually hidden well away from the view of the general public but now accessible along the re-paved towpath. There was once a duplicate lock flight at Farmers Bridge, these have since been blocked off though most of them can still be seen. High walls, massive old warehouses, and new office blocks surround the canal, putting it into a deep and sometimes dark concrete cutting.
At one point a tower block sits right over the canal, a lock is hidden in the gloom beneath the foundations. In another spot the massive wide arch of Snow Hill railway bridge covers the canal in what seems almost like a cavern.Famous buildings also surround the canal along this stretch, the new International Indoor Arena is close to Cambrian Wharf, the Science Museum is at Newhall Bridge and Birmingham’s Telecom Tower (a copy of the much larger one in London) stands high over the canal during the whole descent.
All the way down the flight the remains of old basins and arms can be detected by looking out for humps in the towpath. Beneath these humps were openings through which boats past, sometimes into covered loading areas within buildings, some into long branches stretching away from the main line. One such branch was Whitmore’s Arm which headed north east from a junction between locks 7 & 8. William Whitmore & Sons were Ironfounders who have big connections with the history of canals.
It was here that a unique boat lift was made for the Somersetshire Coal Canal – although subsequently never used. The company also created a machine for weighing boats. The science museum has been built on the first part of the arm nearest to the main line though the towpath bridge survives.Behind the science museum the arm’s line can be traced from George Street and Charlotte Street. Both of these roads have humps in them where they cross the arm and an old warehouse stands between the two roads. Having past under George Street the arm turned south west into the triangle created by George Street, Graham Street and Newhall Hill.
Back on the main line Farmers Bridge Locks stretch for about ¾ of a mile in total. A level section runs for a further ½ mile to Aston Junction. Here, the Digbeth Branch leaves heading south east while the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal continues north under a cast iron footbridge made at Horseley (of course) in 1828. Aston Junction can be accessed on foot from Aston Road and Mill Street.
The short Digbeth Branch connects the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal to the Grand Union Canal (formerly the Warwick & Birmingham Canal). The branch contains a flight of 6 locks, a large basin and two short tunnels, one created by numerous railway sidings overhead. Quite a lot of the branch has recently been redeveloped, old building were removed and the towpath rebuilt. Newer, “eye-pleasing” industrial units have been built alongside the branch.
Immediately after Aston Junction are the 11 Aston locks, 8 together in the first ¼ of a mile and then 3 more about ¼ of a mile further on.The canal is more open here with new roads all around rather than the tall buildings of the city centre. Access to the lock flight can be gained from Rocky Lane (B4144). From the bottom lock it is just ½ a mile further to Salford Junction.
On route the canal passes 3 former arms which led into factories. There is a park near the canal at Salford Junction but it is on the far side of the A5127 which runs parallel to the canal. This area was probably once quite rural, a large open space, nothing but grassland – just perfect for Spaghetti Junction! Motorways now criss-cross overhead in a tangle of concrete while the Tame Valley Canal leaves to the west and the Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal leaves to the south east. The easiest access in terms of parking and walking can be gained from the bridge on Long Acre (B4132).
After the junctions of Salford and Spaghetti the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal heads east past power stations and industry while jammed between the M6 and the A38. One industrial building completely straddles the canal for about 150 yards and at Bromford a large junction crosses right above the canal.
At Tyburn the A38 crosses over on Butlers Bridge, factories on the canal side try to cut the waterway from view though the Cincinnati Works have opened their grounds up with landscaped lawns running to the water’s edge. At lunch time in summer the workers picnic alongside the waterway. Shortly after Chester Road (A452) Minworth Top Lock is reached. Over the next mile 2 more locks are past, the bottom one being close to another A38 crossing point at Cater’s Bridge.
Access to this lock can be gained from Dicken’s Bridge on Oakhayes Crescent in Minworth. A mile further on is Curdworth though the village is hidden from view as the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal enters a short cutting followed by the 57 yards long Curdworth Tunnel. On the far side is open country with the urbanism and industrialism of Birmingham left behind for good. The canal swings to the north with nothing but farm fields all around. Only the 11 locks and a few country lanes crossing over on humped bridges break the isolation. Near the top of the descent (at Marston Lane Bridge) the M42 swings close for a short time.
A mile further on is a tiny settlement named Bodymoor Heath which has a pub by the side of lock 9. Another ½ mile on is a rare swing bridge though it is usually kept open. Alongside the bottom lock is a large area of water made up by flooded gravel pits. This area is among the nicest on the whole canal network.
Access can be gained to the lower sections of Curdworth Flight from Broadmoor Heath Bridge close to the penultimate lock. After the bottom lock there is nearly 2 more miles of isolation before the fairly busy A4091 runs right alongside the west bank of the route.Shortly after the main road appears, the canal comes to one of the strangest structures anywhere on the inland waterways system, Drayton Manor Footbridge.
Constructed in a Gothic style, it has twin battlement towers on either side, inside of each is a spiral stairway up to the bridge which crosses the cut just above head height. The whole structure is painted white and gives the feeling from a distance that you are approaching a mighty fortress or Spanish castle.
It seems that no one remembers why it was ever built! Right along side it is the second (and last) swing bridge on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal which (like the first) serves a farmer’s field. Straight after the footbridge the canal begins to see houses and then a massive warehouse looms alongside just before the Roman Watling Street (old A5) crosses overhead – the canal has now reached Fazeley.Immediately after Thomas Telford’s busy road bridge is Fazeley Junction where the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal unofficially.
The Coventry Canal heads off east (towards Coventry) and west (towards Fradley) though officially the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal continues to the west along what we now call the Coventry Canal. This section was the part of the Coventry Canal which the Birmingham Canal company agreed to build as part of the Coleshill Agreement in 1783. (For details of this section, see the Coventry Canal).