Donnigton Wood Canal History
The East Shropshire Canal Network was made up of a number of short and very narrow tub-boat canals. These short routes had few locks but made great use of inclined planes which were almost exclusive to this area. For a long period the network was self contained with no connection into the main canal system although there was an indirect link at the south of the network into the River Severn.
Lord Gower (who later became Marquess of Stafford) owned a number of mines in the Donnington Wood area of Shropshire near his home in Lilleshall. He had been a canal fanatic even before the first artificial waterway had been built in Britain. He had first thought of the idea of connecting the River Mersey to the Potteries in 1759 and he had asked James Brindley to survey a possible line.
A little while later he introduced Brindley to his nephew (and brother-in-law) the Duke of Bridgewater and this lead to the building of the Bridgewater Canal near Manchester. By 1766 Gower had played his part in promoting the waterway which was to become the Trent & Mersey Canal and around that same time, and greatly inspired by the success of the Bridgewater Canal, he decided to build the Donnington Wood Canal.
Gower was joined in the project by two other canal enthusiasts; fellow politician, Thomas Gilbert (who was also Gower’s agent), and Gilbert’s brother John Gilbert (who was the Duke of Bridgewater’s agent). Together the three men formed a business called Earl Gower & Company. The canal would connect Gower’s coal mines at Donnington Wood to a major turnpike road at Pave Lane (just south of Newport in Shropshire) where a wharf was to be created. The canal would be 6 miles long and built on one level. Like the Bridgewater Canal, the Donnington Wood Canal would also have a network of underground canals within the mines at Donnington Wood.
The Donnington Wood Canal became only the second wholly artificial navigation to be completed in Britain and, therefore, was built before any national standards had been established. Thus the vessels used on the route were built just 12 feet long and 5 feet wide and became known as “tub-boats”.
Three years after the main line opened, a new branch was added at Hugh’s Bridge (near Lilleshall) to connect with local limestone quarries and lime works at Lilleshall and Pitchcroft. The new branch had no direct connection with the main line as it was on a much lower level. Shafts were dug at the higher level down to the terminus of the branch which was situated inside a short tunnel.
Limestone was hoisted by crane out of the tunnel onto the main line, counterbalanced by coal heading in the other direction. The branch ran towards Lilleshall and had further arms branching from it. The arm to Pitchcroft had 7 locks.
Around the same time but nearer to Donnington Wood a further arm, named the Lodge Branch, was also built.
The Wombridge Canal joined the Donnington Wood Canal near the western terminus at Donnington Wood. This meant coal could now travel west from Donnington Wood for the first time but, as a through route, the connection was probably of more use to the Wombridge Canal which could now take its goods all the way to Pave Lane. However, most traffic would have been local, taking coal from mines to iron works etc.
The Shropshire Canal also joined the scene. It dropped into the Donnington Wood Canal from the south via the Wrockwardine Wood Inclined Plane. A link was made close to the junction with the Wombridge Canal and when fully opened, the Shropshire Canal allowed tub-boats to journey from the Donnington Wood Canal to the River Severn at Coalport and thus allowed goods to reach (and come from) Gloucester, Bristol and even the continent.
The neighbouring Shrewsbury Canal company bought up part of the Wombridge Canal and made a connection between the two. This gave the Donnington Wood Canal direct access to Shrewsbury for the first time. The opening of this link completed the East Shropshire Network, running from Shrewsbury in the north west to Newport and Lilleshall in the north east and Coalport and Coalbrookdale on the River Severn to the south. However, there was still no direct link to the ever growing national canal system. The nearest waterway connection was at Stourport where the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal met the River Severn.
The tunnel and shafts system at Hugh’s Bridge was replaced by an inclined plane which dropped 42 feet from the main line to the branch line. Goods could now travel from the branch up onto the main line without the need of transhipment. The incline was, basically, a double lined railway. Tub-boats were able to pull into a quay, leave the canal and mount the rails. At the other end of the incline they would re-enter the canal and continue their journey. Some innclines were eventually powered by steam though most began life as a simple counter balance system.
Lord Gower became Marquess of Stafford and formed the “Lilleshall Company”. He leased his canal (now renamed the Marquess of Stafford’s Canal) to his new company and it continued to run successfully for many years. His son, the Duke of Sutherland, took over the business on his father’s death in 1833 and the canal then became known as the Duke of Sutherland’s Canal. As well as making the Duke richer, the canal also greatly enhanced the prosperity of the surrounding area with coal coming from Donnington Wood and limestone coming from Lilleshall.
The Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal connected an arm to the Shrewsbury Canal, at Wappenshall. Boats could now travel out into the main waterway system for the first time. However, normal barges and even narrow boats were too large to come into the East Shropshire Network from the outside world. Specially built craft had to be constructed to fit the narrow tub-boat locks on the Shrewsbury Canal. While the new link was good news for the area, it brought a sudden change to the Donnington Wood Canal because the new link went straight through Newport making the transhipment wharf at Pave Lane at the eastern end of the canal redundant. The western end was kept busy however with its connections to the River Severn, the Shrewsbury Canal.
Both the Shrewsbury Canal and Shropshire Canal joined the Liverpool & Birmingham Junction Canal in a new company called the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company. However, the Donnington Wood Canal did not join the new network and stayed in the hands of the powerful Duke of Sutherland.
The Donnington Wood Canal remained independent through out the railway mania years and continued to be fully used until the lime kilns at Lilleshall closed down. This meant that most of the branch line from Hugh’s Bridge to Lilleshall and Pitchcroft then become redundant. The inclined plane at Hugh’s Bridge is thought to have stayed in operation for a further 9 years despite most of the branch below the incline being unused.
Furnaces on the Lodge Arm closed down and commercial traffic came to an end.
Part of the main line to the east of Hugh’s Bridge was filled in to make a carriageway for Lilleshall Hall (the Duke of Sutherland’s house). This meant that Pave Lane Wharf was severed from the rest of the route but it made little difference because by this time there was no traffic on this eastern end of the canal. Although the line west of Lilleshall Hall was officially kept open, it too was being used less and less. There was little interest in the waterway and little incentive to keep it open.
The whole of the Donnington Wood Canal was officially abandoned as it had become unusable due to lack of maintenance.
Donnigton Wood Canal Route
The Donnington Wood Canal started at Donnington Wood (now a suburb of Telford) where, like the Bridgewater Canal in Greater Manchester, it originally emerged from a mine which contained underground waterways. Today there is nothing of this to be seen and the whereabouts of the tunnels are unknown.
Nevertheless, you can still visit the area where the Donnington Wood Canal once started. To do this you need to locate Smith Crescent (OS Grid Ref SJ 70310 12375) in the Wrockwardine Wood area of northern Telford. This is a relatively new street running east off Oakengates Road. It was built long after the canal was closed but in working days there were actually three canals in this area. They met at a junction on the north side of Smith Crescent. Unfortunately this land has changed greatly over the years but I believe the junction to have been at OS Grid Ref SJ 70331 12405.
The Wombridge Canal left this junction heading north though it soon turned west towards Wombridge. See my Wombridge Canal page for more info.
The second canal that left the junction was the Shropshire Canal. In fact this was where the Wrockwardine Wood Inclined Plane (or its approach canal) began. It left the junction heading south west, lifting up 120 feet, heading towards Oakengates. See my Shropshire Canal for more details.
The Donnington Wood Canal – which was actually the first to be built here – also started at the junction. It began by heading north east, and soon passed under a bridge which led to a small furnace. One parapet of this bridge can still be seen at the north east end of Smith Crescent, behind the last house on the east side (SJ 70445 12504). Locals call the bridge “the tunnel” because it has been filled in at one end and appears to be deep and very dark!
The canal passed through what is now the housing estates of Donnington Wood. Crossing St. Georges Road at about SJ 70698 12820 (just south of St. Matthews Road). After crossing the site of today’s B5060 (Donnington Wood Way) it passed through a typical landscape of mines and furnaces. This area is now Granville Country Park and I believe the main east-west path across the park is the former canal bed. At SJ 71937 12528 the short Lodge Branch began, heading south east for just a few yards to a number of furnaces.
At the east end of the country park the canal turned left and headed generally north east towards Muxtonbridge Farm at SJ 72337 13266 (south east of Muxton village) where traces of its bed can still be seen near a golf club. In fact the canal bed runs through the golf course. This is the only place where the canal had to struggle to stay on its level contour. Most of the canal follows a straight line with long gentle bends but here at Muxtonbridge it twisted and turned right and left on two sharp horse-shoe bends.
The route continued north east, through what is now Abbey Farm and then past Lilleshall Abbey (SJ 73620 14168) where it passed by the eastern wall of the ruin. It’s line can still be seen in the drive of Abbey Cottage and there is a bridge on Lilyhurst Road.
Past the abbey the route curved north and after about half a mile it reached Hugh’s Bridge (SJ 73952 14914) which can also still be found on a small, dead-end lane heading south east out of Lilleshall.
The canal is weedy and overgrown here and also for the next few yards north to the top of Lilleshall Inclined Plane (SJ 74003 15112). At the top of the incline are a group of buildings which once belonged to the canal. The incline is easy to spot although it now has a gate and stile across it as it slopes steeply down to the north west. It is grassed over and very well looked after. On the right side (east), one of the buildings is now a house with a very pretty garden. The owner of the house also owns the land around the incline and permission should be sought before wandering down it – don’t frighten the sheep! Or, there is a public right of way just to the left as you look down.
At the bottom of the incline there is water in what was once the canal but is now a duck pond created by the people who live in the house on the incline. And if you look into their garden from the bottom, you’ll see the entrance of the tunnel which was once part of the shaft and tunnel system although currently it looks more like a large brick pipe than something you’d put a boat into. Nevertheless, the owner has been into it – in a canoe!
North west of the incline the duck pond continues for a short distance but when it ends the right of way continues along the line of the filled in canal for several hundred yards towards Lilleshall. A lane leads east from Lilleshall to the canal, crossing it close to where there were once Lime Kilns on the canal bank (SJ 74113 15870).
There were further branches at the end of this line but these are all now filled in and ploughed over although their existance can be seen (in parts) on aerial photographs. They appear as dark marks in the fields.
Each branch appears to have run to Lime Kilns, the first ran to Lilleshall at what is now New House Farm (SJ 73605 16436). The second ran to a basin at Pitchcroft (SJ 74013 17085), it crossed Pitchcroft Lane on route. This second branch had two further arms heading westward into what are now fields around SJ 73865 16690. Also on this second branch were seven locks, they were in the area around grid ref SJ 73960 16343.
Past the incline, the main line headed north east through the grounds of Lilleshall Hall where the canal has been wiped out though I am told there is still a bridge (or certainly a crossing point) on Lilleshall Hall drive. This is possibly beside the junction where the lane to Little Hales Farm meets the drive.
Aerial photos show faint lines beneath ploughed fields in this area which exactly follow the line of the canal as shown on Victorian maps. These same photos show a very short stretch of watered canal in a garden (SJ 75587 16340 ish!) a little way west of Pave Lane.
At Pave Lane (2 miles south of Newport, just off the current A41) the canal came very close to the old main road in the village, the wharf is now part of a farm yard (SJ 75960 16562) and many of the buildings are from the working days of the canal. There are former warehouses and a small stable building, among others. I expect other points along the canal had very similar styled buildings. Sadly almost all are now gone.