Coseley’s rich mineral deposits were being exploited by the beginning of the 17th century when licences were granted for the mining of ‘sea cole and ironstone’. At that time, roads were only dirt tracks, which were totally unsuitable for heavily laden vehicles and often impassable after periods of heavy rain. Any minerals mined, must have been used locally, as it was impractical to transport them over any great distance.

By the 18th century, there was a great demand for coal to supply Birmingham's many industries. Coal was in abundance in the Black Country and so plans were made for the building of a canal to transport it there.

The first canal in the area was the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, connecting the River Severn at Stourport to the Trent and Mersey Canal at Great Haywood. Building work on the canal, surveyed by James Brindley, began at Stourport in 1768. The canal was navigable as far as Compton in November 1770, and opened in its entirety in 1772.

In January 1767, a public meeting was held in Birmingham to discuss the building of a canal from Birmingham to the Shropshire and Worcestershire Canal, via Wolverhampton and the Black Country's many coal mines. By August, sufficient capital had been raised to fund the project, and a Bill allowing construction was passed in Parliament in February 1768. The Birmingham Canal Navigations was incorporated on 2nd March, with James Brindley as engineer.

In 1768, work quickly got underway. The Wednesbury line was completed in 1769, allowing coal to be transported to Birmingham from collieries at Hill Top. The first boat load of coal bound for Birmingham left on the 6th November, 1769.

By 1770 the canal reached Tipton, then followed an extremely circuitous route, along the natural contours, to avoid the high ground in the Coseley area. James Brindley was a great advocate of contoured canals, to avoid the building of locks wherever possible, the excavation of cuttings and the digging of tunnels. The canal skirted around Bloomfield, towards Wednesbury, before doubling back on itself to follow a loop through Bradley to Deepfields.

Wolverhampton was reached in August 1771, but the final downhill section to Aldersley Junction took another year to complete, because it required the building of 21 locks. Initially 20 locks were built, but because of the large drop at the bottom lock, an extra lock was added. The Canal opened on 21st September, 1772, just 8 days before Brindley's death.

Canals, railways and Birmingham New Road.

The finished canal was over 22½ miles long and covered just over 12½ miles as the crow flies. Other branches soon followed, including the Ocker Hill Branch, built in 1774, which was included in the original Act.

The Walsall Canal was built under the terms of an Act passed by Parliament on 24th June, 1783, which included the Toll End Branch. It was surveyed and designed by John Smeaton, the first self-proclaimed civil engineer. The canal had eight locks at Rider's Green, and reached Wednesbury in 1786. It finally opened to Walsall in 1799.

In 1796, work began on the Bradley Branch, which joined the Walsall Canal to the old main line, via a flight of nine locks. It also bypassed the Bradley Loop and opened in its entirety in 1849.

The original Birmingham Canal, known as the old main line, had one draw back, which was the extra ten miles or so that had to be covered by the circuitous route around the high ground in Coseley. In 1824, Thomas Telford was engaged to survey a canal to bypass much of the route through Bradley, and go directly through Coseley.

An Act for the building of the canal was passed in June 1835, and work soon got underway. Telford decided to tunnel under part of Coseley in a 360 yard, brick-lined tunnel, with a deep cutting at either end. The tunnel was built with a brick-surfaced tow path on either side of the canal, so that boats could pass one another in the tunnel, without waiting to queue. The section from Deepfields to Bloomfield, including the tunnel, opened on 6th November, 1837. The new mainline was completed in April 1838. It is seven miles shorter than the original route, and very straight.

The northern end of Coseley Tunnel in 2014.

Another view of the northern end of Coseley Tunnel in 2014.

Inside the Coseley Tunnel.

Looking towards the southern entrance.

The southern entrance to the tunnel.

The cutting on the southern side of the tunnel.

The new canals were a great success. For the first time, goods of all kinds could be cheaply and reliably transported over long distances. The large quantities of coal, limestone, raw materials, and finished goods that were transported on the canals at the time, made the canal companies very wealthy, greatly benefiting their shareholders. Large factories sprung-up alongside the canal, and the population of many local towns rapidly grew thanks to the employment on offer. The cost of some of the items for sale in the shops fell, due to large scale manufacturing and ease of transport, and a greater variety of goods could be found in the shops.

The canal network was connected to sea ports, so that manufacturers could easily export their products, and many imported goods were readily available for the first time. The falling cost of coal encouraged new industries to develop, and reduced people’s heating bills.

One of the most successful carriers and boat builders in the Black Country was Thomas Monk, whose business began at a small boatyard in Tipton. He had around 130 boats carrying all kinds of goods between the Midlands, North Staffordshire and London. Thomas was credited with the introduction of cabins on canal coats. The boats became known as 'Monkey Boats', a name that was eventually applied to all boats on the canal that carried a cargo.

Around 1820 Thomas introduced a passenger service between Factory Bridge at Tipton and The Wagon and Horses at Birmingham. He built a specially designed boat called 'Euphrates', a fly boat with rounded sides and a keel so that it could travel quickly through the water. It was of lightweight construction with a wedge shaped front. The horses travelled at an unbroken trot and were changed every few miles. 'Euphrates' became known as the 'Monkey Fly Boat' and was captained by a local man, John Jevan. It operated a two-hour passenger service from Tipton to Birmingham on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, leaving Tipton at a quarter past eight in the morning, and returning from Birmingham at 5 o'clock on the same day. It called at Dudley Port, Oldbury, Spon Lane, and Smethwick. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays it was available for private hire, and excursions.

In 1830 the service was extended to Wolverhampton, running daily along the old main line. After the building of the new main line, 'Euphrates' also ran from the Packet Inn at Wallbrook to Birmingham in two and a half hours, through the newly built Coseley Tunnel. The boat continued to carry passengers until the Stour Valley Railway opened in 1852. It was then stored at William Monk's yard at Selly Oak.

William White includes the following entry in his 1834 History, Directory and Gazetteer of Staffordshire:
Carrier by Water - William. Turley, from Highfields to London, Shardlow, Liverpool, Manchester, Gainsborough, Hull, etc.

William White includes the following entry in his 1851 History, Directory and Gazetteer of Staffordshire:
Swift Packets, four times a day, with passengers, etc. To Birmingham and Wolverhampton, call at Deepfields.


Coseley was home to one of the largest canal carrying companies in the area, which specialised in transporting chemical waste, such as waste phosphorus from Albright & Wilson, in Oldbury. Alfred Matty & Sons were based in the large canal basin, in between Biddings Lane and Anchor Lane. The basin, although no longer in use, still survives. The firm, which owned a large fleet of boats and some motorised tugs was well known in the area.

In the 1980s, the business became part of Dewsbury and Proud Limited, a crane hire company.

Some of Alfred Matty's boats, at the entrance to the canal basin in 1980. In the distance is Anchor Bridge at the end of Anchor Lane. Courtesy of Dave Necklen.

Matty's basin and yard.

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