The Canals Come

James Brindley's Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal opened in 1772.  It was part of the Grand Cross, a scheme to link the estuaries of the Trent, Mersey, Severn and Thames by inland navigations.  The canal from the Trent to the Mersey was already under construction when the Staffs & Worcs was started and the latter was seen at the time as a vital part of the scheme.

The other part of this grand design is to have a cut for a canal, of the same dimensions as the former, out of the grand trunk from the River Trent at Haywood, at the confluence of the river Sow with the Trent, and by Baswick, Acton, Dunston, Penkridge, Brewood, Penford, Tunstall, Tettenhall, Wolverhampton, Treasel,     Womborn, Holbeach, Prestwood. Stourton Castle near Stourbridge, Kinfare, Overly, Kidderminster, and into the river Severn, a little below Bewdley.

The spelling of the name Pendeford is different from the original and later version but it did appear as Penford on several maps from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. 

The canal at Aldersley in 1906. From an old postcard.

Although it is a contour canal, which wanders round the landscape following the easiest route, the section through Pendeford is fairly straight,  reflecting the generally flat nature of the terrain.  Indeed the canal may have helped to drain the land for some areas along its course were wet and marshy.  
Penford Marshes, Marsh Lane and Alleycroft Lake had all been mentioned in a document relating to the beating of the bounds of  Bushbury Manor in September, 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada.  

The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal is running along its ten mile summit level through Pendeford, the nearest locks being at Compton to the south and Gailey northwards.  Opposite a warehouse to the north of Forster Bridge  is a weir which allowed excess water to drain from the canal into the mill pond for the Old Mill already mentioned in connection with Charles II's escape.  The weir stands next to the Pendeford Brook which passes under the canal here and a little further south is a feeder whose waters are drawn from the brook.  The Act of Parliament for the building of the canal, passed in 1766, empowered the canal company to take water from Pendeford Brook.

The marshy area on the west of the canal is the remains of Alleycroft Lake.  Where the canal widens, a few yards north of the much rebuilt Forster Bridge,  stand the remains of a concrete wharf, built about 1927, to deal with waste products from the Courtaulds artificial textiles factory at Dunstall, two miles to the south.  The boats were open, horse drawn day boats and the tiller could be moved from one end to the other so they didn't need to be turned. The noxious waste was carried to the tip in containers.  Remains of a gate in the fence indicated where the waste was taken up to the tip which was in use until the 1950's.  The 1:2500 (Twenty five inches to a mile) Ordnance Survey map of 1954 shows a crane on the wharf.  This swung the containers round onto a tramway which divided into two, one branch running parallel to the canal for about a hundred and fifty yards, while the other branched away from it.  The map shows a series of banks, tips and lagoons, many of which can be identified today.  A couple of buildings shown on the map were presumably shelters for the workmen.  The traffic in waste from the factory was one of the last regular runs on the Staffs & Worcs and it is thus interesting to note that horse drawn boats lasted nearly till the end of trading. Known locally as the ash banks or the chalkies, the tips demonstrate their toxicity by the refusal of vegetation to grow over most of them.  They have long been popular with the area's motor bike scramblers though a  fence,  built at the end of 2002, has rather curtailed the sport and the whole area is now to be developed as part of a £64 million business park.  

Pendeford Rockin' or The Narrows was known to generations of boatmen.  Here, on either side of Forster Bridge, the early navvies met an outcrop of Keuper Sandstone which was enough of a problem to their primitive technology to force them to dig a shallow, narrow cutting.  Stretching for about 600 yards, it is only about ten feet deep but is only wide enough for one boat.  Three passing places were dug out, one by the towpath side and two on the off side.  

Bridge number 1 on the Shropshire Union canal.

Forster Bridge (No.68) was named after the Forster family who tenanted nearby Wobaston Manor for many generations.  It was just an accommodation bridge for a farm track until the new road was built just before the Second World War to ease access to Boulton Paul's new works.  The small foundations of the old bridge contrast with the large concrete slabs of the present busy one and the rock cutting, shaded by the bridge, gives an impression of what the whole of the Rockin' must have looked like when first cut.

At the end of the Rockin', Marsh Lane Bridge, number 67 from Stourport, shows that it has been extended when the road was widened some time in the past.  During the Second World War precautions were taken in case of a breach being caused by an air raid.   In such an eventuality, stop planks were to be placed in the grooves beneath the bridge.  

The turnover bridge.

The canal continues on its mainly straight course as far as Autherley Junction, where it is joined by the Shropshire Union Canal.  This opened as the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal in 1835, a few weeks after its engineer, Thomas Telford, died.
The Staffs & Worcs Company was concerned about a loss of trade to the new concern, for the route from the Black Country up to the north west was shorter via the new canal.  It tried to exact a heavy toll on boats using the thousand yard section of its length between Aldersley Junction at the bottom of Wolverhampton Locks and Autherley.  This led to a proposal, from the Birmingham Canal Navigations and the Shropshire Union, for the Tettenhall and Autherley Canal and Aqueduct which would have leap-frogged the Staffs & Worcs altogether !  Not surprisingly the older company reduced its tolls.
Past Autherley Junction will be found the former sewage works basin and then, just before Oxley Moor Bridge, is the headquarters of Wolverhampton Canoe Club.  

Another view of the turnover bridge.

The first mile or so of the Shropshire Union cuts through Dovecotes/Pendeford, under a series of fine bridges.  The third one, Turnover Bridge, is so called because it passes the towpath from one side to the other.  It is designed so that the horse could cross without having to be unhitched from the boat.

There was a rifle range on the land to the north of the canal between the first two bridges in the 1880's.

There might no longer have been a canal here at all if the 1846 Shropshire Union Canal and Railway Bill had been passed by Parliament.  This was a proposal to convert the canal into a railway but such was the opposition from the Black Country iron masters that the Bill was thrown out.

The present landscaped surroundings of this stretch of the Shropshire Union contrasts strongly with the impressions of a visitor who passed this way during the early months of the Second World War.

As the afternoon wore on the country around us began to assume the desolate, blackened look we had now come to know so well.  Sure enough the tall chimney stacks on the outskirts of Wolverhampton came in sight ..... and the remaining miles to Autherley led us into a veritable no-man's land.  The water became black with pollution, there was a desolate swamp upon either hand and, as if this were not enough, it began to rain steadily from a leaden sky.

The author of this passage, L.T.C. Rolt, was one of the founders of the Inland Waterways Association, the body which has done so much over the past fifty years towards saving our canal heritage.

Autherley Junction was known as Cut End to the boating families who passed this way.  Here were stables for the horses, an office for collecting tolls from boats passing from one canal to the other and the stop lock.  This has a fall of about six inches and uses about 2000 gallons of water each time it is used.  The lock was insisted upon by the Staffs & Worcs. Company so that they could control the amount of water running from their canal into the new cut.

The Shropshire Union was used to transport cargoes until the end of commercial canal carrying in the late 1960's.  Oil from Ellesmere Port, chocolate crumb from Knighton to Bournville, copper sludge from Darlaston to Manchester and aluminium from Walsall to Liverpool being among the last cargoes.  Earlier decades had seen coal, limestone, lime, grain, milk, flour, hardwoods, paraffin wax, resins and animal feeds.

A wartime entry in the Autherley toll book reads :-

6th. March 1943 'Columbia' motor boat carrying 21 tons of Flour bound for Wolverhampton.  Toll charged - £2.0s.3d.

Wolverhampton Boat Club, which reflects the change from commercial to leisure uses of the waterway,  has moorings between bridge 3 and Pendeford Bridge.  Formed in  1961 as Autherley Boat Club, it later moved to its present site  and has a club house on the south side of the canal where a metal footbridge crosses by an attractive old iron wharf crane which formerly stood at Wigan Pier!

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