Birmingham City Council

A History of the Canals in and around Birmingham: 1780s

By 1772 There were other canals being constructed in the Midlands, linking to some of them gave the opportunity of long distance trade. Many of the established towns and industries, not near a canal, were seeking to benefit from the cheaper transport of goods, particularly coal.

Connections to Walsall, a coal mining area, were the subject of many conflicting schemes. There were also proposals for canals to Fazeley and there to link with the newly-built Oxford and Coventry Canals. Rival companies proposed different routes and the Birmingham canal company found itself having to fight hard, in and out of Parliament to get the right to extend their system. As it was the 1783 Act only extended the canal from Wednesbury to Broadwaters, part-way to Walsall. It did give the company the right to make the canal to Fazeley.

John Smeaton was the engineer for both routes. On the Broadwaters route with a flight of 8 locks at Riders Green took 3 years to finish, though only 2.25 miles long. The much longer route (21 miles) to Fazeley with 38 locks took six years.

The Birmingham and Fazeley started at Newhall branch of the old canal and immediately descended by 13 locks of Farmers Bridge Flight as it wound its way around the city. This particular flight was so busy with boats queuing up that lights were soon installed so that 24 hour working of the locks was possible. Another 11 locks took the canal through Aston, so entering and leaving the City by this route was hard work.

As the canal system became increasingly busy another bottleneck became apparent, this time in Smethwick. It was part of Brindley's original plan to tunnel through the hill, but changed his mind on being told the hill contained running sand.

His solution was to take the canal up six locks, along a summit level of 1000 yards, and back down the other side of the hill by six more locks. It was hard work for the boatmen and caused considerable problems with water supply.

There always had to be water in the top level to carry the boats through the locks in both directions. As the number of locks was slowing the traffic, Smeaton was asked to draw up plans for lowering the summit. The work was done in stages but eventually, in 1787, the canal ran in a 46ft deep cutting. There were three locks up and three locks down from the new summit level. Each set of locks in that section was duplicated to prevent delays. (By 1829 Telford had built a parallel cutting, 71ft deep and no locks.) . . . Canal Mania


Canals in Birmingham: History