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Canals: Stratford upon Avon

The idea of a canal from Stratford to almost anywhere else was a comparatively late one. Stratford was already situated on the River Avon, and much of its trade came along that waterway. As the network of surrounding canals developed in the late 1780s, the merchants of the area found that supplies of some goods were not so easily obtained as before, they were being shipped from source to Birmingham. It was found that the market for local produce was becoming more restricted. Any towns or villages near a canal could be supplied more cheaply via the canal than by packhorse or wagon overland.

There were many possible routes that were considered. To really benefit from the canals, the Stratford had to link up with some of the others to enable coal and metal goods to reach the town more cheaply.

The route adopted ran from the Worcester and Birmingham Canal at Kings Norton to Stratford on its path it came within 2 miles of the then planned Warwick and Birmingham Canal and there seems to always have been the intention to link the two. Negotiations between the two companies were muddled. They didn't seem to want to offend any of the other companies. The Stratford company ended up having to accept a penalty charge on any goods that went North to Birmingham having left the Warwick Canal.

The Act of Parliament for the building of the Stratford Canal was granted in March 1793. The Junction with the Warwick Canal being authorised in 1795.

 Drawbridge Lock

The first section of the canal to be opened went from Kings Norton to Hockley Heath. Opened in May 1796, it took most of the money that had been raised to dig the whole canal. Josiah Clowes was the engineer in charge, though he was also building the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and the Dudley No 2 Canal. The first section did contain Kings Norton Tunnel and two long embankments, but nothing to explain the expense. Clowes died before the section was completed. The treasurer of the company was himself owed 000 and there was little incentive to complete the canal until the others linking to it were complete.

Only when the Dudley No 2 Canal was finished and coal was easily available from the Black Country that a further Act of Parliament was sought. This gave the authority to borrow more money and allowed the route to be changed . The junction of the Stratford with the Warwick and Birmingham would be shorter as the canals would now be within half a mile of each other at the junction. In 1880 work started again, with Samuel Porter as engineer. The canal reached Kingswood and the junction in 1802. The two canal companies argued about the tolls for traffic leaving one canal and joining the other.

The canal progressed no further for another ten years. The Stratford Corporation begged that the canal be completed to their town. The incentive to continue came with another wave of canal speculations that suggested the Stratford could become part of a major cross-country route. Speculators took up the shares and money was available. In 1812 work had restarted and in June 1813 had reached Wooton Wawen.

 Southern Stratford Canal

Also in 1813, a new route between Wooten Wawen and Wilmscote and routes to link up with the Avon in Stratford were proposed. Water storage reservoirs at Earlswood were also planned. Parliament gave permission in 1815 but work on the canal was now rapid and by 24 June 1816, the canal was complete. Tipton coal was available for 10d per cwt.

This rapid finish was under the direction of William Whitmore who had been responsible for the canal for all of the southern section after Kingswood. He seems to have given the Southern Stratford a unique style.

The three cast iron aqueducts(at Wooton Wawen, Bearley and Yarningale), the iron bridges over the canal (with a gap in the middle to let the tow rope through) and the Barrel-roofed lock cottages are all part of Whitmores work

Trade along the canal started as soon as each section was complete. The North Stratford was used, together with the Dudley canals, as a bypass for Black Country products, avoiding the congested Birmingham canals. In this way coal, iron, firebricks and other manufactured goods travelled the first 12.5 miles of the canal, onto the Warwick and Birmingham and on its way to the south east. there was considerable rivalry between the different canals to carry the traffic, so tolls were low to remain competitive. Coal was charged a toll of 10.5d for the of the 12.5miles of the section.

The southern section of the canal carried mainly coal to Stratford area and farm produce in the opposite direction. limestone was brought to the canal at Wilmscote from Temple Grafton. The stone was used for iron making in Halesowen area and was and was turned into agricultural lime by kilns at along the canal.

 Wooten Wawen Aqueduct

Stratford also benefitted from a major improvement in the carrying of general goods and parcels. By 1830 there were several local companies advertising that there were boats leaving daily, for Birmingham. Stratford, itself, began to develop as a town as cheap coal resulted in new industries starting in the area.

As soon as the Stratford canal made a junction with the River Avon at Stratford it found itself in competition with the Worcester and Birmingham canal. Both canals had links to the Avon (the W and B having access via the Severn) . Both could see a lucrative market for coal along the Avon and reduced tolls on coal destined for the river. The Vale of Evesham became the centre of the battle. The W and B even leased the Lower Avon from Tewkesbury to Evesham to ensure that the coal would get through. The Stratford Canal did considerable trade along the Avon. In 1836, for example, 10635 tons of coal passed from the canal onto the Avon, and made 412 net income.

As trade developed,there was increasing need for water to keep the canal full. The planned reservoirs at Earlswood were finally started in 1821 and developed in stages. They eventually provided so much water that the company was able to sell water to rival companies. The water level at Earlswood was mainly below the level of the canal, so steam pumps were purchased to enable most of the water to be used. A smaller reservoir at Chobury Pool , near Kingswood, and some small springs added to the supply.

 Iron Foot Bridge

The 1830s and 1840s were a period of great competition. Other canal routes in the Midlands were improving their canals, by straightening, or extending, whilst many new canals were planned.

The competition for long distance trade to, for example London, resulted in canal companies agreeing to reduce the tolls along the route using their particular canals. In this way the different routes, each involving several companies, struggled to keep the major traffic on their waters. As a result the cost of carrying iron from Stourbridge to London was cut by more than two thirds. Similar toll reductions were made for other bulk goods and every canal company found itself making less profit.

In 1838 the London to Birmingham Railway had opened and the canal operators had another reason to keep their charges low.

For the Stratford Canal, the upper part from Kings Norton to Kingswood was one of the through route sections.

Trade on the rest of the canal had also developed. Stratford had become a centre for distribution, with over 20 merchants dealing in coal, stone, timber or grain. In 1845 over 48000 tons of coal had been delivered to the town . Of this only 18000 tons was used in the town, the rest being distributed to the surrounding area.

The trade was partly improved by the running of a horse-drawn tramway from Stratford to Moreton in the Marsh and Shipston on Stour. It was carrying around 15000 tons of coal from the canal every year. In 1842 the company took out a five year lease on the Upper Avon, to try to improve coal sales in the Vale of Evesham, but found it was not profitable to control the river.

 Lock Cottage at Lowsonford

From 1845 the history of the canal becomes tied up in that of the railways. It was a period of railway mania with many new tracks and routes proposed and a lot of speculation in the shares of the new companies.

One of those proposed railways was the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway. It was to build a line from Oxford, through Moreton in the Marsh, and Evesham to Wolverhampton. It was also planning to build a branch that went from Cheltenham, through Moreton in the Marsh and Stratford to Birmingham. This would have directly competed with the canal and an agreement was made that if the OWWR got Parliamentary permission to build their lines, they would purchase the canal from its shareholders. It was intended to use some of the canal for the track.

The OWWR had competitors who also wanted to build lines in the same region. The Birmingham and Oxford Junction Railway intended to build a line to Stratford and link up with the OWWR. The two companies both wanted to run from Stratford to Birmingham and bargained over which would actually build that branch. Eventually they agreed that the BOJR would build the line. It had always been understood that whichever railway built the Birmingham to Stratford route would buy out the canal company. The OWWR gained parliamentary permission for its lines in 1846 before the BOJR. They found themselves committed to buying a canal on a route they were not using. Even worse, they found their competitors unable to buy the canal. Several further attempts were made to get an Act of Parliament for the BOJR to buy the canal, but failed.

The OWWR had a railway line to build and a canal to buy. They put off the canal purchase until they had part of the railway running. On 1 January 1857 the Stratford canal company was purchased by the OWWR. It had taken 12 years from the first agreements to buy.

All this time the canal had continued trading. There was additional trade from carrying building materials for the Railway companies to construct their lines. It was only in the mid 1850s that the railways began to take over the transport of goods. The OWWR Act of Parliament required that the canal should be kept in good condition by the railway. There had to be enough water and it had to be navigable.

Despite these conditions , the canal slowly deteriorated.

There was less and less traffic and so less reason to keep it well dredged and well maintained. By 1900 less than 8000 tons of cargo travelled to Stratford along the canal. The decline continued until the Southern section of canal was virtually unnavigable, though very pretty.

The railway company had become part of the GWR, but that had no effect on the canal. When the railways were nationalised in 1949 the canal came under the control of the British Transport Commission. The northern part of the canal was still usable, but much in need of repair. The southern section was derelict and was used occasionally by canoeists.

In 1956 the Stratford on Avon Canal Society was formed. Its members were interested in restoring the canal to full working order. Their first challenge was in 1958, when Warwickshire County Council decide to apply for the Southern part of the canal to be officially abandoned (under the Railway and Canal Traffic Act 1888)

It was possible to show that the canal had been used by waterborne craft. A canal official issued a Permit in 1957 to a canoeist wishing to travel the canal. Under the terms of the Act it was doubtful if the canal could be officially abandoned, as it had been used in the last three years. Restoring it presented a different problem.

In 1956 the Stratford on Avon Canal Society was formed.

Its members were interested in restoring the canal to full working order. Their first challenge was in 1958, when Warwickshire County Council decide to apply for the Southern part of the canal to be officially abandoned (under the Railway and Canal Traffic Act 1888)

It was possible to show that the canal had been used by waterborne craft. A canal official issued a Permit in 1957 to a canoeist wishing to travel the canal. Under the terms of the Act it was doubtful if the canal could be officially abandoned, as it had been used in the last three years. Restoring it presented a different problem.

Approaches were made to the National Trust to see if they were prepared to manage and restore the waterway. With the support of funds from the Ministry of Transport and many private donations, the Trust took over the canal in September 1960.

The restoration was supervised by a full time manager, David Hutchings, but carried out by volunteer labour, prisoners and some army units. The work involved rebuilding locks and their gates, dredging and the clearance of rubbish and vegetation that were blocking the canal.

The canal was reopened on 11 July 1964 by the Queen Mother. That weekend saw over 200 boats travel the canal for a Rally in Stratford.

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