Birmingham's Canal Network - In Brindley's Footsteps

By Roslyn Tappenden | 05 August 2004
shows a canal boat moored at the side of a canal. It has 'Grand Union Canal Company' stencilled on its side.

The centre of of the UK's second city is home to boats and water borne homes. © Roslyn Tappenden.

Any Brummie will be proud to tell you that Birmingham has more canals than Venice, but how many people take the opportunity to explore the delights of the city’s canal network?

Beneath the hustle and bustle of England’s second city exists a tranquil world where remnants of its industrial heritage still survive.

In the area close to Broad Street, many of the streets and pubs are named after the canal builders and industrialists of Birmingham, most notably Brindley Place.

shows a series of steps leading down to a canal. Pubs, restaurants and shops line the towpath and a canal boat is moored at the foot of the steps.

Brindley Place, named after the city's first great canal builder. Picture © Marketing Birmingham

Born in 1716, James Brindley was a millwright by trade and was mainly involved in building watermills. His engineering skills were mostly self-taught, often through trial and error. His first experience of canal building came when the Duke of Bridgwater wanted a canal to connect his mines in Worsley to the trading centre of Manchester.

With the assistance of Brindley, the Duke's Bridgewater Canal was completed in 1764 and later extended to the Mersey Estuary in 1776.

Despite almost bankrupting the Duke, the canal was a great long-term success and local industrialists such as Josiah Wedgwood, who at the time was transporting china clay by sea from Cornwall to Liverpool, were inspired by the success of the canal.

In Birmingham a meeting was called by a group of businessmen proposing a canal to link the coal mines of the Black Country with the thriving city of Birmingham and the Birmingham Canal Company was born.

shows a canal boat moored canalside in front of the modern white International Convention Centre

Today the canal network takes you right by the International Convention Centre. Picture © Marketing Birmingham

Parliament gave the go-ahead on 24th February 1768 for a route which stretched from New Hall in Birmingham to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal via Smethwick, Tipton and Bilston.

Brindley was appointed engineer at a salary of £200 per year and a committee was given the task of raising the £50,000 needed to build the canal.

This trail begins on a part of the canal that Brindley built at the International Convention Centre (ICC). The towpath is accessible from Broad Street where a set of steps leads down past the ICC and the Symphony Hall.

Once canal-side take the path under two footbridges and you will come to a pub called The Malt House. The pub is a survivor of the many malthouses that thronged this side of the canal, where grain was stored for the all-important brewing of ale during the 1800s.

shows a canal boat sailing past a canal junction in central birmingham. Modern high-rise buildings can be seen behind the older buildings that still line the canal side.

The hub of the Birmingham canal network marking the junction between Brindley's canal and Telford’s Main Line. © Roslyn Tappenden.

The round island in the centre of the canal is really the hub of the Birmingham canal network. It marks the junction between Brindley's canal, Telford’s Main Line canal routes and the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal.

From the Malt House, cross over the footbridge towards the National Indoor Arena (NIA) and walk down the ramp to the water’s edge. Follow the towpath so the canal is on your right under the road to Farmer’s Bridge Locks. Here you will find a flight of thirteen locks leading towards Paradise Street on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal.

The locks and bridge are named after a local landowner called James Farmer, who was a gun maker in the 1700s.

On the left close to the first set of lock gates is the old toll office. Users of the canal once had to stop here to pay the owners a toll based on the weight and nature of their cargo.

shows a canal views with large old brick buildings on either side - in the distance a telecommunications tower domintaes a grey sky.

BT Tower as seen from Farmer's Lock. © Roslyn Tappenden

Continuing along the path as far as Paradise Street you can return to the toll office along James Brindley Walk on the other side of the canal.

It is actually possible to follow the canal as far as the Aston Expressway and beyond, however in recent years property developers have paid little respect to the historic ambience of the canal, which is now flanked by modern apartment blocks.

Climb the steps at the end of the James Brindley Walk and you will come to Cambrian Wharf. The basin next to the footbridge is all that remains of the original 'Newhall Branch' of Brindley’s canal. This is the site of the very first Birmingham Canal, which began in Newhall Street.

Sadly, for canal enthusiasts, the Newhall Branch of the canal was acquired by Birmingham Corporation in 1937 and drained to make way for the city’s civic redevelopment.

shows canal boat moored behind a brick built canal footbridge

The footbridge crossing Brewery Wharf close to the junction between Brindley's canal and Telford's 'Main Line'. Picture © Roslyn Tappenden.

The original waterway took just four years to build with Brindley and his engineers solving technical problems as they went.

One of the first problems the canal engineers encountered was at Smethwick. Unexpected ground conditions meant that a proposed tunnel under the Smethwick Summit had to be abandoned. Brindley was left with no other option but to take the canal over the top of the hill via a series of six locks, 491 feet above sea level.

Today the Smethwick Summit is now part of the Galton Valley Conservation area, which was created in 1984 to safeguard this unique area of canal and industrial heritage.

The upper level of the canal at Smethwick is James Brindley's Old Main Line Canal of 1769 and the New Main Line at the lower level was constructed by Thomas Telford in 1829. The area also includes Engine Arm Canal.

From the outset the locks in this area were beset with water supply problems and the Canal Company was forced to limit the number of boats travelling through the locks to 50 per week.

photo shows wooden canal lock gates, survivors from the early days of canals

A surviving lock from Brindley's original canal. © Roslyn Tappenden.

On September 21 1772 the final section of the canal was completed and just a few days later on September 27, James Brindley, Britain's first great canal builder, died.

Following Brindley’s death the Birmingham Canal Company continued to seek a solution to the water problems at Smethwick and eventually developed the idea of pumping the water back to the summit.

Steam pioneers and industrialists James Watt and Matthew Boulton, both shareholders of the Canal Company, were called in to design a steam engine to do the job. Work began at their newly formed manufacturing company, working out of their famous Soho Works at Handsworth, which was handily located on the canal - not far from Smethwick.

photo shows a large steam powered water pump inside a building

The Smethwick steam engine in action - the oldest working steam engine in the world - still powering away after 200 years! © Thinktank.

The resultant steam engine, known as the Smethwick Engine, was the most powerful steam engine of its day. The factory where it was built may be long gone but the engine itself is still in fine working order - after almost 200 years. It is currently on display at Thinktank, Birmingham's excellent Museum of Science and Industry - just south of the city centre.

Thinktank also has a display about its creators, James Watt and Matthew Boulton, but for people wanting to find out more about the life of these great industrial pioneers Soho House, the elegant home of Matthew Boulton (from 1766 to 1809), has been restored to its period condition and is packed full of artefacts from the time.

Following the installation of the Smethwick engine in May 1779, some 250 boats were able to pass through the Smethwick locks each week.

In the 1780s the summit of the canal was lowered by 18 feet, reducing the number of locks from six to three. A duplicate ‘lane’ of locks was also added to reduce congestion.

Watt and Boulton are still remembered by a statue that stands outside the Registry Office in Broad Street opposite the Symphony Hall. The statue shows Watt and Boulton with William Murdoch, another great industrialist who worked at the Soho Works and who invented gas lighting.

photo shows a view of the canal in inner-city Birmingham, taken from under a bridge.

Peace can be found in unexpected places right in the heart of Birmingham - on the Birmingham Canal Navigation network. © Roslyn Tappenden.

From Cambrian Wharf, you can cross the footbridge back to the toll office and follow the towpath under Tindal Street Bridge walking past the canal junction and the NIA. This is the beginning of Thomas Telford’s New Birmingham Main Line.

By 1820 the canal was suffering from severe maintenance problems. After the Napoleonic war the British government, keen to boost the economy by commissioning public works, sent Thomas Telford to Birmingham to inspect the city’s now neglected canals.

Telford had already enjoyed a varied career, initially as a stonemason and later as an engineer, and was eventually employed as Surveyor and Engineer to the Ellesmere Canal Company and to the Shrewsbury Canal in the late 1700s.

However, Telford was unimpressed, both with Birmingham and with Brindley’s meandering canal, which looped back and forth through the city taking in warehouse stops and taking account of the topography of the developing industrial landscape.

While standing in front of the NIA, if you look across the water underneath the iron footbridges you will see an inlet to a part of Brindley’s original Main Line, now called the Oozells Street Loop.

shows a view along a canal towpath towards an arched iron footbridge that is painted black and white.

This iron bridge in Gas Street Basin marks the spot where the Worcestershire Canal and the Birmingham Main Line meet. Photo: Roslyn Tappenden

Having surveyed Brindley’s Canal Telford proposed rebuilding the entire route - straightening and shortening the Birmingham to Smethwick section, in the process making the journey from Birmingham to Tipton lock-free. This route eventually became known as the New Main Line.

Continue along the towpath with the canal to your left. Pass under Sheepcote Bridge and you will find the remnants of Corporation Wharf and the now closed Fiddle & Bone pub.

The pub is part of The Roundhouse, a circular terrace on the junctions of Sheepcote Street and Vincent Street. It was converted from stables and a schoolhouse into one of the city’s best loved pubs and music venues.

The Roundhouse can be reached by following the ramp before Sheepcote Bridge - to the NIA car park onto Sheepcote Street and then crossing the road. If you peer in the gate you will see a sloping cobbled courtyard leading up to the top level of the circular building and a tunnel, which leads underneath to the canal.

shows a photograph of a canal as viewed from the mouth of a brick canal tunnel.

The towpath passes under Sheepcote Bridge, just minutes from the city centre. Photo: Roslyn Tappenden.

In addition to the new canal route, Telford recommended a new reservoir at Rotton Park, now known as Edgbaston Reservoir. In 1824 his plans were approved and he was appointed chief engineer by the Birmingham Canal Company.

The towpath continues onward to Edgbaston Reservoir and beyond to Smethwick and Wolverhampton where it joins the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.

At Vincent Street Bridge cross the canal by climbing the steps to street level and crossing the road. Head back towards Brindley Place along the opposite side of the water.

Along the south side of the canal you will cross over a footbridge. This is where the other end of Oozells Street Loop rejoins the New Main Line. This section of the loop is crammed with painted narrow boats that are home to some of the city’s water-borne community.

shows the side of a canal barge. It has 'J & M Barks, Langley Mill' written on the side.

Barges and canal boats from all over the UK make their way to central Birmingham. Picture © Roslyn Tappenden

Telford’s New Main Line opened in 1829. In that same year George Stephenson demonstrated his new locomotive, the Rocket. Over the next decade some 2,000 miles of railway were planned by parliament.

The Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Stour Valley railway opened in 1852 – engineered by Robert Stephenson, son of George.

The forward thinking owners of the Birmingham Canal Company took major stakes in the new railways and as a result the future of Birmingham’s canals was, for the time being, secured.

As you continue back along the towpath towards Brindley Place you can look back across the canal to the NIA. This site was once occupied by an enormous expanse of rail sidings owned by the Birmingham Canal Company.

shows a canal boat floating along the canal towards an iron footbridge - past brick buildings and city bars and restaurants. Trees line the canalside.

The canalside area aroud Brindley Place was once a mass of warehouses and railway sidings. Photo © Birmingham Marketing

The canal owners, turned rail shareholders, ensured that railway lines were built alongside their canals. Interchanges were also built between the tracks and the water’s edge for transferring goods.

Despite Telford’s radical overhaul of the canal system, much of Brindley’s original canal remained in use, crossing the New Main Line at various intervals.

After the nationalisation of the canal network in 1948, Birmingham’s waterways became known as the Birmingham Canal Navigations.

Despite the arrival of the railways the Birmingham Canal Navigations remained busy until road transport took over as the principal means of transporting goods.

shows a photo of a black and white wall sign that says: Canal Side Walk - Sheepcoate Street

The Canalside walks around Sheepcoate Street have provide an interesting contrast to the bustle of the city centre. Picture © Roslyn Tappenden.

In 1987, after years of neglect, Birmingham City Council invited developers to submit ideas to regenerate the canalside around Broad Street and in 1994 the first phase of the Water’s Edge development was completed.

Today the area is a magnet for people spending their leisure time. Tucked behind the Sea Life Centre, it is worth exploring Brindley Place where many original buildings of the period have been refurbished and are now home to an array of bars and eateries.

There are also shops and the Ikon Gallery, positioned centrally in Brindley Place, which hosts some of the city’s finest art and photography exhibitions.

From Brindley place, if you rejoin the towpath on the water’s edge you will come to Broad Street Tunnel, which passes under the road before emerging in Gas Street Basin.

The footbridge just ahead marks the beginning of the Birmingham to Worcester Canal. On the right is the tiny Canal Shop offering guided walking tours and boat trips.

Shows a photograph of the exterior of the Ikon Gallery.

The Ikon Gallery near Brindley Place. Picture © Ikon Gallery.

The Worcester and Birmingham canal was built between 1791 and 1815 and was separated by a small stop lock to prevent water from flowing between the two canals. All that remains of the lock today is a narrow channel below the iron footbridge linking the two waterways.

At the end of the path is a bridge leading to The Mailbox. This is a new development, now home to the BBC and the city’s most exclusive designer stores. The Mailbox got its name because until a few years ago it was home to the Royal Mail’s central sorting office.

If you pass to the left of the ramp and turn right along the towpath, past the newly built apartments the canal opens out into more picturesque surroundings. Residential blocks give way to trees and tranquility.

From here the canal continues onward to Edgbaston and eventually to Bournville where you can find Selly Manor Museum and Cadbury World where the chocolate manufacturer still occupies its canal-side location. These attractions are not within easy walking distance of the city so would probably require a separate trip.

photo shows a view of a boat travelling on the Worcester and Birmingham canal.

Boat on Worcester and Birmingham Canal © Roslyn Tappenden.

For those who are interested in finding out more about Birmingham’s canal history, the sixth floor of Birmingham Central Library holds Ordnance Survey Maps dating back to 1890. These show the extent of the original canal network before mass redevelopment in the 20th Century. The library also stocks business directories for the city dating back to the 1700s detailing the various businesses that were situated alongside the canal.

For canal enthusiasts who want to explore the rich heritage of the Black Country and its canal network the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley is a must.

Canal transport is well represented with collections of boat builder's equipment as well as photographs and documents. The Museum also has a working boat dock on site and eight canal boats.

But to really experience the atmosphere of the great canal systems built by Brindley and Telford take a canal boat trip through the Dudley Tunnel and limestone caverns, owned by the Dudley Canal Trust.

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