Willow Wren at Brownhills

Canal Postcards: NarrowBoat, Summer 2022

Christopher M Jones

Chris M. Jones reveals the background details of a picture postcard of the BCN at Brownhills

This is our free-access sample article from the Summer 2022 NarrowBoat.


After the Willow Wren Canal Carrying Co Ltd was founded late in 1953, it started its carrying operations in April and May 1954. From the following June, coal was taken from Baddesley, Newdigate and Griff collieries in Warwickshire on the Coventry Canal to Hayes Cocoa Co on the Grand Union in Middlesex, owned at the time by the Nestlé company. This was on behalf of several coal factors, such as Evesons (Coal) Ltd of Birmingham, which had the supply contracts. These Warwickshire pits were beset by problems in the mid-1950s and so supplies from Baddesley ceased in April 1955, with the others continuing until 10th May 1957, when the contract was switched to Cannock Colliery on the Birmingham Canal Navigations’ Cannock Extension Canal. The first pair to load there was motor Quail and butty Teal, steered by Jack and Doris Monk early in May.

The Hayes factory was built in 1913 for the Sandow Cocoa Co, passing to the Hayes Cocoa Co in 1916. It transferred to Nestlé in 1929 and provided the canal with traffic for a number of years.

This postcard image features two motors and one butty that had recently loaded at Cannock and are shown during a short delay on the Wyrley & Essington Canal at Brownhills, the nearest two boats being motor Tern and butty Shoveller. The image was taken from ground level, giving an unusual angle, which was franked on 6th September 1959.

Their wait must only be temporary as Tern’s engine is still running, judging by the water coolant just visible pouring from the hull below the engine room doors, and it is particularly heavily laden, especially at the bow. It was carrying small coal, typically used for industrial purposes, which is heaped up as far forward as the mast.

Tern was originally Fellows, Morton & Clayton’s motor Emu, built by W.J. Yarwood & Sons Ltd at Northwich as an iron composite motor with its cabin fitted at FMC’s dock at Saltley in 1926. Shoveller was originally FMC’s butty Bascote, a wooden craft built by Nurser Brothers at Braunston Wharf in 1929. Both were transferred to the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive in 1949 after nationalisation, and subsequently sold to Willow Wren.

Bascote was bought early in 1954 and docked by W.H. Walker & Brothers Ltd of Rickmansworth, then renamed Shoveller. Emu was bought late in 1956 and entered the fleet as Tern after a substantial docking involving a new steel bottom and new cabin in December at Vokins & Co Ltd’s yard at Brentford, costing £1,251.

Willow Wren also developed traffic into the BCN which enabled its boats to reach Cannock more economically. Softwood timber from the Baltic ports, imported through Brentford via the London docks, was an important downtraffic, supplemented with imports from Canada of Douglas fir. Some of this was taken to Tailby & Cox’s timberyard at Great Bridge, Tipton, situated on the Haines Branch, and became one of the company’s most important northbound contracts.

This relatively short-lived traffic to Nestlé’s chocolate factory at Hayes ceased in March 1959 with Bittern and Shoveller being the last pair delivering coal from Cannock, steered by Ted and Sarah Barrett.