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Worcester & Birmingham

Historical Profiles: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2007

Stanley Holland

Stanley Holland investigates the history of a waterway link between the West Midlands and the River Severn that boasts the longest flight of locks in the country

Many of the canals that came into existence during the great canal-building era in the latter part of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century failed to survive when first the railways and then the roads began to present fierce competition. Railways offered a much faster service that was less prone to troubles caused by the weather – droughts in the summer that left canals short of water, and ice in the winter that could result in them being completely unusable. Roads could provide a more flexible, door-to-door service and some canal companies succumbed in the face of the opposition. Some sold out to railway companies, but some canals merely became disused, abandoned, and completely neglected. Fortunately, there were success stories. One canal that managed to survive, albeit with a certain amount of difficulty, was the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, which accordingly has a long history that had its origins over 200 years ago.

The concept of the W&B began with the idea for a canal to run from the Black Country near Stourbridge to the Severn at Diglis on the southern side of Worcester, mainly to convey coal and merchandise. Brindley’s Staffordshire& Worcestershire Canal had opened in 1772 (Spring 2006 NarrowBoat) and already provided a connection with the Severn for the mines and industries of the Black Country. However, it joined the river at Stourport, some miles upstream of Worcester, making it necessary for boats to navigate the shallows and shoals between the two places. The proposed canal would have been 26 miles long with no less than 128 locks and two tunnels. It was hotly opposed by the proprietors of the S&W, who visualised trade being taken away from them, and by carriers on the Severn who also saw their trade suffering.

Cadbury's Old Wharf by Maryvale Road, Bournville (Bridge 77) c.1916. Cadbury Archives

A Bill was submitted to Parliament and had its first reading in the Commons in 1786. After sundry amendments had been made it went to the House of Lords, where there was further discussion and questioning of witnesses. There was even disagreement among engineers: William Jessop opposed the Bill, whilst the canal’s engineer John Snape naturally supported it. Despite strong support from Lord Dudley and others, the Bill was defeated. Not to be outdone, believers in such a canal that would help the Black Country to prosper tried a different approach in 1789 by proposing a canal that would run from Birmingham to Worcester via Tardebigge and would have been 31 1/2 miles long. The Bill was defeated in Parliament the following year.


1785/6 Canal proposed to run from near Stourbridge to Worcester passing Bromsgrove, but defeated in the House of Lords
1789/90 Revised plan made for canal between Worcester and Birmingham; again defeated in Parliament
1791 Enabling Act for W&B passed; canal not to be brought within 7ft of the Birmingham canals
1794 Decision to build narrow locks, instead of wide. Construction of West Hill Tunnel started
1795 Canal reached Selly Oak, construction having started at Birmingham
1796 Construction completed to junction with Stratford Canal at King’s Norton
1797 West Hill Tunnel opened, enabling boats to reach Hopwood
1798 Further Act passed authorising higher tolls and raising of more money
1799 Benjamin Outram called in to advise. Completion by tramroad considered
1804 Further Act to authorise raising of more money
1805 Thomas Cartwright appointed to complete canal between Hopwood and Tardebigge
1807 Canal reached Tardebigge Old Wharf; pause while thought was given to the best way of overcoming 425ft fall to the Severn
1808 Cartwright’s place as engineer taken over by John Woodhouse, who built an experimental boat lift at Tardebigge, where the top lock is now situated, and testing began
1811 Canal Co obtained advice from William Jessop and John Rennie about the boat lift and carried out a public trial. As a result, decided not to install lifts
1812 Construction reached top lock at Tardebigge
1814 Agreement reached with Birmingham Canal Co for Worcester Bar to be breached
1815 Stop lock installed at Worcester Bar and canal completed by December
1818 Steam engine installed to pump water from Severn into Diglis Basin. Second basin opened at Diglis to cope with volume of traffic
1821 First dividend declared
1825 Company agreed to take over lease of Coombe Hill Canal (expired in 1850)
1827 Gloucester & Berkeley Canal opened bringing more trade to W&B
1830 Lease of Lower Avon taken over for a period of 25 years
1832 Tramroad built between canal and limestone quarries in Himbledon
1841 Opening of Birmingham & Gloucester Railway started a period of serious competition and gradual decline for the canal
1847 Much of the salt trade from Stoke Works lost to railway
1848 Canal Co began their own carrying company to counter railway competition
1852 Nominally independent company obtained Act to build Droitwich Junction Canal, connecting W&B with Droitwich. It was then leased to the W&B who took out a lease on the Droitwich Canal, connecting Droitwich with the Severn. Locks on the Droitwich Canal lengthened to take narrowboats
1862 Company unable to pay dividend; none was paid from 1864 onwards
1868 Receiver appointed as a result of application by holders of mortgages which could not be repaid as they fell due
1874 Act passed authorising takeover of canal by Sharpness New Docks Co (formerly Gloucester & Berkeley Canal Co) now the Sharpness New Docks & Gloucester & Birmingham Navigation Co
1886 Proposals made for enlarging W&B to take craft of 200/250 tons
1926 With canal receipts dwindling, George Cadbury Junior inaugurated a guarantee fund to provide annual subsidies for 5 years; a total of almost £8,000 was paid
1940 A bomb damaged the aqueduct in Bournville and several miles of canal were drained; repairs were soon completed
1948 Canal nationalised
1960 Last load of coal reached Worcester by canal from Cannock
1967 Final use of the canal made by Cadburys
1968 Canal designated ‘Cruiseway’



The title page of the Act of 1791 that gave authority for building the canal. Stanley Holland collection

Tunnel tug Sharpness, with headlamp and canopy, towing boats out of the south end of Tardebigge Tunnel (from The Motor Boat magazine, 4th November 1909).

The promoters made a final attempt and submitted an enormous petition containing over 6,000 signatures, among which were those of a number of influential and titled people including the earls of Hardwick, Plymouth and Dartmouth. There were also wealthy landowners along the line of the canal, such as Lord Calthorpe, as well as supporters like Thomas Pickford who was already making his name as a carrier. There was renewed opposition from the S&W proprietors and the Birmingham Canal Co among others, but Parliament passed the Act in 1791, to great rejoicing in Worcester and elsewhere. The outcome was not as favourable as the promoters hoped, as they were prohibited from bringing their canal within 7ft of the Birmingham Canal, leading to the building of the infamous Worcester Bar, across which all goods had to be transhipped. This was a very inconvenient and expensive arrangement, and negotiations finally led to the installation of a stop-lock in 1815.

Although the canal was not fully open until that year, construction had been proceeding steadily towardsWorcester, and trade had developed on the length that was progressively open, assisted by the traffic from feeder canals: the Dudley No 2 Canal (opened 1798), and the Stratford-uponAvon Canal (open to the Warwick & Birmingham Canal in 1802, but not to Stratford until 1816).


From Worcester Bar Basin (now popularly known as Gas Street Basin) the canal has a 14-mile summit level that extends to Tardebigge Top Lock. There were originally many warehouses and wharves near the Birmingham terminus, and the canal company had offices there. This office building remains, but the wharves have now been replaced by modern apartment blocks, offices, cafés, restaurants etc. Not far from the Bar, where the canal takes a sharp right turn, there is on the left a basin which was originally much longer and served as a terminus for goods that did not need to cross the Bar. It was later infilled, but a short section was excavated and reopened in 2000 as part of the adjoining ‘Mailbox’ development of high-class shops, restaurants, cafés and BBC studios. Nearby, on the right, another fairly recent change has been the development of Holliday Wharf by Granville Street, where the façade of the old building has been retained.

The ornate original northern portal to West Hill Tunnel, c.1900. Colin Such collection

Granville Street wharves in 1913. In the foreground, rubbish boats are tied to the Birmingham Corporation Salvage Department wharf, the origin of the name ‘Salvage Turn’ for the sharp corner immediately in front of the Mailbox development.

Opposite to this, Granville Street Wharf, the last working wharf in Birmingham in anything like its original condition, was demolished in 2000 to make way for housing. This is a common trend, and continues past where Davenport’s Brewery and the Accident Hospital used to be prominently situated on the left. A little over a mile from Worcester Bar, the 105-yard Edgbaston Tunnel is reached. Like the other four tunnels on the canal, this is wide enough to permit two narrowboats to pass, but it is the only one to have a towpath through it. Bridges are of similar width because it was originally intended that the canal would be able to take barges, but this had to be abandoned because of cost and the larger quantities of water that the locks would need. Along here, the canal runs close to a main-line railway, originally built in 1876 as the single-track Birmingham West Suburban Railway, that had its Birmingham terminus at the long-gone Granville Street Station, about 1/2 mile from the city centre. There has never been any significant industrial development where the canal passes through Edgbaston, as the Calthorpe family owned a vast amount of land here, and kept strict control over development. On the east side the canal now passes the University of Birmingham, with the sprawling Queen Elizabeth Hospital on the west, currently being replaced by an even larger hospital that will extend to Selly Oak, the next suburb on the route.

Pub Tokens

Several public houses along the W&B issued metal tokens, or checks, in the canal’s hey-day. They were usually made of copper or brass and were issued as gaming prizes, for promotional purposes, as a reward for work done, or as a bonus for someone booking a room. The checks had a diameter of 23–26mm, and could be exchanged for refreshments (usually liquid) to the value stated, usually between 1d and 3d.

Among the W&B pubs known to have issued such checks were: the Navigation Inn, Stoke Prior; the Plymouth Arms, Tardebigge; and the Wharf Inn, Hopwood, which had two checks, both of which are shown here. The lower check was issued by T. Merry, licensee from about 1854 to 1868, and had a value of 3d. It was made by L. Cottrill, Coin & Press Maker, St Paul’s Sqr, Birmingham. That on the right, which had a value of 11/2d, names neither licensee nor maker. The pub is still there, at Bridge 67, although its name was changed to Hopwood House in about 1894.

Woodhouse’s Lift

As construction of the summit pound proceeded southwards 453ft above sea level, it eventually got as far as was reasonably practicable on a single level, and a decision had to be taken about the best way to lower the navigation towards Worcester. The number of pound locks that would be needed, and the amount of water they would use, was daunting, but John Woodhouse, who had previously been an engineer on the Grand Junction Canal, came forward with a possible solution. In 1806 he had patented a type of canal lift which had counter-balanced caissons (containers that would hold a boat), a design which he later modified so that there was only one caisson, the other being replaced by weights.

It was an attractive proposition and seemed to hold out the possibility of reducing the number of locks from 76 to 12, so eliminating the need for large quantities of water. The canal company decided that it was worth having an experimental lift built, and agreed that they would pay for the excavation and masonry while Woodhouse would provide and erect the machinery at his own expense. Woodhouse took over as the canal’s engineer and built the 12ft lift on the site of the present summit lock in Tardebigge.

The caisson was made of 3in planking and was 72ft long, 8ft wide, and 3ft 6in deep, which was perfectly adequate for a narrowboat. It was suspended by eight cast-iron rods attached to chains that passed over 12ft diameter pulleys and were then attached to the counter-balancing weights, which were wooden boxes loaded with bricks. Beneath both the caisson and the counter-balance weights, chains were suspended to ensure that the opposing loads remained in balance. The caisson was sealed at both ends by guillotine gates, and so was the canal on the two levels, the space between being filled with water as necessary by means of a valve, so relieving the lateral pressure on the gates. Two of the pulleys were toothed round 12ft of their circumference, and could thus engage with pinions of winches worked by the operators. The lift was built in 1808, but could not be fully tested until 1810 when Tardebigge Tunnel on the Birmingham side of the lift was finished. It was found then that a boat could pass through the lift in 21/2 minutes, two men being required to work it. During longer tests it was shown that 110 boats could be passed in 12 hours, but the canal committee was still not entirely convinced of the suitability of the lift, so William Jessop was called in to advise. His opinion was favourable, and John Rennie, who gave a second opinion, agreed that the lift worked satisfactorily, but took the view that it was too delicate for constant use, and would be very expensive to maintain.

The Committee was by then more confident about the availability of adequate water supplies and in 1811 it was decided that the lift would not be adopted for general use. It was in due course dismantled. The deep top lock at Tardebigge is a reminder of its existence.

The drawings by Edward Paget-Tomlinson were originally commissioned by Eckhard Schinkel for his book (in German) about boat lifts of the world, entitled Schiffslift (Klartext, 2001).

Edward Paget-Tomlinson

Edward Paget-Tomlinson

Breedon Cross canal/railway transhipment wharf, c.1900, with Bridge 75 in the background.

The long-abandoned Dudley No 2 Canal (known in earlier days as the Netherton Canal, and more recently as the Lapal Canal) joined the W&B in Selly Oak, and is likely to have a connection again for a short distance in the near future as part of a large development involving the new hospital, a supermarket, and a relief road. There will be a basin on the new length of canal where boats can tie up.

Industrial development and speculative housing for factory workers became a feature of Selly Oak,the factories being built particularly alongside the two canals. Little of this now remains, although the distinctive office block of the Birmingham Battery & Metal Co, a listed building, is still in existence, but boarded up, where the canal passes under the Bristol Road (A38). Alongside the W&B opposite the entrance to the Dudley Canal, there was until recently a thriving and long-standing builders’ yard. It had two basins right on the junction to facilitate the entry of boats from the Dudley Canal into the site so that materials – particularly coal and lime – could be unloaded. There were also lime-kilns on the site, some of which were excavated a few years ago and recorded by professional archaeologists. Right by Bristol Road there was a large coal-yard and a blacksmith’s workshop, with further factories beyond. The canal goes past Selly Oak Hospital (soon to be merged in the new hospital), and Bournville soon follows, with the extensive premises of Cadbury’s on the right, followed by other factories.

The early offices of the W&B Canal Co in Gas Street, Birmingham, now sport a commemorative plaque. Stanley Holland

The Cadbury Connection

Cadbury Bros, famous for their cocoa products, made extensive use of the W&B for many years. John Cadbury started the business in 1831 in Crooked Lane in the centre of Birmingham, and moved in 1847 to a factory in Bridge Street, alongside the entrance to Old Wharf, which ran off Gas Street Basin where the W&B has its junction with the Birmingham Canal. The factory boiler-room was conveniently situated to provide access from the wharf, where large quantities of coal were unloaded for use in factories and homes in Birmingham. The business outgrew the site, and in 1879 George and Richard Cadbury, two of John’s sons, who by then had taken over from their father, moved the factory to a new area by the W&B, which they named Bournville.

The site was about 4 1/2 miles from Bridge Street, but separated from the W&B Canal by the Birmingham West Suburban Railway which had been opened in 1876. They initially used a wharf owned by William Sparrey, but in 1908 acquired a canalside site in Stirchley adjacent to Bridge 77 a little further south along the W&B, and had a small factory and warehouses there until 1929. The business expanded steadily, and led to the need for further supplies of milk. They therefore established several milk collecting and processing depots, two of which were built alongside canals: in 1911 at Knighton on the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction (Shropshire Union) Canal, and in 1916 at Framptonon-Severn on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. Here the milk was condensed with sugar and mass cocoa to form a dry, lumpy substance called ‘crumb’. This was carried by canal to Bournville for further processing. In 1922 the firm acquired land adjoining Sparrey’s Wharf and built large warehouses and a well-equipped wharf. The new site was called ‘Waterside’, and the firm’s internal railway system was connected to it by means of a steel bridge across the canal and main-line railway. Coal was brought by canal to a large dump on the new site, and then taken as necessary to the boilers in the main factory.

The firm also had a factory on the W&B at Blackpole, about 3 1/2 miles from Worcester (pictured in the Spring 2006 issue of NarrowBoat). This was acquired in 1921 and was used for making wooden boxes and packing cases with timber brought up the canal. The finished boxes were taken in sections along the canal to Bournville for assembly and use as needed. This episode was short-lived, and the premises were put to other uses.

The firm acquired its first boat in 1883 and eventually had 21 at various times. In 1928 they decided to dispose of their boats, and then relied on carriers. Their use of the canals dwindled until it came to an end in 1968. In due course, the use of their canalside premises also ceased, and they were sold: Blackpole in 1973, Frampton in 1983, Bournville’s Waterside in 1984 and Knighton in 1986. 

Sparrey’s Wharf at Bournville with its umbrella shaped canopy. The threebay Cadbury ‘Waterside’ Wharf – later extended to six bays – can be seen beyond it, with substantial warehouses behind. The top of the Clock Tower at Birmingham University can be seen distantly over Sparrey’s canopy. The boats in the foreground belong to the Severn & Canal Carrying Co, which featured in the Summer 2006 issue of NarrowBoat. Cadbury Archives

Cadbury’s first motor boat, Bournville 1, in June 1911. It was an experimental boat of unusual design, and it did not prove satisfactory. It was the first English canal boat to be fitted with a Bolinder engine and was discussed in more detail in Waterways World, November 1979.

Cadbury Archives

A Cadbury Campaigner

The Cadbury director mainly responsible for the firm’s use of the waterways in the 20th century was George Cadbury Junior (1878–1954). A man of wide interests, particularly in all forms of transport, he was an early campaigner for a national system that would integrate rail, road and waterway transport. He was regarded as one of the country’s foremost experts, and in 1929 co-authored a book entitled Canals & Inland Waterways, in which he made out a strong case for the fullest possible use of our inland waterways. 

During World War One he was a member of the Inland Transport War Council set up by the government, and lobbied hard, then and later, for an efficient canal system. He pressed the case for modernising the W&B, but nothing came of this because of the economic depression of the 1920s. At this time, small independent carriers were fast disappearing, to be replaced by large carrying companies, one of which was the Severn & Canal Carrying Co, which the family firm used. He was chairman of the S&CCCo and a director of the Sharpness New Docks & Birmingham Navigation Co. 

In the 1920s the W&B was finding it difficult to remain profitable, and depended on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal for financial support. To help deal with this situation, George Cadbury was instrumental in setting up a fund to which various associations and firms would subscribe so that a subsidy not exceeding £2,000 pa could be paid towards the canal’s trading losses. The subsidy was to be paid for five years on the understanding that the canal would not close during the time, and it is widely believed that, had it not been for this fund, it might well have closed. 

He was elected a member of the Institute of Transport in 1933, and awarded the Inland Water Transport Gold Medal in 1938. During World War Two he again played a prominent role as a member of several official bodies responsible for the waterways and transport generally, and continued such activities after the war in his retirement, eg as a member of the Docks & Inland Waterways Executive of the British Transport Commission. To the end he remained firm in his belief that: “The time has long gone by, if it ever existed, when Britain could afford to neglect any industrial assets with which Nature or past generations have endowed her. In her system of inland waterways, she possesses one such asset of which every advantage should be taken.”

George Cadbury Junior (1878-1954)

Cadbury Archives

In King’s Norton, the Stratfordupon-Avon Canal branches off on the left, and passes through what was originally a stop lock with guillotine gates. The lock-keeper’s house has gone, but the elegant junction house is still there on the right of the W&B. West Hill (otherwise known as King’s Norton or Wast Hills) Tunnel soon follows. It has a length of 2,726 yards and getting through it was such a long and arduous job for leggers that tugs (originally powered by steam – but later diesel) used to operate. Near the tunnel entrance there is a winding-hole that was built for the tugs, with a coaling point complete with crane alongside.

To the south of the tunnel the canal’s surroundings are largely rural, as it passes through the small village of Hopwood, soon followed on the right by the 1/2-mile Bittell Arm and Reservoirs, which were part of a complex water-supply system on the River Arrow, that took into account the needs of millers further down the river.

On the approach to Alvechurch, there is now a short arm where the canal was moved a little to the west so that the M42 could be built over it with less of agradient. In Alvechurch there is now a large marina on the right. The 613-yard Shortwood Tunnel follows as the canal continues to Tardebigge Old Wharf and the 580-yard tunnel. Tardebigge New Wharf follows immediately. This important maintenance yard, with dry dock, crane etc, was established here and later enlarged, as is indicated by a brick marked ‘SND’ and the date 1910 on a wall in the main yard. The depot eventually became a BW yard, but its importance is now greatly diminished. On the left, overlooking the canal, stands St Bartholemew’s Church, which has a tall slender spire that is a significant landmark, while to the right, beyond the maintenance yard, lie the remains of lime-kilns.

The deep Tardebigge Top Lock (No 58) is soon reached, marking the end of a long pound that stands about 453ft above sea-level. Maintaining the canal at this level led to the need for tunnels, long cuttings and considerable embankments. Hereafter, the canal proceeds downhill by means of the 30-lock Tardebigge flight, followed by others, providing some magnificent views on the way.The first pound is longer than the others in the flight, and takes the canal to Lock 57 and the former Tardebigge Engine House, more recently in use as a licensed restaurant. In its day the Engine House played an important part in the water supply for the canal by pumping water from Tardebigge Reservoir, about 50ft below the level of the top pound. The reservoir is soon reached on the left between locks 50 and 54. After the 30 Tardebigge locks and the short Stoke Pound, the six locks of the Stoke flight (23–28) follow almost immediately. In the area by Stoke Works, there were considerable underground deposits of salt, which was also to be found in the Droitwich area, and large quantities of it were extracted, to the extent that subsidence occurred, as evidenced by the tilt that some buildings have. The Queen’s Head by Bridge 48 is a welcome port of call for boaters working the locks, and the Avoncroft Museum of Buildings is a short walk away to the north. By Bridge 42, there is another canal-side pub, the Boat & Railway (now with a canalside restaurant), where the Worcester Birmingham Canal Society holds its monthly meetings.

A 5-mile pound starts at Lock 17, the bottom lock of the six-lock Ashwood flight, alongside which there is a field path on the east leading to Hanbury Hall, a fine early 18th century country house now maintained by the National Trust. At Hanbury itself, which soon follows, there is a boatyard, and the former Droitwich Junction Canal (opened in 1853) branches off to the west. This narrow, 13/4 -mile canal became abandoned and derelict, but is now undergoing restoration, along with the wide-beam, 63/4 -mile Droitwich Canal, that connected the town with the Severn at Hawford.

A little further on, close to an old tramway wharf, is Dunhampstead Tunnel. It is 230 yards long and boats were once worked through by means of an iron handrail fixed to a side wall. With the arrival of powered boats, thehandrail became redundant, but some rusty and jagged remains survived.

The canal is still delightfully rural as it continues in a southwesterly direction through the tiny villages of Oddingly and Tibberton, under the M5 and down the six Offerton Locks that follow immediately. Blackpole Lock (9) and wharf, where Cadbury at one time had a factory, precede a series of four locks on the outskirts of Worcester. It passes under a railway bridge that has an interesting hole in one of the spandrels, and passes on the right the restored Lowesmoor Basin, originally a port for narrowboats but now a hireboat base. Alongside Sidbury (or King’s Head) Lock (3) is the Commandery, a beautifully restored building dating from around 1100 and used in its early days as a hospital and almshouse. It played a prominent role in the Civil Warand there are displays recalling those days.

On the approach to Diglis Basins, where the canal connects with the Severn, various businesses were set up alongside the canal – saw mills, a flour mill, timber-yard etc. Round the basins themselves, warehouses were built, along with other premises providing facilities needed by boatmen and traders, such as chandleries. A lock-keeper’s house and dry dock were built. The nearby Royal Worcester Porcelain Works, having been founded in 1751, was already there when the canal was built nearby, but it no longer makes ceramic ware, and merely decorates items that are bought in. Although Worcester has for long been famed as a beautiful cathedral city, it has never been entirely lacking in industrial activity, but this has not been on the same scale as at the other end of the canal. The city’s less-intrusive industries included the manufacture of gloves and brown table sauce, which is still made there. All benefited from the waterways – the new canal and the ancient river navigation, which was connected to the canal by two wide locks that permitted river craft to enter the basins, where goods could be transferred to narrowboats, and vice versa. The most famous working boat on the river was the Severn trow, the last example of which, the Spry, lay rotting away for many years in the outer basin at Diglis before being rescued in 1983 and restored at Ironbridge. The march of progress has led to substantial and ongoing demolition and redevelopment round the Diglis Basins, and little now remains of its original features.

Traffic and Boats

An important reason for building the canal was to provide a transport route for the minerals and metal goods emanating from the mines and factories of Birmingham and the Black Country. Canals are particularly suitable for heavy, bulky, non-perishable goods like sand and building materials, and such items were common cargoes, along with coal from the mines of Cannock and the Black Country. Birmingham had been an important centre for the manufacture of all kinds of metal goods – nails, screws, knives, swords etc – since the 16th century, and later made muskets and other types of gun in large quantities. The area was famous for the manufacture of chains and anchors, steam engine boilers and the steam engines themselves, like those made at the world-famous Soho Manufactory established by Matthew Boulton in 1762. There were also iron works at various places along the canal, such as Selly Oak and King’s Norton. Newer industries included the brass trade, and the manufacture of buckles, toys, and other fashionable articles.

Lime from a number of places, and salt from Stoke Prior and Droitwich, were also carried. Cadbury carried a great variety of goods – timber, coal, cocoa, sugar, milk etc – on the canal, and had its own fleet for a time. Over the years a number of independent carriers operated on the canal, such as the Severn & Canal Carrying Co, Fellows, Morton & Clayton, T&M Dixon, G.R. Bird and the canal company itself, which provided a service for about twenty years. There were smaller carriers as well, such as Charles Ballinger, who was the last of the small operators to use the canal.

Some of the most distinctive boats to operate on the canal were the tugs that towed boats through the longer tunnels, and along the whole summit level if required. The boats were named after important towns on the company’s canals: Sharpness, Worcester, Birmingham and Gloucester. Usually, one only operated through West Hill Tunnel, while another worked through both Shortwood and Tardebigge tunnels. When motor boats became common, the use of the tugs declined, until the service was withdrawn altogether.

Several companies, including T&M Pickford and G.R. Bird, operated a fly-boat service on the canal, and there was also a passenger service between Alvechurch and Birmingham, but competition from the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway effectively killed off this traffic. 

The 46ft W&B tunnel tug Worcester was built by Abdela & Mitchell at Queensferry in 1912. Her original Kromhout twin-cylinder semi-diesel was replaced with a 30hp Bolinder in 1930, which she retains today. Now restored by the Boat Museum Society (above), the post-1930 colours are based on the recollection of former W&B boatman Tom Mayo and photographs of the period.

Worcester in the pre-1930 colours, as recalled by George Bate of the Tardebigge workshops. 

Edward Paget-Tomlinson

SCCCo Boat No 8 passing a Birmingham wharf where a consignment of Typhoo tea is being unloaded into a warehouse.

On 3rd December 1940, Bournville Lane Aqueduct adjoining Cadbury’s factory was pierced by a bomb, resulting in boats at Waterside (left) being left high and dry. Cadbury Archives

Cadbury Archives

Cadbury Archives

This enlargement of a postcard postmarked 1912 is of one of the Stoke Works locks showing unusually tall ground paddle gear. Have any readers seen photographs of similar paddle gear elsewhere? Roger M Butler collection

An experiment in tractor haulage of a boat at Tardebigge, with part of the pumping engine house on the right. Can any readers throw any more light on this trial?

Further Reading

• Revd Alan White, The Worcester & Birmingham Canal – Chronicles of the Cut, Brewin Books, 2005

• Charles Hadfield, The Canals of the West Midlands, David & Charles, 1969

• David Tew, Canal Inclines and Lifts, Alan Sutton, 1984

• Edward Paget-Tomlinson, ‘John Woodhouse’s Perpendicular Lift’, Waterways World, October 2002

• Winifred Marks & Christopher Cadbury, George Cadbury Junior (1878–1954)

• Stanley Holland, ‘Cadburys & the Inland Waterways’, Waterways News, August, September and December 1979

• Ian Hayes, The Bittell Waterways System, Lickey Hills Local History Society, c.1993

• Alan H. Faulkner, Severn & Canal and Cadburys, Robert Wilson Designs, 1981

Cruising Guides

• Nicholson Guide to the Waterways, No 2: Severn, Avon & Birmingham

• Pearson’s Canal Companion: Severn & Avon


Worcester Birmingham Canal Society:

The damaged headstone on the grave of Richard Jones, a worker on the W&B, who died on 23rd April 1840 aged 46, and was buried in the detached graveyard of St Godwald’s Church in Finstall, near Bromsgrove. He had been drinking heavily in the Crown Inn near Worcester outside which he unwisely lay down in the road for a rest. In the darkness he was hit by the Bristol to Birmingham mail coach. He left a wife and six children, who had lived with him in a cottage at Bilford Lock. His workmates paid for a stone to be erected in his memory, and had the tools of Jones’s trade – trowel, shovel, ladder, calipers, square etc – carved in an oval panel on the stone. Stanley Holland