Phosphorus Waste

Last Traffic: NarrowBoat, Summer 2014

Hugh Potter

Hugh Potter sums up recollections of what was probably the most infamous and noxious cargo ever carried by canal

<p>Matty&rsquo;s motor boat <em>Maureen</em> and a laden day boat emerging from Chemical Arm at Oldbury, on the BCN Old Main Line in April 1964.</p>Credit: Chris Clegg

Matty’s motor boat Maureen and a laden day boat emerging from Chemical Arm at Oldbury, on the BCN Old Main Line in April 1964.

Chris Clegg

<p>Matty&rsquo;s <em>Maureen</em> passes coal-laden day boats as she approaches the top of Brades Locks near Seven Stars Bridge, Oldbury, on the BCN Old Main Line in April 1964.</p>Credit: Chris Clegg

Matty’s Maureen passes coal-laden day boats as she approaches the top of Brades Locks near Seven Stars Bridge, Oldbury, on the BCN Old Main Line in April 1964.

Chris Clegg

I had always thought that ‘Tank House Slime’ sounded to be a noxious cargo, but it turned out to be a valuable by-product carried neatly, tidily and cleanly in barrels (Winter 2012 NB). However, the phosphorus waste traffic from Albright & Wilson’s works, located beside the appropriately named Chemical Arm of the Birmingham Canal’s Old Main Line at Oldbury, was definitely noxious.

Phosphorus is an essential element for life, and can have almost magical connotations, with derivative words like phosphorescence, but there was nothing magical about the waste product carried by Alfred Matty’s Coseley-based fleet of motor narrowboats and open day boats.

Various phosphorus ores and compounds were brought by canal to Oldbury by carriers such as Fellows, Morton & Clayton, Severn & Canal Carrying Co, the Bridgewater Trustees and the Grand Junction Canal Carrying Co, depending on the date. These boats usually went up ‘The Crow’ (Titford Locks) to Albright & Wilson’s basin. The finished products such as the phosphorus and other by-products were collected at the end of the Chemical Arm on the Birmingham Level.

The waste that this article is concerned with was carried out of the Chemical Arm, along the Old Main Line, down Brades Locks on the Gower Branch and a short distance along the New Main Line to the former Rattlechain Colliery site just before the Netherton Tunnel Branch at Dudley Port Junction.

A large lagoon here was created from the subsequent clay pit worked by Samuel Barnett to supply materials for his Rattlechain & Stour Valley Brickworks. On 9th September 1899 the canal burst its banks here, flooding the clay pit to a depth of 300ft, draining 6 miles of canal and creating a 3-acre lake that became something of a tourist attraction at the time.

In the 1940s, Albright & Wilson obtained use of the pit as a waste-disposal facility. Until around 1973 the company tipped industrial waste into it including the infamous phosphorus. The first boat regularly employed on this trade was the ‘Small Rickmansworth’ motor Maureen (ex GUCCCo Electra). She was docked extensively in around 1973 and from then on the traffic seemed to be in the hands of the ‘Large Northwich’ Stratford and the ‘Large Woolwich’ Aldgate.

<p><em>Aldgate</em> in Brades Hall Top Lock on the BCN Gower Branch in May 1967. The white deposit on the lock gate is from the phosphorus waste.</p>Credit: Chris Clegg

Aldgate in Brades Hall Top Lock on the BCN Gower Branch in May 1967. The white deposit on the lock gate is from the phosphorus waste.

Chris Clegg

<p><em>Aldgate</em> towing two Great Western Railway Bantock-built joey boats through Dunkirk Stop, having just come out of the Gower Branch onto the BCN Old Main Line in May 1967.</p>Credit: Chris Clegg

Aldgate towing two Great Western Railway Bantock-built joey boats through Dunkirk Stop, having just come out of the Gower Branch onto the BCN Old Main Line in May 1967.

Chris Clegg

<p>Alfred Matty&rsquo;s motor boat <em>Stratford</em> with two well-laden day boats in tow carrying phosphorus waste on the BCN New Main Line at Dunkirk Stop having just come out of the Gower Branch on the right.</p>Credit: IWA Collection

Alfred Matty’s motor boat Stratford with two well-laden day boats in tow carrying phosphorus waste on the BCN New Main Line at Dunkirk Stop having just come out of the Gower Branch on the right.

IWA Collection

<p><em>Maureen</em> and day boats discharging in April 1964 at the pump house located on the BCN Main Line between Albion Junction with the Gower Branch and Dudley Port Junction with the Netherton Tunnel Branch.</p>Credit: Chris Clegg

Maureen and day boats discharging in April 1964 at the pump house located on the BCN Main Line between Albion Junction with the Gower Branch and Dudley Port Junction with the Netherton Tunnel Branch.

Chris Clegg

<p>Narrowboats at Alfred Matty&rsquo;s yard at Coseley on the BCN New Main Line. The boat in Matty&rsquo;s yellow colours is <em>Aldgate</em>, with the bows of Barnet on the left. In front of <em>Aldgate</em> is <em>Will Newton</em>, ex <em>Darley</em>, which had been shortened to make it into a work boat. The day boat in the right foreground is one of those specially built for the containerised GKN traffic between Witton and Minworth (Spring 2011 NB).</p>Credit: IWA Collection/L. Pearce

Narrowboats at Alfred Matty’s yard at Coseley on the BCN New Main Line. The boat in Matty’s yellow colours is Aldgate, with the bows of Barnet on the left. In front of Aldgate is Will Newton, ex Darley, which had been shortened to make it into a work boat. The day boat in the right foreground is one of those specially built for the containerised GKN traffic between Witton and Minworth (Spring 2011 NB).

IWA Collection/L. Pearce

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Two of the many postcard views produced of the 1899 breach, which became an instant tourist attraction. The top one is looking towards Birmingham with the railway on the left. The lower one is looking the other way.

Rattlechain Canal Burst, 1899

The Illustrated London News of 23rd September 1899 reported: “The most serious bursting of canal banks which the Black Country has known occurred at Dudley Port on 9th September. About 4 o’clock it was observed that water was flowing through the bank of the Rattle Chain & Stour Valley brickworks. The alarm was given and the canal inspectors and a number of workmen hastened to the scene; but before anything could be done the breach had widened and a huge volume of water tore away many yards of the embankment, rushing down with a noise like thunder into the pit. Through the gap thus formed, a reach of the canal some six miles long was completely drained and two acres extent of surrounding meadows were deluged. Stranded boats lie all along the bed of the canal and some are said to have been swept into the clay-pit. The damage is estimated between £10,000 and £50,000. The catastrophe is ascribed to the recent heavy rains. There was, fortunately, no loss of life.”

Tales of Old Phosphorus

Several people recalled the effects of the phosphorus pollution on Canalworld Discussion Forum; here are some of them:

Max Sinclair

  • "Black" Jack, who worked on Gifford with his parents and reputedly never washed, fell in while returning from Wolverhampton. His elderly parents couldn’t lift him out so they put a line under his armpits and around the helm, then towed him back to Clayton’s yard. When the ambulance men got him out he was white, not his usual black.
  • On one occasion the phosphorous reached the waste oil coolant suds from Phillips Cycles works in Smethwick and ignited them. The fire brigade managed to put out the flames as they reached the lock gates.
  • I retrieved a rope that I had dropped in the canal and coiled it on Vesta’s foredeck. About an hour later it burst into flames, so back it went in the canal until I could wash it with fresh water. - There was a considerable amount of liquid phosphorus waste carried on the canal past Les Allen’s yard on a daily basis. When I was working on Vesta in the arm during the summer of 1961 the fumes would burn my face and arm.
  • Matty’s boats were prominent in the trade and I have seen their boatmen running a deck pump to lose the sludge along the main line as they travelled, to save unloading time at the tip.###Laurence Hogg
  • 1978, just prior to the National at • InTitford, we raised the Monnow, the last Thomas Clayton boat lying at the bottom of Titford Locks. We expected it to be a dirty job – and it certainly was. The boat had sunk with a load of tar on board and we got black, very black! What we didn’t expect was to get phosphorus burns on our skin; the tar was loaded with the stuff. Many of us will remember that the canal was a light shade of green in that area; Albright's certainly knew how to pollute.

    Dave Moore

  • Boating with Tony Phillips on Tay, a Clayton gas boat, we were passing through Oldbury on the old main line in 1967 or ’68. Wash from the blades disturbed phosphorus waste lying on the bottom. Where it met the air, a layer of whitish blue smoke hung over the water. I was told that the waste was sometimes put into the cut en route to the tip via a portable pump, thus speeding up unloading time later.

 

 

Acknowledgements

Some of the information in this article comes from the ‘What Lies Beneath Rattlechain Lagoon?’ website (whatliesbeneathrattlechainlagoon.org.uk) which campaigns for the cleaning up of this still polluted area. Thanks also to Ray Shill for information on the incoming phosphorus traffics and to Chris Clegg and Laurence Hogg for photographs and information.