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Testing the BCN

Working the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Summer 2016

Christopher R. Jones

Christopher R. Jones follows an official examination trip undertaken by his boating ancestor, Edward James King, for the BCN during the summer of 1923 to identify work needed to clear the maintenance backlog that resulted from government control of the canals during The First World War.

Gravelly Hill Stop at the start of the Tame Valley Canal was passed twice during the test trip on day two and 20, and the boat was gauged here on both occasions. When this image was taken in the mid-’60s the area was in decline with disused boats lying around, including Lilly against the stop island. Nowadays this location is beneath Spaghetti Junction. Weaver Collection

Due to the transport problems of World War I, from 1st March 1917 the canals came under government control. The canal companies suffered financially from this arrangement for several reasons, and when government control ceased in 1920, many were left with a large backlog of maintenance to remedy.

In order for the individual canal companies to deal with this they first had to determine the state of their canals. In 1923 Birmingham Canal Navigations chose to do a test trip over its system with a loaded boat to see how it fared, which would highlight any future works that might be required.

Finding a boatman

One of the first tasks was to hire a boat for the trip and Kestrel was chosen, which is likely to be the same craft owned by Samuel Barlow (Tamworth)Ltd. She was an old, long-distance cabin boat built in the summer of 1896 as Everard, for Williams & Wallington, brickmakers of Langley Marish near Slough. She passed to the company’s successor, Williams & Son Ltd, then to canal carrier L. B. Faulkner of Leighton Buzzard and was renamed Kestrel. After serving in this fleet she was eventually sold to Barlows in January 1919.

Another task was to appoint a suitable boatman as her captain, preferably with plenty of experience of the BCN. At the time Barlows Ltd was employing a young captain, Edward (Ted) James King. He had grown up working on his father’s boats, carrying coal on the Grand Junction to Dickinsons’ paper mills. However, at the age of 14 he had also worked joey boats on the BCN with his brother-in-law, Joseph Garrett, carrying coal to nut, bolt and iron fencingmanufacturers, Bayliss, Jones & Bayliss Ltd near the top of Wolverhampton Locks. From July 1921 he started working for Barlows under the guidance of a very experienced old horse boatman. The old man hated steering and was content to walk behind his beloved horse the entire trip, leaving the teenage Ted to handle the boat. They used a joey or box cabin boat named Joseph built at Tamworth about 1913. This arrangement lasted through August and September 1921 until Ted was deemed capable of independent work. He then continued working on the day-boat traffic with his brother, Will, as mate on trips into the Birmingham and Coventry areas. They both lived at their parents’ house in Main Road, Glascote.

Four of the King brothers pictured at the family home at Main Road, Glascote, in the late 1920s. Left to right: Thomas William (Will), Alfred, Jack, and Edward James (Ted). Christopher R. Jones

This map shows the first stage of the test trip from 18th to 26th June 1923. The alternating colour code of red and orange is merely to indicate the consecutive days and the direction travelled. Which side of the canal they are shown does not indicate the towpath. The place names given are those recorded by Ted King and are not necessarily those seen in canal books and maps. Christopher M. Jones

During 1923, trade started to slacken, with delays at both collieries and unloading points, and the King brothers began to become frustrated with the situation. Will decided to leave the boats and eventually joined the BCN maintenance staff. Meanwhile, Ted, then aged 19, applied to carry out the BCN test run and was given the role, beating 13 other boatmen to it.


The trip was planned to cover the areas of concern to BCN officials, all to be accomplished in seven starts, presumably meaning seven days. This, as we shall see, was hopelessly ambitious.

Throughout the trip about a dozen BCN officials were on Kestrel, presumably to take notes of the condition of the cut and its works. Their typical working hours were 7.30am until 5.30pm, with an hour for lunch. Acting as Ted’s mate was William (Billy) Bird. His history was not recorded by Ted, although this may have been William Thomas Bird, aged about 49, who in the 1911 census was recorded as a canal clerk at Wolverhampton.

As with any trip there were expenses to be paid, and Kestrel, being a horsedrawn boat, incurred the costs of stabling, shoeing and horse feed. At most places stabling was sixpence a night although Birmingham Old Wharf was twice as much at a shilling (5p). Horse corn was bought at various places and shoeing was carried out at Tipton and Wednesbury, costing four shillings and sixpence (23p) on both occasions.

Ahead of the trip, Kestrel was loaded with 25 tons of clay at Glascote, then proceeded to Fazeley Junction to be loaded with an additional 5 tons of bricks. With a total cargo of 30 tons, the boat had a draught of 3ft 7in, with only 8in of freeboard or dry side (the boat when empty sat 14in in the cut). Ted kept detailed daily notes of the four-week journey, from which the following account is drawn.

Week one:

18th-22nd June

Days 1 and 2

At seven on Monday morning, Kestrel headed from Fazeley Junction along the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, and spent most of the day climbing the 11 Curdworth Locks, navigating the short tunnel beyond, then finishing at the top of the three Minworth Locks where the boat was first gauged.

Another 7am start followed the next day with the group travelling to Salford Junction. Ted and the officials continued on towards Birmingham, a short distance to the bottom of Aston Locks, then returned and turned left on the Tame Valley Canal. Afterbeginning the ascent of the New Thirteen Locks (Perry Barr), the group tied-up for the day at the top lock.

Throughout the whole trip all the locks were operated by lockkeepers who addressed the officials as ‘sir’, including Ted. However, the young boatman was not fooled – he knew that they would soon revert back to their usual ways once the trip was completed. Ted noted that he had previously been chastised or received threats of being reported to the canal company for the slightest misdemeanour.

Days 3 to 5

Starting from the top of the New Thirteen Locks, over the course of the following two days, the group explored the Rushall Canal, the Daw End Branch, a short stretch of the Wyrley & Essington, the Angelsey Branch and the Cannock Extension Canal. The first week concluded at the bottom of Sneyd Locks, where, after locking up Kestrel’s cabin, Ted cycled home to Glascote for the weekend.

On day four of the trip, Kestrel turned off the meandering Wyrley & Essington Canal onto the straight Cannock Extension Canal, which opened in 1858. This is the view taken in the mid-’50s looking north from Pelsall Junction, and shows five bridges as the canal disappears into the distance. Kestrel returned back this way the next day. Weaver Collection

Week two:

25th-30th June

Day 6

The Monday of the second week proved one of the toughest days of the trip. After ascending the five Sneyd Locks the boat came aground and had to be lightened to 26 tons 10 cwts. Even with 3½ tons off, it still dragged its bottom all the way along to the terminus of the Wyrley Bank Arm (Wyrley Bank Branch). The boat was pulled backwards half-way to the junction with a short branch, then winded for the return journey down to Sneyd Top Lock where it was tiedup for the night. The group travelled just 6 miles during the whole day and finished work at 10.30pm.

Days 7 and 8

On the Tuesday the group descended the five Sneyd Locks then turned west onto the BCN Main Line, where there was just a short trip to the top of Wolverhampton Locks.

From Wednesday, the boat started covering the more congested areas of the Black Country, including the New Main Line past Deepfields Junction, through Coseley Tunnel (thankfully, illuminated with lights) and onto the Old Main Line. This meandered around to Wednesbury Oak then passed through Gospel Oak Stop. At the top of the Bradley Locks, Kestrel had to be lightened again before it could continue. The boat was finally tied up at the top of Factory Locks, Tipton, at 8.30pm.

This second map is a close-up of the detailed portion of the test trip from 27th June to 7th July 1923. Christopher M. Jones

This splendid image of Icknield Port Loop on the Old Main Line evokes a typical BCN inner-city scene with its soot-stained factories, and equally grimy joey boats piled up with coal. This view looks north-east towards the junction with the New Main Line. This loop was the only one traversed by Kestrel in the Birmingham area on the ninth day of the trip.

Days 9 and 10

On the Thursday, the crew set off again along the Old Main Line towards Birmingham. The route included a diversion around the old Icknield Port Loop passing W. H. Bowater’s boat dock and turning left onto the New Main Line, before tying up for the night at the BCN terminus at Old Wharf, Birmingham.

The following day, the group retraced their route onto the New Main Line. After gauging at Bromford Stop, they saw a short branch to Bromford Ironworks that had a deep lock connecting it to the Main Line. Kestrel continued on to the bottom of Factory Three Locks. After winding the boat they brought her back, then turned right to Netherton Tunnel Stop where she was gauged again, before mooring her at Tunnel End. They made good time that Friday, finishing at 4.30pm.

Day 11

Unlike the previous week, Ted and the offiicals worked a half day on the Saturday, taking Kestrel through Netherton Tunnel. Here the BCN had a horse of 18 hands ready to deploy in case a boat encountered trouble over some shallow places known to give problems to heavily laden craft. Once through the tunnel they turned west on the Dudley No 2 Canal, passing Netherton Iron Works, and on towards a junction where there was a small branch canal called the ‘Two Lock Line’which had two disused locks. The locks were closed in 1909 due to being ‘swagged away’, as Ted put it, meaning that subsidence from nearby collieries had caused their gradual sinking; in the case of the lower lock by some 20ft or more.

Kestrel continued on past Peartree Lane Colliery to Blowers Green Lock where it dropped down but could not get clear of it. So the boat was pulled back into the lock, which was filled, and then tied up for the weekend at 1pm.

Here the double arches of Tividale Aqueduct span the branch leading to Netherton Tunnel End, seen through the right-hand portal of the aqueduct. On the island is Netherton Stop where Kestrel was gauged twice during the test trip on days ten and 14. After working as a toll clerk at Brades Hall Locks, Ted’s brother, Will, moved to this toll stop after the war and continued to gauge boats there for many years. Weaver Collection

Throughout the whole trip various points of interest were noted, such as names of junctions, bridges, locks, weighing docks and collieries. Some are listed on these two pages in Ted’s diary.

This simple drawing from Ted King shows a portion of Dudley No 1 and No 2 canals between Park Head Locks and the Two Lock Line – the latter being closed in 1909. He refers to the second lower lock being ‘swagged away’, a phrase that describes it as sinking under its own weight due to mining subsidence.

Week three:

2nd-7th July

Day 12

The third week began on Monday morning with the group taking Kestrel down the 12ft-deep Blowers Green Lock, this time after lightening her and with strong flushes of water to get her through. Ted and the officials proceeded along Dudley No 1 Canal, past Woodside Colliery to Brierley Hill Locks (Delph). Here the boat was winded then returned to Blowers Green Lock where the work finished for the day at 6pm.

It seems that Ted and the officials never took the boat up the three Park Head Locks to the southern end of Dudley Tunnel while there, although Ted did make a note indicating the route might have been inspected. Perhaps if there was local traffic working in the area it might not have been necessary to use Kestrel.

Day 13

On the Tuesday, the group set off along the Dudley No 2 Canal back towards Windmill End Junction. At Gosty Hill Tunnel Kestrel was towed through by a tug, before it passed Stewarts & Lloyds works at Coombeswood. The cut became shallower towards Halesowen and the boat had to be lightened beforereaching journeys end at Halesowen Wharf. It was impossible to continue on through the Lapal Tunnel as it had been closed some years earlier at the end of WWI.

Once Kestrel had been winded at Halesowen, it headed back through Gosty Hill Tunnel and stop, where it was gauged. The boat was tied-up for the night at the northern entrance.

Days 14 and 15

On Wednesday 4th July the boat set off towards Windmill End Junction, gauged at the stop, then headed norththrough Netherton Tunnel. Ted found navigating the bore something of a thrill, which was made better because it had lights throughout its length.

After being gauged again at Netherton Tunnel Stop the boat turned right at the junction with the New Main Line, and continued on to Albion Turn (Pudding Green Junction), then left towards West Bromwich. The group continued on to the end of the branch (Balls Hill Branch), but had to lighten Kestrel to get ahead. She was then pulled back stern-first to Golds Green and tied-up for the night at 6pm.

Loaded Thomas Clayton motor Towy ascends West Bromwich Eight. Beyond the top lock on the opposite bank was Ryders Green Tar Works and factories, which Ted King noted had its own arm accessed by ascending two accommodation locks fitted with guillotine gates. These were possibly the only other pair of staircase locks on the BCN, the others being at Tividale Locks. Richard M. Courtenay Lord Collection

The deepest lock on the BCN is Blowers Green Lock on the Dudley No 1 Canal, built in 1893. It was also a source of major trouble as the first attempt to pass through failed on day 11. The photo shows the bridge has several cracks either side that have been re-pointed, indicating subsidence which was a real issue in the area. Weaver Collection

The following day the team continued to pull Kestrel backwards to Swan Village Stop, then took her forward again up to the end of the Ridgacre Branch. Once again she had to be pulled back stern-first to the junction with the Dartmouth Branch, where the group took her forward to explore the section. After this, Kestrel was taken back to Swan Village Stop where she was fully loaded again. The group descended the eight West Bromwich Locks and tied up for the night at the bottom.

Days 16 and 17

The next day, Friday, the group set off along the Walsall Canal taking time to explore the Toll End Branch to the bottom of Toll End Locks. Once this section had been assessed they returned to the Walsall and repeated the same action at the Bradley Branch to the bottom lock of the Bradley flight. Kestrel had to be lightened again by Chance & Hunt’s works at Wednesbury, situated in between the two branches, and she was kept lightened along the Bradley Branch to Moxley.

The boat continued with its reduced load for the next leg covering a half day’s work on Saturday morning. Starting from Moxley, the boat headed north, taking in the junction with the Bentley Canal and the bottom of Walsall Locks on the way. At the Town Basin the boat was tied up for the weekend.

Week four:

9th-14th July

Day 18

An early start on Monday morning saw the group heading south along the Walsall Canal towards its junction with the Tame Valley Canal in Wednesbury. Both the Bentley Arm End (Bentley Canal) and Hanson’s Branch (Anson Branch) were mentioned but it’s not clear whether they were actually explored or just observed. Kestrel was still lightened when she turned onto the Tame Valley line, before being gauged at Goldshill Stop and finishing for the day at nearby Wednesbury Bridge.

Day 19

Tuesday morning saw them off again along the Tame Valley Canal and at Rushall Junction, otherwise called Gansey Cut End, (or Newton Junction), Kestrel was further lightened by a fewbricks and around a ton of clay. The group continued along the Tame Valley line to Tower Hill at the top of the New Thirteen Locks, where they tied up for the night. Here a further 30 cwt of clay was landed to make the rest of the trip along the Fazeley cut easier.

Days 20 and 21

On the Wednesday, the group descended the New Thirteen Locks and finished at Minworth Green Bridge on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal where half of the remaining clay was unloaded. The following day the rest of the clay was unloaded, before the group carried on towards Curdworth Tunnel and Locks. After descending three locks they came to the Shop Lock (Marston Lane Bridge) where some bricks were unloaded.

Days 22 and 23

Friday began by emptying the remaining bricks. Once this was done, Kestrel, with just her crew of Ted and Billy, descended the remaining eight locks of the Curdworth flight then headed on to Fazeley Junction. After Bill departed, Ted completed the last leg of the trip on the Coventry Canal through Glascote Locks and tied-up at Glascote Bridge. On the Saturday morning, he cleaned Kestrel ready for its next trip.


Once the trip was completed, Ted left boating for employment on the bank at Polesworth, supervising the loading of boats with coal drawn from Hall End Colliery. However, he remained proud of his involvement on this unique and interesting test trip.

This third map is a close-up of the final portion of the test trip from 9th to 13th July 1923. Christopher M. Jones


Thank you to Trevor King, Ruth Collins, Lorna York, and for the extra contributions by Christopher M. Jones.

This view of Dudley No 2 Canal at Blackbrook Junction. The entrance to the disused Two Lock Line typifies many parts of the BCN with its wide towpath, iron bridge and open expanse of sky. The navigable canal in the foreground sweeps away to the right through the narrows towards Park Head, while the remains of the first disused lock on the Two Lock Line is out of sight on the other side of the iron bridge. When Ted King passed here it had been abandoned due to severe mining subsidence. Weaver Collection