Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The case of the Birmingham Ship Canal

Birmingham is famously supposed to have more canals than Venice (albeit over a wider area) but the Second City lacks easy access to the sea by larger vessels. In the 1880s there were a number of schemes to enlarge some of the canals linking Birmingham to the major rivers of the country to create a ship canal that could allow vessels in the 200-300 ton range (depending on the scheme) to sail into the wharves in the heart of the city.

The scheme which probably came closest to getting the go-ahead was a link to the river Severn near Worcester by enlarging the Worcester and Birmingham Canal [1]. The scheme envisaged going through Droitwich (so presumably the Droitwich Canal would also have been enlarged). The Birmingham City Council formed a Ship Canal Enquiry Committee to look into the scheme which would have allowed vessels up to 200 tons right into the city. The cost of the scheme was estimated at £2 million (which these days would be hundreds of millions).
Barge on the Severn at Worcester
However in 1888 the Council declined to going ahead with the scheme and disbanded the committee, citing that it was outside of their municipal concerns [2]. By now the canals were being surpassed by the railways and there were also worries that the railways would undercut the new canal (which would be a considerable engineering and financial undertaking) making it economically unviable.

This wasn't the only scheme however, a number of the city's great and good also proposed a ship canal scheme linking Birmingham to the river Mersey [3]. This canal, which would have allowed ships up to 300 tons along it would have linked Birmingham to the Weaver Navigation Canal and then through to the Mersey, Liverpool and the sea. This canal would have been nearly 20m wide and over 3m deep and would have passed through South Staffordshire, the Potteries and Cheshire [4]. However this scheme (which would have cost a mere £1.6 million) also came to naught as did a scheme to link Birmingham to the Thames [5].

By the late 1890s canals were beginning to be seen as a bit old hat as the railway network continued to grow and few if any canal schemes were in development anywhere. In many ways it is a shame none of the ship canal schemes came to fruition. Ships up to 300 tons would be much larger than anything that usually chugs alomh through the canals at Birmingham's heart. The Edwardian steamer TSS Earnslaw perhaps can give us an idea of the sort of boat we could have expected making it up to Birmingham in the early 1900s (although it would be slightly oversize at 330t). The canal schemes came to nothing though may have inspired this song...

Photo (c) trakesht at Wikipedia

[1] Charles Anthony Vince MA, History of the Corporation of Birmingham Vol 3 1885-1899 (Cornish:Birmingham, 1902), p. 365
[2] Vince, p. 368
[3] Birmingham and Liverpool Ship Canal (Pamphlet, 1888), p. 5
[4] Birmingham Daily Gazette 6th July 1888
[5] Birmingham and Liverpool Ship Canal, p. 17