Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The London & Birmingham Canal

Looking at a modern canal map you might wonder why Birmingham and Coventry are not linked directly by a canal. You can get from city to city but only by a round-about way using the Birmingham and Fazeley and Coventry Canals. However in 1828 there indeed was a proposal which could have directly linked the two cities.
The proposed London and Birmingham Canal was an attempt to shorten the distance between the two cities. It was a proposed link from the Oxford Canal at Brinklow, passing through Coventry and then linking up to the Stratford Canal. According to a map of the proposed route [1], the canal would have been 18 miles /29 km long and as well as being a shorter distance for freight to travel between the two cities would also have reduced the number of locks that needed to be travelled through from 51 to 15.

This was an important consideration as the existing canal network was not designed with trade between Birmingham and Staffordshire to London in mind [2]. The number of locks that needed to be navigated through, especially at the already overloaded Farmer's Bridge Locks between Birmingham city centre and Aston [3], was considered an impediment in trade and progress and could be greatly reduced by the new canal [4]. The new canal could also be the same width as the Grand Junction Canal to allow more goods. In theory larger barges would be possible too though the narrower Stratford (and other Birmingham Canal Navigation) canals meant that the larger barges would not have got through to the big city.

The map unfortunately does not say exactly where the new canal would have joined the Stratford however it would have linked up to the canal at it's summit [5] so somewhere before Lapworth. The new canal would have passed the Grand Junction (now Union) near Knowle (but not had a link to the canal though that would presumably have been added at a later stage) which perhaps indicates the link to the Stratford Canal would have been at somewhere such as Dickens Heath.

The proposed canal project was rejected by investors as it was found to have little substance behind it [6]. What killed the project off were objections from a land owner whose land the canal would have traveled though [7]. A number of other proposals for a canal along this route for example one by Thomas Telford were considered but all came to nothing, probably because the age of canal building was ending. By 1828 the canals were coming under competition from the railways which were the "sexy" new technology and people were desperate to invest in it (and often lose their investment). It may have been that if the canal had been proposed a couple of decades earlier the land owners' objections could have been overcome.

One interesting byproduct of the project was that although nothing came of the idea it did benefit the Stratford Canal. At the time they were being charged high coal tolls by the Warwick Canal for through traffic but the project was sufficiently threatening to the Warwick Canal company to push them to reduce the coal tolls (8). Its a shame the canal was not built as the canal would have been a very useful link-up between canals in that area of the midlands.

Grand Union Canal near Hatton and Shrewley

[1] Stratford Birthplace Trust Record Office (SBTRO) DR 18/16/3
[2] Cubitt W., Description of a plan for a central union canal which will lessen the distance and expense of canal navigation between London and Birmingham, etc., 1832, p3
[3] Hadfield C. and Norris J., Waterways to Stratford (David and Charles, 1968) p99
[4] Telford T. Life of Telford v1 Issue 1838 p268
[5] Hadfield and Norris p99
[6] Ward J.R., The finance of canal building in Eighteenth-century England (Oxford University Press, 1974), p86
[7] Telford p268 
[8] Hadfield and Norris p84