The history of the Birmingham and Warwick Canal 1793 to 1972, by John Morris Jones



This canal was built with the benevolent help of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, who provided the surveyor, Samuel Bull, and the Engineer, William Felkin. With the Earl of Warwick as a strong supporter the Act of Parliament had little difficulties and was passed in March 1793. It authorised a canal from the Digbeth Branch of the Birmingham Canal, where there was to be a stop lock, for 22 miles to Warwick. From Digbeth the line rose by six Camp Hill Locks, to Bordesley to its summit, which it maintained for some ten miles to Knowle, where there are six falling locks. From there the canal ran through Shrewley Tunnel (433 yards) to the top of Hatton flight of 21 locks, not far from the bottom of which was the end at Saltisford Wharf, Warwick.


The company began by renting a house in Birmingham and instructed the clerk to "put a skirting board round the room, appropriated to the use of a Committee, and to put a Hearth Stone, and a chimney piece to the same. To build a brewhouse. Privy and Wall, to make a yard and Garden private and entire. To sink a well and to put down a pump - to glaze the windows in the room occupied by an office" and later to buy "twelve Chairs, a table, window blind and curtains". The main source of water was Olton reservoir, but in 1796 a Boulton and Watt steam engine started work in Bowyer Street, Bordesley to pump water from the bottom to the top of Camp Hill Locks. The Warwick and Birmingham Canal and the Warwick and Napton Canals were ceremonially opened on the 19th December, 1799, but more work had to be done, for trading began on 19th March, 1800. To relieve congestion into Birmingham, the Warwick and Birmingham and the Warwick and Napton Canal Companies built a new canal, 2i miles long, from Camp Hill to Salford Bridge. This canal was called the Birmingham and Warwick Junction Canal and was opened on the 1st February, 1844.


BIRMINGHAM AND WARWICK JUNCTION CANAL "Notice is hereby given that the Birmingham and Warwick Junction Canal, leading from the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, to the Tame Valley Canal, at Salford Bridge, will be opened for the use of the Public, on Wednesday morning the 14th February instant." Navigation Office Birmingham. Charles Lloyd 1st February, 1844 Clerk of the Company

Receipts dropped by two thirds in 1844 due to railway competition. In 1845 the Warwick-Birmingham and Warwick-Napton Canal Companies agreed to sell both canals for conversion into railway lines, to the London and Birmingham Railway Co. Ltd., but when the railway company said they were unlikely to get the necessary Act of Parliament for conversion of the canal to a railway and offered £545,000 for both canals, the canal concerns refused, and no more was heard of the scheme. In 1895 both canal companies made a conditional agreement to amalgamate with the Grand Junction Canal Co. In 1903 Fellows, Morton and Clayton offered to lease both canals "with a view of providing Electric traction along the same" but instead for a time acted as the Grand Junction’s carrying agents on the London and Birmingham run, guaranteeing 100,000 tons of traffic a year, reduced in 1904 to 70,000 tons. In 1917 the three Warwick Canals, the Warwick and Birmingham, Warwick Napton, and Birmingham and Warwick Junction Canal, put themselves under the management of one joint Committee, Finally, they were sold to the Regents Canal Co. on 1st January, 1929 and became part of the new Grand Union Canal Company.



The first step towards the creation of the Grand Union was taken in 1925, when the Grand Junction sought a report from the engineer of the Warwick canals on the cost of putting them in order. In 1926, the Regents Canal Co. agreed to buy the Grand Junction Canal subject to them purchasing the Warwick Canals. A year later, the Grand Junction had agreed to do so, though for convenience the actual purchase was carried out by the Regents Company. In November, 1927 the name "Grand Union" was suggested for the new company. Regents agreed to pay £62,258 15s. 0d. for the Warwick-Birmingham Canal and £8,641 for the Warwick-Napton. In August 1928 the Acts were obtained and the new company came into existence from the 1st January, 1929. Vast sums of money were spent on converting the canal from the top lock Camp Hill to Regents Canal Dock in London into a Broad Canal, so that it could take boats to 12' 6in wide. Unfortunately only one proto-type Barge was ever made - the "Progress". This took the Duke of Kent down the new Hatton Locks when he opened these new wide locks in 1934. New warehouses were built at Sampson Road and at Tyseley Birmingham as well as the enlarging of the warehouse at Brentford. Unfortunately, the Grand Union was not used as a Broad Canal and narrow-boats were the only ones to use it. In fact there were over 200 pairs of narrow-boats working the canal in 1936. This was reduced for economy to 100 pairs in 1937, although by September, 1937 there were still 119 pairs operating. In July 1939 there were 102 pairs working. During the war years both men and women were trained as crews. In 1946 there were 79 pairs of boats working.


Late in 1935 a firm of John Miller (Shipping) Ltd introduced a new trade in iron and steel imported from the Continent to Regents Canal Dock and put on the canal for Birmingham. In 1936 the Grand Union formed its own subsidiaries, the Grand Union (Shipping) Ltd., to operate the Regents Line of ships from the dock, the Grand Union (Stevedoring and Wharfage) Co. Ltd., to service the ships. By 1945 the company owned five ships plying backwards and forwards to the continent. In 1936 Mr. John Miller became a Director of the Grand Union, and in 1937 he became Chairman and Managing Director.


The Grand Union Company was nationalised in 1948 when it became the British Transport Commission. The profitable Grand Union (Shipping) Ltd. was soon afterwards sold for £180,000. In 1963 British Waterways Board, which had taken over the canals from the former British Transport Commission, ceased most carrying operations on the Grand Union Canal. Since then however there has been a large growth of pleasure cruising.


© Charles Hadfield 1966 (David and Charles) . All the above information has been taken from "Canals of the East Midlands" by Charles Hadfield.



The Junction with the Digbeth Branch is just north of Fazeley Street, and the Warwick Basin, completely deserted and disused, is in the angle formed by the junction. There are early 19th century warehouses on Fazeley Street, the later ones around the basin make no use of the canal.


Crossing the River Rea on an aqueduct, the canal climbs southward out of the valley by means of six locks, numbers 52-57, which are narrow; the route taken is at first the valley of the Bordesley Brook which gives Watery Lane its name. Crossing beneath Coventry Road and Sandy (formerly Snails) Lane, the canal reaches Camp Hill Top Lock number 52. The great steel viaduct of the Banbury and North Warwickshire Lines (1852, 1907) goes over lane and cut. The summit level, 380 feet, continues for ten miles to Knowle, where locks begin the descent to the Avon valley.


The wharves at Sampson Road North are disused for water traffic. There is a narrow motor-boat in cast-iron and two lighters. In the yard are containers - a possible means of reviving canal use on some waterways if not this one. The newest warehouse has no loading doors into the water. Beyond the wharves, right, is South Road, its terraces dating from 1870; a part of the St. Andrew's Redevelopment, they are being demolished.


Off left, the British Rail sidings occupy a wide strip of Small Heath beside the canal. Small Heath Bridge, 1901-4, spans canal and ten lines. The towers visible off left are those of Dixon and Bolton Road Schools, and the large windowed building beyond is the Heathmere Centre, formerly the Young Christians' Institute. The factories beyond the bridge, right, date from the 90's onward -list on map; their loading doors and apertures are mostly bricked up. Left, the sidings are used as timber and fuel stores. The Public Works Dept. yard just before Anderton Road, has its own canal branch. There are stop-plank slots beneath the Golden Hillock Road Bridge.


The canal has crossed level ground from the lock-head. Now the Spark and Cole Valleys lie ahead, and the canal turns to parallel the former before crossing the Cole on an embankment. A feeder from the Spark used to enter the cut near Anderton Road. The B.S.A. Works opened in 1863, was built between canal and railway. The buildings on Golden Hillock Road, left, date from 1915. Right, the B.S.A. Power Station, sports field and motor cycle testing track, and a line of poplars marking the Spark Brook, boundary of Bordesley/Yardley manors, and two counties.


Beyond a steel footbridge, a humped bridge formerly led to the B.S.A. branch, now blocked. The Banbury /North Warwickshire rail lines cross overhead, a branch line, probably World War 1 date, formerly led off beyond the B.S.A. to the Singer Works on Coventry Road. Left, the blocked entrance to a concrete basin of similar date. Just to the east of this, the canal crossed into Yardley, at the now diverted Cole.


Herefrom the valley has been drastically altered by the dumping of clinker and ash from the Tyseley Destructor Works. The whole area, except for 'gorges' in which flow the Cole-Spark stream and the head-race to the long-demolished Hay Mill, has been raised about 50ft at greatest, level with the canal. The watercourses can be seen far below on both sides.


Left, the tower of St. Cyprian's Church 1873, built by the James Horsfall (of Webster and Horsfall) who rebuilt Hay Mill as a steam powered wireworks. The millpool may still be seen, below left.


The canal now bends north-east to maintain the level on the east side of the Cole Valley, passing under the bridge leading to the Destructor. Off right is Hay Hall, 15th century mansion, now Reynolds Tubes premises. The estate has been developed completely for industry since the 1914-18 War.

Passing one of the large Wilmot Breedon factories, the canal turns to cut directly through the central ridge of Yardley. This is composed of sand and gravel, which was worked and taken away by boat in earlier times. Just past the Bakelite tanks, right, was a right-angled branch. Left, through gateways of Wilmot Breeden premises, can be seen the great Waterloo Pit on Red Hill (Coventry Road).


Yardley clay made excellent tiles and bricks and until Welsh slate came to the Midlands a century ago every farmer had a small kiln for winter work. Their products travelled by cart to the Stockfield wharves and thence by canal. Wharf Road, right, small modern factories off Whardale Road. Off right, Stock Field, former open field, laid out in strips, now Council estate.


Beyond Stockfield Road, deepest cut. New small industrial estate right. Off left, site of Tenchlee, Yardley hamlet. A few houses survive, like Pinfold House, 17th and 18th century, top of bank, left, by bridge. Yardley Road bridge rebuilt 1935, former short tunnel (280 yards). Off right, not visible, was Field Gate Farm, at gate of Acocks Green Field. Canal cuts off corner of this beyond disused Yardley Coal Wharf. Yardley Road was boundary lane between two great fields. Left, Yardley Cemetery. Streets laid out in 1890s descend to canal, right. Canal bends south, crosses valley of Westley Brook, diverted (right) as feeder. Main source for summit level is Olton Reservoir. Rover Works, left, demolished 1980s, site of Broomfield Hall. Four stop-gates at Woodcock Lane Bridge (only original one on canal through Birmingham, 1794). B.C.S. laundry and warehouses, left, Council housing estate right.


Beyond Lincoln Road bridge, re-built 1930s, Yardley/Solihull boundary, 30 yards. Sluice, left. Towpath shored, 1930s, narrow, not meant for horses. Central channel dredged, sides very shallow, lack of oil in water shows disuse.

The 380 foot summit level is maintained from Camp Hill to Knowle by means of bends, embankments and cuttings, notably that west of Dovehouse Lane. From Birmingham (Yardley) boundary to Catherine de Barnes Heath the canal ran through farmland and large estates, a wholly rural landscape until the 1920s apart from villas at Ulverley Green and Solihull Gas Works. Olton developed as a rural suburb of large mansions towards the end of last century, based on Olton Station; north of the railway the laying out of estates began after World War 1 and has continued sporadically to the present. The original canal bridges of the 1790s have been replaced (or abandoned, at Dovehouse Lane) not for the advantage of water traffic but for the benefit of car-driving commuters. Olton Reservoir, made on Hatchford Brook to supply the canal, now supplies very little water to it; the brook itself is (or was) the feeder, but is now a mere trickle.


At bridge 85 the canal goes back into Warwickshire which was left at Spark Brook. The Banbury line, later G.W.R., crosses Kineton Green Brook very close to the canal. Small factories occupy the strip between rail and canal banks, notably Cartwrights', incorrectly called Olton Mill. To left is a suburb of semi and detached houses mostly built in the early 1930s. At Richmond Road bridge (1935) is the disused village school. Off right are former hamlets of Kineton Green and Ulverley Green, recorded in Doomsday Book - a century or more before Solihull.


Feeder from Olton Mere, right. The manor house of Ulverley was on Castle Lane, right, beyond Sceptre Park. Off left, the lane leads to Hobs Moat, a great earthwork which was the site of the moated timber castle of the lords of manor, the Odingsells. The four blocks, mid-1960s, of the Sceptre Park estate are called Amethyst, Sapphire, Emerald, and Garnet courts. Passing between the 1930s estates of Knightsbridge Road/Highwood Avenue to left, Bradbury Road to right, then canal goes through a deep cutting; High Wood to left is nearly fifty feet above the water. The original brick bridge (1796), which has been superseded by a 1964 steel span, has had new parapets and the arch has been concreted.


Lode Lane carries heavy traffic between Solihull and Sheldon, so its bridge was first to be rebuilt postwar; it is always busy with cars, lorries and transporters going to and from the great Rover works.


Emerging from Olton House Cutting, the canal crosses Billsmore or Olton Mill Brook on a short embankment. Bridge 80, formerly taking a farm track over the waterway, has been replaced (1965) by a steel span giving access via Rowood Drive to a new estate. At Solihull Wharf just beyond was the nearest point to which coal supplies for the village could be brought by water. Solihull Gas Works was established here, supplied directly from coal boats.


From small beginnings the Lode Lane Industrial Estate has grown postwar to a score of small factories. The Gas Works have become a huge and still growing Gas Research Station for the West Midlands Gas Board. Incongruously a Midlands Electricity Board site with a telecommunications mast, is surrounded by rival organisation's buildings. Beyond Damson Lane bridge, 1958, and the 1930s development thereabout, the canal is in the still wholly rural landscape of Elmdon Heath. Paralleled by Lugtrout Lane, and flanked by farm pastures, the canal goes eastward for a nearly straight mile.


Crossing Hampton Coppice Brook, it leaves Solihull and enters Meriden Rural District. Bridge 78, Hampton Lane, was rebuilt in the 1930s during the reconstruction and improvement that followed the formation of the Grand Union Canal Co. Here is the wharf at Catherine de Barnes (Kettlebarn and other variants anciently, known to locals as Catney Barnes), with the Boat Inn nearby; iron coal boats and a few pleasure craft are at the wharf. There are private moorings at intervals all along the route, and a crane with boats under repair towards Hampton Lane.


© John Morris Jones 1972. 

Canal map 1
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Canal map 2
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