The History of the Wyrley & Essington Canal

In 1792 an Act of Parliament
was passed authorising a canal from Wolverhampton to the collieries at Wyrley Bank and Essington, with a branch to Birchills near Walsall. This branch left the canal at Sneyd near Bloxwich where there were five locks. Above these locks there were another five on the Essington Branch. The intention was to bring cheaper coal to Walsall and Wolverhampton.

The 1792 Act of Parliament

In 1794 the Wyrley and Essington Canal Company passed a supplementary Act which enabled them to extend their line to Brownhills and then descend through 30 locks to Huddlesford on the Coventry Canal with a branch to the Hay Head Limeworks (Daw End Branch) and a short branch to Lords Hayes. 

The engineer was William Pitt and a portion of the original line was opened by 1794. The main line was opened all the way to Huddlesford on 8 May 1797. The canal enabled cheap coal to be brought to Lichfield and created regular traffic to Burton, Derby and London.

Unfortunately there was trouble with water shortage so the company agreed that Norton Bog near Chasewater should be drained to form a supply. In 1799 the first reservoir bank burst, causing more problems with water supply which continued until the present Chasewater Reservoir was built around 1800.

The main line of the Wyrley and Essington Canal was originally a contour canal (hence the local nickname "Curly Wyrley") but since it was built it has been affected by the subsidence of the mines which it was built to serve. 

As a result of continual repair it now has some impressively high embankments, particularly on the Daw End Branch.

When the canal was built it ran mostly through open countryside but as the West Midlands conurbation has grown, a proportion of the canal now passes through built up areas. Conversely, places which were a hive of industry during the heyday of the canal have reverted back to nature; Pelsall ironworks leaves virtually no trace of it's existence, now being an area of heath land. In addition the Cannock Extension, the Rushall Canal and the Ogley to Huddlesford sections are largely rural in appearance. 

A small part of a map produced by George Bradshaw in 1830 at a scale of 1/2" to 1 mile. Elevations are not the current ones that the OS use.

Reproduced by permission of The Digital Archive. The full map together with other material may be purchased on a DVD from The Digital Archive website.

The line to Wyrley Bank and Essington was completed by July 1798. In 1799 a 1½ mile canal was built from the end of the Wyrley Bank Branch towards Great Wyrley. This had become disused by 1829 but was reinstated and extended to Great Wyrley later. In 1799 the Birmingham Canal Company opened its branch from the Birmingham Canal to Walsall.

By about 1800 the Daw End and Lords Hayes Branches were completed. To improve revenue the line was surveyed for possible extensions and improvements. From about 1835 the canal sold water to the Dudley and Staffs & Worcs companies. Also in 1835 there were plans to link the Wyrley and Essington and the Birmingham Canal's Walsall Branch but nothing came of them until 1840.

In February of that year a flight of 8 locks were built to unite the 2 canals. There was much co-operation between the canal companies and the Bentley Canal was cut with 10 locks to link the Anson Branch near Walsall to the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Wednesbury, and the Rushall Canal to link the Daw End Branch through 9 locks to the Tame Valley Canal. 

The Staffs & Worcs Canal Company had good relations with the Wyrley & Essington Company. The idea for the Hatherton Branch canal came from a suggestion to link the Great Wyrley Branch to the Staffs and Worcs with a tramway. A canal branch was surveyed in 1826 and 1830 and in 1837 a line was surveyed to Churchbridge. The company decided to go ahead without an Act and so required agreement on all land purchases. Work started on the 3½ mile, 8 lock branch in 1839 and was completed in 1841. The branch proved very profitable.

In 1854 an Act was passed for the building of the Cannock Extension Canal from Pelsall to Hednesford (North of Cannock) with two tramways joining the canal at Norton Springs and Hednesford from Littleworth.

By 1860 the canal was linked to the Hatherton Branch of the Staffs & Worcs through a flight of 13 locks at Churchbridge in a dead straight line, possibly one of the best engineered flights in the country, being a joint project between the Staffs & Worcs Company and the Birmingham Canal Company. 

In 1831 Joseph Priestley published his "Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canal, and Railways of Great Britain".
Joseph Priestley was the manager of the Aire and Calder Navigation in England during its most prosperous period.

A transcript of the entry on the Wyrley & Essington can be viewed as a pdf file here.

The full text of the book can be viewed here at Wikisource.

The full text together with maps may be purchased on a DVD from The Digital Archive website.

Extract from "Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canal, and Railways of Great Britain" by J. Priestley.

Churchbridge Locks 10 & 11, with hut at Lock 10

Churchbridge Bottom Lock and White Lion Hotel

Near the end of 1857 the Wyrley Bank Branch was completed and at the beginning of 1863 the Cannock Extension was also finished. At this time the feeder from Chasewater was made navigable from the reservoir to the top of Ogley Locks. It opened up the new coal mines which were being sunk by the Marquis of Anglesey.

The Cannock Line grew in importance and remained busy until recent times. By 1905 the BCN system had 159 miles and 216 locks and some 550 private basins. Water was supplied from Cannock Chase, Rotten Park, Lodge Farm and Sneyd reservoirs; also by mine draining

 The Demise of the System

The Essington Branch was the first to be abandoned. It had suffered from chronic shortage of water due to its only supply being a stream and mine pumping combined with a very short top pound.In 1954 an Act of Abandonment closed the Wyrley and Essington between Ogley and Huddlesford. The Act also facilitated closure of the Wyrley Bank, Sneyd, Lords Hayes and Hayhead branches.Subsidence began to affect the Hatherton Branch in the 1940's and traffic ended in 1949, the canal being abandoned in 1955 along with the Churchbridge Locks. 

The Cannock Extension had been seriously affected by mining subsidence sinking 21 feet in one week. Having survived this, it was abandoned by 1963 between the A5 and Hednesford Basin. Hednesford Basin's claim to fame was the 'mid day tide' - it was said that in the heyday of carrying, the movement of many boats towards the basins caused an 18 inch rise in water levels during the middle of the day, as boats pushed the water ahead of them.Since abandonment the A38 trunk road has been built across the Ogley Section of the Wyrley and Essington, and bridges have been removed on the A51, A5, A461 and elsewhere. Some of the course has been infilled and the line through Sandfields at Lichfield has been obstructed. 

On the Hatherton Branch the M6 has been built across the canal on an embankment and some of the minor road crossings have had bridges lowered as have both the A4601 and A5 crossings. Most of the canal through Bridgtown has been infilled, but below Wedges Mills it remains in water to supply the Staffs & Worcs Canal. A large section of the Cannock Extension and the magnificent flight of 13 locks at Churchbridge are but a memory, having been obliterated by open-cast coal workings, as was much of the canal towards Norton Canes. Some of the land now forms part of a retail development.

In the late 1980s it became apparent that the lines of both the Ogley Section and the Hatherton Branch were further threatened by the proposed Birmingham Northern Relief Road (now known as the M6 Toll). The Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust fought a long and hard battle before eventually ensuring in 2002 that the road builders included canal crossings as part of the road building scheme (although the Trust had to find much of the funding to pay for them).

Churchbridge Locks, destroyed in the late 1950's and now impossible to recover.

Bottom end of a lock chamber cut through by open-cast coal mining

Remains of Lock 9, looking down towards the White Lion Hotel

Photos taken in the late 1950's by Mr Tom Manning
For more photos from the Tom Manning Collection click here

Map showing how the Wyrley and Essington Canal fits into the BCN network, linking the Hatherton and Lichfield canals.

Today, a large part of the W & E is fully navigable by boat and on foot along the towpath.

Watch a fly-by video along the Hatherton Canal and onto part of the W&E - fast forward to 8min 50secs for the W&E section that joins the Hatherton and Lichfield canals.

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