The Shropshire Canal at Coalport
|Locks||0 (3 inclined planes)|
|Principal engineer||William Reynolds|
|Date of act||1788|
|Start point||Old Yard Junction|
|Connects to||Donnington Wood Canal, Ketley Canal, Wombridge Canal|
|Shropshire Tub Boat Canals|
The Shropshire Canal was a tub boat canal built to supply coal, ore and limestone to the industrial region of east Shropshire, England, that adjoined the River Severn at Coalbrookdale. It ran from a junction with the Donnington Wood Canal ascending the 316 yard long Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane to its summit level, it made a junction with the older Ketley Canal and at Southall Bank the Coalbrookdale (Horsehay) branch went to Brierly Hill above Coalbrookdale; the main line descended via the 600 yard long Windmill Incline and the 350 yard long Hay Inclined Plane to Coalport on the River Severn. The short section of the Shropshire Canal from the base of the Hay Inclined Plane to its junction with the River Severn is sometimes referred to as the Coalport Canal.
Construction of the canal was completed in 1792, and it operated successfully until the 1830s. The construction and operation of the Hay inclined plane was documented by two Prussian engineers who visited it in 1826 or 1827. In the 1840s it was leased by the Shropshire Union Canal, but was suffering from subsidence by the 1850s. Following nine breaches in 1855 and 1856, it was purchased by the London and North Western Railway company, owners of the Shropshire Union, in 1857 and most of it was closed in 1858. A railway was laid along parts of it, but a small section at the southern end remained in operation until 1912, and was not formally abandoned until 1944. The Hay inclined plane and a section of the canal now form part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
Having completed the Wombridge Canal and the Ketley Canal with its inclined plane in 1788, William Reynolds, an innovative Ironmaster from Ketley in his twenties, set his sights on a canal from the Donnington Wood Canal to the River Severn. He enlisted the help of various others, including his father, Richard Reynolds, 'Iron Mad' John Wilkinson and Earl Gower. Earl Gower owned the Donnington Wood Canal, was Lord of the Admiralty and the Lord Chamberlain to King George III. An Act of Parliament was obtained on 11 June 1788, which created the Company of Proprietors of the Shropshire Navigation, and a meeting was held the following day, at which £50,000 of capital was reported to have been pledged.
A route for the canal had been surveyed by Reynolds, and it seems likely that he was assisted in this task by the civil engineer William Jessop, since Jessop provided evidence to support the case for the canal during its passage through Parliament. Despite the known success of the inclined plane on the neighbouring Ketley Canal, water in the Ketley Canal was being lost from locks at the incline's summit: the management committee decided to hold a competition for designs for "the best means of raising and lowering heavy weights from one navigation to another." After placing advertisements, they also encouraged the steam engine manuacturers Boulton & Watt to enter. A prize of 50 guineas (£52.50) was offered, and several models were submitted. The committee enlisted the help of John Wilkinson and the inventor and engineer James Watt to judge the designs, and were more generous with prizes than they had advertised, since John Lowdon of Snedshill and Henry Williams of Ketley both received £50, and several consolation prizes were also awarded.
Lowden had been appointed as surveyor before the competition was completed, and supervised the work. Progress was quick, as the section from the top of the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane to the junction with the Ketley Canal was finished in early 1789. The Donnington Wood Canal built a short extension to link to the bottom of the plane. Just a year later, the canal had reached Southall Bank, but Lowden resigned, as the pressure was too great. Two other men also resigned in similar circumstances, but in February 1794, the civil engineer Henry Williams was appointed superintendent and agent for the canal, and remained in this post until 1839, when he retired. Parts of the canal were operational by 3 September 1790, when the first tolls were collected, and the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane was working soon afterwards. In 1791, most of the main line was serviceable, although piling for the wharves on the River Severn was still taking place in May 1792, and construction was completed by the end of the year.
When completed, the main line was about 7.75 miles (12.5 km) long, while the Horsehay branch, which was opened in 1792, was about 2.75 miles (4.4 km) long. The total cost of the project was below the original estimate, at either £47,000 or £47,500.
The route included two tunnels and three inclined planes. Near to Wilkinson's iron works at Snedshill, the Snedshill Tunnel was 279 yards (255 m) yards long, and the Stirchley Tunnel was slightly longer at 281 yards (257m). Both were about 10 feet (3.0 m) wide at water level. The design of the inclined planes was modified from that used on the Ketley Canal, where there was a lock at the top, which resulted in a loss of water each time the plane was used. Instead Reynolds used a system where the boats passed over a hump, after which a short downward-sloping section took the boats into the canal. This virtually eliminated water loss, but required the provision of a steam engine at each of the inclines. On the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane, most of the traffic was in the uphill direction, and so the steam engine was used to raise the boats up the incline. On the other inclines, the traffic was downhill, and so they were conterbalanced, with the descending load raising the empty boats on the other track. The engine was only required to assist the boat over the hump at the top.
The Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane was 360 yards (330 m) long and lifted the canal by 120 feet (37 m). The Windmill inclined plane was much longer at 600 yards (550 m) dropping the level by 126 feet (38 m), while the Hay inclined plane was the steepest, descending 207 feet (63 m) in 350 yards (320 m). While the Wrockwardine Wood plane was worked by a steam engine from the start, the engines for the other two planes were not ready when they began operation, and the initial movement of the boats was assisted by horses until 1793, when the engines were commissioned. The canal joined the Ketley Canal at Oakengates. However, there was a difference in the water levels and a lock was required to compensate for the 1 ft (0.3m) drop. At its southern end, to the south of Southall wharf, the canal split into two, with the main line continuing to Coalport via the two inclined planes, and the Horsehay branch running to Brierly Hill, terminating on the hill about 120 feet (37 m) above the Coalbrookdale works. A tramway from the works tunnelled into the hill, ending in a cavern below the terminus of the canal. From here two vertical shafts 120 by 10 feet (36.6 by 3.0 m) were constructed, with coal and iron ore descending and limestone ascending in crates. Because the bulk of the transfers were from the canal to the tramway, the system was self-powered. As with the similar system at Hugh's Bridge on the Donnington Wood Canal, it was not a success, and was replaced by a tramway inclined plane in 1794. The tramway was soon extended along the length of the Horsehay branch, making the canal redundant.
The company was run by industrialists, who were keen to keep the tolls low, as many of them used the canal to transport their own merchandise. Despite this, an initial dividend of 2.5 per cent was declared in 1793, only a year after construction was completed, and dividends rose steadily to reach around 8 per cent in the 1830s.
In 1826 and 1827, two Prussian engineers visited Britain to look at a number of railways, and the construction and operation of the Hay inclined plane was described in some detail in their subsequent publication. The rails were made of cast iron, and were "L" shaped in section. The running surface was 7 inches (180 mm) wide by 2 inches (51 mm) thick, while the vertical flange was 2.5 inches (64 mm) tall and 1 inch (25 mm) thick. They were described as the strongest and thickest that they had seen. Most of the incline was laid with only three rails, with a small section in the middle which had four rails, so that the boats could pass one another. Because the flanges were on the rails rather than on the wheels as in modern railway practice, one track had the flanges on the inside, and the other on the outside. The rails were fixed to timbers running along the incline, 14 inches (360 mm) square, which were attached to wooden sleepers which ran across the incline.
The boats were made of wood, and were 18 feet (5.5 m) long by 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m) wide. They were 2.5 feet (0.76 m) deep, and weighed about 1.5 tons, but when loaded with 5 tons of coal or iron, only 3 inches (76 mm) remained above the water. In order to transport them along the incline, they were attached to a simple frame with four wheels, with a diameter of 27 inches (690 mm) at the front and 16 inches (410 mm) at the back. The rear axle carried a second set of wheels, 24 inches (610 mm) in diameter and spaced much wider than the main wheels, which ran on a special track at the top of the incline, and prevented the frame from getting stuck when it passed over the hump. These wheels were flanged, unlike the main wheels. The main wheels are described as having an inside gauge of 43 inches (1,100 mm), presumably between their inside faces. The engine was a 16-inch (410 mm) steam engine, and was used to draw the wagon and boat over the hump and out of the top pound. It was also used to complete the movement of an ascending boat, which would no longer be counterbalanced once the descending boat entered the water at the bottom. The engine drove a 7-foot (2.1 m) drum, which carried the rope, and which had a clutch mechanism to allow it to be driven by the engine or disconnected from it, as required.
Apart from one incline in the mines at Worsley, these were the only ones which carried boats until around 1819, and many visitors came to see them. Each incline required a team of four men to operate it. An engineman and a brakesman worked at the top of the incline, and a man was needed at each end to attach or detach the boats from the rope. Between the inclines, the boats were operated in trains, and Stephen Ballard, who visited the canal from the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal in 1829, recorded that a single horse could pull 12 loaded boats with 60 tons of cargo, and trains of 18 or 20 boats could also be managed.
Takeover and decline
In 1845, the Ellesmere and Chester Canal Company took over the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal, and appointed a committee to consider how best to convert them to railways, and what extensions might be necessary to provide a comprehensive transport network. The following year, the company became the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company, by an Act of Parliament which authorised the new company to take over the Shrewsbury Canal and to buy the Montgomery Canal and the Shropshire Canal. In 1847, the Shropshire Union Company agreed to the terms of a lease from the London and North Western Railway Company (LNWR), and so lost its independence after little more than a year, but continued to manage the canals under its control.
The 500 shares of the Shropshire Canal were initially valued at £150 each, making it worth £75,000. It was making around £4,000 per year, and rather than buying it, the Shropshire Union decided to lease it instead, for an annual sum of £3,125. The agreement began on 1 November 1849. There were serious problems with subsidence, and the manager recommended that the canal should be converted into a railway in January 1855, but although the Shropshire Union board agreed, their recommendation to the LNWR was ignored. In July 1855, a breach of the canal occurred, when it broke through into the Oakengates railway tunnel. The summit level emptied, causing floods in the town. A second breach occurred in September, on a section which had been re-routed over a mine shaft to make way for the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway, and seven more occurred the following year. The LNWR then obtained an Act of Parliament in 1857, which allowed them to buy the canal for £62,500, and to close it from the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane to the Windmill inclined plane, and use the bed for a railway. Closure took place on 1 June 1858. Parts of the bed were used for a railway to Coalport, which opened in 1861. The Stirchley tunnel was converted into a cutting as part of this project.
By 1894, the Hay incline was no longer in use, but the section from Kemberton and Halesfield collieries was used to carry coal to Blists Hill furnaces until 1912. 29,066 tons of coal were carried in 1905. The furnaces were blown out in 1912, but this section of the canal was not officially abandoned until 1944, along with much of the rest of the Shropshire Union system.
Several points along the Shropshire Canal are historical waypoints on the South Telford Heritage Trail, a 12.2-mile (19.6 km) circular route that explores the region's industrial archaeology. Much of the route has been destroyed by the building of houses and industrial development associated with the new town of Telford, but some of the larger features remain. The Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane can be traced, although it has been severed by a new road junction. Both the tunnels have gone, and the A442 has been built over the site of the junction with the Horsehay branch. An aqueduct that carried the canal over a minor road near the hamlet of Aqueduct is grade II listed. The remains of the Brierley Hill tunnel and vertical shafts were rediscovered in February 1988, when the site owner found the top of a 10-foot (3.0 m) brick built circular shaft. Its identity was subsequently confirmed by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Archaeological Unit. Nearby, parts of the inclined plane that replaced the lifts are traceable, although some parts have collapsed. Nearly a mile (1.6 km) of the main line immediately above the top of the Hay inclined plane can be traced, and although full of weed, contains some water. The inclined plane at Hay, which was last used in 1894, was restored in 1968 and again in 1975, including the reinstatement of rails. There are the remains of a building with a chimney stack at the top of the incline, which was probably the engine house. A grade II listed bridge carries a road over the bottom of the plane.
Points of interest
(Links to map resources)
|OS Grid Ref||Notes|
|Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane||SJ702122|
|Brierley Hill tunnel and shafts||SJ671052|
|Windmill inclined plane||SJ701054|
|Top of Hay inclined plane||SJ695028|
|Bottom of Hay inclined plane||SJ694025|
|End of Coalport wharf||SJ699022|
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