Thursday, March 21, 2013

The case of the Birmingham Ship Canal(s)

Birmingham famously is supposed to have more canals than Venice (albeit over a wider area) but 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 up to 200-300 tons (depending on the scheme).

River steamer on the Severn
at Worcester
The scheme which probably came closest to getting the go-ahead was a link to the river Severn above Worcester by enlarging the Worcester & 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 centre of the city. The cost of the scheme was estimated at £2 million (when of course this was real money).

However in 1888 the Council declined going ahead with the scheme and disbanded the committee, citing that it was outside of their municipal concerns(2). There were also worries that the railways would undercut the canal 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 would have linked Birmingham to the Weaver Navigation Canal and then through to the Mersey, Liverpool and the sea. This canal would have been 60ft wide and 11ft 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) 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 old hat as the railway network continued to grow. In many ways it is a shame none of the ship canal schemes came to anything. Ships up to 300 tons would be much larger than anything that usually chugs through the canals at Birmingham's heart. The Edwardian steamer TSS Earnslaw perhaps can give us an idea of the sort of boat we might 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 & Liverpool Ship Canal (Pamphlet, 1888), p. 5
(4) Birmingham Daily Gazette 6th July 1888
(5) Birmingham & Liverpool Ship Canal, p. 17

1 comment:

  1. I think Birmingham should have a ship canal. It would be good it could have two:
    1. Birmingham to Irish Sea via Mersey Estuary (Liverpool)
    2. Birmingham to Atlantic via Seven Estuary (Bristol)