There is much talk of legacies. I would certainly like to think that I left the world a better place, but of the many things in which I have been involved, the battle of the Stourbridge Canal is one activity that I would like to think achieved that aim.
1962 saw a major confrontation between a growing band of local canal enthusiasts and the British Transport Commission (BTC) which was the Government body responsible for the operation of the canals. A confrontation which altered the future of our waterways.
For years the canals had been in a state of decline, some were in such advanced state of repair as to be unnavigable, some were decaying rapidly, and on only a few was trade still operating. Concerned particularly about their canal, the Staffs and Worcs Canal Society was formed in 1959. To create publicity the Society held their first Rally in 1961 to try to prevent the closure of the Kidderminster basin. Sadly we only managed to save half of the basin and all the attractive warehouses were demolished.
We held an unsuccessful protest cruise to try to prevent the closure of Toll End Locks. We had checked that the locks were OK, but a few days before somebody dropped a pile of bricks behind the bottom lock bottom gates make them impassable. We asked the local diving club if they could clear them for us. they tried, but in the freezing wintry conditions, there were too many to clear in time. There was a farewell cruise on the Cannock Extension Canal, to the amazement of the passing fisherman who jeered that it would never be closed, but we had seen the prepared stop planks, and new what to expect, and a few days later the bank mysteriously gave way just by a convenient culvert.
We held a protest at Dudley Tunnel in which a number of boats successfully made a through passage. It had been claimed that the tunnel had to be closed because the railway viaduct over the tunnel mouth was unsafe. Phillip Hutchings remembers that trip saying "the Dudley tunnel was exciting when the narrowboat I was on got stuck. The engine had to be stopped because of the exhaust but that drove the generator so there was no lights except a couple of hand batteries. We moved the ballast to release the jam between the cabin structure and the tunnel roof. Entering into the vast caverns was memorable but almost unbelievable. Happy days". BTC retaliated by removing the paddle gear from Parkhead Locks, the only approach on the west side, but the viaduct is still standing today without any significant repairs.
To me, it seemed that the BTC were seriously misusing their authority, something which has always made my blood boil. They were a Government body and had a duty to maintain a statutory right of navigation, so when problems arose on the Stourbridge canal I was very ready to have a go.
The society became seriously concerned by the decline of the Stourbridge Canal seeing it as a vital link with the Staffs and Worcs canal. They decided to hold the 1962 Rally at Wordesley Junction. However the Inland Waterways Midlands Branch were also concerned, and wanted to hold the National Rally of Boats on the Stourbridge Canal, but felt that the end of the Town Arm would be a better site. We agreed to join forces and hold the Rally at the end of the Town Arm, but the problem was the very poor state of the Arm.
A joint committee was formed with David Hutchings as Chairman and myself as Vice-Chairman
The Society approached Len Hall the District Inspector, who agreed to run a narrow boat up the arm to create a channel, but with only two weeks to go, and with over 100 boats booked to attend the Rally, there was no sign of Len Hall keeping his promise. Two narrow-boats, the Parson's narrowboat Dane and Max Sinclair's tug Vesta, went down to try to clear a channel. We found a bed of concrete washings forming a scour across the canal. It was so shallow that I was able to stand on the scour in the middle of the canal with the water not over the top of my shoes. Vesta charged with masses of volunteers hauling on a bow line, but succeeded only in getting Vesta stuck, rocking on top of a very solid scour.
|Photos by Phillip Hutchings.|
The committee felt they were backed into a corner, David Hutchings proposed to bring a drag-line from the Stratford Canal, which was owned by the National Trust, where David was in charge of it's restoration. The committee fully agreed but were concerned to keep it secret, fearing that if the news leaked out BTC would put in stop planks and drain the section. If that happened it would be impossible for us to refill the canal again. Our plan was to deliver the drag-line in the middle of the night and move into position where it would be out of sight. The plan failed, I heard because the drag-line driver turned up to drunk to take charge of the drag-line as it came off of the low loader. At any rate I received a phone call at 9.00 am the following morning from an irate Len Hall telling me to get my drag-line of the canal company's property. Challenging him, I asked why he was asking me, and the reply was because I was Chairman of the Staffs and Worcs Canal Society. My response was that it was not the Staffs and Worcs Canal Society's drag-line. (Technically it was the Committee's as it was as a separate legal body). Len Hall retreated and I hastily phoned David, who hot footed it down to Stourbridge.
Quite a reception committee greeted him, Ives, the Secretary of the BTC, some lawyers and a policeman. Ives threatened David that if the drag-line touched the water he would have him arrested for trespass. David pulled the policeman behind the drag-line for protection and told the driver to carry on dredging. The driver hoisted the bucket to the top of his mast and dropped it. Ives was covered in filthy stinking mud. He retired very angry to get some dry clothes.
Meanwhile I had phoned Bob Clark, the publicity officer on the Committee. He was a journalist on a Wolverhampton Paper the Express and Star. He had promised not to publish anything unless we were discovered. I told him we had been discovered and he went into action. He was ready with his article which would go on one half of the front page of the Express and Star, a copy was sent to BTC with an invitation to put their view on the other half. Bob's half included details of a court case where a boatman had been sued some fifty years earlier for removing a tree from the navigation. The canal company had lost because there was a statutory right of navigation, - and we therefore had a case in common law. The reply came back from the BTC saying that they would give as much support as practical to the perparations for the rally! They were as good as their word. We carried on dredging, and as boats made their way down the 16 locks there was BTC staff everywhere helping with the problems of missing lock beams and broken paddle gear, and badly leaking gates. Bob pushed the story out on Reuters, "David verses Goliath" and I understand it was reported on the front page of all the Nationals. Fantastic publicity.
The Rally was a great success, very well attended if a trifle wet. It rained very day, but that is not the end of the story.
Going through Parliament at that time was the Transport Act, which initally had proposed the closure of almost the whole canal system, much as Beeching proposed a few years later. However reading Hansard it is clear that the Publicity we had achieved had made Parliament think again. When it was published the Act divided the canals into four categories, frieghtways, cruiseways, remainder waterways, and the Stourbridge Canal placed in a category all of its own. It stated that the future of the canal would depend on the local organisation. Hastily I rang John Talbot, the local MP, and asked who was the local organisation. "It's you", he replied. We had better meet then I replied, so a meeting was held at the Talbot Hotel in Stourbridge. John Talbot, Charles Hadfield (who worked for the newly formed British Waterways Board), Lynn Wright the Society Secretary and myself. It was a very pleasant evening, but nothing was said about the canal until after the desert, when I, exasperated, asked when are we going to talk about the Stourbridge Canal. Their reply, we are waiting for your suggestions really put me on the spot. Recovering, I highlighted just how many canal enthusiast there were, how hard they had shown they were willing to work to prepare for the Rally, and suggested that British Waterways (BW) should harness that enthusiasm. We would do all the navvying, if BW would provide the tools, gates and equipment. It was not a new idea for David Hutchings was already doing just that on the Stratford canal, but it was a new concept for the newly formed British Waterways. They listened sympathetically and then asked "How many boats did I think would use the canal in a year if it was restored". Charles Hadfield, in his memoirs recalls the meeting, and that it was a trick question. If I had said more than 100 boats I would have been dismissed as an over optimistic enthusiast. Remembering that we had over 100 boats at the Rally, I pointed this out and said perhaps about 100 boats!
A few weeks later I was asked to go to BW offices in Paddington to meet the new CEO, Mr Allen, where I re-presented my suggestion. It needed a lot of persuasive skills to convince him that I truly could muster enough volunteers to get the job done. Mr. Allen was interested but said it would have to be discussed with unions as we would be doing their work. Not long afterwards I was asked to meet Charles Hadfield and the dreaded Section Inspector, Len Hall at the top lock. We walked down the locks discussing the idea, but at the bottom lock Charles asked Len and I how many gates would need replacing. Len said "the lot". I exploded feeling that he was deliberatly trying to kill the project. Charles said let's walk back up the canal and agree detailed notes of the work that has to be done as we go. Back at the top lock we had an agreed list, with only about half the gates needing replacement.
Work started almost immediately in 1964, enthusiasts working on clearing blocked culverts and major items from the canal. Soon gates started to arrive, sheer legs were put up and the bottom gates of the top lock were installed. It was a steep learning curve. I remember mixing a thin mixture of cement and pouring it down the hole behind the new timber quoin. The wind blew and the thin stream of cement veered from its destined hole, over the edge of the parapet and down the neck of one of the BW staff standing below. I though for a moment the whole project was going to come to an end.
Sadly for me the project did come to an end as I badly strained my back. There followed for me weeks of heat treatment and phsyiotherapy. I never managed to get back on the project, and have been trouble by my back every since. However the project did continue, David Tomlinson took charge of the project, and the canal was reopened in 1967. In 1968 David was awarded The Cyril Styring Trophy for his work on the Stourbridge Canak. Today it looks magnificent with the locks clearly in working order, filled with water and painted black and white. I would love to know if 100 boats are now using the canal each year.
The story does not end there however. From little acorns big oak trees grow.
The restoration project had been regarded by BW as a test case. If it succeeded other projects would follow, and so they did, and now there are restoration projects happening all over the country.
Having enjoyed working up to their knees in mud, a bug had bitten a group of enthusiasts, led by Graham Palmer, went on to form working parties for the new restoration projects. The organisation grew and became WRG, The Waterways Recovery Group. In 1969 Graham Palmer was awarded The Cyril Styring Trophy for his work with WRG. Today it has grown into an enormouse organisation holding camps for working parties on restoration schemes all over the country.
During the Rally, one of the attractions had been trips through the nearby Dudley Tunnel. Lots of night lights had been placed around the tunnel to make it into a fairy grotto. It caught the imagination of some enthusiats who continued to explore the tunnel and the many caves running of off the tunnel where limestone had been quaried and removed by boat. They started organising trips through the tunnel. More enthusiasts joined them, and it became a tourist attraction. A derelict site next to the tunnel entrance became available and the Black Country Museum came into being.
The Staffs and Worcs Canal did not loose interest in the Stourbridge Canal. An opportunity arose to lease the Bonded Warehouse at the end of the Town Arm. It became the Staffs and Worcs Canal Society's flourishing headquarters, and the canal outside a flourishing marina.
Interestingly prior to 1962 there had been an Act to close canals almost every year for many years, since 1962, there has not been one closure. 1962 was a significant turning point.
In 2004 a forty year on celebration of the Stourbridge Canal Restoration was held at the Bonded Warehouse. It was attended by the surviving members of the committee, all that could be traced, David Fletcher, the CEO of British Waterways attended. In his speech he paid respect to the "anarchists" who had defied the authorities at that Rally in 1962, saying that if it had not been for us the canal system would have been closed and he would not have a job!
Fifty years later, in 2012, the March edition of Waterways World recounted this piece of vital history with several additional anecdotes of which I was not aware.
I guess I am proud of my contribution to saving the canals, but the pride is tinged with regret that although the canals were saved, that world that I loved has gone,
Incredibly they have all gone, but their passing has given me the incentive to try to recapture the memories in my canal watercolours while those memories are still alive. These are some of my favourites.