THE BIG FREEZE.
1963 was a very big and traumatic year for both myself and the British canal network, especially the BCN. The effects on both were due to the same reason. It started back in December 1962 when cold weather hit the UK. On the 12th & 13th December snow fell, then on the 26th December we had heavy snow and on the 29th & 30th Dec we had a blizzard which left snow drifts 20 foot thick in places. January 1963 saw an average temperature of -21°C with lows of -19°C in fact the sea froze in parts around the coast and up to 1 mile out. In February 1963 more snow fell, the most being 5’-0” (1.5m) in one night in Monmouthshire. This all lasted up until 6th March 1963 when The Thaw began. In other words a freeze that lasted 12 weeks. I remember it biting hard into the movement of coal around my BCN area. Prior to this bad weather I would still see at least two or three coal boats a day come past the end of our street, then suddenly for three months nothing moved. The canal never really recovered for even after the thaw, the boat movements never got back to what they were. Whether this was due to a change in the need for coal due to the clean air act and restriction on burning household coal, whether the introduction of more advanced technology (gas/oil fire boilers or whether customers had had to find alternatives through this period is arguable but what I do know is what I was seeing – the disappearing boats.
During this time we had spent quite a bit of time playing on the canal, taking the tyres off and riding our bikes on the ice, playing football, trying to cut/drill/break a hole in the ice, all to no avail and so we came up with an idea. “Lets see how far we can walk on the cut without getting off as even under the bridge oles the ice was at least 9” thick, and so we set about our adventure. A group of us, about 5 including my then best mate, William Millward, climbed/jumped/ran and slid onto the ice and we then headed off towards Factory locks. As with most groups of young lads out on an adventure we giggled and cajoled each other along telling tales of woe where people had gone through the ice under this or that bridge never to be seen again. Eventually we got to Tipton Green Junction where the Toll End Communication canal (or as we called them the Toll End locks and the Tipton Green cut)crossed the New Main Line and after a short respite in the expanse of the large junction for a game of ‘ice football’ with a chunk of ice used as a ball, we decided we would head off down to the right along the Toll End Locks. Here came our first obstacle as we had said the adventure was to get as far as we could without getting off the canal. Solution, climb over the top gate and down into the chamber down the frozen gate and cill onto the iced water in the bottom of the chamber then if the bottom gate was open straight out if not then it would have been a case of climbing up the gate lock wall and down the other side. At this time the lock flight was still fully functional although the top gates had been ‘nailed shut with timber sprags and the top paddles had had their racks removed however these measures would not deter those canal enthusiasts of the sixties using cabin shafts to pull paddles up and removing the timber sprags to enable the 1962 failed action cruise that was held. Fortunately for us , at this time most of the pounds were quite empty and , as we found all of the bottom gates were open so our progress was quite unhindered, that is until we got half way down the flight where the notorious unfriendly lockie still lived in the lock house next to the pound at the back of The Little Burton where the canal took a sharp 90° turn. As we approached we held back while we decided what to do as this guy was known to catch little boys who strayed on his towpath and lock them up ‘never to be seen again’ (we had a lot of that when we was kids’.We had decided to make a run for it so with the word go, we started running. No doubt alerted by the noise we were making, the lockie was out at his front door and as we approached he came out onto the towpath shouting at us about trespassing and to ‘clear off’ or he would ‘give us a good hiding’. That was enough we all turned tail and jumped off the canal onto the towpath and ran for our lives without even turning to see if he was in pursuit. And so ended out great adventure. We retraced our steps but this time on the towpath and this was never to become an opportunity again as the canals never froze again like they did in that year.
I started by stating that both the canal and I had a traumatic experience and the experience that I encountered, came towards the end of the big freeze when finally temperatures began to rise and the Ice began to gradually thaw. I went out into the street and was greeted by an excited friend, William Milward who greeted me with “thice breakers bin through n bost ed up orl thice” we both ran up the bank onto the towpath and sure enough the ice, which was still about 5’6 inches thick, had been broken into a variety of sized slabs. Some only a foot or so square but with others being huge slabs several feet wide/deep. Now what you have to remember is that at this time something like this would keep a couple of 10 year olds amused for hours so having armed ourselves with sticks, we spent the next hour amusing ourselves by pushing, steering the slabs around the cut until William, who had discovered a particularly large slab of ice, decided he was going to see if he could use it as a raft and propel himself around. He gingerly sat in the snow on the edge of the towpath and placed both feet on the slab then gently added his weight. Immediately the slab started to tip and sink. After several trial attempts of changing his position and the way he distributed his weight he had failed miserable and so gave up that means of attack. Instead he stood on the edge of the towpath and announced he was going to jump from the bank to the centre of the slab as that would work. Despite warnings from myself that I did not think it would support his weight, quick as a flash he had hurled himself out onto the middle of the ice slab and to both our surprise, it held his weight, if only a little unstable if his weight moved, and he proudly called out “See ar towd ya it ud werk” He spent the next 30 minutes gingerly pushing himself and his newfound craft around the canal steering and moving the surrounding ice flow with his stick. As with most young boys, he soon got bored and needed a change.. Now here was the dilemma. How to get off the slab of ice as every time he even moved towards the edge to climb off, the slab would start to tip and sink. After several failed attempts he decided to just go for it and made a put for the side. I watched on in horror as the slabed tipped up at an angle of 45° and William slipped off it’s slippy surface into the freezing water only for the slab to come crashing down over the top of him. Panic as there was no sign of him and the ice slabs were all closed in. I lay down onto the frozen surface of the towpath and plunged my arms into the freezing needle like cold of the water and waved them around hoping he would see them and come towards them. After what seemed an age, i felt the warm grip of one of his hands and just pulled with all of my might to get him to the side, once there coughing and spluttering I just had not got the strength to pull him out of the water.. If anyone knows this stretch of canal, they will be familiar with the fact the canal here runs right next to Dudley Port station where several people were stood awaiting their trains. Still in panic mode, I screamed across to then to help me get me mate out the cut. Minutes later a British Rail employee, I believe the station master, came round and helped me pull him out. The second he was out of the water he was off like a greyhound and ran home without so much as a thank you. I don’t think he ever told his parents as it was never mentioned by them to me, not even a thank you for saving his life.
During these months the canal froze with ice over two foot thick, In fact, as the following picture shows, Ice breaking on the Cannock extension canal at Pelsall, the ice was so thick that it would not break and the ice breaker, along with its crew, was pulled up onto the ice!
Finally at the beginning of March 1963 the thaw had started. Gradually the snow, which by now was mainly ice on footpaths/towpaths/roads etc. had started to retreat. Within a week the snow/ice had all gone but what it left behind would be with us forever. Never again did I see anywhere near the amount of traffic I had seen prior to the big freeze. I think that many had found other arrangements when the canals let them down for 12 weeks and never returned after the thaw. The freeze alone cannot be singularly blamed for the demise but it was a contributory factor. The clean air act of 1956 had a dramatic effect on the coal trade as from 1956 through to 1968 saw Pits closing all over the Black Country, 1956 West Cannock No 2, 1957 East Cannock, 1958 West Cannock No 1, 1959 Cannock Chase No 3, 1960 Hawkins, Brerton, 1962 Cannock Chase No 8, 1963 Wyrley No3, 1964 Coppice, 1967 Mid Cannock, 1969 Hilton Main. although if you speak to the old colliers they say there’s still plenty down there. These collieries served the canal either through ‘Edgefud (Hednesford) Basin known to boaters as ‘the bump’, Holly bank basin and Anglesey basin and on the BCN Sandwell Colliery chutes at Smethwick. As well as the domestic supply they also supplied the power generation industries at Birchills (Walsall) power station, W’TON, .Ocker Hill Which all received their coal by canal at this time, this transferred to road and rail transport in the mid 1960’s
During the same period factories were going over to gas fired boilers, we were changing from town gas to natural gas, the M6 motorway was being built and all this together had a disastrous knock on effect on the canal trade, especially the BCN. If we are not making town gas then we are not cooking coal, if we are not cooking coal we are not making creosote ( creosolic acid), coal tar, gas water and as the M6 was going straight through Thomas Claytons Oldbury site, This company’s tar boats finally went off the cut in 1966. Coal traffic to W’TON power station went off the canal in 1959, Birchills in 1965, Ocker Hill in 1966. 1963 saw Hednesford basin close, 1965 saw Hollybank basin go and 1967 saw Anglesey basin close.
And so we can say that after nearly 200 years (1768 – 1968) we finally saw the end of majority of the bulk trade on the BCN.
So that's it, and till next time,
Don't bang 'em about
So that's it, and till next time,
Don't bang 'em about