Friday, 2 March 2018

Bricks, floods and rattling chains

As is already known to many, the old industrial area in the heart of the West Midlands known as the Black Country, was a direct result of the large mineral deposits to be found readily available there needed to fire the industrial revolution, i.e. coal, iron ore and limestone.  All of this drove the ‘great canal age through the centre of this area resulting in Tipton being called ‘the Venice of the Midlands’ allegedly having more miles of canal than Venice. (I hasten to add NOT Birmingham as many have tried to claim in more recent recent years.  Brummies have also tried to steal the title of ‘town of a thousand trades’ which was originally used to describe Walsall) Where there is coal there is also clay which also promoted a very busy brick making industry, responding to the need for towpath walls, lock chambers, bridges, factories, etc etc. Just on the eastern side of Tipton existed one such brickworks at Dudley Port known as the Rattlechain brickworks which had a significant effect upon the canals in more than one way. 
Firstly, its name, Rattlechain derived from coal mining in the area.  A rattlechain is what was used in winding gear to lower/ raise coal/miners into and out of the pit.  It consisted of three lengths of chain laid side by side forming a stronger hoist.  These were 3 flat chains about 3 to 4 inches wide with consecutive long and short links which used to make loud rattling noise as they worked.  Later a clever Tiptonion came up with the idea of inserting a wooden ‘peg’ through the long links of the three chains joining them as one and eliminating the rattle.

The Rattlechain Brick Works was owned by Samuel Barnett removing clay from a marl hole sited just to the south of the Birmingham New main line at Dudley port where he made blue-bricks.   Mr Barnett started working in the brick industry at twelve years of age but before he was sixteen he had his left arm amputated in a works accident.  In 1882 he leased the Rattlechain Brickworks and in the next year increased its production from 30,000 to 180,000 bricks per week.  He then went on to purchase both the Groveland and the Tividale estates covering about 100 acres on which he built the Stour Valley brickworks.

As well as clay from the Rattlechain marl hole his works also needed a constant supply of coal to fire the brick furnaces and a means to transport his bricks.  To enable this, he built up a fleet of over thirty wooden joey boats with about 50% open boats and 50% cabined boats between 1897 and 1929.  He also had his own ‘Rattlechain basin, now filled in and all that remains is the tow path bridge at the entrance

Photo © geograph
The fleet of boats were all horse drawn and he built stabling for the horses on the site.  All the open boats were un-named and simply numbered whilst some of the cabined boats had such wonderful names like EMPRESS QUEEN, SPEEDWELL, EXPRESS, DART, ELECTRIC, HERO, KING EDWARD, KING OSSY, while others had more simple names like JOSEPH, FREDA, FRANK and one comical name LIVE AND LET LIVE.
 The brickworks were located on the New Birmingham Mail Line, known by boatmen as the island line due to the central toll stops, and for several miles ran along the top of a large embankment.  By 1899 the Rattlechain marl pit was quite large, approximately 100yards deep and a surface area of three acres and at one point only the towpath separated the pit from the canal.  It had been a common practice to empty the ashes from the brick furnaces on the side of the canal embankment where they would smoulder continuously.  The brick works also used blasting operations to loosen/remove clay from the pit and some heavy rainstorms had recently occurred.  On the 9th September 1899 (9.9.99.) at 4.00am the embankment finally gave way.  The gap grew to about 100 yards long and 80 yards wide.  The water flooded into the Rattlechain pit, filling it to the brim.  In all two miles of canal were emptied and a further six miles suffered lowered levels. In Netherton tunnel the level was lowered to such an extent that traffic had to be diverted through the older and slower Dudley tunnel. 

The burning ashes making the embankment highly unstable and the burning day by day, helped to loosen the tenacity of the puddle clay which ran along the bed of the canal along this section to a depth of 3 feet, along with the effects of the blasting so close, then this added to the effect of the heavy rain finally caused the embankment to give way and the canal to breach.
For 90 years the Rattlechain Brickworks produced millions of bricks.  To give some idea, in 1939 just before the outbreak of world war II they produced 7,000,000 bricks.  But all good things come to an end. Finally, Samuel Barnett met his end in May 1918 aged 64 when he died as a result of an accident on his pony and trap when the horse was spooked by a traction engine His sons William and Thomas continued production on the site until in November 1971 when the company went into liquidation, strangely enough after a serious fire destroyed parts of the roof and walls of a 150 ft long building.

Barnett’s brickworks in 1950
The next chapter in the history of this side can be gleaned from a statement in the 1908 British Clay Worker where it states “His property at Dudley Port is particularly valuable, for when the clay is gone the land will be equally valuable for tips. Moreover, the surrounding canal is a highly important factor.” but to find out more I will need to write more.
So, until then, as always
Don’t bang ‘em about.

Some information for this blog is from ‘The Swan Man’s web site about what lies beneath rattlechain lagoon.


  1. What a lovely surprise to see a new post from you Blossom! Hope all is well.

    1. Cheers Sarah, can't do much else this weather!

  2. Well if all it takes is a little cold weather to bring you back to blogging then lets hope Spring is delayed a little longer :)

  3. Hi Blossom,
    Where can I find the next chapter? 1950’s onwards. I am the great grand-daughter of Samuel Barnett, but from the female line ... therefore have no knowledge of what happened after your initial story above...
    Thanks in advance, Philippa