Friday, 9 March 2018


As I have stated before, I started ‘messing about on boats’ at a very early age scrounging lifts of boats, helping at locks etc. but the passion really clicked in in 1965 as a result of a school trip through the Dudley Tunnel which resulted in me becoming a member and spending most Saturday’s, Sundays and some mid-week evenings, crewing parties of passengers through Dudley tunnel using a variety of both wooden Joey boats and iron day boats. In 1959 the British Transport Commission proposed closing the Dudley Canal Tunnel and its mines, officially closing and sealing it in 1962.  Faced with the loss of a unique nationally important site some local people re-opened the tunnel and fought to restore it to working order.  In 1963 the Dudley Canal Tunnel Preservation Society (DCTPS) was formed to protect the tunnel and to oppose British Railways plan to remove the viaduct above the Tipton portal and replace it with an embankment across both the portal and the approach canal, sealing its fate forever.  Trips were organised where the monies collected from passengers donations that would be used to fight the cause, originally looking at extending the tunnel to a point past the BR embankment thus although loosing the original portal, would have at least kept the tunnel navigable

The Tipton portal showing the viaduct BR wanted to replace with an embankment.


A Saturday/Sunday morning would start with me getting up and dressed at about 8.00am then packing boots, overalls, hard hat and carbide lamp in my ex-army rucksack and heading off at about 8.30am for the 45 minute walk along the old GWR rail track at the bottom of my garden to Coneygree bridge then onto the Old Mail Line up to ‘Fishers bridge then along the roads to Batsons stop in Tipton, where the DCTPS kept their two wooden joey boats.
A plank was kept chained to the iron fencing which would be unchained and put across the narrows to gain access to the boats.  The trip boat, an ex Dank’s of Oldbury boat named Kenneth, would be untied and pushed across to the towpath where it would be prepared for the trip, these were usually arranged for 10.00am pick up at the Birmingham Road bridge some 200 yards along the canal.  As the boats were open and kept outside the first job would be to bail the rainwater out using buckets, which in times of bad rainfall could be 12 inches deep and take an hour to remove.

Crew relax before a trip having a sandwich at Batson’s stop prior to bow-hauling up to Birmingham Road bridge. (leaning on tiller Miffy, sat opposite Paul Bartlet, stood up at rear me, sat facing camera Richard Jones.)

After removing water, all the required paraphernalia for a trip would be removed from the cabin to include tiller bar, ropes for mooring and bow-hauling and Tilley lamps, 3 normal sized, one for each of the three stretchers and one huge one for a head light.

The procedure was to fill the lamps tank with paraffin then soak the pre-heating cup with methylated spirits and affix to the stem of the lamp below the mantle, then ignite the meth’s burner and wait.  When once the atomizer tube and mantle have been heated sufficiently, the paraffin is pressurised with the hand pump and hopefully the lamp ‘pops’ into action giving both light and heat (ideal for lighting your fag off in the tunnel)

Crew ready (left to right) Eddy Sherwood, Me, Phil Ritchie.  Stood on back of boat Derick Gittings, seated Dave Apps and talking to them John ‘ginger’ Mullen. (6 crew about normal for a trip)

With all that done the tow rope would be attached to the second stretcher and we are ready for the off with one crew member staying on the back end to steer while the rest pulled the boat to the B’ham Road bridge, which on this section was easy as the canal was still wide and deep, a different story on the approach canal!
At the allotted time the party would arrive usually a society, school, works or club and would be made up of usually about 30 to 50 people who would all be ushered into the two back compartments of the boat, leaving the front section clear for the crew to work in propelling the boat.  The crew always enjoyed having a bit of fun with the passengers such as, if a small amount of water was still in the bottom of the boat, if asked, we would tell them “it was an old boat and it leaked and was slowly sinking but that we had plenty of buckets.”

Crew pose before starting another trip (left to right, Derek Gittings, Eddy Sherwood, H J Miffy Smith, Phill Ritchie, John Ginger Mullen, Dave apps, John Nichols, Richard Jones, and finally, me.)

With all passengers safely on board, again one crew member would stay on 
board to steer down the approach canal while the remainder would all take the strain and start the slog along the weed encroached and shallow canal.  When you consider the boat with its ‘cargo’ drew about 12 inches and bubbles and black mud rose all round the boat as it made its way down the approach canal this gives you some idea of the poor condition of the canal at this time.
After 200 yards the boat would approach what is now the cross bridge at the entrance to the Black Country Museum, back then the museum did not exist nor that bridge, but instead the remains of an iron bridge with no towpath,  just the bare iron supports which criss-crossed across the bridge and called for some adept footwork stepping from cross beam to cross beam also while still trying to bow-haul the trip boat.
After much more straining and pulling, the Tipton portal would be reached and now the real fun would start.  Local kids used the entrance as a dumping ground, I suppose now it would be shopping trollies or stolen bikes, but back then it would be mainly junk and brick ends.  At times of heavy thunder storms, railway ballast was also known to be washed down from the railway viaduct above and wash down into the tunnel entrance.  This resulted in the boat coming to an abrupt halt at the portal.  The solution was to firstly get kebs from the cabin and have a poke about, if there was nothing large that required pulling out with the kebs then the technique consisted of pulling the boat back out of entrance then getting all on board to get as far back as possible putting the back end down in the water and raising the bows at least an inch or so and pulling as fast as possible to get the boat, well at least the first half, as far into the tunnel as possible before it grounded on the scour, then, everybody on board were ushered as far forward as possible to lower the bows into the deeper water in the tunnel and thus raising the back end out hopefully enough to scrape over the obstruction.

The Tipton portal showing a lot of the copings and brickwork missing from the entrance walls. (bet you can’t guess where they are!)

With the boat just inside the tunnel it would be stopped while the crew got into position and also for the canal manager, Richard Jones, to welcome and give short history and safety warnings.  For this he used a large tin megaphone “1792 – Lord Ward – 3172 yards – mind your head – keep body parts, especially fingers inside the boat.” With that done off we would go usually with two crew members lying on the cabin top legging off the tunnel roof and the rest of us in the front section pushing off the tunnel walls with our hands.
Ten minutes later would see us exiting the Lord Ward tunnel out into daylight at Shirts Mill basin which suffered with the same problems of lack of water from the local kids and flood waters as the Tipton portal and so the same techniques were adopted with people shuffling back and forth along with rocking the boat while propelling with shafts and kebs also by two crew members getting up onto the gunwales and walking along them while pushing on the basin portal.

Shirts mill basin looking back toward the Tipton portal.  The two side tunnels were for loading boats to leave the through route clear, as there was a coal mine on one side and a limestone mine on the other.

A very short section of tunnel separated Shirts mill from Castle Mill basin and as much speed as possible would need to be generated to get the boat across the basin as when once out of the tunnel the only means of propulsion was a long shaft as this basin was surprisingly deep compared to the other. The other problem was that the main Dudley tunnel continued off to the left and required the boat to be steered into it, not a problem apart from the fact that due to the width restrictions of the tunnel the boat came out straight until almost out and so could not be steered until it was clear and if the steerer was not too good you would end up hitting the opposite side of the basin and halting all forward progress so the long shaft would be used or a crew member would get off and onto the wharfage and a rope thrown to them.  Over to the right-hand corner of the basin was the Wrens nest tunnel

The view from Lord Wards tunnel towards the main Dudley tunnel with the wharfage to the left (all gone now with the ‘new’ tunnel into the mines

From this point you have about 2942yards to go where there is plenty of water so the crew get down to some serious propulsion.  After approximately a further 100 yards you reach Cathedral arch where a branch tunnel used to go off to the left, this has since been bricked up and infilled after a short distance
This junction lead to the limestone mines of the East Castle workings of Little Tess, 144 or the Dark Cavern, Big Ben, Mud Hole, Sam’s Dig and Conference room, all connected to the tunnel by underground canals.  I spent many happy hours scrambling about in these huge caverns.  

The crew take a short rest as the boat crosses Cathedral Arch (looking at camera Pete Dodds, me with back to camera and leaning on the front beam Phill Ritchie and Miffy)

As the boat drifts across Cathedral Arch, the crew take advantage of the short break from propulsion before re-entering the main tunnel and legging/pushing begins again, but only for a short section as the boat reaches ‘The Well’ where a 20 foot diameter air shaft breaks through to the surface.  That is the last daylight you would see until you emerge at the Park Head portal (apart from the small Wellington Road airshaft.  At this point the tunnel also goes through a smaller mine on the right-hand side where many wild parties were held in the 1960’s 70’s.  Time now for some serious propulsion as the crew take it in turns to either push on the tunnel walls with their hands or carry out legging.  This was done either by lying on the cabin top or by lying on one of the cross beams and pushing on the tunnel walls with your feet.

Can’t remember who but I think a large party (two boats -100people) facing camera me on left Phil on right, behind me Ginger Mullen, Miffy legging on the cross beam and someone on the cabin top of the proceeding boat.

Now with about an hour’s journey left the crew would get into a routine and to break the boredom would usually brake into song with renditions of various canally songs, folk songs and depending on the passengers, sometimes rugby songs.  We even had our own song written by members of the DCTPS called ‘Push Boys Push’ Most of the time passengers would join in with the sing song and would also have a go at legging.  I especially enjoyed the youth clubs/schools where there were young girls my age (from 13 to 21 years old) and there was nothing better than getting cuddly in the semi-dark!  Soon the boat would be approaching a very low, narrow section where the tunnel had been affected by mining subsidence called the Gaol (where a boat might get stuck inside) at this point anyone legging on the cabin top would have to get off as there would only be a couple of inches clearance, and also the speed of the boat would be drastically reduced.  Soon the boat would be entering the new section where the last 200 yards had been re-built in 1884 due to the tunnel becoming so low.

The Park Head portal and the end of the trip as passengers get off the boat and depart for their transport home.  Some parties would book a return trip.

Finally out into the blinding sunlight, or rain, and all the passengers would get off the boat in the narrows before the crew would bow-haul the boat down the pound to Park Head top lock and wind her ready for the return trip, which might be the same group in which case they usually all retired to the nearest pub at Holly Hall, or a different party for the return trip. Tilley lamps would be re-filled with paraffin, the crew would eat their sandwiches and await the next group.
In all from 1965 up until the re-opening in 1973 I must have gone though Dudley tunnel about 1500 times pushing and legging over 3000 miles but enjoyed every minute.

So next time your going through a tunnel, think of me and

Don’t bang em about.



  1. What a really entertaining read for a damp Saturday morning, that's brought a little 'sunshine' into my day thanks Blossom :)

  2. A great read and wonderful memories.