Tuesday, 20 March 2018


As mentioned in my previous blog about Dudley Tunnel, its very being was due mainly to the vast quantity of Limestone that Dudley, Wrens Nest and Mons hills are made of.  From the Tipton portal, the first section of tunnel which leads through Shirts Mill and on to Castle Mill basins are known as the ‘Lord Ward’s’ tunnel after the Earl of Dudley who owned all the mineral rights for this area and built this tunnel in 1776 to enable him to extract the limestone and transport it to his lime kilns located in what is now the Black Country Living Museum.
The lime kilns, as now in the Black Country Museum.© BCLM.

Early beginnings
Limestone has been a valuable commodity since Roman times when it was used for making lime mortar and also used in agriculture as a fertiliser.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was extensively used in the developing Black Country iron industry as a flux that could be used to clean and purify the iron in the blast furnace.  To give some idea of the demand, at the height of the Industrial revolution there were 220 blast furnaces spread across the town’s of Darlaston, Wednesbury, Bilston, Tipton, Dudley and parts of Wolverhampton, and at about the same time (1796) Castle Hill and Wrens Nest quarries were producing 60,000 tons of limestone per year To make a usable product, the limestone was burnt in a kiln at a very high temperature (calcinated ) resulting in quick lime and if then mixed with water, known as slaking, it produced a stable powder.
Limestone has been mined in the Dudley area for centuries starting in the 11th century for stone to build Dudley castle and then in the 12th century to build St James’ priory all being obtained from surface quarries on Castle Hill.  The earliest record of permission for a lime works in Dudley was in 1634 on Wrens Nest Hill.  The limestone in the Dudley area was laid down during the Silurian period (443 million years to 419 million years ago) and it resulted in two parallel seams running through Dudley, Wrens Nest and Mons Hill at an angle of roughly 45 degrees.
Originally, Lord Wards canal terminated in an underground basin at Castle Mill, later other tunnels were built leading off Castle Mill to connect to the limestone mines under Castle Hill via Cathedral arch, then onwards to take the canal through Dudley Hill and connect the Birmingham canal with the Stourbridge canal and so on to Stourport via the Staffs & Worcester (1792).  Another tunnel built in 1815 connected Castle Mill basin to the mines under Wrens Nest Hill.
Castle Mill Basin in 1975 showing the lord Wards tunnel(top right) the Wrens Nest Tunnel(top left) and the main Dudley tunnel(bottom left ©Dudley CanalTrust

The limestone mines themselves were a combination of underground workings connected by tunnels with underground basins and wharves for loading boats, and these in turn were connected around the mines by plate way railways for limestone to be transported from the working face to these wharves by waggons.  The main centre for both the Castle Hill and Wrens Nest systems was Castle Mill basin which originally was underground, but along with Shirts Mill Basin, had the roof taken off opening them up to the daylight and to give some idea of how productive they were, in 1853 more than 41,ooo boats transported limestone from these mines to the kilns.
A 1926 view of the lime kilns and canal basin, now part of BCLM ©blackcountrymuse.

By the middle of the 19th century the limestone in the Castle Hill mines was stating to run out but their use wasn’t over.  Lord Dudley installed gas lighting and a bandstand in one large cavern called The Dark Cavern, using it concerts balls and scientific lectures.  In 1849 a leading geologist Sir Roderick Murchison gave a lecture in this cavern said to have been attended by 15,000 people covering the fossil evidence provided by this mine network, most of this collection held by Dudley Council Museum Service.
Sir Roderick Murchison’s Silurian lecture in the Dark Cavern © Illustrated London News

The final stone was extracted from the Wrens Nest mines in 1924 and the accompanying lime works until 1935 all finally closing by 1939when the ’black out’ of the second world war forces them to stop firing the kilns.
The Wrens Nest mines
As stated, the limestone was removed from the Wrens Nest mines by means of a canal tunnel from Castle Mill basin.  After just over 780 yards the tunnel opened out into an underground wharf within the East Mine where boats were loaded from the first of the mines
The Step Pit canal basin © Birmingham Mail

The step pit basin looking in the opposite direction ©G Worton

This mine was called the ‘Step Pit’ due to a cast iron spiral staircase with 240 steps leading to the surface.
Inside the step pit ©Birmingham live

Another gallery (South workings of Wrens Nest East mine) that was connected to this mine was known as the Cathedral cavern, due mainly to its gigantic size and also the Minstral gallery
The Cathedral Cavern ©Dudley News.

After a further 447 yards a second loading basin is reached which worked the West Mines, which are better known as ‘The Seven Sisters’
The canal basin within the Seven Sisters mine. © Dudley Council

This mine was so called because of the seven pillars of stone left in on each gallery to support the roof.
A 1984 view inside the first gallery of the Seven Sisters mine showing four of the pillars. © Peter Parkes

Weekends underground.
Although some time was spent exploring the Wrens Nest system it was mainly around the Seven Sisters and sadly only on a couple of occasions as most of our scrabbling around underground was spent in the Castle Hill Mines what follows is an account of a typical Saturday/Sunday’s exploration which I have previously posted on another blog.
A sketch map of the Castle Hill mines

The DCTPS had been formed in 1963 when the tunnel was under threat of closure from British Rail wanting to build an embankment over it’s Tipton portal to support/replace a collapsing viaduct, their first bulletin was produced in September 1964 and I joined in early in 1965.  As the tunnel went through and was linked to the Limestone workings it was only natural for me to be also interested in the ‘Caves’.  Through the 1960’s and 70’s I spent many hours poking about down the mines mainly under Castle Hill and less time under Wrens Nest Hill, and even one sortie in the middle of the night within the Zoo grounds and under the castle itself into the Stores Cavern.  The main reason for this ‘midnight trip’ was the result of an article in the Express & star newspaper where suggestion had again been raised, and strongly denied by the authorities, that the mines under the Castle had been used as an ammunition stores during the war.  So we had to find out as one of our party knew of a mine entrance within the zoo grounds.  So, after midnight we gathered and climbed over the zoo perimeter fence behind the Plaza cinema and made our way to the entrance.  When once we descended into the mine our suspicions were confirmed.  The evidence was there.  Huge fans to remove fume, lifts with signs stating ‘no more than so much explosive to be carried at any one time’ Brick built ‘offices’.
A view inside the Store cavern during a feasibility study in 2017 for opening up to the public.
The Castle Mill system of mines were directly connected to and serviced by the canal network in the same way as the Wrens Nest Mines, I thought this may be of some interest to my blog readers as it is part of our ‘canal system’ that is no longer available in the main to the general public apart from the ‘Disneyfied’ sections seen on the current tunnel trips undertaken by the Dudley Canal Trust.
The network of mines were served by a series of interconnecting canals, sometimes through brick lined tunnels, sometimes through rock tunnels and sometimes in open sections (although inside the mine of course) There was also underground brick built loading wharfs which in some cases were served in turn by tub type tramways/railways although long gone, visible evidence of their existence was still in place such as in the brick lined tunnel sections of Flooded Mine where the imprints of the sleepers were still clearly visible. The craft that were used in this subterranean network of canals were of very crude construction being similar, but much shorter, to the ‘Starvationers’ used in the Duke of Bridgewater’s coal mines at Worsley.
(A mine boat in Castle Mill Basin in 1900, 25 years before limestone extraction finished in Dudley)
I remember spending a couple of weekends in about 1967 along with several other DCTPS members trying to clear away all the limestone rocks and mud in and around one of these mine boats which was sunk just inside the rock tunnel leading from Singer Cavern to Little Tess.
What follows is a reflection of a typical Saturday or Sunday down the mines. I will attempt to remember as much detail as I can. Equipment we would take with us would be :- a complete change of dry clothes, 2 pairs of boots (1 dry, 1 wet. The wet ones had ½ “ holes drilled in the soles, overalls, hard hat, ex-miners battery pack & lamp, a carbide lamp, various ropework and climbing equipment, an inflatable ex-RAF one man survival dinghy (although we have had three in it) Flask of hot soup/drink, sandwiches, small emergency tin (match/candle/safety pin/plaster)

We would all meet at a pre-arranged time at Castle Mill House, which at the time was owned by the DCTPS and situated above the top of the construction shaft in the Lord Wards Tunnel close to Shirts Mill Basin, it actually came up into the kitchen floor of the house by means of a square access manhole.
The construction shaft which was under Castle Mill house. ©DCT.

 All unnecessary items including dry clothes and food were stowed in Castle Mill House and then we would set off to make the short walk past the Hexagon shaped ‘gatehouse’ to the Zoo grounds/castle hill, which at this time was still inhabited, then follow the pathway off up the gradual climb up the back of castle hill. The ground around this area was pitted with depressions where early limestone excavation had taken place and also some the result of subsidence where the mines below had suffered with roof falls and collapse, some of these occurring while the mine was still active the miners response being to drive a brick lined tunnel through the roof fall accessing the remaining mine such as at Sam’s Dig in Mud Hole.
After a walk of just under a mile the entrance of Big Ben would be reached, a large triangular shaped entrance in the bottom of one of the larger depressions.

View from the bottom of Big Ben looking back up towards the surface ©Blossom

With lamps lit we would start our descent into the mines. The entrance sloped down at an angle of about 45° and this ‘ramp’ would be approached by a succession of continuous jumps, with each jump managing to cover about 20feet in distance. The other way to travel down (for the less ambitious) was sitting either on your bum or on your own feet and ‘skiing’ down the limestone screed. After about 100 yards the bottom of the mine would be reached and we would either turn left for about a further 150 yards towards a total collapse of the mine although many hours of fun could be had crawling over, under, around the huge slabs of fallen limestone, some as big as a car. Turn right and it was about 100 yards to the roof fall at the other end of Big Ben. At the very bottom of this mine, it was about 100feet wide and about 75 feet from floor to roof and before the roof had collapsed, it was all part of the Dark Cavern or144 making the Dark Cavern originally in excess of ½ mile long. Over the years, cavers/potholes etc had found/dug/opened up a very small passage through the roof fall going over, under, around the slabs of fallen limestone which lead out into the end of 144. I’m afraid that nowadays I would not have been able to crawl through it, but back in those days I flew threw it. It was that small and tight that it was nicknamed The Virgin so I can safely say that when I was younger I went through a virgin most Saturday afternoon’s! When once through The Virgin you dropped down over the other side of the roof fall again made up of huge blocks of limestone into another cathedral sized mine, Dark Cavern.
  Over to the left and at the very base of the mine was a partially covered brick wall in the centre of which was a tunnel entrance which led into a brick lined tunnel of identical design but of smaller section than the associated canal tunnels.  This was one of the brick lined tunnels driven through the roof fall to allow continued extraction of limestone from the ‘Big Ben’ section of this mine to be taken out via the canal in Dark Cavern.  After a short distance the brickwork had collapsed and this tunnel closed. There was evidence of ‘sleeper imprints’ in the floor of this tunnel showing that Big Ben’s limestone in its latter years was removed in tubs via this tunnel then following along the rock wall at the base of the Dark Cavern for approximately another 50 yards then making a 90° curve, terminating alongside a brick built loading wharf. Running along the right-hand side of the mine was an elevated flat level ‘pathway’ about 20 feet above the base of the mine.  The roof along this section of Dark Cavern was supported by huge pillars of limestone being left in place during limestone extraction. Due to the beds of limestone running at an angle of about 30° then these pillars lurched up from the right hand side of the mine at an angle of about 60° and about half way up their length there was a fault in the limestone with a 2 foot thick layer of softer material which, on some of the pillars was supported with large timber sections and wooden wedges, which often fell out.  In total there were thirteen of these huge pillars running in a row along the length of the mine.  As I mentioned the tub way from Big Ben ended alongside a brick loading wharf, at this point was an underground canal basin from which the canal ran back from this point along the bottom left hand edge of this mine for about 150 yards then the canal, which was about 20 foot wide and 5 foot deep entered a brick lined tunnel about 14foot bore and about 50 foot in length. After this the canal emerged into another open section about 50 foot long to disappear into another brick lined tunnel originally about 50 yards long but blocked by a roof fall half way through, which lead the canal into Little Tess Mine by an open canal about 75 yards long then finally into a 50 foot section of tunnel leading to the underground junction with the main bore of the Dudley Canal Tunnel at Cathedral Arch.
Back to the canal basin in Dark Cavern, also at this point the canal makes a 90° turn then immediately disappears into a brick lined tunnel about 80 yards long until it opens back out into a mine about 75 feet in length called Mud Hole. At the far end of this mine the canal stops but running along each side of the canal are brick-built loading wharves form where the limestone was loaded into the mine boats described earlier. This limestone mine actually ran at 90° to the canal and the mine ran off both to the left and the right. On the right the roof had collapsed and a brick wall ran parallel with the wharf about 20foot away and at the middle of it was a partly covered tunnel entrance called Sam’s Dig which lead into a small brick lined tunnel that had also collapsed a short distance in.  On the right-hand side running away from the loading wharf was a short mine that terminated in a total roof collapse called The Conference Room. At this point the limestone was quite soft and crumbly and lumps were easily split open with a welders chipping hammer or a brickie’s hammer to reveal loads and loads of the famous Trilobite known as ‘The Dudley Bug’.  Continuing straight on from the loading area, lead through a very unstable section of mine regularly collapsing, then to a rising passageway leading to the surface and bringing you out through a small climb/crawl into the bottom of another of the surface depressions or pits. Back into the Dark Cavern at the canal basin, the pathway we were following passes over the top of the tunnel entrance to Mud Hole then past the next limestone pillar and finishes at the base of a stone set of palatial steps leading up the sloping side of the mine to a higher level.
A view inside Dark Cavern showing one of the huge pillars and its fault line. Also the stone steps which led up to the bandstand and the tunnel leading to Mud Hole ©Roy Fellows

At the top and at the left of this stone staircase, is the Bandstand a flat ‘stage’ area surrounded by a low stone wall, again all built out of limestone. It was from this stage that in 1849 Sir Roderick Murchison gave a lecture on Dudley’s limestone and fossils to an invited audience of 15,000. Evidence of the gas lighting installed for this and subsequent visits were around this area with iron gas piping and supporting brackets.  Continuing along this higher pathway brings us past another six limestone support pillars and then to the main entrance on the right-hand side which consisted of a large pit breaking through into the mine with a set of stone steps leading up through the pit to the surface.
The stone pillars just inside the Dark Cavern.©madaboutmining.

Continuing on a further 50 yards you are confronted by a most impressive stone arch way in which was a large iron gate.  Between the top of the arch and the roof, large sections of tree trunk were fitted as supports and from a distance, especially with a light behind the archway, it looked like a set of monster teeth hence its name The Dragons Teeth. Behind the gateway was a pathway that lead up to the surface which I understood to be a mine workers entrance.  As there was no access forward to link to Little Tess, you had to leave the mine system here at this point and clime the remains of the 144 steps out into daylight.
The entrance to the Dark Cavern or 144 as it was also known ©madaboutmining

 After a short walk across to another small surface fissure which led down into Little Tess via a climb/crawl. Little Tess was only a small mine in comparison to the Dark Cavern being about 70 yards long, 50 foot wide and about the same height.  At the bottom was the open section of canal with a tunnel leading off to the right to the Dudley Tunnel, originally a tunnel went off to the right leading back to Dark Cavern, but this had been lost in roof fall.  Leading off on the left at an angle to the through canal was another tunnel, this time not brick lined but of natural rock. This tunnel being about 9 feet wide and with water 5 foot deep.  This 80 yard tunnel leads through to the Singing Cavern, which now forms part of the modern day Tunnel trips and has been ‘altered and landscaped’.  In the 60’s the canal continued along the whole length of the mine up to the roof fall at the end, approx. 100 yards.  About half way along its length and on each side of the canal were brick-built loading wharfs.  Leading back from these wharfs were short 25 foot rock tunnels and at the end of each of these tunnels was a 10 foot circular brick lined shaft leading to the surface but capped off and leading down to a second set of galleries about 70 feet below and totally flooded.
The new look Singer Mine just ahead of the boats are where the loading wharves and side shafts were. ©Express&star

Above where the rock tunnel emerges from Little Tess, were three large limestone pillars similar to those in the Dark Cavern and also at this time, above and behind the rock tunnel were two large holes leading out to the surface giving both fresh air and easy access. Some say this mine was called ‘singer’ because the wind used to blow through these two holes and make sounds, but I must say I’ve been down there from slight breeze to gale force and never hear any sounds, however this mine was very close to the surface and as a result was always very wet with drips continuously falling and as the floor of the mine was all canal, if you stood quietly all you could hear was plop plop plip plop plip plep plip plop plap plup plip plop! And I was told that this was where it got its name from! The last two mines I will describe were not connected to any of those previously described, other than they all connect back to the main Dudley Tunnel.
Castle Mill basin with main Dudley tunnel to the right, new ‘trip’ tunnel in centre and the entrance to murder mine to the left.©DCT

Leading off the Castle Mill Basin on the Dudley side is Murder Mine. Originally both Castle Mill and Shirts Mill Basins were not basins as such but were roofed over and were limestone mines in their own right but later had their tops taken off opening them up to the surface. Murder Mine was named after a dead body found there many years ago (there’s always a body!) It is a bit non- descript really being about 80 feet wide 30 feet high and 125 yards long and terminating in a roof fall.  The other mine, known as Flooded Mine, for fairly obvious reasons, ran at 90° to the main canal off Shirts Mill Basin. As you come out of the main Dudley Tunnel into Shirts Mill Basin, or to give this section it’s proper name, Lord Wards Tunnel, you are flanked on both sides by brick-built loading wharfs. The tunnel entrance you had just come out of had two side tunnels, now bricked up, to enable boats to await loading and leaving a through route open for boats using the main Dudley tunnel.
On the right a short brick tunnel lead to a round vertical shaft leading both up presumably originally to winding gear, and down to Tipton Colliery running through this short tunnel was excavated a short length of tub rail track with cast rails and sleepers into which was cast the name Ward, the Earls of Dudley family name.  On the left-hand side was a small triangular mine entrance which leads into Flooded Mine.
The entrance to flooded mine
 It starts as a small chamber about 20feet square then leading off from this was a brick lined tunnel of similar dimensions to the brick lined tub track tunnels in Dark Cavern and Mud Hole.  This tunnel was about 100 yards long then it opened out into another small mine about 70 feet long and 40 feet wide only to again disappear into another brick lined tunnel about 100 yards long which again opens out into a small mine with a larger section of mine going off and upwards to the right-hand side. Continuing into a third 100-yard section of bricked tunnel you finally come out into the main mine.  So far you have been wading through 2 feet of water from the very start of this mine, also the remaining imprints of the tug rail sleepers can be seen through the whole length of this mine before you disturb the crystal-clear water that is!  As you emerge into this last part of the mine the water gets shallower and shallower until over on the left-hand side of the mine you are walking on dry floor.  Over on the right at this point there is an iron pipe about 4 inches diameter running vertically from ceiling to floor and into the water.  At a point on the surface that we worked out to be over the top of this point is a small brick building with a 4 inch pipe coming up through the floor and on the top of the pipe was a series of ceased levers and mechanism which I would say was some pumping system.  Eventually after a further 100 yards the floor of the mine gradually gets nearer the roof as you clamber over another roof fall.  In total you have probably travelled close on half a mile or there about and in freezing cold water just below your tender bits, (so long as you don’t splash about too much and walk gently) Well there you go that’s about it, once again my biggest regret is, same as the canals at this time, that I didn’t take loads of photo’s. Anyway, I have only one word of warning for you, if you still could venture down and you did, then as far as those big loose lumps of rock are concerned –
 Don’t bang ‘em about,

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.


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.