Gibson's Arm

Ray Shill
31 May 2010

Some branches have been lost completely without trace and without the attention of an archaeological excavation will remain so. One such case is the private canal known as Gibson's Arm, which was located in Central Birmingham. It joined the Newhall Branch, travelled under Cambridge Street and through a lock that raised boats to the level of Broad Street at a place known as Easy Hill. From there the canal divided into two basins shaped in the form of a letter "F". Factories and wharves lined this entire waterway some rising high and creating a perpetual gloom in places. It became a secret world known only to the boatmen and the workers in the factories along its banks.

The construction of the branch was down to Thomas Gibson who acquired the property in 1812. Previous to this date the land had been in the hands of the Baskerville family, and formerly the home of John Baskerville the eminent printer. The house had been gutted during the Priestley Riots of 1791, which was a sad part of Birmingham's history where a mob was incited to destroy property because of the radical beliefs held by the minister, politician, scientist and philosopher, Joseph Priestley.

Gibson himself was a man with a variety of business interest. He was a native of Corley near Coventry and trained in agriculture during his early life. He later briefly worked for a butcher near Stone Bridge and then went to work for George Russell of Moseley. Gibson spent years of service in Russell & Smith's warehouse where he learnt to read and write. In 1784 he married a fellow servant. With money saved in service, Gibson took land in Suffolk Street and built a house, warehouse, malthouse and commenced to deal in hay, straw, hops etc. He was also still employed as clerk to Russell & Smith at the time of the Birmingham Riots, but eventually took on Russell & Smiths trade.

Thomas Gibson traded in business as an iron merchant and was in partnership until 1814 as the firm of Gibson and Shore. Mr Shore left the partnership in June 1814 leaving Gibson in charge of the new premises at Cambridge Street and a rolling and slitting mill near Digbeth. Thomas continued the metal trade in partnership with his sons and ultimately it passed to W & H Gibson, before they moved on to other locations and business interests.

The canal arm made through to the Birmingham Canal enabled Gibson to let Wharves. Very soon several steam engines had been erected for rolling metal and producing iron and brass goods. In making the canal it was necessary to build a deep lock, called Gibson's Deep Lock. Water was raised by a steam engine placed in Gibson's Rolling Mill that was beside the lock and faced Cambridge Street. The engine made 20 stokes a minute and raised up to 35 gallons of water a stroke. It was estimated that in order to raise a boat up to the level 232 tons of water were required. Gibson also established a coal business and had 10 coal boats at work in this trade.

Thomas Gibson died in 1840 leaving his name forever associated with the private canal arm. Maps sometimes differentiate between the two long arms. That parallel to Cambridge Street was known as Gibson's Basin or Arm, whilst that nearer Broad Street was called Baskerville Basin and Wharfs. Between the two a long passage was made that was known as Baskerville Passage, which united Baskerville Place with Easy Row.

Canal side premises have seen considerable turnover of occupation during the years the basins were in existence. Long-term occupiers included the Nettlefolds screw factory at the Baskerville place end of Baskerville Basin and the adjacent copper works of Thomas Bolton & Sons. Whilst on the corner of Broad Street and Easy Row was Samuel Williams lime wharf. Between, and around, these properties were timber yards, coal wharves, a flour mill, a pin factory and a coach-builders. Morewoods also had a brief spell making galvanised iron including wire for that new invention the telegraph! Baskerville Passage was also known as Attwood's Passage, a name derived from the Attwood family who briefly had a copper tube works there. Beside this passage was Baskerville House.

Gibsons Basin was surrounded by another range of works, many of which eventually passed into the control of the Winfield Company. This included Gibson's Mill that was also known as the Union Rolling Mill (and had a period of independent existence as the Union Rolling Mill Company), the Crescent Foundry and Robert Winfield's original bedstead and brass works.

Robert Winfield had learnt the brass trade working for master brass founder Benjamin Cook and was an early lessee of land at Cambridge Street once the Gibson's Branch had been established. Winfield built up an extensive trade in ornamental brass products, brass bedsteads, lacquer and varnish making and even stained glass and this business came to practically enclose the Gibson's Basin. But with his death and no heir to pass the business onto Winfields Ltd was formed, who consolidated Robert's former business, but lacked his acute business acumen. A rift within the company led to court proceedings and the piecemeal sale of the Cambridge Street Works during 1898. The lacquer department, gas, light and electric fittings department, metallic bedstead works and stained glass factory were all disposed of leaving the metal rolling department fronting Cambridge Street in the hands of a new company, Winfields Ltd. Other trades came into to occupy some of former Winfields buildings including Sperryn & Co and Player & Mitchell. Whilst across Attwoods Passage, Baskerville House site and some adjacent plots of land had been taken by the Birmingham Aluminium Company.

All the Broad Street group of premises (and those south of Attwoods Passage) lasted through to the end of the First World War but were then pulled down to make way for the Hall of Memory and the adjacent Gardens. Baskerville Basin was filled in, but Gibsons Basin was retained to serve Winfields Rolling Mill and this remained in use until the 1936 when Winfields Ltd decided to relocate to Icknield Port taking over Vivians Rolling Mills and abandoning the remainder of Gibsons Basin to Birmingham Corporation and their plans for a new Civic Centre. The rolling mills were pulled down and the land cleared. Work started on the new Baskerville House in 1938 and construction was still underway when War was declared in 1939.

Gibson's deep lock was destroyed during this time, but the linking canal with the BCN Newhall Branch was retained. This link was part covered by warehouses associated with the Crescent Wharves. An early carrier Thomas Sturland had used the wharves facing Gibsons Arm from 1821. Later the Shropshire Union Canal Carrying Company had warehouse here and their engineer Jebb had re-modelled and improved the warehouse there. Finally Fellows, Morton & Clayton occupied this group of warehouses until their move to Sherborne Street.

When Fellows, Morton & Clayton left, the buildings were not immediately pulled down as the onset of the Second World War rendered uses for even old buildings. Many of the warehouses alongside the stub of Gibsons Arm were retained for Municipal use and remained in Corporation service for much of the 1950's.

Finally when even the old warehouses failed any further purpose they were pulled down. Their demolition was accompanied with the filling in of the Newhall Branch from Friday Bridge to the Longboat Public House and the creation of a new pedestrian walkway.