Pensnett Canal

Ray Shill
30 May 2010

The Earl of Dudley owned the largest proportion of mineral property in the Black Country, which included coal, ironstone, limestone and fireclay mines. Many of these properties were leased off to private enterprise, but there was a growing trend to bring these operations under the control of a central agency. Mineral acquisitions had proceeded gradually by the estate of Viscount Dudley and Ward, culminating with John William who was created Earl of Dudley in 1827. With his death in 1833 control passed onto the executors, who included the Earl of Stafford. Francis Downing was the mineral agent until 1836, but a very capable person, Richard Smith, replaced him. Smith was the architect of the industrial empire that was to be developed. It was Smith who took back many of the leasehold properties for in house control. These included the Level Furnaces. In order to improve communication a new canal link was needed and within three years after Smiths appointment a new private canal was commissioned. In 1839 contracts were invited for the construction of this waterway

Mines Office Dudley, April 16 1839, To Canal Contractors: "The Trustees of the Late Earl of Dudley are about to make a canal from the Parkhead end of the Dudley Tunnel to the Pensnett Mine Engine near the Round Oak, Brierley Hill. Persons willing to contract to perform the work may see plans and specifications at this office after Tuesday the 28 d instant and may obtain further information from the engineer Mathew Frost, Wolverhampton Road, Bilston, every morning before eleven o'clock. Sealed tenders are required to be delivered to this office on Thursday the 2nd May addressed to Mr Richard Smith.

*** The Trustees do not bind themselves to accept the lowest tender, sureties will be required for the due performance of work."

Birmingham Gazette 12th April 1839 Matthew Frost was a surveyor, land-owner, colliery owner and contractor, who lived at Bilston. His contracting work was often conducted in partnership with John Bate. The Pensnett Canal was one of his earliest canal construction ventures and was conducted during the same period as cutting and making of the Hatherton Branch Canal (Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal), which was made between 1839 and 1841. Matthew Frost had two brothers, James and Samuel, who were also surveyors and Matthew may have been of assistance to his elder brother James Frost, who was contractor for the Stourbridge Extension Canal (1838-1840).

Cutting the Pensnett Canal began during 1839 and work was underway by November of that year. It was constructed at the same level as that of the Dudley Canal at Parkhead (473 ft). A junction was made there above the top lock of the Parkhead Locks and opposite another private arm that served M & W Grazebrook's Blowers Green Furnaces.

This was a busy industrial area surrounded by coalmines, ironstone mines, iron smelting furnaces and ironworks. The canal followed the 473ft level through to an area known as the Wallows. It was 1 1/4 miles long and completion of this waterway is generally agreed as during the year 1840. Engineering features include the making of bridges for the tracks and turnpike roads and there was also a tramway bridge that had to be made for the "railway" from the Dudley to Mines at High Lanes and the Parkhead Furnaces. Compared to the Hatherton Branch Canal and the associated reservoir construction, the making of the Pensnett Canal was a much smaller undertaking. Matthew Frost then went on to other important projects. These included part of the Bentley Canal, Neachills Branch and Rushall Canal. He also was associated with the making of colliery tramways and railways. Frost built the Cheslyn Hay Tram-road between 1841 and 1842 for the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Company and in 1845 was making a mineral tramway to Portobello Colliery for William Ward, whilst from 1851 to 1854 he and John Bate made part of the Great Western Railway line between Birmingham and Priestfields. The new canal provided access to the Old Park Colliery, which Richard Smith was keen to develop and link by a new railway to the furnace complex at the Level, Brierley Hill. Construction of the railway then followed, as did the reconstruction of the New Level Furnaces. The railway link formed the nucleus of the internal railway system developed for the Late Earl's Trustees, known as the Pensnett Railway and a wharf was made near the terminus of the Pensnett Canal for interchange between railway and canal.

The route of the Pensnett Canal provided opportunity for canalside development and included coke ovens, limekilns and a brick works. The largest development was the Hartshill Ironworks, whose forges and rolling mills generated important traffic for the Pensnett Canal. Hartshill Ironworks was developed during the late 1840's and became the property of Hingley and Smith.

Perhaps the most important volume of trade was directed towards the Wallows terminus where interchange was possible with the Earl of Dudley's various operations, which greatly increased during the 1850's and 1860s.

The Pensnett Railway became quite extensive connecting a number of coalmines with the canal. Perhaps the greatest traffic came from the Old Park and later the deep mines at Himley that sent coal to the interchange basin at the Wallows. Railway boats also came to make the journey along the Pensnett Canal to fetch iron goods and other commodities for transhipment to rail wagons at their respective interchange depots on the BCN.

A later canal side development was a small power station at Hartshill for the Dudley, Stourbridge and District Electric Tramways that supplied current to the tramway network there.

The Wallows end of the canal was said to be disused by the mid 1940's but there was still traffic to the Hartshill Ironworks until 1950. After this ended, the whole canal became disused. Part was filled in, but a section near Hartshill remained in water, and in fact is still in water, a reed covered stagnant strip near Canal Street.

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