Bradley Loop

Ray Shill
31 May 2010

Modern Bradley comprises a mixture of residential properties and the remnants of a past industrial age. One notable survivor from a past age is the British Waterways Workshops that is located at the end of the navigable section of the canal branch from Coseley. Boaters and walkers who venture down this section frequently find this waterway clogged with weed. Nevertheless a journey along this little-used waterway is a worthwhile experience for those interested in canal history. Other remnants of the past include the stop at Capponfield, Glasshouse and Pothouse Bridge and the Sankey factory near Bilston. Another important factor the keen historian is that this canal original formed part of the original Birmingham Canal from Birmingham to Wolverhampton and Aldersley Junction.

This was a route that curved and wound around a host of coalmines and ironstone pits. Furnaces were erected to smelt local ironstone and with the smelting of iron came the foundries for producing cast iron products and the working up into malleable iron for rolling into bars, rails, sheets or other types of section. As mining progressed the character of the area began to change. Subsidence led to waterlogged swags and an industrial wasteland developed between the ironworks and pit shafts.

The canal was first built through this area during the years 1770 and 1771. The route to Wolverhampton had meandered through Tipton to Bloomfield and Wednesbury Oak before heading northwards again to Bradley. From Tup Street Bridge there was a sharp turn to the East before swinging North again to Pot House Bridge through the land of Thomas Hoo. Here was the closest point to John Wilkinson's original ironworks that stood nearby at a lower level. It is generally accepted that Wilkinson erected smelting furnaces here around 1757 to extract metallic iron from local ores. His works were erected near the new turnpike road to Birmingham. With the building of the canal Wilkinson added to his estate through the construction of a foundry and later furnaces and ironworks for smelting and working up of pig iron alongside the canal.

Local bloomeries and blast furnaces had existed before Wilkinson's time using charcoal to assist the smelting of iron and the power of local streams to work the bellows for the blast. Dud Dudley had gained some success through smelting with pit coal in the Seventeenth Century, but it was Wilkinson who followed Abraham's Darby's example and adopt the coke smelting process at his various ironworks during the Eighteenth Century. Wilkinson's Bradley works predated the canal and were shown on James Brindley's 1767 survey of the intended Birmingham Canal. Another feature was the Flint Glassworks nearby that existed through to, at least, 1815 before conversion into a foundry.

The Bradley estate as owned by Wilkinson mineral estate came to extend along a broad strip of land from Lower Bradley through to an area known as Upper Bradley and Hallfields. The estate included 3 furnaces in 1794 capable of making over 3,000 tons of iron per year. Several sources show that a single furnace existed at Lower Bradley, whilst another two were placed nearer the canal at Upper Bradley. A fourth furnace was erected on the Hallfields Colliery.

Wilkinson's was but one estate in the area. With the completion of the Old Birmingham Canal and the later construction of the Walsall Canal that passed close to Lower Bradley much of the adjacent mineral property was divided up for mining. Price's furnaces, by Bilston Brook, were placed to north of Lower Bradley. To the south the Addenbrookes began working the Moorcroft Furnaces, and Williams & Jones set up the Wednesbury Oak Furnaces and Collieries. The private Bradley Branch canal made a start from the Walsall Canal to climb up through locks to finish near Bradley Hall and the Wednesbury Oak mines, but during this early period did not connect with the Old Birmingham Canal. Bradley Marr, another private canal, descended from the Old Birmingham Canal through a stair case pair of locks in the direction of Bradley Colliery and Wilkinson's furnace at Lower Bradley.

John Wilkinson died in 1808 but executors and agents continued to run the estate for at least another 40 years. The Bradley operation had grown to be the largest iron making concern in the district, but by 1808 several other major ironworks had been created that competed with Bradley for trade. Most notable was the various partnerships with Samuel Fereday or his family. Such was the nature of the trade, at this time that finance for each venture was provided by a select group of investors. A small number of businessmen, two, three or four in number, might take shares in the concern. In the case of Bradley the partnership was Fereday, Bickley and Smith that took charge of concern and they would then have been tied or linked to other ventures each partner might be involved with. The problem with this type of working arrangement is that partners might leave or suffer bankruptcy. Following the end of the wars with Napolean, in 1815, a slump in the iron trade led to a host of bankruptcies including Samuel Fereday. Ironworks and collieries closed or changed hands. Partnerships also changed and plant was disposed off to raise capital. Around this time ten iron canal boats were offered for sale to the Birmingham Canal Navigations. Wilkinson is noted for his use of all things iron and these boats were an early example of the use of iron craft on the Birmingham Canal. Canal minutes record the purchase of these boats for 1147-2-6 in March 1816. An issue of ownership then developed. The Canal Company had understood they were the property of Fereday, Bickley & Smith, but on enquiry found they actually belonged to the Wilkinson estate. Payment was recorded in the minutes of April, 1816, but then ten iron boats were numbered amongst a sale at Bradley in August 1816, which suggests that the boats were not purchased by the BCN in April 1816.

By 1817, Mr Adams, executor to the Wilkinson Estate was concerned about the congestion on the canal around their premises there and persuaded the Birmingham Canal Company to make a deviation canal from Tup Street Bridge to Pothouse Bridge, the resulting shortening was cut across their land and made under the Parliamentary powers granted to the Birmingham Canal Company that enabled the construction of short branches. The original piece of canal became, in effect, the first Bradley Loop and two new junctions were made: Bradley Bridge Junction, near Tup Street Bridge and Pothouse Bridge Junction to the south of the bridge with that name.

The loop served the Wilkinson Estate ironworks and foundry, the water engine used to drain the mines and the Bradley Potteries. Another pottery was located near Pothouse Bridge, which gave the bridge its name. Pothouse Bridge was the place where Shropshire Row crossed the canal. The old thoroughfare divided on the east side of the canal. One track turned north to run alongside the towpath before joining up with Chapel Street at Bilston Newtown. A surviving remnant of this way is the perimeter brick wall that lines the towpath from the bridge for a short distance. The other road turned southwards and again ran beside the towpath before dividing again into tracks to Moxley and Lower Bradley. It was only in later years that a new road (Loxdale Street) was extended from Shropshire Row directly to the turnpike road west of Moxley.

By the 1820's the Bradley furnaces and ironworks estate was let to different ironmasters, with the single furnace at Hallfields in the hands of J Fair and Lower Bradley leased to J Cooper. John Turton Fereday retained the Upper Bradley Furnaces (2) and the Bradley Ironworks. At this time J.T Fereday also operated several coal and ironstone mines dotted around the canal network. Ironstone from mines at Monmore Green and Dudley Port provided an important supply to Bradley Furnaces, all of which was brought in the hold of the canal boat. When J.T Fereday suffered bankruptcy the bulk of works passed again into other hands. G.B Thorneycroft had the lease of the Ironworks for a while when these premises included a forge, rolling and Slitting Mill. By 1842, on following the old canal towpath from Pothouse Bridge junction wharves were encountered belonging to Jones, William Smith, Page's (Timber yard) and John Dunning (old lime kilns) before Thorneycroft's Bradley Ironworks were reached. On the deviation were Corbett's Timber Yard and Bradley & Foster's New Bradley Ironworks.

During the second half of the nineteenth century further canalside development occurred. The Regents Ironworks covered Corbett's Timber Yard, whilst the Britannia Ironworks was built alongside the loop. The old Bradley Ironworks were pulled down, but Thorneycroft retained the wharf land for a tramway from the Bradley Colliery. Thorneycrofts also built a pair of new blast furnaces, during the early 1860's. which they named New Bradley. These furnaces were near the line of the Great Western Railway from Birmingham to Wolverhampton and were served by a tramway that met up with the Bradley Locks Canal. Lower Bradley appear to have been pulled down during 1830's, whilst Upper Bradley furnaces lasted until about 1849. Their location was identified on Sherrif's map of 1812 as being near Tup Street Bridge near the towpath side. A subsequent canal improvement to serve these furnaces was a wide basin from the Loop parallel to the main canal at Bradley Bridge Junction. Hallfields was the last furnace, of the group, to close. The last owner was Benjamin Gibbons Junior. By 1860 he had gone on to operate other furnaces and the name Hallfields disappears from the blast furnace statistics list.

With the completion of Coseley Tunnel in 1838 the whole length of the Old Line through Capponfield, Bradley, Wednesbury Oak, Gospel Oak and Bloomfield became a "loop" off the New Main Line and this state of affairs no doubt assisted the development of the ironworks along the banks, as carrier's trade was diverted on to the new route. Further canal improvements included the Bradley Locks Branch completed in 1849, which were effectively a rebuild of the private branch from the Walsall Canal that was straightened and had nine new locks from Moorcroft Junction to Wednesbury Oak. It joined the Rotten Brunt line, which itself was a shortening across a loop of the old canal.

Canal side industry in the Bradley area was concentrated in the metal working trades, and particularly the galvanising trades. Most notable was the firm of Tupper and Co. This firm had begun trade in Berkeley Street, Birmingham and had later expanded to include the Batman's Hill, Britannia Bar Mill and Regents Ironwork, which were all located around the canal at Bradley. Tuppers business was sold off during 1911 and whilst Batmans Hill and Britannia survived, Regents Ironworks were subsequently demolished.

Changes in the metal industry through the increased use of electricity and gas contributed to a declining canal trade, particularly in coal for the furnaces. Yet a number of works remained as canalside features through to 1960 or later. The years 1955-1960 were also accompanied with a number of canal closures. The waterway between Tup Street and Bradley was abandoned as was Bradley Locks and the old loop from Bridge Street Junction to Pothouse Bridge. British Waterways also decided to close their Ocker Hill depot. Lock gate making was transferred from Ocker Hill to a new site at Bradley. The land chosen was located beside Bridge Street junction and BW took over what essentially had been the basin and former site of Upper Bradley Furnaces. In later years this area also included the pumping engine establishment. Water is drawn from the underground mines by modern plant. There was originally a steam engine to drain mines on the Wilkinson estate. It became the property of the South Staffordshire Mines Drainage in 1882 and the Birmingham Canal Navigations from 1923. The steam plant was demolished between 1935 and 1936.

Bradley Workshops was also the home of area offices for a time, but now concentrates on lock gate production. It now supplies a considerable area following the closure of other workshops in recent months.