When talking about their home town, West Midlanders are some of the most self-deprecating folk you’ll meet; try putting a Brummie up against a Scouser in a bragging contest and you’ll see what I mean. But there’s one thing guaranteed to make the most miserablist swell their chests – the cuts. Every local knows that their city has more miles of canal than Venice (it’s also alleged that there are more trees than Paris, and more Anthony Gormley statues than either, but I couldn’t really comment), but exactly how many more are we talking?
Venice has a nice, static 26 miles in its little island (I can’t find an accurate area for the historic city, but certainly no more than 5 square miles). Amsterdam, by comparison has 60 miles in its c.85 square miles. But what do we mean when we say Birmingham has more than that? The City of Birmingham (this size since 1974, which already confuses most of the history associated with the canals) is 103 square miles large, and doing a quick job with Google maps, I’d say is home to around 34 miles of canal. Certainly more in absolute terms than Venice, but not up there in terms of density.
But that’s missing the point really. The canals of the West Midlands make no sense when modern municipal boundaries are superimposed, because they precede these by two centuries. They mean a lot more when taken as a cohesive network, with arteries to the outside world. There are other urban areas with waterway networks: Manchester (although much less than its peak), South Yorkshire; but the West Midlands formed the earliest network, and by far the most extensive. It was dictated by coal of course, following the Duke of Bridgewater’s maxim that without coal, you might as well not bother; and South Staffordshire had it – and other materials – in abundance.
The first canal in the region was what’s now the Wednesbury Old Canal, which brought coal from Hill Top onto the more familiar route of the Birmingham Canal and into town, famously halving the price of coal overnight. The next step was to complete the link to the outside world, leaving the 1769 canal at Oldbury and winding through the Black Country to Wolverhampton in 1772, and Brindley’s Staffs & Worcs Canal. So already, it’s a bit silly to imagine Birmingham as some sort of self-contained republic of canals in the same way as Venice. The main line was soon joined by the Earl of Dudley’s venture to take goods from the Western side of the Rowley Hills down to the S&W – it was split into two companies but forms one main line, the Dudley/Stourbridge canals in 1779. An extension from Ryders Green towards Walsall was started soon after, then the Birmingham & Fazeley to reach through Aston and out to the national network in the East.
The Dudley and Birmingham canals were connected in 1792 by the Dudley tunnel, and in 1794 came the foundation of the Birmingham Canal Navigations as a merger of the Birmingham and the B&F. With me still? Thereafter follows the Worcester & Birmingham (which remained separate from the BCN), the Bradley Branch to link the Walsall route and the Wolverhampton route, a second Dudley canal through Netherton to connect with the W&B, which also was about to connect to the Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal and thence to London.
The Curley Wyrley came next, with its multitudinous branches across the Northern Black Country, the Digbeth Branch linking with the new Warwick & Birmingham Junction Canal (later the Grand Union), more Black Country branches like the Tipton Green and Toll End, then more and more bits and pieces to fill in the gaps. The picture was completed by Telford’s New Main Line which cut a swathe through a rather tired Old Main Line, the takeover of the Dudley Canals (though not the Stourbridge), the Gower Branch, the Titford Branch, the private Pensnett Canal, the Stourbridge Extension Canal, the Walsall Junction linking the two close but unconnected cuts near Walsall, the Bentley, the Rushall, the Cannock Extension and finally the Netherton tunnel, the last canal tunnel completed in the UK in 1858, and essentially the last piece of the puzzle.
So far, so whistlestop. So I did a little plotting and adding up, and although there’s certainly not the density of canals that you get in Venice, the engineering effort expended across this small part of (mostly) South Staffordshire was vast. Across the Birmingham and Black Country boroughs, I make it, very roughly, 136 miles of canal either existing or having existed. The BCN network itself was much bigger, 160 miles at its peak (not including the various other cuts in the region that weren’t operated by them); but that includes the big arterial routes like the B&F and the Cannock Chase canals that fall outside of today’s administrative Black Country. But taking that 136 miles, that means a density of 0.56 miles of canal for every square mile of land. Not bad going considering the huge industrial workings that took up most of the land. In Sandwell, it rises to just over 1 mile of canal for every square mile of land, an astonishing feat of infrastructure.
More than this though, Venice and Birmingham are diametrically different types of cities. By the mid 17th century when Brum was just starting to pick itself up from being an unimportant hamlet, Venice had already risen, and fallen, from being a world power with a Mediterranean empire. In 1797, when the BCN was finishing off the Wyrley & Essington Canal, Napoleon was marching into Venice. Birmingham and the Black Country are almost entirely industrial from birth, a side of life which Venice the island leaves to the Italian mainland. Venice is built on wooden piles in a shallow lagoon, while Birmingham has no major river even, let alone a convenient water table. So it’s a daft comparison really, although it seems mean to take it away from the Brummies. Maybe, though, we should look at “Sandwell has more canals than Venice” or “Tipton, the Venice of the Black Country” as more appropriate.
[By the way, the calculations I made (on the digital equivalent of the back of a napkin this morning) to tally up the miles of canal are here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1x8z-aRI-nVc3wZrMvYvSHxITae-5B13UiOfxf7YzCLk/edit?usp=sharing. I’ve included the calculations, as I set it up to see how much of it I’d actually walked on – you can too, just save it to your own Google Drive, then add your miles in the “Walked” column]