Following the success of the earlier Donnington Wood, Ketley and Wombridge Canals, it was decided to create the Shropshire Canal that would connect them to Coalbrookdale and the River Severn. This was quite challenging as it had 453ft of ascent and descent.
Joseph Plymley writing in 1803 said “… As soon as the plan of ascending and descending by means of an inclined plane was fairly understood, every person was convinced that its principle was very applicable to the situation of the ground which lay between the Oaken Gates and the river Severn, and that this invention alone would obviate the difficulties which before had been considered as insurmountable. Under this impression, a subscription was entered into, and an act of parliament was obtained for the Shropshire canal.
The general direction of this canal is nearly from North to South: it commences on the north side of the London road from Shrewsbury, at a place called Donnington Wood, and proceeds about 100 yards on a level; it then ascends 120 feet by an inclined plane of 320 yards in length. From the top of this inclined plane (which is the summit level of the canal) it passes on through the Wrockwardine and Snedshill coal and iron-stone works, and near the Oaken Gates is joined by the Ketley canal, (before mentioned); from thence it goes on by the Hollinswood iron-works, and having passed near to the Old Park iron-works, proceeds to Southall-bank, where a branch Striking off to the right, passes near to the Lightmoor and Horsehay iron-works, and terminates at Brierly-hill, near to Coalbrook-dale. The main line of the canal, turning to the left at Southall-bank, goes on to the Windmill farm, where it descends 126 feet, by an inclined plane 600 yards in length: from the bottom of this inclined plane it passes on to the east of Madeley, until it reaches the banks of the Severn, at about two miles below the iron bridge ; here it descends 207 feet, by an inclined plane which is 350 yards in length. From the bottom of this inclined plane, and on a level above the reach of the floods, it passes on parallel with the river, to Coal-port, where it terminates.
The inclined planes which were adopted on the Shropshire canal, were upon the same principle with that which Mr Reynolds had erected on the Ketley canal; and the only variations from it were, that in place of the upper canal ending in a lock, it was terminated by a small inclined plane, which commenced at the bottom level of the canal, and was brought up above top water level of the canal, and a steam engine was so placed as to work the axis of the wooden barrel of the upright frame formerly described. By means of this engine, not only the loaded boats are raised out of the upper canal, up the small inclined plane, without loss of water, but there is brought from the lower level, up the inclined plane, a boat with a load equal to that which passes downwards at the same time. The form of this machine, and the manner in which the steam-engine is connected with it, will be readily comprehended by referring to the annexed engravings which have been carefully copied from those made out by Mr Henry Williams, the resident engineer, under whose directions the machines were erected, and on whose accuracy and veracity the public may with confidence rely: the distances, rise and fall of the canal having likewise been furnished by him, may be considered as equally correct.
This canal being finished in 1792, was filled with water, and has since been kept up by means of the fire-engines which drain the mines in the neighbourhood, and two reservoirs, one of which lies below the level of the canal, and from this last the water is lifted by a fire-engine. Two small reservoirs have since been formed above the level of the canal.
This canal, carried over high and rugged ground, along banks of slipping loam, over old coal-mines, and over where coal-mines and iron-stone are now actually worked under it, is a satisfactory proof, that there is scarcely any ground so difficult, but where, with proper exertions and care, a convenient water conveyance may always be obtained. For this canal, with all its obstacles and difficulties, and being nearly eleven miles in length, cost only £47,500. It has already paid at the late of six per cent, upon this capital; and if the navigation of the Severn was improved, and the other connexions were completed, there is reason to expect that this percentage would be considerably increased; so that, independent of every other consideration, there is a prospect of its becoming a valuable object, even as a distinct speculation.
The benefits which have already arisen from this canal are very considerable. The numerous coal-mines and iron-works in its neighbourhood, have found a ready communication with the Severn; and the country at large has thereby enjoyed the benefit of an extensive supply, and a competition, which could not otherwise have been produced. At its northern extremity Messrs. Reynolds have erected a glass-house, and are preparing to carry on other works in that neighbourhood. On the banks of the Severn, Coal-port, also established by the genius and laudable exertions of Mr William Reynolds, bids fair to rival Stourport, and become a station for such articles as are brought up the Severn, not only for the consumption of the adjoining country, but for most of the eastern parts of the county of Salop, and also for a portion of Staffordshire.”
Unlike previous canals in the area, which were financed by partnerships, this was built by the Shropshire Canal Company. Nevertheless, most of the subscribers were local industrialists, including William Reynolds, Samuel Darby, John Wilkinson and the Marquis of Stafford. A route for the canal had been surveyed by Reynolds and it seems likely that he was assisted in this task by the civil engineer William Jessop, since Jessop provided evidence to support the case for the canal during its subsequent passage through Parliament. The Act of Parliament was obtained in June 1788 “for making and maintaining a navigable Canal from the Canal at Donnington Wood, in the county of Salop, to or near a Place called Southill Bank, and from thence by two several Branches, to communicate with the River Severn”. This also created the “Company of Proprietors of the Shropshire Navigation” and a meeting was held the following day, at which £50,000 of capital was reported to have been pledged. Richard Reynolds was the major shareholder with £6,000 worth of shares, the ironmaster John Wilkinson had £5,500, the Marquess of Stafford £2,000 and William Reynolds £1,000. John Lowden was appointed Engineer at a salary of £100 per annum.
Work started in 1788 and progress was quick, since the section from the top of the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane to the junction with the Ketley Canal at Oakengates was finished in early 1789. Since there was a 1ft difference in level between the canals, a lock was built on the Ketley Canal. Shortly thereafter, the canal had been extended to Southall Bank and work on the section from Southall Bank to Coalport was started in the summer of 1789.
There were 2 tunnels on the canal as follows :
There was a short one under Watling Street at Oakengates and a longer one at Stirchley (also called Southall Bank Tunnel). These tunnels were 10 ft. wide at water level and 13 ft. high. South of Southall Bank the Windmill Incline descended to the Cuckoo Oak. Lowden resigned in October 1789 and the position of Engineer, or 'General Inspector and Surveyor', was taken by Josiah Heatley in December. He in turn was sacked two months later and his replacement, James Pearcy, lasted less than a year before meeting the same fate.
Since work was progressing so well, in December 1789 Loudon was ordered to start work on the branch to Coalbrookdale. The original plan was for an inclined plane at the end of the branch to take traffic down to a section of canal running along the east flank of Coalbrookdale southwards as far as Lincoln Hill. From there, a second inclined plane would run down to a short canal parallel to the river at Dale End. However, the waggon way system through Coalbrookdale was well established and efficient and was being improved by the introduction of plateways. The construction of an expensive canal below Brierly Hill now seemed inappropriate and was postponed in 1790, then abandoned two years later. The problem of getting goods between the canal terminus at Brierly Hill and the dale below still had to be overcome. In February 1790, the Coalbrookdale Company obtained permission to replace the proposed inclined plane with their own tunnel and shaft system similar to that used on the Donnington Wood Canal at Hugh's Bridge. This was in operation by July 1791 and they charged a toll of 3d per ton for goods travelling down the shaft. Since most of the traffic going up the shaft was their own, it does not appear that they had a toll for that direction!
Joseph Plymley writing in 1803 said “… The branch which turns off to the right at Southall Bank, and which terminates at Brierly-hill, near Coalbrookdale, is principally for the purpose of sending down coal and iron for exportation, and for the use of the works at Coalbrook-dale, and for bringing up limestone for the use of various iron-works on the summit-level of the canal, and about Ketley and the Oaken Gates. At Brierly-hill this canal .terminates at a very abrupt bank, the skirts of which are on a level with the iron-works of Coalbrookdale. The communication between the canal and this lower level, was for several years carried on by a method different from the inclined plane. A tunnel on the lower level, was carried into the bank, until it was brought just under the termination of the canal; here two perpendicular pits were sunk from the upper surface downwards, until they reached the tunnel; a large barrel, with a brake wheel upon it (similar to that described for the inclined planes) was placed between the two pits; a frame, was erected for the support of a pulley, over which the rope passed, which was connected with the great barrel: adjoining to each of these frames a crane was erected, whose arm reached over the canal, in one direction, and when turned round, it reached to the centre of the pit.
For the convenience of this mode of conveyance, all the materials were loaded in crates made of iron, four of which filled a boat. When one of the boats, so loaded, was brought within the reach of the arm of the crane, another boat (but empty) was placed near to the opposite pit, and within reach of the arm of another crane. Upon a signal made by the person at the bottom of that pit, that a crate of limestone was attached to the rope hanging therein, the man at the crane, which had by this time raised a crate from the loaded boat in the canal, and carried it over the pit, by lowering it upon the hook fastened to the rope now coiled upon the barrel, gave it such a preponderancy, as to draw the crate with limestone up to the top of the pit, which, upon its arrival there, was taken off the hook with the crane and placed in the boat: while this was doing, the crate which had descended was fixed upon a carriage on the level railway below; and this operation was constantly repeated, ascending and descending alternately.
These pits were each 10 feet diameter, and 120 feet deep but this method not having been found to answer so well as the inclined planes, it has been left off some time ago, and there is now a small inclined plane erected in its place. On this inclined plane (there being no steam-engine attached to it) the descending crate does not bring up a crate with so large a quantity as when the perpendicular machine was employed, but there is more business done in the same time, by means of the inclined plane, and with a smaller proportion of manual labour. Boats pass these inclined planes with considerable expedition. Mr Williams informs me, that he has known six boats passed down, and six taken up the Windmill inclined plane, which is 600 yards long, and 126 feet of fall, in the course of an hour; and in the performing of this, the steam-engine and three men only were employed.”
There is no diagram of the bottom of the shafts but this area was described as “a huge subterraneous vault several hundred yards in length”. This description is doubtless exaggerated, it is more likely that there was a chamber at the bottom of each shaft but the route out would be a normal sized tunnel, widened at places for pass byes. At surface, the canal ended at a four-bay terminus, the bays separated by three short piers.
It will be noticed that the eastern end is not square, this is probably due to the field boundary that ran along there. Whereas Plymley only mentions two cranes, attached to the headgears, a diagram dated 1793 suggesting improvements shows that there were four. It is possible that Plymley was describing it as first installed and then the second set of cranes were added soon afterwards to speed up operations. There is no detailed description of the shaft headgears but, if one crane was attached to the vertical leg of the headgear, that leg would need to be at a distance from the edge of the shaft to allow the crane arm to swing over the boat. It is thus likely that the headgear was constructed as in the diagram above, with the shaft itself to one side of the headgear. The winding drum had a single rope coiled several times around the drum for friction and arranged so that one end of the rope was at the top of one shaft when the other end was at the bottom of the other shaft.
Since the system relied on counterbalance with heavier loads going down, it could only work when there were two loaded boats and two empty boats in the bays. Thus say, a full boat in bays A and C, with empty boats in bays B and D. There would be “heavy” crates going down the shaft (containing up to 2 tons weight) and “light” crates coming up. Crane “a” would lift a heavy crate from the boat in “A” and swing it across to be attached to the winding rope of shaft headgear “x”. The crane rope would then be detached, leaving the heavy crate hanging from the winding mechanism which was prevented from moving by a brake applied to the drum “z”. In the meantime, men at the bottom of the shaft would have attached a light crate to the winding rope of shaft “y”. When ready, the brake on the winding drum “z” was released and the weight of the heavy load (controlled by the winding drum brake) would cause it to descend shaft “x”. As it descended, the winding rope pulled drum “z” round and this caused the winding rope in shaft “y” to ascend, pulling up the light crate attached to the end of it. When the light crate reached surface, crane “d” would move it into the empty boat in “D”. Crane “c” would pick up a heavy crate from a boat in “C” and swing it round to be attached to the winding rope of shaft “y”. A light crate was attached to the winding rope at the bottom of shaft “x” and the winding drum brake released to bring it up to surface, where it was moved by crane “b” into an empty boat in “B”. The whole process was then repeated four times until the empty boats in “B” and “D” were full and could be moved off. The boats in “A” and “C” were now empty, so two new full boats were moved into “B” and “D” to repeat the process.
It is not mentioned but there must also have been cranes at the bottom of each shaft to move the crates between the winding rope and flat wagons, on which they could be pushed out of the tunnel on a tramway. As can be seen, this system required a lot of manual handling of heavy crates and careful management to ensure that boats and crates were in the right place at the right time. Virtually all the traffic going down into the dale consisted of coal and ironstone for the works and most of the traffic being taken from the dale consisted of limestone for other ironworks or iron products. The Coalbrookdale Company used the shafts for sending cast-iron rails to Ketley and other cast-iron goods such as anvils and grates. The Ketley Company sent down pig iron for loading onto Severn barges, wrought-iron bars for re-rolling at the Coalbrookdale forges and supplies for the Lincoln Hill limeworks. The Old Park Company sent coal, pig iron and wrought-iron half blooms to the Severn wharves.
It is not completely clear where the portal of the tunnel was. We know that the shafts were 120ft deep so can find the appropriate contour line that would correspond with this depth. The obvious place to start looking is on the line of the later incline but the tunnel would have emerged part way up it and there is no sign on maps of such a feature. Slightly to the east, however, there are a few buildings exactly on the line of the contour. These are near the current road but this was apparently moved slightly north when the railway was built. There is a curved wall at the back of the modern house here and this seems a likely place for a bricked-up tunnel portal. The line of the tunnel and its portal are shown on the map dated 1883 below.
From the tunnel portal, there would have been a short linking tramway along which horses pulled the wagons to join an existing tramway (known locally as the “Ginny Rails”) which ran from coal and iron mines to the east to the Ironworks and River Severn. This ran across the dam of New Pool.
By September 1790, the company was collecting tolls from traffic using the middle part of the canal at the summit level. Despite the success of the Ketley Inclined Plane, it had been found that it lost a lot of water in its operation so the new company decided to hold a competition for designs for "the best means of raising and lowering heavy weights from one navigation to another." After placing advertisements, they also encouraged the steam engine manufacturers Boulton & Watt to enter. A prize of 50 guineas was offered, and several models were submitted. The committee enlisted the help of John Wilkinson and the inventor and engineer James Watt to judge the designs. John Lowden of Snedshill and Henry Williams of Ketley both received £50 and several consolation prizes were also awarded.
In the revised design, the top lock was replaced by a short back slope, to save water. Each incline had a double track of plateway laid upon it made up of flanged cast iron rails, 6ft long, 8 inches wide, 2 inches thick with a flange 3 inches high, that were fixed to wooden sleepers. The track ran up and over the crest and down the back slope into the loading dock. The boat entered a dock at the top of the incline and was chained to one of two cradles, one running on each track. These were made of heavy baulks of wood reinforced with wrought iron, with front wheels 2ft 3 inches in diameter and smaller rear wheels just 1ft 5 inches in diameter, ensuring that the cradle held the boat level during the descent. In addition, a third pair of rear wheels, 2ft in diameter, were used on the back slope section for the same reason. A stationary steam engine hauled the cradle up the back slope and out of the water, after which everything worked mainly through gravity as on the Ketley prototype. On the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane, most of the traffic was in the uphill direction, and so the steam engine was used to raise the boats up the incline.
On the other inclines, the traffic was downhill, and so they were counterbalanced, with the descending load raising the empty boats on the other track. The engine was only required to assist the boat over the hump at the top. For the most part, the canal was 16ft wide and 4ft 6 inches deep and the company decided that the boats using it should be 20ft long and 6ft 2 inches wide, drawing less than 3ft when loaded. These were the same dimensions as the boats on the Ketley Canal but shallower to take 5-6 tons instead of 8. On the level stretches of canal, the tub-boats were usually chained together in long trains and it was not unusual for just one horse to haul 12 tub-boats carrying 60 tons of coal. Lighter cargoes, such as limestone, might even result in as many as 20 boats being hauled by a single horse. A man on the bank with a large pole had to ensure that the boats were kept in order and did not interfere with traffic coming in the opposite direction. There were 4 inclined planes as follows :
The Windmill (or Stirchley) Inclined Plane was constructed by Cornelius Reynolds and Henry Williams. In October 1790, 350 sleepers were ordered for the plane and in December of the same year the rails as well. The Hay (or Coalport) inclined plane was constructed by William Reynolds and opened in 1791. The self-acting shaft system at Brierly Hill was working by July 1791 and cost £2,742. Construction of the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane had begun in January 1791. The slope of the incline measured about 7 degrees, being 948ft long and rising 113ft 2 inches. The steam engine that worked the lifting machinery was made by Adam Heslop at the Ketley Works and had a 12 inch bore and a 7ft 6 inch stroke.
Between June 1791 - December 1792, records of the nearby Snedshill Ironworks record making 193 tons of cast iron rails for the plane. The wooden sleepers were made by a timber merchant named Thomas Ford of Hadley. The cradles which supported the lifting operation were especially designed by William Prideaux of Newdale, who was a relative of William Reynolds. A company minute dated October 1792 instructed Reynolds “To take and pay for the engine and inclined plane at Donnington Wood”. The Donnington Wood Canal built a short extension to link to the bottom of the new inclined plane.
Each incline required a team of four men to operate it. An engineman and a brakesman worked at the top of the incline, and a man was needed at each end to attach or detach the boats from the rope. Between the inclines, the boats were operated in trains, and Stephen Ballard wrote in 1829 “…a single horse could pull 12 loaded boats with 60 tons of cargo and trains of 18 or 20 boats could also be managed.” In 1791, most of the main canal was ready, although piling for the wharves on the River Severn was still taking place in May 1792. At the eastern end of the section of canal below the Hay Incline (often referred to as the Coalport Canal), a lock was constructed to the River Severn with a drop of 22ft 10 inches. However, the small tub-boats using the Shropshire Canal were not suited to the unpredictable waters of the Severn and no river barges from the river could use the canal's inclined planes. The river lock was quickly found to be another expensive mistake and was soon filled in. Small inclined planes thus constructed on the slope between the bottom section of canal and the wharves; these were all self-acting as virtually all the cargoes were being shipped onto the river barges and trows, rather than coming onto the canal system. There was also a huge transhipment warehouse between the canal and the river. William Reynolds exploited the attraction of a good transport system and within a few years the new village of Coalport had two potteries, a chain works and a rope factory.
The whole length of the canal was in operation by the end of 1792, with the company headquarters, warehouse and manager's house at Snedshill. While the Wrockwardine Wood plane was worked by a steam engine from the start, the engines for the Windmill and Hay planes were not ready when they began operation, and the initial movement of the boats was assisted by horses until 1793, when the engines were commissioned. When fully operational, the Windmill Farm inclined plane could take 6 boats in either direction in one hour. Despite the lack of locks, reservoirs were needed to supply the canal and additional ones were still being built several years after it had opened. The achievement of the Shropshire Canal was summed up later by Thomas Telford when he wrote that “This canal, carried over high and rugged ground, along banks of slipping loam, over old coal mines and over where coal mines and iron stone are now actually worked under it, is satisfactory proof that there is scarcely any ground so difficult, but where, with proper exertions and care, a convenient water conveyance may always be obtained”.
Since the Coalbrookdale branch had stopped at Brierly Hill, the total construction cost of the canal was just £47,500 and thus less than the capital authorised in the Act. The company was run by industrialists, who were keen to keep the tolls low as many of them used the canal to transport their own merchandise. Despite this, an initial dividend of 2.5% was declared in 1793 only a year after construction (this rose steadily to reach around 8% by the 1830s).
Despite the expense of the Brierly Hill shaft system, it proved to be inefficient and unreliable. In March 1793, it broke down and the Coalbrookdale Company asked John Curr, an engineer from Sheffield, to report on how improvements might be made to the system. He reported on May 25th 1793 :
“On my travels from the Dale I have made it my study to hit upon the best plans of getting the Crates out of the Boats into the Pitts, disposing of them at the Pit Bottoms and of disposing of them on the Roads at the Jinneys; in which I have had the good fortune to please myself and doubts not of its meeting your approbation and Mr Reynolds. I however thought it prudent to give you short sketches of the separate subjects before I proceed to draw regular plans.
1st - of the Taking off the Crates and mode of hanging
The Plan here proposed is to move the 2 Inner Cranes about 4 feet to make a Platform or Cage (shewn by dotted lines at the Ends of the Crates) to contain 2 crates with carriages under them and this Cage is suspended by a double Rope at each end of it and each Pair of Ropes have their separate Pulleys which will be about 7½ feet assunder Centre and Centre. As soon as the Crates run to the Pit Top the Crane “c” will be ready to lift them into the Boat in the Navigation “B”, and the Crane “d” will have a pair of empty Crates ready to sett upon the Carriages. The Conductors here are out of the way of the Crates as are also the 2 pair of Ropes which suspend the Cage and goes over the Pulleys.
The Cranes must have a swivel to them to admit the Crates turning into a position to suit the Boats. By this means we can apply 4 ropes to each pair of crates.
NB The Conductors must hold them steady in going down to bring them square of the Tunnel at the Pit Bottom.”
The main change was that the crates were now to be kept on flat wagons carried on a winding platform in the shaft. Since two wagons could be taken at a time, this doubled the throughput. It also meant that the wagons could be easily pushed off at the bottom onto the tramway, thus removing one element of handling that had been required before. Curr had invented containerisation! William Reynolds made a diagram of the Brierly Hill winding system in his notebook and, since it shows flat wagons at the shaft top, this presumably shows the system after the recommended changes had been made,
Diagram of Brierly Hill shaft winding system from William Reynolds’ notebook. Note that it is both a
plan and section, thus the lower third of the diagram shows the front part of the canal bays from above
Reynolds’ diagram only shows two cranes but he may have omitted the other two for clarity. The large circular object was in fact a flywheel, on which the wooden brake shoes operated, attached to the end of the winding drum. The winding drum itself was much smaller in diameter and can be identified where the winding ropes end. It is not clear whether the flat wagons stayed on the winding platform or were pushed off onto a short section of rails before being unloaded by the cranes. Reynolds’ diagram shows two wagons at each shaft, one of which appears to have been pushed off a short distance. However, Curr’s diagram shows the two wagons side by side on the platform and facing the sides so they could not have been pushed very far. It is probable that crates were normally lifted directly off the wagons from the winding platform but, if there was an abnormal load, the wagons could be pushed a short way out to assist the crane.
The other innovation was to attach a double rope to each end of the winding platform, thus supporting the platform on four ropes. This may seem a bit over the top but possibly there had been problems with rope breakage in the past. Since the ropes hung down from the pulleys to the shaft lip, they would have interfered with the swing of the inner cranes so Curr recommended that these be moved as shown. Since the system still relied on counterbalance, the sequence of winding heavy and light crates remained the same but was made quicker.
Curr went on to recommend changes at the bottom of the shafts :
2nd - the mode of disposing of the Crates in the Pit Bottoms
The Horse will bring the Crates to the Pass Bye “a”; when the Cage has set down with two full Crates on the Pit Bottom the 2 men will each take a Crate and sett them upon the Road “b”; They will then take each a Crate from the Road “c” and place them upon the Cage at the Pit Bottom. They then Bid them go at Pit Top and walk through to the other Shaft while the Crates are ascending and go through the same operations with the other shaft. The Road being level from the Pass Byes to the Pits 2 men will do any Quantity of business that can possibly be wanted. I think they will have no guiding of Crates nor hooking nor unhooking nor shall we upon this plan want hooks and links put upon each corner of the Crate as I before proposed. Nor will there be one Brick to move in the Tunnel or any other openings made.
I should be glad that Mr Reynolds and you might pay a little attention to the Plans I have here proposed which after mature deliberation am in hopes will be found practicable and easy and if you approve of them I will attend particularly to the different points and get models made to suit these.
The plan above shows that there was a pass bye adjacent to each shaft bottom. A pass bye was where the rails split and ran parallel for a short distance so trucks coming in different directions could pass each other. It would also appear that each shaft had its own tunnel and pass bye, rather than both being in a large chamber, although these must have linked up after a short distance before heading outside. So a train of wagons with light crates would be pulled in by a horse and left at the pass bye. When the two wagons with heavy crates arrived at the shaft bottom on the winding platform, they were pushed off and onto the opposite line of the pass bye. Two wagons with light crates on the adjacent line of the pass bye would then be pushed onto the winding platform ready to be lifted. It appears that there were only two men to service both shafts so, as the wagons with light crates were being hauled up one shaft, they had time to walk round to the other shaft to do the same thing when the wagons with heavy crates arrived at the bottom of that shaft. It is likely that the trains consisted of six wagons so the winding process had to be repeated six times before there were six wagons with heavy crates at the bottom of a shaft. No doubt the process was arranged so that, by the time the horse brought in six new wagons with light crates, the six wagons with heavy crates were ready to be taken out.
Curr also recommended changes to the handling of wagons at the tunnel mouth :
3rd – The mode of disposing of the Crates at the Jinneys
When the horse brings his load of crates from the Pass Bye upwards to the Pass Bye “a” he there leaves them. By this time we are to suppose there are 6 crates standing upon the Road “c” which the Horse is hooked too and he draws them to the Pass Bye “b”. He then hooks again to his former load at “a” and setts down on the road “c” from whence they are took by the Jinneys. By this means the road must be level from “g” to the Joining of the Main Road, and from the point at “e” to the main Road at “f” it measures 6 or 7 Yards and from “f” to ”g” is 17 or 18 Yards. “d” shows the descending Jinney Road.
This plan being different from what I proposed when at the dale which was to go off at the dotted Lines near “a” it makes this Alteration in the Pass Byes (viz that they must each begin and end 11 or 12 yards nearer the Upper end of the Road than where I staked them out. We can now easy alter the Pass Bye places 11 or 12 Yards but can't alter the intended place for the Jinneys.
In operation, a train of six wagons with light crates would be pulled up the incline “d”, counterbalanced by a train of six wagons with heavy crates going down. Both trains were attached to ropes that went around a braked windlass (shown on the diagram above “g”). At the top of the incline at “e”, the six wagons with light crates were detached from the rope and pulled by a horse to the pass bye at “b”. On the adjacent line at “a” would be six wagons with heavy crates that had been brought out from bottom of the shafts. The horse would then take these to the flat area at “c”, where they would wait until ready to descend the incline. Meanwhile, the six wagons with light crates at “b” would have been pulled by a horse to the bottom of the shafts ready to be taken up. At the bottom of the incline, the six wagons with heavy crates would be detached from the rope and pulled along a tramway by a horse to the ironworks. Six more wagons with light crates would be brought back ready to be taken up the incline.
This is interesting as it shows that there was an incline from the mouth of the tunnel down to the tramway to Coalbrookdale Ironworks. A “jinney or ginny” was a flat truck but the name was also used locally to refer to an incline or rails they were used on. The tramway along the bottom of Brierly Hill was always known locally as the “Ginny Rails”. The tunnel mouth is not actually shown on Curr’s diagram but would have been just to the left of pass bye “a”. The straight length of rails at “f” probably just acted as a sidings for spare wagons. The rails shown at “d” were the inline itself and it is interesting that it is doubled at the top. Normally, pass byes on a long incline were in the middle so only a single set of rails needed to be laid for most of the length. If there were double rails at the top, this indicates that the incline was only short so there was no opportunity of making it single railed. Another clue to the setup is that Curr in his letter refers to “the intended place for the Jinneys”, thus indicating that the incline had not existed before and was part of his suggested improvements. The incline would connect to the existing tramway to the ironworks and cut out the horse drawn connection used before. The portion of the setup shown on Curr’s diagram is shown on the map below.
There was a slight change to the tramway by extending it a short distance to the east. Remember that the map is dated 1883 and the road was moved north when the railway was constructed in 1861. The ground to the east of the tunnel portal was tipped on when the brickworks was operating so the current state is not the same as it was then. The ground became level at the dam so the incline would have ended here and the wagons unhooked. A horse would then take the line of wagons to join the Ginny Rails tramway and thus on to the Ironworks and River Severn.
Barry Trinder, in his book “The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire”, writes “… The terminus re-commenced operations on 11th July 1793 and was heavily used. There was a substantial traffic in the downward direction of coal and iron from Old Park, Horsehay and Ketley. Upward traffic was surprisingly heavy and varied, including iron rails, two ropes for the Ketley inclined plane, timber from Richard Reynolds's timber yard and, most surprisingly, some new tub boats. The problems of extricating the boats from beneath the headstocks must have been formidable. The most considerable upward traffic was limestone from Lincoln Hill and Buildwas Rocks, consigned to Ketley and Wombridge. The downward coal traffic increased substantially from the beginning of September 1793, most of it coming from the Coalbrookdale Company's pits in Dawley and Lawley. In the fortnight ending 26th September nearly 700 tons of the company's coal went down the shafts.
It is doubtful whether the terminus was working efficiently. The difficulties of ensuring that downward loads were sufficiently heavy to lift up such weighty commodities as cast iron rails must have been formidable. It seems that about the beginning of October a decision was taken to cease using the terminus for bulk traffic. This was probably not brought about by a sudden breakdown since there was a rush of coal and limestone traffic during the last few days of operation early in October. After 13th October the coal traffic ceased and only occasional and insignificant cargoes of limestone were carried. The shafts remained open for sundries, timber, gunpowder, lime bags, ropes, a little wrought iron from Ketley to Coalbrookdale for another year but the number of consignments steadily dwindled. In December 1793 the Coalbrookdale partners formally decided to replace the tunnels and shafts with a railway incline down the cliff at Brierly Hill and a railway from its foot along the ridge of Lincoln Hill, to descend to the Severn bank by another incline near the Lower Forge, a route similar to that originally proposed for the canal. By May 1794, 57 waggons for the new railway had been completed and 45 were under construction. The railway probably came into use in September 1794 when the last consignment was carried through the shafts. The iron containers which had been used for traffic through the tunnels and shafts remained in use on the new railway.”
So by September 1794, the new incline was being used and the tunnel and shafts went out of use. Trinder’s mention of the railway must be confusing the railway at the bottom of the incline with the one that ran to Horsehay, as that had not yet been built. The interesting fact here is that the coal traffic through the shafts suddenly dropped off from 700 tons in the two weeks ended 26th September 1793 to nothing from 13th October. The shafts were still being used for sundry items until September 1794. so we have a period of 12 months when no coal was apparently being transported to the ironworks. This is not possible, as coal was the Ironworks life blood, so there must have been an alternative way of getting it down the hill until the new incline was constructed. There are two theories as to how this was done and, as yet, it has not been possible to confirm either.
a) The incline that is obvious today is only steep for two thirds of the distance and the top section runs at a shallow angle, currently ending at a steep slope below where the shafts were. There is a short brick arched tunnel that runs between the Old Wynd House and cottage in the direction of the slope, passing between the two shafts, and the depth of this more or less corresponds to the bottom of the slope. Could the containers have been unloaded from tub boats near Crackshall Lane Bridge and followed a tramway down to the tunnel and thence through to the bottom of the slope. From here, the wagons could have been pulled by horse to the top of the steep incline section. This possible route is shown on the map below.
b) There was a temporary incline that ran down Brierly Hill to the tunnel portal, where it proceeded via the existing short incline there to the Ginny Rails. Again, tub boats could be unloaded at Crackshall Lane Bridge and a tramway ran to the top of the incline. The advantage of this system is that it could use the route already in existence from the tunnel portal, unlike theory (a) where a new route from the bottom of the incline was required. The line of this tramway can actually be followed down the hill and this possible route is shown on the map below.
This second incline could take the coal traffic for the 12 months mentioned. In fact, it may even be the incline mentioned itself as there was no need at that stage to have the other incline to the west. In 1796 the Coalbrookdale Company purchased more land at Brierly Hill but it is not known what this was for. Maybe they were thinking ahead and the extra land purchased was for this second west incline.
Arthur Raistrick, in his book “Dynasty of Iron Founders”, say that sometime between 1794-96 (he does not give the exact date), William Reynolds had made a suggestion that the Coalbrookdale Company buy back the shares held by him and that instead of money he would take in lieu among several things “… the inclined plane at Brierly Hill, except the Brierly Hill tunnels, when the partners had completed the work contemplated on it; he would also take all the wagons made for the inclined plane, 57 used ones and 45 unfinished ones to be finished off…” The fact that work was uncompleted at that time may indicate that the west incline had not been finished by then.
In April 1795, there was subsidence beneath the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane, which may have been due to subterranean tunnels running underneath the engine house. A fissure 3 inches wide opened up across the engine house wall and new brickwork in the upper bay of the inclined plane was damaged. In September of that year, the company minutes record that they had decided to “sell the large engine at Windmill thought to have been by Heslop”. It must have been replaced with a newer one as the inclined plane continued in use. In May 1797, the company had a dispute with the carriers over extra payments charged on the inclined planes, being as much as 3d per ton. There were continual arguments between the company and, in particular, the colliery owners. On several occasions, the engineer Henry Williams was ordered to dismantle the steam engines and remove the ropes and special carriages, so refusing access to the incline to anyone who would not pay the extra tolls. There then followed 4 months of dispute, during which many customers decided to use a much more economical railway built by John Bishton in 1796, which ran parallel to the Shropshire Canal. By the late 1790s the canal was carrying around 50,000 tons of coal alone each year, as well as considerable tonnages of iron. Virtually all the traffic was made up of short-trip working carrying iron, coal, limestone and sand between the industrial sites, apart from the coal and pig iron being exported through Coalport. There was nearly another innovation since William Reynolds had been planning to power a boat on the Shropshire Canal with a steam engine shortly before his death in 1803. Unfortunately this was never pursued.
As a great deal of traffic to and from Coalbrookdale was to Horsehay, only a mile or so along the canal, the Coalbrookdale Company obtained permission in October 1800 to lay a plateway along the towpath from Brierly Hill to the Horsehay Wharf. For this, they paid a toll of 1d a ton for goods carried along it. The new railway was probably open by February 1802, when limestone was being drawn from Brierly Hill to Horsehay Wharf. The line was later extended along the towpath to Doseley Wharf, traffic from which paid a toll of 1¼d per ton. Thus the Coalbrookdale branch, barely 8 years old, was abandoned. It is possible that the west incline at Brierly Hill was only constructed when the new railway was laid. While the containers had to be transhipped from the tub boats anyway, it did not matter that the route of the tramway and incline was off to one side. However, as soon as there was a railway it would be more efficient to run the wagons straight ahead and down a west incline. This is shown on the map below.
When this incline was made, the top of the wharf and shafts were dug away to create a shallow gradient to the top of the steep section. The new railway and movement of the road at the bottom of the incline confuses the issue of where the wagons went from here. The most obvious answer seems to be that when they moved the road they used the line of an old tramway that ran from the bottom of the incline to join the “Ginny Rails” tramway. Remember that the map is later and the railway would not have been there and the road shown on it was further to the south.
The southern section of the main canal was still doing well, however, as in 1810 a new basin was dug at Coalport to take 60 tub-boats and the wharves were extended. In 1827, two Prussian engineers visited Britain to look at a number of railways and the construction and operation of the Hay inclined plane was described in some detail in their subsequent publication. The rails were made of cast iron, and were "L" shaped in section. The running surface was 7 inches wide by 2 inches thick, while the vertical flange was 2½ inches tall and 1 inch thick. They were described as the strongest and thickest that they had seen. Most of the incline was laid with only three rails, with a small section in the middle which had four rails, so that the boats could pass one another. Because the flanges were on the rails, rather than on the wheels as in modern railway practice, one track had the flanges on the inside, and the other on the outside. The rails were fixed to timbers running along the incline, 14 inches square, which were attached to wooden sleepers which ran across the incline.
In order to transport boats along the incline, they were attached to a simple frame with four wheels, with a diameter of 27 inches at the front and 16 inches at the back. The rear axle carried a second set of wheels, 24 inches in diameter and spaced much wider than the main wheels, which ran on a special track at the top of the incline, and prevented the frame from getting stuck when it passed over the hump. These wheels were flanged, unlike the main wheels. The main wheels are described as having an inside gauge of 43 inches, presumably between their inside faces. The engine was a 16-inch steam engine, and was used to draw the wagon and boat over the hump and out of the top pound. It was also used to complete the movement of an ascending boat, which would no longer be counterbalanced once the descending boat entered the water at the bottom. The engine drove a 7-foot drum, which carried the rope and which had a clutch mechanism to allow it to be driven by the engine or disconnected from it as required.
In 1846, the 500 shares of the Shropshire Canal Company were valued at £150 each, making it worth £75,000. It was making around £4,000 per year and the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company (SURCC) agreed to lease the canal for an annual sum of £3,125 from November 1849. In July 1855, a breach of the canal occurred when it broke through into the Oakengates railway tunnel. The summit level emptied, causing floods in the town. A second breach occurred in September, on a section which had been re-routed over a mine shaft to make way for the Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railway, and 7 more occurred the following year. No maintenance had been carried out on the canal by the SURCC and it was reported that the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane needed urgent repair as “The Drum-Barrel & Winding out Shaft are now so near to the Rails that the Carriage Head touches as passing under”. The London & North Western Railway Company (LNWR) obtained an Act of Parliament in 1857, which allowed them to buy the canal for £62,500 and to close it from the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane to the Windmill inclined plane. Closure took place in June 1858 and parts of the bed were used for a railway to Coalport, which opened in 1861. The Stirchley tunnel was un-topped to convert it into a cutting. The Snedshill Tunnel was left as a tunnel and used by a mineral railway from Old Lodge Furnaces. The Hay Inclined Plane was used for the last time in 1894. A small section of the canal remained in operation supplying coal from Kemberton and Halesfield Collieries to the furnaces at Blists Hill and 29,066 tons of coal were carried in 1905. The Blists Hill furnaces closed in 1912 and the canal ceased to be used, although it was not formally abandoned until 1944.
1) Shrewsbury Canal – Cockshutt Piece
The canal started at a wharf (SJ703124) on the Shrewsbury Canal. It is usually stated that the canal went to Old Yard Junction (SJ705125), where it met the Donnington Wood Canal and Shrewsbury Canal, but it actually joined just to the west. There was a short connecting arm of the canal to the bottom of Wrockwardine Wood Incline (SJ702123) but this was covered by later mine spoil tips. There is no trace of the incline bottom as it has been built over by the modern road Wrockwardine Way (SJ703123).
2) Cockshutt Piece – Greyhound inn
The top of the incline (SJ700121) is in woodland and the basin and wharf here have been infilled. The route ran south around the western edge of Cockshutt Piece and followed the line of the southern part of Willows Road to Station Hill, which it went under via the short Snedshill Tunnel (SJ699110). It then passed under Canongate Bridge (SJ700106) and all traces have been obscured through being re-used by the Coalport Branch of the LNWR and then the modern A442. just south of Snedshill Ironworks, it was joined by the Ketley Canal (SJ699104) but this location is now buried under an area of grass. Nearby is the Greyhound Inn (SJ698102) that was much used by canal workers.
3) Greyhound inn – Hollinswood
Most of the next section has been completely destroyed by the railway and modern road works when Telford was created. Hollinswood Bridge (SJ700096) has been demolished but there is a short section of canal containing water (SJ701097) near Central Park.
4) Hollinswood – Randlay Pool
Malinslee Bridge (SJ700088) has been demolished and there is no trace now of the many mines and ironworks that once flanked the canal. Much of the area has been built on by the Town Centre or altered to make Town Park.
5) Randlay Pool – Stirchley Tunnel
Hinkshay Row Bridge (SJ696072) has been demolished and Hinkshay Wharf infilled (SJ696071). Hinkshay Pool (SJ694070) was a reservoir for the canal and still remains, albeit as two separate pools now due to a leak. Stirchley Bridge (SJ695066) still remains but Stirchley Tunnel (SJ695065) was untopped when re-used by the railway. The old railway line is now the Silkin Way footpath.
6) Stirchley Tunnel – Windmill Incline
The main canal turned east just after Stirchley Tunnel, passing through woodland off Aqueduct Lane. It then headed south through what is now Broookside to the top of the Windmill Incline (SJ700057). No traces remain apart from a few old hedge lines.
7) Windmill Incline - Blists Hill Ironworks
The line of the incline has been cut by the modern ring road (SJ700054) and railway line (SJ701053). The bottom of the incline (SJ701052) was just east of at Bridgnorth Road, which passed over it on a bridge (SJ701051) that has now been demolished. The route now passes through the Tweedale Industrial Estate, across Prince Street and down Hills Lane, Kemberton Road Bridge (SJ702046) and Hills Lane Bridge (SJ702044) have been demolished. The route then emerges into a valley leading down to Blists Hill. Cement Mill Bridge (SJ699040) and Corn Mill Bridge (SJ699039) have been demolished but there is a short section of canal containing water (SJ697037).
8) Blists Hill Ironworks – Coalport Wharf
The canal now passes through Blists Hill Museum (SJ695032) and contains water all the way to the Hay Incline (SJ695028). At the bottom, it parallels the River Severn through the Coalport China Works (SJ695024) and a section contains water. The canal ended at Coalport Wharf (SJ699022) but no traces of this remain.
1) Junction with Main Branch – Doseley Wharf
From the junction with the main canal (SJ694062), this branch headed south for a short distance before turning west on the aqueduct (SJ694060), which still remains. The canal made a wide loop to the north of Botany Bay Colliery and bridges at SJ689061 and SJ686058 have been demolished. A bridge at SJ682058 took a plateway over the canal and this has been preserved. The canal then followed the contours north to Doseley Wharf (SJ677064) which has been infilled.
2) Doseley Wharf- Brierley Hill
From Doseley Wharf, the canal headed south again and under Woodlands Lane Bridge (SJ676059), which has been bricked up. A bridge at SJ674057 has been demolished and the route cut off by the modern ring road (SJ670053). Crackshall Lane Bridge (SJ671054) is intact but bricked up. The wharf and two shafts at Old Wynd (SJ670052) have been infilled but traces of the stone canal wall remain. The incline starts from the same point and line of the incline down to the bottom (SJ670050) is obvious. The tunnel portal has not yet been discovered but is believed to be around SJ672051. Strictly speaking, the Shropshire Canal ended at the top of the incline, as the shafts, incline and railway to the ironworks all belonged to the Coalbrookdale Company.
Table of Features
Click on links for Google map (significant remains highlighted)