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The Battle of Stourbridge!

This is the story of how a group of local canal enthusiasts took on the government and won! Read on to find out how they played a major part in changing government policy on that great industrial legacy, the canal network, now a major tourist and leisure facility in the UK. Special thanks to Alan Smith for providing the information.

Canal boat

Undoubtedly the events that took place at Stourbridge in 1962 will go down in history as the turning point where canals ceased becoming derelict abandoned waterways and were recognised for their potential to offer leisure activities.The Bowes Report of 1958 recommended that only the main canals be kept open; the remainder to be turned into drainage channels. Already, of the 4500 or so miles of canal that had been built, only about 1800 miles still remained in water, with most of those very difficult to navigate. The Government of the day had a policy of reducing any liability to sustain this outmoded transport system. With the increase in leisure time that became available after the Second World War, the waterways of the Midlands naturally began to be explored, and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal that ran from around Stafford down to the River Severn at Stourport was the first to receive attention from a group of midland canal enthusiasts. By 1961 they had managed to delay the deterioration on that canal but needed to ensure that it did not become an isolated section. It was decided to hold a Rally of Boats at Stourbridge to highlight the potential of canals in general and the poor condition of many of them. The ‘Authorities’ did not like this! When Stourbridge was selected for this national event by the IWA (Inland Waterways Association) with support from the S&WCS (Staffs. & Worcs. Canal Society) then BW (British Waterways) reacted by requesting the Inland Waterways Redevelopment Agency to approve the abandonment of the entire canal, both the line to Stourbridge and the line linking with the Dudley Canal.

So the battle began. The organisers initially politely requested that the canal be dredged to enable the passage of boats to Stourbridge to take place (an initial trial run had found only 6” of water in some places). The 16 locks of the Stourbridge flight were almost un-navigable; many gates having no balance beams and gates leaking very badly. Two weeks before the date of the event no work had been carried out by BW except to erect notices alongside the entrance lock to the Stourbridge at Stourton saying that the locks were ‘unsuitable for the passage of vessels’. If BW wouldn’t do it then the enthusiasts would.

A dragline digger was ‘borrowed’ and moved into place ready for a work-party, but somehow the news filtered back to BW who despatched an official to prevent any clearance taking place. There are recalled memories still, of this trilby hatted man in gumboots approaching the would-be workers, and threatening to serve an injunction on them if they dared to break the surface of the Boards’ water with the bucket of the dragline. Advice was sought from IWA HQ who said that the law was on the side of the campaigners as a right of navigation still existed, and if it was publicity that was wanted then this action would certainly achieve that.

Stourbridge Canal weekend October 2007

Stourbridge Canal Weekend 2007

The bucket was dropped, and the incident was featured next morning on the front page of The Times. Much more publicity occurred locally with the local MP supporting the action of the volunteers who continued their work without hindrance right up to the date of the rally, at a cost of £74 against a figure of £20,000 quoted by BW for them to clear the canal out! In order to ensure that no craft entered Dudley Tunnel from the Stourbridge end waterways staff were seen smashing the paddle gearing off at Parkhead and the tunnel entrance was boarded-up. The Rally was attended by 118 boats from all over the country, many of whom came just to give their support to these intrepid enthusiasts, who had declared ‘enough is enough’. ‘Why won’t someone listen?’ There were many tales of the adventures that had taken place in order for them to arrive at the site. The greatest impact of the Rally was on the local politicians. They suddenly realised how many people wanted the ability to use their local waterway. Three civic heads taken on a cruise confessed to their ‘conversion’.The British Transport Commission was quite naturally embarrassed by the success of the event, and the following year British Waterways Board was formed to oversee our canals and one of their first actions was to invite the Chairman of the S&WCS to investigate the possibility of joining efforts together to attempt to restore the Stourbridge 16 locks; BWB to supply material and know-how, the Society to supply all labour both for dredging and the fitting of gates. Not undaunted the Society accepted the challenge. And so began the first of the major restoration schemes that have now brought back into use some 500 miles of navigations.

The restoration took 3 long years, most summer evenings and every week-end were occupied by some activity on site, but eventually all the lock chambers had been cleared out (most of them with a bucket on a rope), all walls in need of repair had been rebuilt and any rubbish in the lock pounds removed. The lock gates were fitted by BWB staff with assistance from the volunteers. Such a scheme could not take place today with all the present restrictions. The canal was re-opened by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, John Morris MP on the 27th.May 1967 at lock 12 on the Stourbridge flight. In the 1968 Transport Act, the canal was designated as a ‘Cruiseway’ which meant its future was assured, even though at this same time the right of navigation was removed!

The success of the restoration paved the way for the many that have followed since and there have been no canal closures since. None in their wildest dreams could have visualised the financial investment that is now available to bring back to life the abandoned canals to serve us all for the many leisure uses today. That was the foresight of those enthusiasts labelled ‘fanatics’ in 1962 to whom we have a lot to be grateful for their efforts.

Alan T Smith MBE May 2004

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