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Monday, November 02, 2015

Birmingham`s old buried canal arms

As I said in an earlier post we moored in Cambrian Wharf during our hospital tour visit to Birmingham. As we cruise around I get a lot of enjoyment googling my location or places nearby just to see what history can be found about the canal scene for the area. Being in Birmingham which 200 years ago was the central hub of the working canal system it`s not hard to come up with enough to write a book.

The often heard phrase "Birmingham has more canals than Venice" is an interesting subject for discussion. If we say more as in numbers then that statement is false. Now
before we go any further the facts I give are a rough guide because the web produces a lot of different figures and so for a comparison I take an average to give us some idea.
Venice has around 150 canals flowing around about 100 islands. These canals add up to about 26 miles against the 35 miles within the city of Birmingham depending where you set the city boundary line.

The Birmingham Canal Navigation's total about 100 miles according to CRT and there are about 13/15 canals making up the BCN.
Birmingham is larger than Venice so the concentration of canals is greater in Venice but at least the phrase does give you an idea of what to expect in Birmingham. For sure Brum has a lot more canals than any other UK city.

Old factory basin entrance
Steering this post towards it`s historic subject there was in the mid 18c 170 miles of canal in the Birmingham area. This was made up of interconnected canals in and out of the area and the huge number of loops, arms and factory basins.

So let`s get down to what was in my view the most fascinating part of our stay in Birmingham although I must say the city has a lot to offer but time ran out for us owing to things beyond our control. But as Arnie so famously said in Terminator "I`ll be back"

On this occasion a visit to the CRT office at Cambrian Wharf produced two mouth watering photos that set me off on a fact finding trip via the map room at the library and it`s immediate area. Luckily all this took place before I ended up in the local NHS hotel.

 The map shows where we moored at Cambrian Wharf (1) alongside the Farmers Bridge lock flight(3) on the Birmingham and Fazely canal. Discovering that the basin we were in once went into the city centre  and also via an arm (2) into two large basins was enough to get me excited about an historical blog post. After some more research I then discovered what  today is built on 4,5,6 and 7 plus the significance of 8.
When I was shown this 2nd. picture in the CRT office I already knew the building as the Hall of Memory and the surrounding area. The shock was the canal lock. The receptionist at CRT photo copied the picture so that I could seek out the exact angle from which it had been taken back in 1938.

Baskerville House
I guess we should start with the site of the lock. It was uncovered in 1938 when Baskerville House was being  built. The name was fed into Google as the only Baskerville I knew was a typeface or the book by Arthur Conan Doyle, Hound of the Baskervilles featuring Sherlock Holmes.
John Baskerville`s house
It turned out to be the typeface that John Baskerville (1706-1775) developed, the present day building was named after him and his home that stood on the same site in an area called Easy Row (8) up to it`s destruction in the 1791 Priestley riots.
John Baskerville`s home and eight acres of land was on the outskirts of Birmingham when in 1812 the land was purchased by Thomas Gibson who then cut a canal from the Newhall branch (2) of the Birmingham and Fazely into what is now Centenary Square and home to Baskerville House, the library and the rep theatre, 4,5,and 6 on the map above. The Newhall Arm was cut in 1768 and went as far as a foundry at Newhall Street in what is now the city centre.

Upon Baskerville`s death his wish to be buried upright was carried out in his own grounds. When the canal basins were dug his body was removed and it is said Gibson displayed the body in one of his warehouses charging  to view the body.

Maps of later years than the one above show the arms as Baskerville and Gibsons, the latter nearer to Cambridge street and lying beneath the present day library and it`s neighbours Baskerville House and the REP.
Baskerville basin as far as i can tell was constructed by the Birmingham Aluminium Company but the lock belonged to Gibson who charged for it`s use although it later was under the control of Winfields.
In 1925 the city council started buying land around the area for a new civic centre and the Hall of Memory, Baskerville basin was filled in. Gibson`s arm still carried on with most of it being used by a Brass products company called Winfield who made such things as brass bedsteads, light fittings and tubing in all types of metal.  In 1936 Winifield's re-located and the Gibson arm was filled in.

Above I have used the National Library Scotland on line maps to show a side by side view of the basins. The left is OS six inch 1888-1913 against a present day map on the right. I have gone over the old map in Blue to make the canals stand out. The dotted section marks the Gibson arm that became covered in warehousing making it more like a tunnel. It was of course lower than it`s destination and as it passed under Cambridge street it entered Gibson`s deep lock that lifted boats up to the wharfs in today`s Centenary Square.

Over to the right hand image,
A is the Farmers bridge locks,  B is Cambrian Wharf with the Red dots representing the old Newhall branch and the Gibson arm travelling down towards Centenary Square with the old basins marked by me. C is the library with Baskerville House to the right and the REP theatre to the left.
The hall of memory was built in 1925 on part of the filled in Baskerville basin directly opposite Baskerville House.

Although the Gibson basin and lock were filled in by 1938 when Baskerville House was being built the arm from the Newhall branch carried on being used into the 1950`s.
Now I can finish by posting some of my own pictures and some I found together with some interesting links.
I have really enjoyed this but you must bear in mind that in the Birmingham area this is just a minute piece of canal history. Did you notice on the map at the top of this post the two other arms below the site we have covered here, perhaps another interesting story.

I have put the lock picture up again so you can compare the present day view below without to much scrolling. Of course I can`t get the same distance back from the hall of memory as the original was taken from the centre of the present Baskerville House site.

View of the Winifield's brass works with it`s tall chimney alongside the Gibson arm. The Baskerville arm is filled in and the hall of memory has been built.

Above 1931 view of Gibson's arm lock just before it goes under Cambridge road.
 On the left  the three main buildings in Centenary square built over the old basins.
The site refers to the archaeological dig before the library was built.
The Hall of Memory in the bottom right corner sits over the old Baskerville basin.

In 2009 an archaeological dig took place on the intended site of the new Birmingham library. The report can be found HERE.
This is part of the Baskerville basin.

Part of Gibson`s basin surrounded by the foundations of Winfield`s metal works.

A late 1950`s view of Cambrian Wharf
Cambrian Wharf today. Nb Valerie 1st boat on the left.
I enjoyed looking into the history of our temporary residence and look forward to coming back for more history.
The Black and White Aeriel photographs come from the Britain from Above site. As I have said previously you need to register - no contact to you is made in any way-  to be able to zoom in on images.

Baskerville house on the right and the canopy of the library sticking out.
If in Birmingham and walking between the library and the hall of Memory you now know what still lies beneath your feet as some of the finds in the dig have been left in place.
Visit the library and on the 4th floor you have easy open access to many old Ordnance survey maps plus some very good canal related reading matter.
Recent sale of a Winfield product here.   


Anonymous said...

Hi Les and Jaq...

Hoping that your health is improving and your life more fulfilling daily.

I've been really interested to read your recent posts on Birminghams canal history.

Having being the youngest in a family of regular hirers - I recall going to Sherborne Street wharf a couple of times a year to take a boat from the 'Brummagem Boats' fleet (We are talking some 25-odd years ago...)

I've taken to reading yours (and others) blogs recently and 'the bug' has taken hold again.

So, I shall be taking my family out for their first experience at Easter time '16... (hope I can still recall my Dads patient training!)

Thanks to you - and many others in the blogging community for re-kindling my previously forgotten passion for canal cruising.

Best regards, Martin

Debbie said...

Wow Les what an amazing and interesting post. I knew the canal used to go on past Cambrian Wharf but I didn't realise to that extent. You've managed to get some amazing pictures too.
Love to you both xx

Les Biggs said...

Hello Martin
I would liked to have seen it 25 years ago. Enjoy your trip in 2016 and don`t worry it will all come back to you as soon as you touch the tiller.

Les Biggs said...

Hi Debbie
Do hope to get back into Brum again and stay out of hospital giving a chance to investigate some more history.
Hi to James

AlexC said...

Just to let you know that the first Birmingham Archaeology picture is c1990, taken in Centenary Square with the old library visible behind the Hall of Memory (the new library is off to the left).

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs