BIRCHILLS CANAL MUSEUM

History - Future - The Journey There

The History

The Walsall branch of the Birmingham canal was opened in 1799 to provide an easier and cheaper way of moving goods (coal, wheat, iron ore and limestone) into the town. It was linked to the Wyrley and Essington canal through Birchills in 1841.

The Boatmen's Rest can be found at the top lock in Old Birchills. It was built by the Incorporated Seamen and Boatmen's Friendly Society (founded in 1846 to improve the lives of the men and women working at sea and on the canals) in 1900. There were five in the West Midlands but only Walsall's is still there. Today it houses the canal museum.

The building and furniture were to cost £350. Joel Cadbury (one of the Cadbury family) was chairman of the Society in the Midlands. The following men formed a local committee to raise money and plan the building of the Boatmen's Rest: F J Overton, Arthur Gameson, Alfred Stanley, Cornelius Marshall and J A Leckie. The Mayor of Walsall, W J Pearman-Smith, and Thomas Jones laid the memorial stones on Tuesday 18th September 1900. It was opened to the canal boatmen on 4th March 1901.

The Boatmen's Rest was a mission. Its aims were to promote the social, moral and religious welfare of the boatmen and their families. On the ground floor there was a coffee room, kitchen and caretaker's room. A large room on the second floor was used as a chapel for services and concerts and could seat 100 people. The mission looked after and provided entertainment for the boatmen who often stayed overnight.

Washing facilities were provided to those waiting to pass through the locks on the canal outside, where many boats congregated. The men were encouraged not to drink alcohol in the nearby public house so tea, coffee, food and tobacco were offered as refreshment. A helper would write a letter as most of the boatmen could not read or write; and for those who did read there were newspapers. Games such as draughts, chess and bagatelle could be played.

Religious instruction was encouraged during a stay. They employed a missionary to hold services, visit people on their boats or at home and a popular Sunday school was held. Some formal education would be offered to the boat children.

Horses were used to tow the boats. They were stabled and fed in a horse shelter, run by the same Society, further along the canal. A blacksmith's yard was at the rear of the Boatmen's Rest.

Adjacent is a cottage that was built in 1841, which would have been lived in by the lock keeper. A toll office was in the front room where the toll keeper collected money from the boats for using the canal. The amount charged depended on the weight of goods that each boat carried.

The Boatmen's Rest probably had to close because of the decline in the use of canals brought about by the development of the railway system. It became a pattern-making workshop in the late 1960s. In the mid 1980s the Caldmore Community Programme Agency turned the building into a boat museum and workshop. During its use by the pattern makers much of the inside had been changed so by the time of its transformation into a museum the kitchen and caretaker's room had gone, along with the original bay window (removed to allow machinery to pass into the building) and the fittings from the chapel. There was originally gas lighting in each room and this was replaced by electric lighting in the 1960s. The bell tower, to call the boatmen to prayer, was left on the roof, although its bell was removed.

The Caldmore Community Programme Agency ended its activities in 1988 and finally Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council took over the museum in 1990, which included a replica canal boat, canal-related objects and wall paintings showing canal scenes. With the help of local enthusiasts, in 1993 the front of the building was returned to its former glory with the bay window reinstated.

The museum now contains two exhibition rooms on the ground floor and an education room in the old chapel.

23rd March 2003

Reproduced from a hand-out prepared by Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council

The Future

Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council say they no longer have the resources to fund a salaried member of staff to keep open the museum on a daily basis and closed the museum after the first week of March 2003 save for Saturday and Sunday openings. From the end of March 2003 even weekend opening will not be supported unless by volunteers. They held an Open Day on Sunday 16th March 2003 to assess volunteer interest which I attended (the only attendee to arrive by boat).

A Birchills Canal Museum Trust has recently been established to take over the day to day activities at the museum and I met David Taylor (Nb Bideford) there as well as a member of the committee of the BCN society - a very well built individual(!) - whose name I omitted to note down, Louise Troman (Curator for Walsall Museums) from Walsall MBC and others. Both before and after the meeting I ran into Paul, the caretaker of the museum and its collection for the last 15 (I think) years, who is clearly devoted to the canals and their environs.

In an earlier posting on this subject I recounted that my Nicholsons showed the museum had a reconstruction of a back cabin and a valuable collection of photographs.

Sadly the photographic collection had already been removed to another of the Walsall museums. This would have been of particular interest to me and I can only hope that it will be returned at some point in the future, possibly when BW can commit resources to the museum in a couple of years time, or perhaps even earlier. To the purist/enthusiast the reconstruction of a back cabin leaves a lot to be desired (!) but as an introduction for school children and non-boating members of the general public to the way in which families on long distance boats were able to live on the cut it does at least give an impression. Introducing the canals to school children can produce notable improvement in their interest and behaviour towards boaters. A few bits and pieces in a blacksmith's shop area could also prove interesting to the more mechanically and logistically minded.

The Birchills Canal Museum Trust are already negotiating detailed paperwork with Walsall regarding their take over and there appears to be a kernel of 4-6 people in the Trust determined to keep the museum open. I am encouraged that they are planning to take a conservative/cautious approach and endeavour to open on Saturdays and Sundays rather than biting off more than they can chew and keeping the museum open 6 days per week, as previously. Better to start small and then expand than to be over-ambitious and, as a result, founder.

I originally volunteered to spend a week or two at the museum, living on my boat, as I am retired and my time is my own. It now seems that this, and perhaps any, assistance is not required from me at least at the moment. My interest is on record, and anyone else who could devote half a day on a weekend should get in touch with Louise Troman 01922 653116.

I understand from HNBOC that there is a suggestion to create a 'Canal Trail' from the museum to Birchills and other ideas to promote and encourage visitors to the area which would be helpful as visitor numbers have been rather modest in the past.

23rd March 2003

Update

Sadly the Museum building is now closed and empty and the plans described above have not come to fruition. Perhaps, one day, it will re-open although, personally, I doubt it.

2nd December 2006

The Journey

The original/initial purpose of this trip was to attend a meeting at the Birchills Canal Museum on the afternoon of 16th March to see if its closure due to lack of funds available to Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council could be avoided, or at least bridged by volunteers until BW might take it on board.

Friday 14th March 2003

Left (solo) my winter moorings at the Briar Cottage lay-by at Lapworth about 12:30 to ascend the flight to the Birmingham level. Accidentally dropped my 25 year old windlass out of my belt at lock 9 where it promptly bounced into the water! OOPS!, will retrieve it when I get back. Lovely weather and absolutely great to be back on the water again. At lock 2 (effectively the top lock, as Kings Norton is permanently open) got wedged coming out of the top gate by some sizeable tree branches which I fished out with the cabin shaft. Stopped briefly at Swallow Cruisers to return a fitting I had borrowed for a few days. Nice how mutual trust and helpfulness is still alive on the cut. Got very lucky on the first of the two lift bridges (hydraulic) as, extremely fortuitously, a boat was approaching with advance crew member. Not so lucky on the second one. They both have their gearing on the offside which is awkward when you're single working. Carried on to Shirley Drawbridge 17:30 and tied for the night. 8 miles, 12 locks, 5 hours

Saturday 15th March

Up for an 08:00 start through the drawbridge. A lot of tree trimming has been done during the winter and left quite a lot of wood in the canal. Wanted to take on water so turned left (sth) at Kings Norton junction as my Nicholson shows a water point near the turn, another one a little further on, and a winding hole just before the tunnel. Couldn't see the first tap, just an Elsan disposal building - perhaps the tap is inside, although I would prefer it not to be! Carried on past the second tap to turn first at the winding hole. When I came up to it I could see immediately that you could not turn a 70' boat there and probably not my 60' either but there was so much mud only a dinghy could actually wind successfully. Got a real bladeful which I could not get off with the cabin shaft - indeed the shaft got snarled up and I had to drop it in the water and buckle down to crawling under the counter to wrestle with the weedhatch. Right hand went numb quite quickly in the cold water so retired to the bathroom to warm it up again before finally clearing the detritus (fencing wire, fisherman's keep net, plastic etc.). Then had to back up for over a mile, not a load of fun, to take on water, then reverse further to the junction to wind back northwards. Have subsequently been told that the winding hole was provided, logically, for the (short) tunnel tug(s)!

Caught another bladeful which I couldn't chuck back when half way to Birmingham but this time I raked it off with the shaft at a 'nip'. Round Salvage Turn on another gloriously mild afternoon to find teems of city people everywhere. Held back at Worcester Bar as a boat was about to come through Broad St Tunnel but he started dithering and drifting around all over the place! He eventually made up his mind to come through so I promptly left the stop lock, held out for him to pass, and was able to get ahead again. Pulled into Icknield Port loop and stopped at the old coal wharf just by the entrance to make a sandwich and yet more coffee! On down the main line (new, not old, as I was getting behind on timing and needed to take advantage of the directness). Reasonably deep water, boat swimming well, so I decided to time myself across a measured two or three miles. Found that even in these good conditions I was only able to make 3.25 mph. Under normal conditions I must only average about 2 mph.

Got dark before I reached Tipton so worked up Factory Three pretty cautiously and tied at the top at 20:00. Had accumulated another bladeful working up the flight. Couldn't rake it off with the shaft so another hand numbing job. Long day! 18 miles, 3 locks, 12 hours

Sunday 16th March

Running late so set off at 06:45. Cold night, frost all over cabin, fore end etc. Thank god for ash strips on the cants to give me a purchase whilst untying. Passed a new industrial estate of neat small aluminium-clad units, mown grass and easy care shrubs to find someone had dumped 3 armchairs, a sofa, kitchen unit and bed - not in the canal but on the grass and shrubs. Of course there's usually no one around on these industrial estates at the weekends but isn’t it just as easy to take it the tip? At Millfields Bridge one of the (rare) 'adult' graffiti proclaimed 'Have Sex Here'. They had managed to spell each word correctly too! Since I had no lady crew member with me and having due regard to the overnight frost I felt that the suggestion lacked a little 'je ne sais quoi'! Just past Bilston Road Bridge I noticed a large roofed offline basin, full of mud, which may well have been a transhipment base in the past. I’m surprised no one has developed this into a secure marina. Horseley Fields by 08:15. On towards Adam and Eve Bridge, the name of which conjures up a sort of romantic image, only to find it is 4 RSJs with some decking and accompanying graffiti. Around Sneyd Turn and past the only sanitary station I have yet met with a dovecote! Very neat and tidy these days. Couldn't see the power station landmark that I remember from my last visit here 30odd years ago so I was unprepared for Birchills junction. I now understand the power station was demolished years ago. Arrived at Walsall top lock and the canal museum at 11:30, 1½ hours before the meeting. As far as boats were concerned I had myself a group of 1 but at least I had accomplished that which I had set out to do. Found a BW workboat tied at the secure visitor moorings so breasted up to it. Bet that boat hasn't travelled 120 lock miles in the last 3 months! 12 miles, 0 locks, 5 hours

Monday 17th March

Set off back towards Wolverhampton at 09:00, a little later now as time was no longer a problem. Bullrushes by the thousand along the route, their heads covered in the fuzz of their soon-to-be-airborne seeds. Passed by Holly Bank Basin which looks like a very attractive place to moor. The basin was 'closed while investigating the control of water weed'. The sign saying this was hung from a pipe bridge with only about 6'6" headroom beneath and looked none too fresh. I hope the 'investigation' doesn't take so long that the bottom reaches the top and the 'weed' turns to Holly Bank Lawn!

Passed Knights Bridge but no sign of Harrods! I also declared Wednesfield as a 'no go' area as the neat towpath and convenient bollards, which tempt one to go shopping and thus bring money into the local economy, bordered water so full of mud that no way could I reach the bank. Bentley Junction is also 'no go' as far as I'm concerned. I remember looking down the disused flight many years ago into the valley with its attendant industry. Now it's a pub, multi screen cinema and huge car parks. Ugh!

On the plus side, the wild area where the Wyrley goes alongside and then under the M6 is just as it used to be many years ago complete with wild horses.

Turned right at Horseley Fields to tie in Broad Street basin in the sunshine. A drunk or hop-head was sleeping it off on a park bench on the far side of the basin! Had to see a friend about a new computer screen so walked across into the city on Broad Street past empty shops and boarded up premises which echo the industrial decay evident alongside the cut. Experienced the usual withdrawal symptoms which I experience near crowds of people and traffic noise! Glad to return to the peace and calm of the cut after just a short exposure. However I did find that a bike shop there is expecting a delivery of electric bicycles shortly. Bit expensive though!

Pressed on back to Tipton, then down the old main line and dropped in at the Black Country Museum site (closed by that time) before boating on to Brades. When going through bridge'oles with suspicious youths standing above I usually contrive to set the boat up so that I can give a good shove on the tiller just as the back end is about to pass under the balustrade to try to avoid falling objects or sputum! Spotted a particularly suspicious looking child and did this only to find a 20p coin dropping on the roof next to the slide! Pennies from heaven - subject to inflation! Down Brades, using the very low bridge below the staircase to conveniently measure my air draught. 73" with deckboard and top plank up, 66" with them disassembled.

Getting dark but carried on to turn left onto the new main line and left again onto the Netherton Tunnel approach. Stopped at the wharf as I thought I could see a boat coming through - it turned out to be someone walking through on the towpath with a torch. Too much light and noise to stay the night at the wharf so I adjusted my lash-up tunnel light and went through full blatt to tie at Windmill End. I thought this tunnel was lit and am (almost) certain I've been through it with electric lighting back in the '70s. 19 miles, 3 locks, 12 hours

Tuesday 18th March

Off by about 08:00 with destination Stourbridge (Dadford's Shed where Ian Kemp hangs his hat). Once the frost had melted I could see that the back cabin roof was covered in white muck which had been brought down from the tunnel roof on the previous evening by my vertical exhaust. Must remember to get myself an exhaust cutter. Merry Hill a very sharp contrast, as usual, no boats moored and very few people about in the morning. Down the Delph 8, 9 or 10 (depending on your viewpoint!). At the top lock a passing pedestrian told me the lower pounds were empty but I found BW, who were working there, had refilled them by the time I was working through the bottom half of the flight. Made fresh coffee in the bottom lock and found that when I was just about to leave a very modern looking BW dredger "Rabbit" arrived. Steering that rig must be a bit like driving a forward control Land Rover. Pulling away from the bottom lock it was refreshing to see one canalside industrial company on the left caring for the offside bank by trimming the grass and planting daffodils and evergreen trees.

Stopped at the top of the 16 to eat, shave and shower (must look presentable for Ian's wife, Marion, let alone Zita Speight!). Left the boat in the top lock while I set lock 2, walked back and by the time I had got the boat out of the bottom gates someone had drawn against me! He apologised when I got there and 'held' against the top gate waiting for them to come up! Met another early season traveller at the double lock and made it to the Shed having taken 2 hours to solo 11 locks. Found that President was still there with Ian doing a few 'extra' jobs before she leaves for Easter at the Black Country Museum. Phil Speight was up in Manchester doing a mural so Ian invited me to take Phil's place in a game of pool at a local hostelry. Haven't played for many years so the first game was a real whitewash but by the third frame I think Ian was having to think/play strategically! 7 miles, 20 locks, 9 hours

I enjoyed marvellous weather throughout the trip and returned home for a few days having caught the sun! Am left with memories of rubbish, rubbish and more rubbish and I suspect that on the Wyrley I was possibly the first boat through for quite a while. Why don't young (and not so young) offenders, who receive a sentence of community service for their transgressions, get sent to clear rubbish from the banks of the canals? The cutting leading into Coseley Tunnel was perhaps the worst I've ever seen. Mind you, the Kings Norton area comes close.

Another memory is of a dinghy-size plastic launch 2/3rd full of good garden loam with plants growing in it and tied at the bottom of someone's garden!

23rd March 2003