BCN Branches and Byeways

by Ray Shill

14. Ansons Branch

Today the Anson's Branch is disused and has been described by one waterways historian as " probably one of the most derelict stretches owned by BW, yet it has a tunnel, embankment, bridges and an aqueduct to be maintained." He went onto say "With the present situation developing around British Waterways future and with other pressures acting too there may be a point where radical thinking on retention of some assets may have to be tackled head on. Waterways that are unproductive or a problem may need to be thinned out, i.e the Anson Branch canal, what use to anyone is that? Underground fires enforced its closure years ago, yet it remains part in-filled and part in water! Totally useless!"

Yet is it as useless as branded. Perhaps it is not. There is a potential as a location for long term moorings and perhaps even secure moorings, if the fear from damage from vandals and the threat of conflict could be overcome. Whilst such challenges are hopefully met, three questions need to be asked:-

1. What role could it have in the future, apart from moorings?
2. When was it made?
3. What, if anything is special about this waterway?

The Anson,s Branch was conceived to link the iron and coal mines belonging to the Earl of Lichfield at Bentley with the Walsall Canal. Blast Furnaces were built near the end of the branch, during 1832, and the first traffic would have been to this purpose. The branch terminus was also near the Old Birchills colliery and furnace, which was served by the Wyrley and Essington Canal, but now also came to have another outlet via the then separate BCN system.

Thomas Telford surveyed the route, which included an embankment and aqueduct over the northern branch of the River Tame. Telford set a price (9949-5-5)and seemed keen for Thomas Townshend to contract the canal. Townshend had worked on the BCN improvements from Ladywood through Smethwick (1826-1829). He thought Telford's estimate was to low, and initially declined the job, but was eventually persuaded to accept the work. Townshend started work after the agreement was made in March 1830. The route followed a straight course and provided with 4 over bridges (Bentley Mill, Bradford, Anson's and Reedswood). Near the end of the branch the route curved northwards to end at a terminus wharf, where horse-drawn tramways from the nearby Bentley Furnaces and mines also terminated.

Other mines would be subsequently developed nearby, but it was clear that the BCN intended to compete with the Wyrley and Esssington and planned to make a branch canal, the Bradford Branch, up to the undeveloped mineral property near Leamore. Only a short section of the branch canal was made from near the terminus of the Anson Branch, the remainder was constructed as a single line tramway that terminated in the heart of the Hatherton Estate. Here mines and smelting furnaces were developed by the Fryer Family. The tramway was narrow gauge and was maintained and owned by the BCN. It was constructed about the year 1840.

1840 was also the year when the BCN advertised for contractors to make the Bentley Canal, which was a branch from the Ansons canal to mines near Little London at Willenhall where the Thorneycrofts had chosen to develop mines.

As work proceeded on the Bentley Canal, BCN policy changed. It was decided to extend the Bentley branch to link up with the Wyrley and Essington Canal, at Wednesfield. In preferenc to another suggested link that made the connection between the Walsall and the Wyrley to the west of Willenhall. So, with the making of the Bentley link the lower part of the Anson became part of a through waterway. The original towpath was placed along the east side of the Ansons Branch, now the Bentley Canal was made and there was a towpath on the west side as far as the junction of the two waterways.

Industry in this area had been confined, initially to the Bentley Flour Mill that was a water powered mil placed alongside the River Tame. With the canals came new industry and wharves on the west bank of the canal. Apart from Bentley Furnaces and mines, a separate mine was developed at Deepmoor, worked by John Bagnall and Sons, ironmasters of Goldshill and Goldsgreen.
Both Bentley and Deepmoor were to use locomotives on their tramways that linked with the canal. Bentley Furnaces was purchased by the Chillington Iron Company and one of their 3ft 3in gauge locomotives came to be used there. The Deepmore iron and coal mines shut down in 1883 and the Bagnall Tramway was dismantled. Chillington gave up their Bentley property in 1884, but then John Adams worked the mines through to 1888 or 1889. After this time only a little mining, on a small scale,was carried on in this district.

Between Deepmoor Wharf and Bentley was a stone quarry known as Pouk Hill that was operated from the 1870's by William Davis. He made a 2ft gauge tramway from the quarry to a wharf on the canal that brought crushed stone down to the boats. There was a steam locomotive, from 1898, called MARY, which brought the wagons of stone down to the canal.

By 1919 Davis had given up the quarry and a new firm, the Bentley Granite and Brick Works Ltd, was formed to continue operations there. South of Deepmoor another mine was established during the 1870's by T Thompson, called Bradford Colliery. This mine was placed near to the canal and also had a wharf to load coal. During 1876 dispute developed that concerned the coal mined underground. One group of solicitors chose to take photographs underground of the workings in question. A local photographer, Frederick Brown, went down the mine and used oxyhydrogen light (limelight) as a source of illumination. This was believed at the time to be one of the first examples, if not the first, of photography in a coal mine.

With the decline of the local mining industry from the start of the twentieth century, the branch might have closed and suffered the same fate as the Gospel Oak and Monway branches, which were filled in. For the Ansons there was a new role to supply water to Walsall Corporation,s new power station at Birchills. Work was started on this project in 1914 and the original station started generating in 1916, but was not considered complete un till 1922, when the official inauguration took place.
A pumping station was erected beside the Ansons Branch on the towpath side and this pumped water up to the Birchills Power Station. After use in the power station the remaining water flowed into the Wolverhampton Level. This duty became an important means re-circulating water off between the Walsall and Wolverhampton levels of the BCN. Two Mather and Platt circulating pumps were installed in the Ansons Pumping Station. They were capable of delivering 7,400 gallons of water per minute. So much water was passed along this route that the BCN pumping engines at the top of Birchills Locks were stopped and eventually scrapped.

Birchills Power station passed into the ownership of the West Midlands Joint Electricity authority in 1927 and with the nationalisation of the generating industry in 1948 became the property of the British Electricity Authority. They commissioned a second and larger station, Walsall B, which started generating electricity in 1949.
The water supply aspect and the needs for maintenance craft to pass along it meant that when the M6 Motorway was constructed the canal was covered by perhaps a generous culvert for the motorway to pass overhead.
Walsall B remained in use until 1980, when the station closed. When generating ceased the water re-circulation also ceased. In the last thirty years the Ansons Branch has been in the slow decline to dereliction. Yet with the current concern for water supplies for the BCN network, the Ansons Branch may still have another role unless of course the decision is made to fill it in.
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