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The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal is a narrow navigable canal in the English Midlands, passing through the counties of Staffordshire and Worcestershire. It runs for 46 miles (74 km) from the River Severn at Stourport in Worcestershire to the Trent and Mersey Canal at Haywood Junction by Great Haywood.
James Brindley was the chief engineer of the canal, which was part of his Grand Cross plan for waterways connecting Hull, Liverpool and Bristol.
The canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament which was passed on 14 May 1766. This created The Company of Proprietors of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Navigation, who were empowered to raise an initial £70,000 (£7,127,550 as of 2011), with an additional £30,000 (£3,054,664 as of 2011), if needed, to finance the construction of the canal.
The canal was completed in 1771 for a cost which exceeded the authorised capital, and opened to trade in 1772. It was a commercial success, with trade from the "Potteries" (the towns making up modern-day Stoke on Trent) travelling southwards to Gloucester and Bristol, and trade from the Black Country travelling northwards to the Potteries via the junction from the Birmingham Canal at Aldersley.
The Company obtained a second act of parliament on 9 June 1790, which allowed it to raise another £12,000 (£1,159,696 as of 2011), to make improvements to the River Severn immediately below Stourport as far as Diglis, to improve navigation to and from the canal. At Stourport there were four basins, which were connected by broad locks, to allow broad-beamed Severn trows to enter them from the river. Goods could then be transshipped from the canal narrow boats to the trows for onward shipment to Bristol.
Trade declined when the newer Worcester and Birmingham Canal opened in 1815. This canal provided a more direct route between Birmingham and Bristol. To remain competitive, the company extended the hours during which locks could be used, until they were available 24 hours a day by 1830.
Another setback occurred when the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal opened its new route to Chester and Merseyside, connecting with the canal at Autherley Junction. This took much of the traffic from the section to Great Haywood. Faced with a high volume of trade using the half-mile stretch between Aldersley and Autherley Junctions, the company levied very high tolls.
In order to resolve the situation the Birmingham Canal Company and the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Company jointly promoted an Act of Parliament to authorise a short canal which would have left the Birmingham Canal at a higher level than the junction, crossed the Staffordshire and Worcestershire by an aqueduct, and then dropped down by a series of locks to join the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal north of Autherley junction. The canal company decided to reduce its tolls rather than lose the trade altogether. Further concessions were obtained by the other two canal companies by threats to resurrect the plans on two subsequent occasions.
Despite the competition, and later competition from the railways, the canal company paid dividends to its shareholders until the turn of the 19th century, although profits fell steadily from the 1860s.
It remained independent until the canals were nationalised in 1947.
During its latter years, the major trade was in coal, which was carried from Cannock to a power station at Stourport. The power station closed in 1949, and after that, the only commercial traffic was on the stretch between Autherley and Aldersley Junctions.
In 1959 it was planned to close the canal, but was saved through the efforts of a volunteer group - the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Society. The canal was re-classified as a cruiseway in 1968, and all of it was declared to be a Conservation Area the following year. This has resulted in historical buildings and structures being retained and improved sympathetically.
The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal is an important link between two of southern Britain's largest river catchments:
The Trent catchment, which drains most of the north and east of the English Midlands, as well as parts of the West Midlands, and flows ultimately into the North Sea via the Humber Estuary
The Severn catchment, which drains a large area of north and central Wales, as well as much of the West Midlands, and drains ultimately into the Irish Sea via the Bristol Channel.
The canal was a major north-south route for the west of England, linking other canals to create a network running: via the Trent and Mersey Canal, to Stoke-on-Trent, to the north-west of England (Lancashire and Cheshire) and to the East Midlands, via the BCN Main Line and the Stourbridge Canal to the Black Country and Birmingham, via the Shropshire Union Canal to Chester and north Wales.
The canal essentially follows river valleys, shadowing the course of tributaries, to break through the watershed between the Trent and Severn north-west of Wolverhampton, at the Aldersley Gap, a minor glacial feature turned to advantage by Brindley.
The northern starting point of the canal at Great Haywood, its junction with the Trent and Mersey Canal, is only about 300 metres from the confluence of the River Sow with the Trent. The canal runs west through Tixall Wide and along the Sow valley, closely following the river, to Weeping Cross, on the south east edge of Stafford, the confluence of the River Penk with the Sow. The canal then swings at right angles to the south, taking up the course of the Penk. It then runs via Acton Trussell and Penkridge to Calf Heath, where it is joined by the now-derelict Hatherton Canal. Continuing south via Coven, Staffordshire, it begins to bear away from the Penk, which has its source at Perton, well to the west of the canal. The canal enters north-west Wolverhampton. Here it is joined, in rapid succession, by the Shropshire Union Canal at Autherley Junction and the Birmingham Canal Navigations Main Line at Aldersley Junction. South of Aldersley, the canal begins to shadow the River Smestow, part of the Severn catchment. The Smestow actually crosses the canal via the Dunstall Water Bridge, a small aqueduct planned by Brindley to preserve the flow of the river, before dropping into the valley and running alongside it. Skirting Wolverhampton between the steep hillsides of Compton and Tettenhall, through the Smestow Valley Local Nature Reserve, the canal reaches Wightwick. Here it bears south, cutting across a wide bend in the course of the Smestow. Descending sharply through the impressive Bratch locks, the canal rejoins the River Smestow just south of Wombourne. From here it follows the river very closely to its confluence with the Stour near Prestwood. The confluence of Smestow and Stour is paralleled closely by the junction of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire with the Stourbridge Canal, which descends through the Stour valley to Stourton. Southward from this point, the canal is cut through very steep sandstone banks and passes through a tunnel at Dunsley, all the way closely following the river while slicing across its many meanders. Running through Kinver, Caunsall, Cookley and Wolverley, it serves a series of wharves in the old industrial town of Kidderminster. Finally it reaches its end in a complex of wharves and basins in the canal town of Stourport-on-Severn, where it descends steeply to the river through two sets of locks.
The canal is linked (in order, from the Severn) to:
Stourbridge Canal at Stourton Junction BCN Main Line at Aldersley Junction
Shropshire Union Canal at Autherley Junction
Hatherton Canal, (currently derelict but with proposals for restoration) at Hatherton Junction
The canal today forms part of the Stourport Ring, which is one of the popular cruising rings for leisure boating.