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The Shropshire Canal was a tub boat canal built to supply coal, ore and limestone to the industrial region of east Shropshire, England, that adjoined the River Severn at Coalbrookdale. It ran from a junction with the Donnington Wood Canal ascending the 316 yard long Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane to its summit level, it made a junction with the older Ketley Canal and at Southall Bank the Coalbrookdale (Horsehay) branch went to Brierly Hill above Coalbrookdale; the main line descended via the 600 yard long Windmill Incline and the 350 yard long Hay Inclined Plane to Coalport on the River Severn. The short section of the Shropshire Canal from the base of the Hay Inclined Plane to its junction with the River Severn is sometimes referred to as the Coalport Canal.
Having completed the Wombridge Canal and the Ketley Canal with its inclined plane in 1788, William Reynolds, an innovative Ironmaster from Ketley in his twenties, set his sights on a canal from the Donnington Wood Canal to the River Severn. He enlisted the help of various others, including his father, Richard Reynolds, 'Iron Mad' John Wilkinson and Earl Gower. Earl Gower owned the Donnington Wood Canal, was Lord of the Admiralty and the Lord Chamberlain to King George III.
An Act of Parliament was obtained, and work started in 1788.
The route included three inclined planes and two tunnels. Near to Wilkinson's iron works at Snedshill, the Snedshill Tunnel was 279 yards (255m) long, and the Southall Tunnel was 281 yards (257m) long.
The Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane lifted the canal by 120 ft (36.6m), and because most of the traffic was uphill, required a steam engine to power it. Reynolds modified the design of the top of the incline. Whereas the Ketley inclined plane had used a lock, the Shropshire Canal inclined planes used a sloping end, which reduced the amount of water lost when tub boats were loaded onto the cradles which carried them on the inclines.
The canal joined the Ketley Canal at Oakengates. However, there was a difference in the water levels and a lock was required to compensate for the 1 ft (0.3m) drop. At its southern end, to the south of Southall wharf, the canal split into two, with the main line continuing to Coalport via the Windwill inclined plane, with a drop of 126 ft (38.4m) and the Hay inclined plane, with a drop of 207 ft (63.1m).
The Horsehay branch ran to Brierly Hill, terminating on the hill about 120 ft (36.6m) above the Coalbrookdale works. A tramway from the works tunnelled into the hill, ending in a cavern below the terminus of the canal. From here two vertical shafts 120 ft by 10 ft (36.6m x 3m) were constructed, with coal and iron ore descending and limestone ascending in crates. Because the bulk of the transfers were from the canal to the tramway, the system was self-powered. As with the similar system at Hugh's Bridge on the Donnington Wood Canal, it was not a success, and was replaced by a tramway inclined plane in 1794. The tramway was soon extended along the length of the Horsehay branch, making the canal redundant.
When completed in 1791, the main line was about 7.75 miles (12.4 km) long, while the Horsehay branch, which was opened in 1792, was about 2.75 miles (4.4 km) long.
In 1855, a breach of the canal occurred, when it broke through into the Oakengates railway tunnel. The summit level emptied, causing floods in the town. Although the breach was repaired, the summit level was not refilled, and closed in 1858, to be replaced by a railway.
By 1894, the Hay incline was no longer in use, but the section from Kemberton and Halesfield collieries was used to carry coal to Blists Hill furnaces until 1912.
Several points along the Shropshire Canal are historical waypoints on the South Telford Heritage Trail.
The Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company was formed in 1846, by an Act of Parliament which renamed the Ellesmere and Chester Canal Company, which had taken over the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal in the previous year.
The 1846 Act authorised the new company to take over the Shrewsbury Canal and to buy the Montgomery Canal and the Shropshire Canal.
In 1847, the Shropshire Union Company agreed to the terms of a lease from the London and North Western Railway Company, and so lost its independence after little more than a year, but continued to manage the canals under its control.
The Shropshire Canal was initially leased by the Shropshire Union Company from 1849, with purchase being completed in 1854. The Shropshire Union sought powers to turn the acquisition into a railway but the authority lapsed, and although maintenance was neglected and some sections fell into decay, the part of the route supplying coal to the Blists Hill furnaces at Coalbrookdale remained usable until 1944, when most of the Shropshire Union canals were formally abandoned.