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History of Walsall's town wharf

Walsall’s town wharf: A cut above the rest

Around the turn of the last century, canal traffic supplying the needs of Walsall’s trade and commerce peaked. Along the Wolverhampton Street side of the Walsall Canal arm was a line of small wharves mostly used for factory and domestic coal deliveries.

The first wharf from the Walsall Canal end was Corporation Wharf, which supplied the town’s gasworks from 1850-1877 when it moved to Pleck Road. From 1895-1916 this site also supplied electricity for Walsall and district. In addition, the gasworks provided outgoing supplies of coke and other by-products. After 1916, the Public Works Department took over the yard with its buildings and wharf.

Between Corporation Wharf and the bottom of the canal arm were the following wharves: Dock Wharf, Albion Wharf, Victoria Wharf, Providence Wharf, and the Old Wharf. With all these and their basins extending practically onto Wolverhampton Street, this street, before the coming of the railway, must have been a hub of activity, with horse transport distributing local goods for canal transport, and many tons of coal moved from these wharves for domestic consumption. The other side of the arm was the towpath, and was fairly wide to accommodate the many horses awaiting turnaround, before the days of motorised narrowboats.

During a normal working day the Walsall Arm would be filled with approximately 50 to 60 narrowboats, as recalled by Len Wilson from his first journeys on the Walsall Arm with Shropshire Union boats during the Great War. Those were hard times, and Len remembered that by age 16 he was working a boat of his own in company with his father, due to the great manpower shortage during that war, and at the time food supplies were the main cargo into Walsall, comprising grain, cocoa and sugar, as well as boxes of tinned meat and fruit, and barrels of Guinness Stout for the local pubs.

On the towpath in the 1880s, three ironworks needed many boatloads of coal. The Bradford Ironworks was under the management of W. M. Lester, Iron Manufacturer, of Bridgeman Street. The Globe Ironworks was known as the British and Colonial Horse Shoe and Machine Co. Ltd, of Charles Street. These works were still busy during around the time of the Great War, but the nearby Waterloo works had closed in the 1890s.

Marsh Lane, leading off Marsh Street to the main Walsall Arm canal towpath, was one of the most notorious parts of old Walsall, as many local folk still recall. It was well known for the prostitutes who plied their trade and took advantage of the stationary cabin boats on cold, dark winters nights in this poorly lit area.

The Dun Cow pub in Wolverhampton Street, long demolished, was a popular meeting place from its building in 1894 until just after the Second World War. Most boatmen also frequented the Barrel Inn, the Flitch of Bacon, Elephant & Castle, Engine Inn, The White Horse and The Albion, all along the Wolverhampton Road and Wolverhampton Street. With many boats getting an early start for the Cannock collieries, many local boatmen preferred to wait until just after midnight, and being partly drunk enabled them to summon up the courage to get going on their long, slow journey of many miles. Life on the boats was very hard, being a cut-throat and desperate trade, with none of the glamour or romance that some modern narrowboat owners seem to imagine.

By the 1930s, however, road transport was becoming affordable. Although for some years the lorries complemented the remaining boats, delivering coal and other goods from the wharves to their final destinations, eventually the idea of using vehicles such as the three-ton Bedford lorry and the Morris Commercials to transport coal direct from the Cannock pits caught on, and with cheap pre-war petrol, the days of canal transport were numbered. There was a respite for the boats during Second World War petrol rationing, but the post-war availability of cheap army surplus lorries was the final nail in the coffin for ‘the cut’. By 1958 the Walsall Arm was practically full of rotting and disused boats, and most of those once employed on the canal had found better-paid jobs in local factories.

Over many years, the Walsall Canal became filled with weeds and rubbish, and this once thriving part of the town’s commercial life became a foul-smelling and depressing dump. But this was not to last for ever, as in the late 20th century the nation’s canals, once forgotten and ignored by the majority of the population, began a revival as a resource for leisure boaters.

Today, life is returning to the Town Wharf. Walsall’s prestigious New Art Gallery has been built on the site and attracts many thousands of visitors each year to what was a lonely, abandoned place. The award-winning Wharf pub is providing good beer and food in a now-attractive setting. Already, prestigious canal side housing and retail units have been developed in the area, and much more is hoped for in years to come. Boats are now able to use the canal again, and narrowboat rallies have become a regular occurrence, bringing a reincarnation of many old traditions and the creation of many new ones as leisure has taken over from labour as the mainstay of the canals. The Town Wharf has begun a new and exciting life as a very different hub of activity in 21st century Walsall.

References: ‘The Walsall Town Wharf’ by Jack Haddock.