Pictures from the past

“New” Dudley Port canal breach 1899 picture comes to light!


There are several pictures of one of Tipton’s most infamous canal legends- the breach of the canal at the site of the Rattlechain Brickworks on September 9th 1899. I believe that this one has not been previously published in any local history book. Please note I am not giving a free pass to anyone to do so, which is why I have chosen to put the website logo over the top. It offers a view from the other side of the breach, actually in what appears to be the pit itself, perhaps from a boat?

On seeing this for the first time after coming into my possession, I at first questioned the authenticity, given both its stark clarity and crisp egg albumen character. But I believe it to be genuine and not a reproduction- it is a real photograph from the time. The figures standing on the emptied canal on either side, appear to match the onlookers seen in other postcards. The upturned boat mentioned to have disappeared into the pit is visible in the centre of the shot, as are the old telegraph poles along the section of the railway line. One can also see smouldering from the embankment which is curious, but can now be explained by further information that has come to light.

Evidential information concerning the depths of the marl pit as it then stood at the time of the breach support the claim that the pit was “100 yards deep”, and not as Rhodia tried to claim when constructing their cover up work reports a few years ago “100 foot deep”. This narrative I believe is one which attempts to deny what happened during the war years and what was buried there at this point. There is a major difference in the two depths, and they cannot both be right.


The Godfrey 1902 map contains the following information.


Another source that I have recently discovered comes from the book Staffordshire by Vivien Bird, and there is a fairly detailed account of the canal burst there.

“Tipton has been described as the ‘Venice Of the Black Country’, and there are still a few oldsters to whom the ‘ninth of the ninth, ninety-nine’ has a significance almost equal to the ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ in 1918. On 9 September 1899 Barnett’s breach occurred early on a Saturday morning when 100 yards of canal towpath caved in and the canal began emptying itself through a chasm into the pit. Two iron-boats, full of ashes, were swept through the gap and hurtled down with the torrent. They belonged to Samuel Barnett, whose Rattlechain and Stour Valley brickworks obtained their clay from the marlpit, in which the water rose rapidly as it poured from the canal. Another boat began to race for the breach and only by jumping ashore and cutting the towrope was the boatman able to save himself and the horse. Another , near Dudley Port Station, accelerated its pace to overtake its horse, which followed willy-nilly at an increasing canter, and again the boatman scrambled ashore to arrest the boat’s headlong career by securing rope round a telegraph pole.

The marlhole, 100 yards deep and having a surface boundary of three acres, was quickly filled to the brim. Soon two miles of canal were drained, while six more miles lay muddy and lowered in depth. Locks were eventually closed above and below the breach. In Netherton Tunnel the level was lowered considerably and traffic on 40 miles of canal had to be diverted through the older Dudley Tunnel. Telegraphic communications between Dudley and Birmingham was impeded through the poles being swept away. Damage to canal property was estimated up to £50,000 while the catastrophe cost Mr Barnett about £3,000.”  

This account is possibly informed from a publication of the time called “The Engineer” . A remarkable report of the event is given on page  294 of the September 22nd 1899 edition which also describes how ashes were piled onto the canalside embankment, thus making it highly unstable. This explains the smoke effects in the postcards and the pictures. Together with heavy rain this would undoubtedly have caused a serious failure of the slope. This gives real depth to the events of that day and is easily the most graphic account which I have yet come across. The aftermath of the breach and operation which took place following it are also an important primary source of information. That the article in a respected magazine of the day states that the pit is “100 yards deep” I think should lay to rest the nonsense concerning the shallower depths which only appear to have surfaced during the Albright and Wilson late 20th Century ownership.



One of those mishaps to which even the best engineering structures are occasionally liable occurred at four o’clock in the morning on the 9th inst. at Dudley Port, where a canal embankment gave way, occasioning considerable damage, but happily no loss of life. The accident happened on the main waterway, known as the Stour Valley low level, belonging to the Birmingham Canal Company, at a point about midway between Dudley Port and Albion railway stations. The main line of the London and North-Western Railway to Birmingham runs almost parallel with this section of the canal for a considerable distance on the opposite side to that on which the embankment collapsed, and in the immediate vicinity there are several extensive arms of the canal constructed for the use of manufacturers. Close to the scene of the occurrence is Mr. Barnett’s Rattle Chain and Stour Valley Brickworks, which obtain a large proportion of their supply of clay from a marl pit directly opposite to where the canal embankment gave way. Only the towing path intervened between the side of the canal and the edge of the clay pit, and it was at this point that the failure started.

 The gap rapidly increased in size till it was some 100 yards long, and about 80 yards wide, and through it was practically emptied the contents of some six miles length of the canal, including the arms affected. The marl-hole, although, 100 yards deep, and having a surface boundary of about  three acres, was quickly filled to the brim, whilst nearly two  acres of surrounding meadows were also submerged. The torrent swept everything before it, carrying with it thousands of tons of material, washing away the bed of the canal in the vicinity of the breach to a depth of many yards, damaging the towpath on both sides of the canal for a considerable distance on each side of the gap. All along the drained portion of the canal lay boats stranded, some being completely overturned. One boat, fortunately having no occupants, was bent double.

 Some damage was sustained by a section of the permanent way of the adjoining railway, one line being rendered useless for a time  owing to the water washing under the metals and destroying the ballast, whilst both lines were for a short time rendered useless, the traffic during this temporary stoppage being conducted over the Grand Junction line. Under the direction of Mr. Entwistle, district superintendent, the work of repairing the damage was speedily commenced, and before long, one of the lines was in a condition to allow the passage of trains without much danger. Telegraph Wires and posts near the scene of the disaster were thrown down owing to the fissures made in the towpath and the rush of water, and throughout the day telegraphic communication between Dudley and Birmingham was considerably impeded.  The officials and men of the canal company got to work as soon as possible, and made strenuous efforts to mitigate the misfortune.

On the arrival of one of the inspectors and a gang of men, steps were at once taken to prevent the canals being drained from further levels. The locks at Ryder’s Green, a mile towards Birmingham, were closed, and so were those above the breach near Dudley Port station, and the flow of water in the main canal was stopped within about two hours and a-half after the outbreak was first observed. Planks were also put across the openings of the arms of the canal, a large quantity of water being impounded in this way. In addition to two miles of the main canal being completely drained, the water in the Netherton tunnel and other branches of the canal was considerably lowered. The canal is about 24ft. wide and 6ft. deep, and· the length of the “low level,” as it is termed, is between thirty and forty miles. A rough estimate places the cost of repairing the whole of the damage at between £40,000 and £50,000; but this is not to be taken as official. It is expected that in a few weeks’ time the gap will be filled up so as to allow of the reconstruction of the canal and of the rebuilding of a firm embankment. With regard to the cause of the mishap, there are various versions extant, and one is that the embankment had been weakened by the blasting operations in the marlpit, which were going on till about a month or so ago, and that ashes have also been tipped on the banks, and these smouldering day by day, helped to loosen the tenacity of the puddle dam of clay which, with a thickness of 3ft., runs along the whole length of the level. Some heavy rainstorms had also occurred not long before the accident, and it is thought that this may perhaps have helped to contribute towards the giving way of the embankment.

On the day after the disaster about fifty men, under the direction of Mr. Nias, assistant engineer, were engaged constructing grooves for stop-planks to enable the working of the locks, above and below the destroyed embankment. By the afternoon a stank was completed at the Dunkirk Stop, about a quarter of a mile on the Birmingham side of the breach, so as to enable the working of the Brades Hall locks and open up traffic on to the Wolverhampton level. The men were afterwards chiefly occupied in putting in a set of stop-planks in the direction of Dudley Port Station, underneath a bridge, about a quarter of a mile on the other side of the chasm, to enable the filling of the Tipton section of the main canal. A stoppage was also constructed at the mouth of the section of the canal leading to Netherton tunnel, and water was let in up to almost the normal depth, allowing of the passage of the company’s boats conveying the material and implements required for the operations the in progress.

The traffic in the Netherton Tunnel section has been resumed, and boats are thus able to get to Wolverhampton and Birmingham via Tipton. The filling of the canal of the main level at the points indicated will allow of the passage of boats to all the works affected by the disaster, with the exception of Mr Barnett’s brickworks.

The Irish mail from Birmingham passed by the scene of the accident just after the water burst through the embankment, and at Dudley Port the engine-driver informed the station officials of what he had observed. A disaster of a very similar character occurred at Deepfields resulting in damage to property amounting to several thousands of pounds, the suspension of work at important iron and steel manufacturing industries employing about 2000 hands, and the stoppage of a large amount of traffic. The havoc wrought on that occasion was brought about by the collapse of a portion of embankment of the canal from Birmingham to Wolverhapmton, and, as in the case of the Dudley Port disaster, the water rushed through the gap into a huge clay-hole owned by Sir Alfred Hickman, creating a chasm twenty yards wide. Satisfaction is being expressed in the district at the energetic manner in which the engineering staff of the Canal Company is coping with the difficulty.

Several views of the gap and canal are given on page 295. Fig. 1 is looking towards Albion, and was  taken from the towing path. The London and North Western railway is seen on one side, and the brickfields and burning bank on the other. Fig. 2 is also taken from the towing path, but looking towards Dudley Port. Fig. 3 shows the railway embankment, and the broken siding. Fig. 4. is taken from the centre of the gap at the bottom looking towards Dudley Port. Our engravings are from  photographs by Mr. T. Lewis, Stratford-road, Birmingham.”

The pictures included in the report are shown below. I have scanned an original version of the magazine and also each picture in turn to show as much detail as possible.










Some constants of time remain which allows one to stand in the shadow of this event over a century later. The mainline Birmingham canal, railway line and Toll end works bridge looking towards Dudley Port have not grown legs, even though the use of the brickwork pit has obviously been of changing nature.


View looking towards “Albion” from Birmingham canal at dawn. The brickworks have gone in the distance and greenery has replaced the ash. Pylons take the place of telegraph lines.



View looking towards Dudley Port. The Toll End works bridge remains as does the railway line. The breach has been repaired from the towpath.


The Engineer article strengthens my opinion that Samuel Barnett was a rogue and conman who made great fortune out of an industry which was profitable at the time but gave little respect for the environment it scarred. He was after all a civic businessman who was  a member of Tipton Urban District Council 1895-1901. There are many websites and local history groups who are what I would term ‘industrial history cocksuckers.’ I’m not apologising for the crudity of expression because eulogising industrialists who could  influence events to their favour by buying it is not in my vocabulary. Making saints out of such people and naming streets after them appears to be another 20th Century phenomenon usually if there is a book to sell or a hidden agenda to promote.

Barnett met his fate at the age of 64 after reportedly falling from a bolting horse on the cart that he was riding in Tividale near The boat pub. His one arm handicap may well explain and have played a part in the accident, but the irony of the demise in context with the imagery of the boat and horse being swallowed up by his breached pit in the accounts above cannot be ignored. Maybe somewhere in Tividale a crater to hell had been dug out by his brickmaking empire and delivered a poetic repose.


A street in Tipton which belies a dark name from history

He left behind him close to £60,000 to William and Thomas Barnett, presumably his sons and solicitor Frank Dawes.

dead barnett

The aftermath of the crater he dug out becoming a repository for chemical and military waste only compounds the manner in which others that followed him have also usurped this area for personal gain. It is almost like Tolkien’s ring of power but one forged of clay. How fitting that the devil’s element found a home and grave there amongst the ashes of industrialism.

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