The Coventry Canal #2

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The Coventry Canal opened on this day in 1769, that’s 250 years ago. Its architect, James Brindley, worked on the scheme for a few months before being sacked. It must be the only occasion which this most notable engineering genius was told he was no longer wanted. Despite that the first part of the canal from Bedworth into Coventry was ready by October 1769. ‘Two boats laden with coal were brought to this city from this side of Bedworth. Being the first ones, they were received with loud cheers by a number of people who had assembled to witness their arrival.’

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The Coventry Canal opened 26th October 1769. The above detail is from British History.

Bedworth Hill Tunnel:

The problem (described above) at Bedworth Hill was Brindley had proposed a canal tunnel here. Its length was to be 700 yards (640m) and the height to be 15ft 6 ins, the width 9ft 4 ins. Brindley very unusually proposed this be built mainly by the cut and cover method. There are reports that say the tunnel was completed in June 1771 when the canal was opened from Bedworth to Nuneaton. However one has to take those reports with a pinch of salt.

Past canal society members (H. R. Dunkley, M. Heath, C. R. Thomas etc) trawled through all the available history to find out what happened. In a nutshell it seems Brindley had in fact begun work on this tunnel but it never got far. There were numerous obstacles to progress including poor workmanship and the possible sabotage mentioned above. The ground wasn’t that good either. Eventually Brindley threw the towel in and began a fully fledged cutting instead.

C. R. Thomas wrote in 1978:

It is felt that Brindley intended to build a tunnel here at Bedworth Hill, and indeed, on April 25th 1769, he gave instructions how the work was to be carried out. But this was at a time when the Coventry Canal Company was increasingly becoming exasperated with him over the expenditure of money, so that in September 1769, the company dismissed him.

One author writing in 1829 describes this section thus: ‘The situation of the Coventry Canal is high, particularly the eastern part, which crosses the grand ridge near Bedworth, without a tunnel…’ To most that cutting has always been known as the ‘Bedworth tunnel!’

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The Coventry Canal from Priestley’s Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways of Great Britain. (Can be viewed on Google.)

Some of the pictures I took in the seventies follow:

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Coventry basin in about 1977.

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Pearl Hyde arriving for a rally at the basin, 1977.

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Coventry Canal Society works party to repair the basin’s crumbling perimeter walls, probably 1977.

There was regular discussion at this time of the basin becoming a new base for a National Waterways Museum. That honour went to Gloucester instead.

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National Waterways Museum proposals for Coventry basin. August 1978

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On board Bert Dunkley’s ‘Prince’ passing Cash’s warehouses, 1976.

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Henry, the one time resident locomotive of the Foleshill Railway. It stood here for a number of years on a plinth at Courtauld’s factory after the line closed in 1972. The location was the sharp bend on the canal between Cash’s and Foleshill Road.

It was at a point near Henry the steam locomotive where the Coventry canal suffered its worst ever breach. This happened at night on 15th December 1978. Below is the front page of the Coventry Evening Telegraph for the next day.

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Coventry canal breach front page headlines in the Evening Telegraph 16th December 1978.

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Cash’s warehouses – and an empty canal after the breach of December 1978.

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On board Prince heading towards Little Heath. Bert Dunkley steering. We were on our way to collect the ‘mud-boat’ which was used for the regular canal clearances.

I have Bert Dunkley’s obituary from the Coventry Telegraph somewhere – it was sent to me by a woman whom I knew. She had in fact worked at the same school as Bert Dunkley. Bert was of course a teacher and she the school’s cook.

The guy responsible for looking after the Coventry Canal (as well as the Oxford Canal towards Ansty) was Harold Lane. Who could forget him!

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BWB’s Harold Lane – in a news report for 1977 re a persistent leak at Hawkesbury.

The other notable characters on the Coventry Canal were Joe and Rose Skinner. Joe had died and Rose was ill by the time I came on the scene, she wasn’t living on the boat anymore. I knew their boat Friendship though – it just stood moored up at Hawkesbury by the concrete wharf opposite the Greyhoound as a silent testimony to the last of the number ones.

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Joe & Rose Skinner. The picture is from a Telegraph article published in 1972 on the last of the number ones.

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Hawkesbury engine house, with a Willow Wren holiday boat. Notice how it was all countryside, compared to now!

The Coventry canal has two swing bridges, on at Coventry basin and the other, a small one, at Fradley. These are recent additions. That at Polesworth was there for perhaps a hundred years and it was still operable in the seventies. Its been out of use a long time and has certainly been removed. I’ve never seen a picture on the internet of it in use – here’s one!

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Polesworth swing bridge in the days when it was in use. The West Coast main line runs in the background.

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