If you are planning to hire a luxury narrowboat in the West Midlands, you may be as interested in the history of the region’s canals themselves as the places they pass through or the local scenery and architecture.
Many will be aware that the UK’s canal network was in a poor state after the Second World War as these neglected and disused waterways came to increasingly be seen as anachronisms; relics of a pre-railway age before goods could be transported much more swiftly. Yet their demise was prevented as they gained a new use as a great source of leisure.
What many will not know is that the Stourbridge Canal was at the heart of this change of fortunes. As historian Alan Smith wrote for Stourbridge.com in 2004, the 1958 Bowes Report recommended that only a few main canals be kept open and the rest relegated to become drainage channels.
However, this proposal, eerily reminiscent of what Dr Beeching recommended for the railways five years later, was fought tooth and nail by enthusiasts.
In 1961, the Inland Waterways Association called a boat rally in Stourbridge and when British Waterways (BW) refused to dredge the canal to allow boats access, they hired their own digger to do the job, despite the threat of a legal challenge and even outright sabotage from BW.
The upshot was the rally successfully went ahead and the British Transport Commission was forced to reconsider its attitude. The canal was restored, politicians changed tack and the Department of Transport’s John Morris MP formally re-opened the canal in 1967, a year before the Transport Act 1968 gave the canal protected status.
In short, Stourbridge had helped change how governments saw canals.
Today, Stourbridge Canal is thriving, with its 16 locks spread over 5.8 miles. It is a fine waterway in itself, especially for those who love using locks, and passes through an area of great industrial heritage. But many may not know just how significant the determination of those enthusiasts in 1961 was in ensuring this and other canals are such great places to enjoy today.