Here is the story behind a strange feature to found on the canal system in the heart of Birmingham, West Midlands.
The Worcester Bar
This sounds like a strange name for a short, narrow stretch of canal in the middle of Birmingham – it is not in Worcester and it is not a bar. The only barrier it presents these days is in not permitting two boats to pass each other but, being short, the delay is not going to be long.
However, this was the scene of a fierce commercial battle between two canal companies in the early 19th century, resulting in a situation that seems absurd to us today, and a compromise that was merely inconvenient and whose legacy is the feature that we see today.
Worcester and Birmingham versus the Birmingham Canal Company
During the heyday of the canal system, which was a relatively short period between the mid-18th century and the rise of the railways from the 1840s onwards, canal companies sought to outdo each other in providing routes for the transport of goods from the industrial heartland of England to the ports.
In 1791, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal Company was given Parliamentary approval to build a canal from Birmingham to the River Severn at Worcester, from where barges would proceed to the port of Bristol.
However, this canal would provide a better route than that already provided by the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, which linked with the Birmingham Canal to provide a route from Birmingham and Wolverhampton to the Stour and then the Severn. The advantage of the new route would be that it would avoid a stretch of the Severn that contained difficult shallows that were always a problem when the river level was low.
The Birmingham Canal’s Revenge
Clearly, if goods could be taken from the factories of the Black Country and Birmingham straight down to the Severn at Worcester, this would hit the revenues of the Birmingham Canal Company very hard. The latter therefore made sure that the Act of Parliament that set up the Worcester and Birmingham Canal contained a clause stipulating that the new canal could not come closer to the water of the Birmingham Canal than a distance of seven feet. It would therefore be impossible for boats to proceed from one canal to the other.
The Creation of the Worcester Bar
The Worcester Bar was therefore a solid wall between the two canals. Boatmen could get to within seven feet of the other canal but no further. Goods that were destined for delivery at places beyond the Bar therefore had to be unloaded from one barge, taken manually round the Bar and reloaded on to another barge on the other side. As they passed through, the goods could also be assessed for payments of fees.
Clearly this led to much delay, confusion and expense as hundreds of barrowloads of bulk goods were wheeled through the Bar every day, merely for the lack of seven feet of water. Needless to say, the merchants whose goods were subject to this restriction were not best pleased.
The Stop Lock Compromise
The situation was resolved in 1815, when the Birmingham Canal Company was eventually persuaded to allow a stop lock to be built in place of the Bar.
A stop lock is a lock that comprises two lock gates but without any mechanism for changing water levels. The idea is simply that a boat has to stop within the lock before permission is granted to proceed by the opening of the second gate.
With the stop lock in place, cargoes could still be examined and fees levied by the canal companies, but the cargoes could stay on board. This was clearly the commonsense option.
The Worcester Bar Today
What you can see today is the old stop lock but without the gates. You can see where the gates used to be, and you can also see the buildings alongside the Bar that used to house the lock keepers and the company officials who examined the cargoes and levied the fees.
This part of Birmingham was once a grimy, smoky and unpleasant place where men endured hard, physical labour hauling cargoes about. Today you will find canalside pubs and restaurants and sometimes, such as when these photos were taken on a Sunday morning, an oasis of calm.
The Worcester Bar is a fascinating reminder of Birmingham’s industrial heritage.