The spirit of the 18th Century was recreated at Speakers’ Corner in Lichfield in a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of James Brindley.
The Staffordshire-born engineer had a vision of a Lichfield canal from Minster Pool into the River Trent which would have made the city the hub of a national transport network.
His project got as far as surveying the route, estimating the costs and issuing a notice in December 1759 proposing to apply for an Act of Parliament to give assent for the canal, but lack of backing led to the abandonment of the section of the canal into Minster Pool.
On Saturday (June 4) volunteers of Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust, dressed in period costume, accompanied an oration at Minster Pool’s Speakers Corner, by Peter Buck, the Trust’s Engineering Director.
He gave a flavour of the times, including the inaugural meeting of Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar Society, the first ‘scientists’ of the modern era, in 1766, and the story of the black child slave sold at auction in Lichfield in 1771.
Peter explained how Brindley developed his vision for an extensive canal network across the nation, and how others took up the baton in building and improving canals; in 1797 the Wyrley & Essington Canal extension from Brownhills to Huddlesford opened, allowing the transport of coal, grain for brewing, manure for fertiliser and lime for mortar.
He also related how in 1803 Lichfield Cathedral’s famous Herkenrode glass windows, sourced from Herkenrode Abbey in Flanders, were shipped up the new canal to be offloaded at Gallows Wharf and loaded on to carts for the final leg to the Cathedral.
Gallows Wharf was also the site of the execution by hanging of three men accused of forging bank notes in 1810.
The W&E Canal continued to serve Lichfield well up to the Second World War when pressures from rail and road transport resulted in a decline in the commercial use of canals.
The 1950s saw the abandonment of the W&E but 30 years later, as canals were being increasingly used for pleasure, thoughts turned to restoring the Lichfield and Hatherton canals and the LHCRT was formed in 1986.
The Trust has overcome many obstacles since then, including the building of the M6 Toll Road which required the construction of an aqueduct over the motorway, but the dogged work of the volunteers is bringing closer the day when narrowboats will again travel from Ogley Junction to Huddlesford.