A Brief History of the Droitwich Canals
Salt barges anchored at Vines Park pool - c1900
There are two canals serving the town of Droitwich, the Droitwich Barge Canal and the Droitwich Junction Canal, the Barge Canal predating the Junction by over 80 years.
The Barge Canal is one of the oldest canals in the country being designed by the eminent canal engineer James Brindley. With his assistant Robert Whitworth and his resident engineer John Priddy he took four years to connect the River Severn at Hawford to Droitwich Spa, opening the canal on March 12th 1771. Construction was achieved by a constantly fluctuating gang of navvies (navigators), fearless and hardworking men who for the most part led a rough nomadic life moving from canal to canal as construction work became available. Without machinery the work consisted mainly of hand digging the trenches that formed the basis of the canals. Bricklayers, who are on record of striking around 1770 for having "Bin yoused very ill for thy will not pay for wat we work", were also employed along with carpenters, sawyers and other craftsmen. The help of quarrymen, and of boatmen to transport the materials along the River Salwarpe, was also enlisted.
Constructed to enable Severn river barges (Trows) to reach the busy salt industry in Droitwich, the Barge Canal was an immediate commercial success. There are several notable architectural features along the canal including a Brindley designed circular weir alongside lock no 6 at Ladywood and Linacre Bridge (bridge 3).
Early in the 19th century waterway developments switched to the other side of the town with the opening of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal in 1815 which, because of the geography in the area, avoided Droitwich. To capture the potentially lucrative salt traffic they opened a wharf alongside Salt Way (Hanbury Road), salt being transported from the town by handcart. The inconvenience of transhipment was put up with for 39 years until a canal linking the Worcester and Birmingham Canal to the town was opened in 1854. Known as the Droitwich Jurction Canal it was constructed to the same narrow dimensions of 7 foot width as the Worcester & Birmingham rather than the 14 foot width of the Barge Canal. It was the last new canal (other than some cut-offs constructed in the Black Country) to be opened at the end of the canal era. Consequently some of its features are also of major historical significance
Competition from the railways caused the inevitable decline and the last boat used the Barge Canal in 1918. The Junction Canal lasted only a few more years until the mid 1920's when the last boat is believed to have travelled along it. It is thought that this was the Englishman owned by George Harris of Stoke Works carrying a load of bricks from Hanbury Brickworks. Then owned by the Sharpness New Docks Company an Act of Abandonment was passed for both canals in July1939, the usual dereliction then followed.
A number of prominent local waterway enthusiasts who were concerned about the future of the canals formed a trust in 1973 with the object of restoring navigation to the town from both the River Severn and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Up to now the Droitwich Canals Trust has concentrated on the restoration of the Barge Canal, for which it held the lease for the whole length. Great progress was made, largely by the efforts of volunteer workers and the support of Local Authorities, the Inland Waterways Association, government grants, contributions from companies and private individuals together with fund-raising and membership subscriptions.
From 1998 the restoration work concentrated on the Junction Canal at Hanbury Wharf and the first three locks which lead off the Worcester Birmingham Canal were restored with the aid of a grant from the Inland Waterways Association and completed in 2001
The formation of the Droitwich Canals Restoration Partnership in the same year led to sufficient funding being raised from Advantage West Midlands and the Heritage Lottery Funding to make the completion of the restoration, managed by British Waterways, possible.