Since musing on the question of mining subsidence and the cottage in Hall Lane, Walsall Wood last week, I’ve been bowled over by the interest readers have shown in this topic. It seems to fascinate you folks as much as it does me. I’ve been given information, sent diagrams, pored over maps and books. People have contributed memories, I’ve chatted in the pub and been out walking and studying an area I thought I knew, but clearly never looked at properly. This is going to be a long post. Get a beer, cup of tea or whatever takes your fancy, and make yourself comfortable. I try not to turn out epics like this, but I can’t work out a way of breaking this down into chunks without spending the next month writing. this post is going to be about maps, the way the land is and the history. There will be a later post about the Black Cock Bridge and canal itself within a day or so.
First of all, this isn’t about challenging anyone. It’s about exploration. Anyone is welcome to join in. The situation with this area and it’s topography is clearly very complex, with much information lost. It’s not wrong to question accepted tenets of history and I mean no offence. The engagement readers are showing in this is massive and I’m really, really excited by it. I thank you all.
In the book ‘Coal Mining in Walsall Wood, Brownhills and Aldridge’, written by Brian Rollins and published by Walsall Local History Centre (ISBN 0 946652 34 1), the author has the following to say:
A measure of the total mining subsidence as a result of the mining of coal between the Clayhanger and Vigo Faults can be gauged by the height of the canal embankment. When the canal was originally constructed it was built at or about original ground level. This is because the Wyrley and Essington is a contour canal, staying at one height in order to conserve the water that would be lost if there were locks.
As mining progressed and subsidence lowered the surface, the banks of the canal were raised to keep pace with it. In places the final height of the embankment is level with the bedroom windows of the nearby cottages, as can be seen in Hall Lane near the Blackcock Bridge.
In the immediate vicinity of Walsall Wood Colliery the canal is still at ground level. This is because this portion of canal is over the pillar of coal left to support the shafts and therefore suffered little or no subsidence.
I noted when I first read this some time ago, that Brian doesn’t comment on the legend of the sinking cottage. He references it in a sideways manner. He chooses his words carefully, and states his belief that the canal was once on or about ground level. While there’s evidence for subsidence in the area, I can’t find evidence – other than that the canal is elevated on an embankment – to confirm the degree asserted. I have, however, found many things that have surprised me.
Walsall Wood Colliery was first sunk in 1874, and began production about 4 years later. This map, dated 1884 by the Ordnance Survey, shows a colliery possibly in production.
There are relatively few spot heights on this map, and it predated decent contours by 50 years. The height of the canal surface is 473 feet, taken as the standard mean height for this section. The surveyor – probably because he was on reasonably clear ground, ran measures at intervals along the towpath. These are in the region of 474-476 feet. It is unclear if there is any embankment to the canal at this point, but there’s something interesting at the junction of Hall Lane and Camden Street/Green Lane at the foot of the Black Cock Bridge. The road curves to the west, over what is now the Black Cock car park to form a triangle. This suggests to me that the junction as a straight tee – like it is now – was on a hill even then, and a farmer from Dairy Farm, possibly with a cartload of milk, wouldn’t want to drag his horse and load up it unnecessarily. The cottage itself doesn’t seem to have been built yet, or if it has, the surveyors didn’t notice it.
By the next draft in 1902, it’s still unclear if there’s an embankment or not, but it’s a clearer map. Note that Camden Street is then called ‘Bullings Heath’.
By 1919, Walsall Wood, and by extension, Bullings Heath, are growing economic communities.
For those who by now imagine the mapping evidence to be clear, look at the 1938 version of this map. The embankments disappear again. Mind you, so does the railway.
On the subject of the mapping record, Andy Dennis sent me the following fantastic analysis:
Here is a profile of the land in the Hall Lane area. The overall shape around Grange Farm, between Hall Lane and Pelsall is similar to the OS 1st ed (though it has no detailed height information). Hall Lane is about where you would expect. Modern maps give spot heights for canal (north of Black cock Bridge) 144.6m and Hall Lane 136.7m a difference of 7.9m.
Some subsidence affecting properties in Hall Lane is far from unlikely, but it appears the myth is exaggerating it somewhat.
Andy also had this to say in a subsequent email:
By the way, my mother told me about the legendary subsidence, rebuilding the canal and the precipitous Black cock Bridge and some of her relatives had lived beneath the embankment in Lindon Road (where the back gardens of the 2 semis are now). Assuming the smoke did have a fire, presumably, there was some serious damage to the canal (this could simply have been a problem with the embankment itself), but the various fishermens’ tales blew it up out of all proportion.
Inspired by Andy’s map plotting, I had a play with some three-dimensional mapping simulation software (Memory Map) and the latest Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 mapping to get a feel of how the area is today.
As you can see, the mapped record is extensive, but not conclusive. If there was a period of heavy subsidence, it looks very much like the cottages in Hall Lane were built after it happened. I have other reasons for believing them to be built at a lower level than the canal, whether or not the subsidence occurred. They are as follows.
- The cottages were built facing each other. They have always done so, across the level of Hall Lane, whatever that may have been. They aren’t far enough apart to accommodate a huge shift in level between them.
- Dairy Farm and it’s barn are possibly the oldest buildings in the immediate area. The barn, farmhouse and cottages in question are braced, but seem square. Contrast that with some of the houses elsewhere in Walsall Wood. Again, they are too close together to have been separated by any height.
- There’s a retaining wall behind the cottages which looks to be at least as old as the homes themselves, running up to about first floor level/top of door height. I’d take a picture but it seems intrusive to do so.
- The cottages have both normal house numbers, and canal numbers. The canal numbers, 239 & 240 are on the front, facing the road. There are others like this in Lindon Road, Brownhills, which I believe are 225 and 226. These were clearly built as the dwellings of canal workers.
- If they had therefore been built at canal level, they’d probably have been built facing the canal with the numbers and front doors facing it, with towpath access from the bridge and canal, like the canal cottages at Park Hall in Walsall.
The other thing that makes me think the major subsidence – to whatever degree – may have come before the cottages is that of all the local old buildings in the immediate vicinity, the only ones with anti subsidence or bracer bars are the canal cottages, the farm and it’s barn. Brian Rollins in the above book, as Stymaster remembers, makes the following statement.
Properties still exist with tie rods round them, these being placed at bedroom floor level. This is called rodding at the chamber joist. It is sometimes believed that these rods were put in after the property was damaged to hold it together. In fact, they were usually put in by the colliery company when the property was expected to be damaged, this helped to curb the damage and lower the level of compensation.
There’s an interesting link with the canal workers. [Howmuch?], a real Walsall Wood man unlike myself, a Brownhillian upstart, remembers the Mole family living in the cottages when he was a lad in the 1960’s. By some twist of genius, he found the following image on the Blackcountryhistory site.
We believe descendents of the Mole family still live locally. If you’re reading this, please shout up.
Facebook reader David Edwards, another longtime contributor, had this to say, which I think could be related. [Howmuch?] seems to remember Alf’s son being called Ian:
Interesting this Bob, I have emailed the wife of my friend’s brother his names (Ian) that lived in the Black Cock cottage as a child. Hes now in his late 50’s I’d guess. Here’s the reply: ‘Hey Dave were not sure whether Ian’s parents were the first occupants, but it did stand level with the canal years ago. Ian says he can remember walking out of the door straight onto the canal side when he was a kid so it has subsided quite a lot.’.
I’m hoping to see Ian soon Bob, he lives very local, so ill find out more.
Now, I swore I wasn’t going to do this, but this post is now rocking up at about 2200 words, and I still haven’t looked at the Black Cock Bridge itself. I’m going to do that in a subsequent post, because I’ve been studying it, and it has some really good pointers.
Please stay tuned, all of your contributions have been mega. I’ve loved reading every one. This isn’t over yet.