Surging forward

I should have known, really. No sooner had I delved into the fascinating world of the Brownhills surge stack, then Ian Pell, railway historian extraordinaire, had written to me with a whole bunch of new information, clarifications and even a few questions.

Just to explain the purpose of the stack as I see it: the water main was pumped from Sandfields, in Lichfield, uphill to Brownhills and on to reservoirs in the black country. Not all of these reservoirs would be able to accept water, and there was a chance that none would at any one time. Thus, should all the incoming valves at the reservoirs be shut at the same time, the stack situated at the summit (or near it) of the system, allowed the water to rise up it like an open pipe in times when there was nowhere for it to go. The pumps at Sandfields wouldn’t have been able to develop a large enough head of pressure to force the water out of the top, hence it being taller than the highest reservoir in the system. This, as pointed out, would have maintained an even load against the pumps. The open line would also have allowed air to escape, preventing cavitation and air locks.

As ever, my huge appreciation and thanks go out to Ian. Whenever he comments, we learn more. I’m really proud that Ian contributes so much here, and can’t thank him enough.


S reader Gabriel pointed out, this photo from Geoff Harrington and Clarice Mayo’s ‘Memories of Old Brownhills’ shows the stack in the distance. Nicely spotted, Gabriel.

Hi Bob

The problem with writing about the South Staffs railway line is that it often becomes necessary to become involved with all sorts of other issues. John McClean, the mines, the waterworks and the railways are all inter-related and so it is difficult not to reply when topics such as the ‘Surge’ tower appear. In recent times, several people have speculated as to the purpose of the foundations and remains found at this site. Some thought it was a water tank for the railway, taking water from the canal; some it to be the site of a platelayers hut; while others a ballast/sand bunker. The OS maps, however, give a good clue to its origins and likely use, but at long last we are shown the photographs which reveal this ‘hidden’ structure in all its glory. Thank you.

For my part I can only add to the story, with a few facts regarding the tower and its history.

The ‘SSWW’ Water Tower stood cut into the embankment of the South Staffs Railway immediately adjacent to the Up side of the line next to Bridge No.71. The tower was connected directly into the water main which was buried in the permanent way on the embankment side of the Up running line. Less than one hundred yards towards Brownhills was the summit of the line which fell on a gradient of 1: 287 towards Walsall and 1: 475 towards Lichfield, which bears out the fact that it was also the high point of the pipeline. The tower was constructed as a means of preventing fractures occurring in the mains.

Ironically, the summit was the location (there or thereabouts) of the derailment of the ‘Jelly’ train which we have previously mentioned.

The water main, as did the railway, followed the shortest route between Lichfield and Dudley. It also utilised the railway’s platelayers and linesmen who could check to ensure that none of the water pipes were affected by mining operations. The tower does not appear on the 1851 Lichfield Water Works maps, but from March 1855, 6,500 tons of 22 inch cast iron pipes were laid between Lichfield and Walsall, with the railway company charging the water company £10 per mile per annum for the use of the sixteen and half miles of trackbed between Lichfield and Dudley.

Brownhills Surge Stack

This image was posted on Flickr, by reader Morturn, earlier today, who linked to it in a comment to the Harrison Nimby post. Morturn describes it thus: ‘This 100ft stack was built by the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company. It contained a stand pipe; water was pumped to the top so as to obtain an altitude sufficient to reach the most elevated position in the area to be supplied. It was demolished around 1970’

The first sod for the undertaking was dug on 22nd February 1856 and the first section opened on 26th October 1858, with due pomp and ceremony. As previously mentioned, the tower, approximately 100 feet high, was inspected by the dignitaries on their way from Dudley to the opening at Lichfield. A more detailed account can be found in the “History of the South Staffordshire Water Company 1853 -1989” by Johann Vann Leered and Brian Williams.

Having reviewed the Engineering possessions of the line between 1963 and 1971 (Sept), the only work carried out in the area was the removal of Bridge No.71A (incorrectly noted in the records as Bridge No.70) in April 1968. I would have thought that bearing in mind the nature of the tower, its removal would require the temporary closure of the line.

The water main continued in use until 1971, being abandoned following the completion of the Seedy Mill to Barr Beacon thirty six inch main. It would therefore seem logical that the tower’s decline and fall would be a result of this closure. There is a 1971 aerial photograph in existence and while a structure appears to be visible, the shadow of the tower is hard to make out. It is possible that the camera was directly overhead or that the shadow falls within the embankment and is therefore hard to determine; a clearer picture would be advantageous! Certainly, it had gone by 14th May 1973; as had Bridge No. 71A, which carried the Midland Railway over the South Staffs line; as only the end parapets of Bridge No. 71A remained as ‘Peak’ 78 passed northwards on 8D49, an afternoon Kingswinford Junction to Toton empties working. At the sake of repeating myself, it is often neither the content nor quality of photograph which I find important, but what is going on in the background. The ‘devil is in the detail’ has never been more apt than when trying to tie down dates.

Interestingly, the LNWR also make reference to a ‘Deep Coal Mine’ under Bridge No.71 which is the bridge over the Wyrley and Essington Canal, but not under the tower. This mine in question was in the 1850’s in the ownership of Mr. Elisha Craddick, who was also the landowner around this section of the line.

Hope the above is of interest to you and your readers.

Merry Christmas.

Kind regards


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11 Responses to Surging forward

  1. Chris Pattison says:

    Just a point of information, the railway main was not abandoned as a result of the completion of the Seedy Mill to Barr Beacon 36″ main (this was laid just after WW2) but following changes in the distribution system which arose from Walsall Reservoir being supplied with River Severn water and more Sandfields water being pumped to Burton and Tamworth.

  2. Clive says:

    Nice one Ian, now we know what it was all about. Thank you.

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