Cast in the ground

Here’s one that will be of interest to all. Railway historian Ian Pell has again submitted a beautifully written, intricately researched piece for readers to peruse. Here, Ian presents further great, solid information on the history of the water main and surge stack that ran beside the South Staffordshire Railway through Brownhills.

The date of the removal of the surge stack has been contentious for a while, and this one I think nails it, although I have reason to believe it stayed in a very truncated form (more in a subsequent post) for some decades afterwards.

Thanks to the people at the South Staffordshire Water Archives, and particularly Chris Pattison for helping to nail this elusive bit of local history.

Of course, thanks as ever to Ian for a stunning and beautifully written piece. Always welcome.

Ian wrote:

Hi Bob

I have been discussing the Brownhills Air Stack with Chris Pattison and it is due to Chris and his diligent trawling through the South Staffs Water Co. archives that I can offer a little more detail regarding the stack.

If I may, I will quickly run through the photographs in the ‘Laying some pipe’ article which I believe are from the SSWCo.’s archives.

Brownhills Stack Air Valve
The Surge Stack, Brownhills 24 November 1931. Image courtesy Dave Moore.

The photo above was taken on 24th November 1931 and clearly shows the position of the proposed air valve on the pipe between the railway and the tower, which was to make the use of the tower redundant.  I believe that shortly after this photograph was taken the tower was reduced, with the main tower section being removed, resulting in only the lower section remaining (below the highest level of corbelling shown on the photograph).  The positioning of the main in respect of the Up line is clearly illustrated, as are the lightning conductor (the cable down the centre of the stack) and the ‘Fred Dibnah’ maintenance ladder on the right.  In fact, in the minutes of the SSWCo. of 26th November 1931 it was reported to the board that the stack has been under observation for some time do to its safety and that Messrs Swinnerton & Co. had been instructed to examine and report on its condition.  The Board resolved to instruct the company’s engineer to

‘take the necessary action for the removal of the Brownhills Air Stack, and an Air valve substituted in accordance with the Engineer’s recommendations’.

By 17th December negotiations with the LMS had revealed the necessity for the demolition to be carried out brick by brick, and as a result, further investigation was instructed as to the possibility of carrying out extensive repairs, which it was suggested would be considerably less than the cost of demolition.  As yet there is no conclusive demolition date, but it would seem probable that the cost of repair was equally as expensive, and so the demolition was carried out.

The other photographs show the relaying of a section of the main between the stack and Norton Junction No.1 signal box.  The exact location can be determined by the platelayer’s hut on the Up line and the glimpses of the stack in the background of photographs 4, 5, and 6.

P2060007_0001_Layer 2
I’m interested in the plate layer’s hut there. Wonder where it was, and if any remnant remains? Raising 22″ main at Higbridge 2 August 1927. Image courtesy Dave Moore.

While in principle the idea of utilising the railway was a brilliant concept, in practice it was to prove not so ideal.  The major problem was actually neither the fault of the railway or water companies, but lay in what was under the line; namely coal.  Mining of this commodity lead to the constant fear of subsidence, and the potential catastrophic failure of the main when a train was on the line.

Chris has managed to unearth (sorry no pun intended) several nuggets from the Water Company’s minutes regarding this matter.  For example, in the minutes of 27th February 1936 comments are made of Ryder’s Hayes Colliery (location unknown – I’m sure someone will help me out on this one?) which at this time was being mined by Messrs J & B Cox under the LMS near Highbridges.  Subsidence of   2’ 9’ was considered a possibility by the Railway’s mining engineer of a consequence of these workings. This would become apparent in 6 – 9 months and as such both parties were urged to pursue diligence in observing any potential movement of the ground in the affected areas.

The area around the canal and the tower was another area of concern, where ironically the Railway at its inception had been offered the rights to the ground under the area, and duly declined. In the 1930s the LMS was forced to reconsider  its position so as to avoid any instability of the embankments and probably the tower.

This interesting image was supplied by David Evans, I’m unsure of the ultimate source. It likely dates from the early 1960s, and was taken from what is now the Miner Island, looking down the line toward Pelsall. The Pelsall Road is on the right of the picture.

There are several reported instances of fractures of the cast iron 24’ main, notably on 19th January 1961 near Hammerwich, when disaster was narrowly averted;  two bursts between 1965-1970 and finally a serious fracture on 13th April 1970, and so an increasingly nervous water company looked for alternatives to the main.

In the Board Meeting of 30th July 1970 (ref:-2779) it was eventually resolved to abandon the Lichfield to Wood Green section following the establishment of a booster station at Walsall Reservoir.  Chris has pointed out that the Walsall Booster wasn’t commissioned until c. 1975. and therefore in the meantime the existing booster pumps at Wood Green were used to maintain pressures in the Walsall distribution zone. It just goes to show that just because it was resolved to do something; it does not mean it was or that it was acted upon with great urgency!

Earlier on 3oth April 1970 (ref:- 2724) the abandonment had been resolved to be undertaken as soon as the new 45″ main from Horsley Heath to West Bromwich was in place.  In reality it was a culmination of many things that lead to the abandonment; water coming from Hampton Loade on the River Severn; changing water distribution in the Lichfield, Tamworth area affecting Sandhills, etc, and most importantly the constant concern regarding fractures.

In truth it was not until 30th September 1971 that the cost of abandonment was finally confirmed (£9,000), together with the costs to the water company of payments to BR.  It was agreed by both BR and SSWCo. that periodic inspections would still be made to assess the condition of the pipes rather than their immediate removal.  SSWCo.  considered this not to be unreasonable.

The cast iron pipes were actually to remain beside the lines until they, together with the tracks, were removed from the Ryecroft Junction to Anglesea Sidings section of the South Staffs line in 1986.

Once again, many thanks to Chris for providing the majority of the background information from the South Staffs Water Co. archives and for putting up with my questions and emails on the subject.

Kind regards


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  • Thank you Ian, nice to see things falling into place.

  • If it is any help our very own Brownhills Bob mentions in the post The Western Front…It’s of workings from the Wilkin Colliery, operated by J&B Cox. The spoil heaps the pit created are still present in the fields behind he old Highfields Farm south of Chasewater.

    J&B Cox also worked pool Lane Colliery

  • Brian

    I’ve located what’s left of the stack pipe, and sent a photo of it to the blog

    • Sorry Brian it got buried in the email deluge. I’ll sort it later today


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