Slip, sliding away…

Ian Pell has again been in touch with yet more of his painstaking, breathtaking research into the South Staffordshre Waterworks company water main that ran alongside the railway in Brownhills for the best part of the last century. This post is a thing of beauty and wonder.

I thank Ian, as I always do, most profusely, and of course, I thank South Staffordshire Water and the kind people in their archives who have made this remarkable series of posts possible.

I’m honoured, and privileged to publish this work.

Ian Pell wrote:

The story so far. . . .

Water company asks railway if it can build a pipeline in the permanent way of the railway to carry water from Lichfield to Walsall.  Railway Company agrees; pipeline built, with pumping station at Sandfields and a ‘surge’ tower at the summit of the line near Brownhills.  22” cast iron pipeline partially relayed in 1927 between Brownhills and Norton Junction (Pelsall) as illustrated in the photographs of the time.  Visible in the background is the ‘surge tower’.

 . . . . . fast forward to 1936.


LNWR 1915 2 Chain map between mileposts 101/2 & 103/4, From the IEP collection.
Click for a larger version.
The map above indicates the position of the PW hut shown in the photos with Norton Junction just off to the left, and the surge tower, and Brownhills to the right. The spoil heap was one of a number in the vicinity, along with three shafts belonging to Yew Tree Colliery. The occupation road running north joined Pelsall Road at the foot of the railway bridge and is still in existence today. The map also shows field Nos, allocated by the Railway and ownership of the fields (with dates).

The South Staffordshire Water Company’s minutes for the 2th February 1936 clearly show the concern that the company had with regard to mining subsidence in the vicinity of Highbridge.  In fact the workings which were the cause of their concern were actually workings from the Ryders Hayes Colliery (located adjacent to the spoil heap on the map) which J & B Cox appears to be mining under the South Staffs main line at that time.  As a direct result, there appears to have been a constant battle on this embankment section between mileposts 101/4 and 103/4.  The photograph below illustrates the ‘conning tower’ syndrome, where the cast iron main appears to rise from the ground, giving grave concern as to the potential for a major burst and its consequences.  It doesn’t leave much to the imagination to see gallons (sorry litres) of water cascading from a burst and washing away the embankment, leaving the rails suspended in mid-air and the potential for a disaster.  The Railway’s engineer suggested that within 6-8 months subsidence of      2’ 9” – 6’ 9” could be become apparent.


South Staffs line & 22” pipeline 6th June 1936 – 2539 Courtesy of South Staffs Water Archives
The view is looking north towards Brownhills, with the by now famous PW hut centre stage. Notice the poor condition of the PW (Permanent Way – the earthworks on which the tracks sit), the “appearance” of the water main and the side-ways movement of the signalling wires. On the down line you can just make out two ghostly figures. Behind the hut is another telegraph pole but something else appears to be missing?

It is therefore not surprising that the Water Company turned its attention to finding a solution.  Their immediate action was to re-level and align the main, while at the same time the Railway Company addressed the stability of the embankment.  It is unclear who footed the bill, not only for the works, but the consequential loss of rail traffic during the re-laying, but it is my understanding that in the original ‘Heads of Agreement’ of September 1858 such costs were to be borne by the Water Company.

It should also be noted that at the time when the Ryders Hayes workings were first mined in the 1840-50’s, the take was quite small due to the close proximity of the railway and any repair costs which became due to damage by subsidence would not be covered.  In fact, at that time it was not uncommon for mining companies to try to hold railway companies to ransom with the threat of impending workings under their railways.  As a direct result, a Parliamentary Bill was introduced as a means of regulating this problem, with fixed prices for compensation.  This in turn led to the mining companies ceasing to continue to operate unremuniative workings in the hope that they would gain financial recompense.  However, a similar situation between J & B Cox and the Water Company was soon to come to a head in 1936. 

Returning  to 1936; the photograph (ref:- SSW 2539) clearly shows the subsidence problem; and while the re-levelling helped it could only be seen as a short-term answer.  To make matters worse the board was informed that J & B Cox were asking an extortionate sum for not mining under the railway and that Messrs. S & J Bailey, Mining Engineers, had given notice of their client’s intention to work the yard coal under the line.

The next photograph is one of a series taken to illustrate the immense efforts required to rectify and level the pipeline.  The process seems to involve freeing sections of the pipe and then using a temporary series of jigs  to re-level each section of pipe.  It is unclear from the photographs what the 3’0” and 2’5” measurements refer to, but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the pipe needs to be raised 7” to bring it to level, ie:- the difference between the dimensions.  The work was undertaken on Sunday 6th September 1936 with a maximum lift of 13” being reported. This work seems to have taken several weeks to complete, but clearly it was a problem that was not going to go away.


South Staffs line – Raising 22” pipeline 20th December 1936 – 2605 Courtesy of South Staffs Water Archives
This view is taken from an almost identical position to the previous photograph shows the physical effort required to re-level the water main. Virtually for every three sections of pipe there was a jig and screw arrangement with which the process was undertaken. Not a high-vis. In sight.

The main was subsequently monitored on a daily basis; the process of raising the main being repeated on at least two occasions between December 1936 and February 1937.  At this time the Board resolved to re-enter into negotiation with J & B Cox.  A sum of £3,000 was suggested by the mining company, £500 by the Water Company. Eventually, a sum of £2,600 was agreed.

One can therefore only speculate at the reaction of the board when in May J & B Cox made it clear that further seams under the area were to be mined; the bass coal and the cinder, or as sometimes called, the new mine coal seams.  It was obvious that the original agreement was worthless and that the mining company were sensing profit without pain. In desperation the Water Company asked for a stay of executing of the mining for 18 months, but Cox’s reply was merely to demand significant levels of compensation.

The Water Company could clearly see where this was heading and so a plan to divert the main which had been muted in January, but dismissed on costs, was reactivated.  By the end of May, agreement had been made with Mrs Wallace of Wryley Grove Estates to purchase a plot of land 610 yards long by 6 yards wide, and by 30th September agreement from the Railway Company was also in place, with the only proviso being that the pipe was to be built 9 feet from the railway’s boundary so that if necessary the embankment could be widened.

All seemed set fair, but there was to be one last twist in the tale.  The scheme was again held up, because as lessees of the land to be purchased, J & B Cox demanded compensation for access.  Mr Benton of Ryders Hayes Farm was paid £10 for damage over the farm land.  In comparison J & B Cox eventually settled on £75.  On the 28th October 1937 it was reported to the Board that ‘after somewhat difficult negotiations access had been given for the sum of £75 and that the Work was to be put in hand as levels taken recently had shown that further subsidence had taken place’.

The Water Company’s eventual solution, which commenced on 15th November 1937, was to remove the affected section of the 22” main, divert it down the embankment, and relay new sections in the adjoining fields. I have often wondered why the main was referred to as 22” or 24” in various articles.  It would appear that the main was laid as 24” from Lichfield to the surge tower and then 22” from there to Walsall, (this is currently subject to confirmation). The diverted section was, however, built using 24” steel pipework.   The photographs below show the past and present view from Bridge No.67.  Today, only pony trekkers and the occasional intrepid walker seem to use the flooded occupation road, not realising the area was once a hive of industrial activity and the scene of the diverted pipe.  The pipe dived under the “occupation road” before continuing towards Norton Junction.


2905 Courtesy of South Staffs Water Archive
Past view looking north from Bridge No.67 20th Dec. 1937


Present 24th February 2013


Nearing a gate which was the boundary between the Walsall Wood Colliery branch and the Up ‘Dudley’ sidings the diversion ended with the pipe climbing the embankment to rejoin the original route.  The construction of the pipeline at this point is shown by the next photograph.  Behind the photographer was one of a number of valve houses.  These were like timber garden sheds in which there were shut down valves with large turn handles.  There appear to be several of these along the diversion, presumably to act as emergency shutdown points in case subsidence re-occurred.

In the background can be glimpsed an engine in the Up loaded yard and the parachute water tower (behind the notice board on the left) at Norton Junction No.1 Signal Box.  The line of wagons, with GW, NE and LMS markings, are not on the running lines but actually in ‘No.1 Lichfield lines siding’ which ran parallel to the running lines almost as far as bridge No. 67 and could hold up to 72 standard wagons.

As is evident the work was not pleasant and the winter of 1937 was pretty wet!


South Staffs line – Diverted 24” pipeline 5th December 1937 – 2890 Courtesy of South Staffs Water Archives

Today, there are no real distinctive marks or earthworks to act as tell tales for the diversion, except for two sections of the steel pipe which has been used to culvert one of the streams across the fields. The embankment and bridges are showing signs of neglect and decay, and a lonesome signal post on the Down line near bridge No. 67 acts as a reminder of long gone trains working up the grade to Brownhills. The only evidence of the existence of the surge tower is the end of the connecting pipe with the buried main. Like the fear of the mining subsidence and the work under taken to avoid the potential danger, the memories of the pipeline and the railway are sadly themselves slip, sliding away…

Once again my thanks go to Chris at South Staffs Archives for the generous use of the photographs and for his diligent assistance in producing this article. I apologise for my lack of technical expertise in all matters pertaining to water mains. I have enough difficulty telling my ‘Up main’ from my ‘Down main’ on the railway!

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9 Responses to Slip, sliding away…

  1. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    super! Many thanks to Ian and to yourself…..another piece of our precious history jigsaw puzzle is paintsakingly teased into place. Fascinating to read.
    kind regards

  2. Pedro says:

    This is how to do Local History!

  3. Pedro says:

    The hidden question, what is missing?

    And just what are those ghostly figures on the other side of the track from the Plate Layer’s hut?
    What is the white thing lying next to the pipe that looks something like a model aircraft?

    • ian says:

      The missing object – 1ooft high I think gives a clue!?
      The ghostly figures are I believe merely caused by the exposure time of the film and are two workers. The “aircraft” I am unsure what it is. I could speculate that it is a measuring device for use in the levelling process?

  4. Pedro says:

    “To make matters worse the board was informed that J & B Cox were asking an extortionate sum for not mining under the railway and that Messrs. S & J Bailey, Mining Engineers, had given notice of their client’s intention to work the yard coal under the line. (1936)”

    There seems more than a little irony about the situation in 1936! Back in 1858 John McClean leased the Cannock Chase coal mines from the Marquis of Anglesey, he was the Chief Engineer of the South Staffs Railway, and he planned and built the South Staffordshire Water Works Company!

    As far as the mineral side is concerned, the coal masters around the area could have been using the old firm of J and S Bailey, which was formed around 1850, and had offices at 6 Corporation Street in Birmingham. I think it was around 1940 that they evolved into K Wardell and Partners and the combined expertise of the two practices was consolidated in 1982 when they merged to form Wardell Armstrong.

    Thomas Henry Bailey, of the firm, had given evidence at the Sankey Commission of 1919 considering renationalisaton of the Coal Industry. In 1928 he appeared in the Colliery Guardian as one of the 155 “men of note” in the British Coal Industry, along with WE Harrison. In 1931 the firm provided the President of the S Staffs and Warks Mining Institution

  5. Pedro says:

    Oops! In the last paragraph it should read nationalisation and not renationalisaton.

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