Sunk island

Clayhanger 1

The photos above were taken, I think, with the photographer stood at the foot of the slope from Clayhanger Bridge looking towards the village. To the right, Brownhills and Clayhanger Common, to the left, the new pond. Click for a larger version.

It’s funny how some subjects just lie low for a while, then rise again here on the blog. One of my most enduring interests is the history of Clayhanger, the environmental damage that occurred there, the drainage installed to fix it and the transformation into the pleasant, dormitory village it is today.

This weekend I have two great historical items about Clayhanger and it’s drainage problem.

I’ve talked about Clayhanger’s floods, and the refuse tip that was Clayhanger Common here before, in one of my oldest articles. I returned later on, to investigate the physical evidence of the drains that made everything so much better. The great aerial photos of Gareth Thomas also illuminated a very dark period.

Other than that, I’ve been able to find little hard record of the changes that occurred to correct the flooding, seal the tip and drain the land. Purely out of the blue a few weeks ago, South Staffordshire Water historian Chris Pattison sent me a fantastic article from the Walsall Observer of 25th October 1952.

The article talks of the floods, and the flooded land around the village. It’s a shocking, strongly worded piece, which does much to show how bad conditions were. However, take care in the interpretations, several of the statements are contradictory, and there has clearly been no technical involvement in some of the things stated as fact.

Bear in mind the genesis seems to be a Counillor, who would be keen to play down the UDCs part in the problem. There’s also the common tendency to overstate the effects of mining.

I have no doubt subsidence played a large part in this, but I doubt it was anywhere near as extreme as painted. I think the main contributor to this situation was probably removed or obstructed natural drainage – the talk of the dysfunctional railway culvert, the canal overflow whose path to the Ford Brook (and consequently Tame) was clearly inhibited. The pit mound would have displaced huge quantities of ground water in an already wet landscape. Tipping would merely have displaced the water further.

Note the talk of the sewer, with only ‘minor repairs’ – had the land really dropped 8 feet, the sewer would have collapsed in multiple places. Also think about the self contradiction that is ‘Entrance from Clayhanger Road did not, as now, need any steep climb to the canal bridge. The bridge and the road were almost on the same level.’ Whilst there has been undoubted change, that slope was legendary long before the war.

Whilst there’s low land between Clayhanger Bridge and the village, there’s no clear rise back up out of it. Had sudden subsidence occurred, one would expect a consequent step at the other side of the affected area.

What I suspect Clayhanger saw was environmental catastrophe caused by bad drainage, tipping (both of colliery spoil and refuse), mining itself, and the effect on surface water of multiple rail embankments.

Imagine, if you can, the flooded Clayhanger; villagers wading through filthy, refuse-contaminated water. It was hell. And yet the tipping continued for another 20 years.

I’d love to know more about the plans for drainage improvements, their construction and the land reclamation.

Thanks as ever, to Chris, whose efforts to share and open local history to amateurs like me is a wonderful and continuing act of generosity. Thanks also to the kind reader who transcribed this, too, who wishes to remain anonymous. Cheers chaps.

What Subsidence has done to Clayhanger 

Problems For Urban Council.

Turn from Lindon Road, Brownhills, into Clayhanger Road, past two rows of small, neat houses, until abruptly the permanent road gives way to a wide asphalt path, then a short, steep climb to the canal bridge and you are overlooking Clayhanger, the area which was described at a recent Ministry of Housing and Local Government inquiry as an area which had been ‘transformed from a once agreeable little village into a howling devastation.’

Clayhanger 5

This would have been taken from the old railway embankment, looking towards Oak Park. Walsall Wood Colliery’s spoil heap is on the right, where the new pond is today before it. Diagonally across shot, Clayhanger Road. Image from the original report.

Beneath the canal bridge flows one of the reasons why Clayhanger is now described as ‘looking like a battlefield’.

To the left tower huge pit mounds from the neighbouring Walsall Wood colliery. They are the other reason why Clayhanger has become ‘a veritable Wilderness’

Honeycombed beneath the area the pit workings of the colliery Subsidence which first became noticeable 20 years ago, has gradually spread to reduce rich farming land and a pleasant residential area to a dismal eyesore.

Sank From Doorstep To Roof.

Coupled with a subsidence as a result of mining has been the gradual flooding of the land from the neighbouring canal. Pictures from about 1938 show a torrent of water pouring from the canal overflow, tipping thousands of gallons into the fields and gardens which were below.

From the descriptions of Clayhanger residents and from the photographs lent by Councillor L. Sadler, the ‘Observer’ has been able to piece together a picture of the village as it was in the early nineteen thirties.

Clayhanger 3

This house stood by the canal between Clayhanger Bridge and Catshill Junction. I’ sceptical of the claims of huge subsidence here. It stood was about where the tree-lined bank is today. Picture from the original report.

Entrance from Clayhanger Road did not, as now, need any steep climb to the canal bridge. The bridge and the road were almost on the same level.

To the left lay the Gentleshaw Sand Company’s property; to-day one of the few pieces of land which remains as evidence of a once thriving community.

On the right, along the canal towpath was a cottage the front door of which was two steps down from the level of the canal.

To-day the canal path is on a level with the roof of the cottage. The front door is at the foot of the embankment and so close is to to the earthing that it is virtually unusable.

The main road through Clayhanger has now been built up until it is at present eight feet higher in places than in 1930.

On the left hand side of the road stands a house. Once its occupants could step from the road on to the front doorstep and into the house. Once they could watch passing traffic from the windows of their home.

Now there is no front door and there are no windows at the front of the house. The road foundation presses against the house walls.

Further down the road on the same side is a house which is now bounded on three sides by tall reeds. A few feet from the side of the house lies on of the many pools of Clayhanger.

On the opposite side of the road there was, 20 years ago, a row of tidy, good-class houses. At to-days prices the houses would have sold for about £2000. They have disappeared and all that is left at the spot is a row of telegraph poles which stood on the footpath outside.

Flooded Farmland.

Across the road was a field where children of the village learned their football and cricket. Now water polo would be more appropriate, if less pleasant, for the field is a wide deep pond. The black water has been driven back by systematic tipping and piles of rubble act as a dam.

Behind the row of houses, was good farmland. In season horses pulled ploughs and the corn and others crops ripened. To-day the land is covered by Clayhangers largest stretch of water.

Seagulls wheel overhead and swans and their cygnets swim in the pool.

Tins, oil drums and paper float on the ponds. Water and land are equally distributed at Clayhanger. Where there are no ponds pools or puddles there are small natural channels connecting up the main flood areas.

From the canal there is still an overflow. But where once it was a torrent it is now little more than a thin trickle.

Rusting Twisting Rails. 

The devastated part of Clayhanger is contained within the main boundaries formed by the canal and railway embankments. The double track railway line is little used now and the rails are red with rust and twisted.

Clayhanger 4

Not sure where this was taken – possibly from the railway bank overlooking the village where the settling ponds are today. Image from the original article.

Main problems facing Brownhills Urban District Council is what use can be made of the area. Until 1930 there were few if any signs of subsidence.

From minor flooding in their gardens householders suddenly found that the susidence was bringing a greater danger.

As the influx of water increased and the land sank, the flood spread from the gardens to the road and finally into the houses which ultimately had to be demolished.

For some years the council has been fighting the flood driving it slowly back by tipping. Their ultimate aim is to level off the land and rebuild on it, but that will be many years hence.

Two subsidiary problems with which the Council are faced may play a big part in the future of Clayhanger.

First of these is that the main sewer connecting much of Brownhills with the Clayhanger sewage farm, a mile from the devastated area, runs directly beneath the main flood.

Since subsidence affected Clayhanger minor repairs have had to be made to the pipe which is believed to be buckled in places because of the strain imposed by the drop in the land level.

Who Will Pay?

At some future date major repairs may have to be undertaken. Who will pay for the costly work involved?

Will it be the Docks and Inlands Waterways Executive whose part in the flood is covered legally? Will it be the National Coal Board, now owners of Walsall Wood Colliery which is mainly responsible for the subsidence? Or will the burden of expense fall on the ratepayers?

Second of the problems is the continued overflow from the canal into the brook, running through Clayhanger, which continues to supply the pools and ponds of the water.

For every yard the Council drive back the water by systematic tipping a small percentage is reclaimed by the flood waters as a result of this continued overflow.

The Docks and Inland Waterways Executive have every right to overflow in order to keep their supply constant. The water would be able to get away if the railway culvert at Clayhanger was in working order.

But like most of Clayhanger it is a victim of subsidence.

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27 Responses to Sunk island

  1. Andy Dennis says:

    I think the picture of flooding was taken, as you say, from the old Midland Railway embankment just north of Clayhanger Road looking roughly ESE – the pit mound was where Maybrook Road is today. The water on the far side of the road is where O’Grady’s Pool is today, at a much lower level than today.

    The 1880s OS mapping shows two channels from canal weirs; one opposite Tesco and the other just north of Clayhanger Road Bridge. Culverts are shown crossing beneath the railway just north of the pool behind the gardens in Clydesdale Road, where they join the Ford Brook. If one or both of these blocked culverts was the cause the flood water must have extended a considerable distance to the left of the photo.

  2. Andy Dennis says:

    Forgot to say: the first picture is therefore facing in the opposite direction, from the canal towpath towards the embankment and bridge carrying the Midland Railway over Clayhanger Road.

  3. ivor230240 says:

    Thanks for another helpful article. My parents were due to rent a house in Clayhanger prior to WW2 and that house was one of those flooded. It meant we spent the years up until 1952 in various lodgings. I have many memories of walking and cycling that way with many friends who lived in Clayhanger and in my student days delivering the Christmas post there, some one had a lively Jack Russell with very sharp teeth!

  4. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a very interesting article. Was the situation resolved by subsequent provision of extra canal overflows, does anyone please know? Two local …elderly..gentlemen who lived in these houses at that time well remember the devastation that the increasing flooding caused.
    many thanks
    kind regards

  5. Grande Pablo says:

    Our back garden still resembles Venice from October to May every year – drainage is a severe problem.

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  7. George says:

    Dear Bob,
    There seems to be some misunderstanding about subsidence. Walsall Wood colliery was a very deep pit and had a total of 12 seams of coal. The seams were from 3feet to 12 Feet thick.
    Longwall mining was used and the roof purposely collapsed behind as the props moved forward.
    This is the safest method of deep coal mining; the subsidence in the ground above will continue to subside for many years as the ground settles.
    As there were 12 seams of coal between 3feet and 12 feet the total material removed must have been at the very least 42 feet.
    It is noticeable where the Clayhanger Faults and Vigo Faults stopped the mining as the canal is still a contour canal at these points.
    The reason that there is no subsidence by the pit is that the area buy the shafts gives access to the rest of the mine and is never mined
    The Damage to buildings above is rare and the existence of wall ties means nothing, as they were considered a status symbol.
    I know of houses with ties built where there has never been any mining.

    Brownhills George

    • Hi George

      Yes, this has been covered here many times before.

      There are other clues in the landscape that suggest the subsidence was nowhere near as bad as stated. These have been discussed at length elsewhere, further in the blog. The assertion of the W&E as a purely contour canal is spurious; it’s also pretty straight in areas where not hugging the contour, which suggests it was already built on an embankment. If it was ever to follow the contour at the foot of Shire Oak, the route it would take would be horrendous.

      Dig out a map and give it a go. You can see the rationale.

      There is a huge tendency in all mining communities to overstate the degree and effects of subsidence, and as the time lengthens, these things develop a mythology.

      Remember that as Brian Rollins the mining historian asserts, much of the spoil to come out of Walsall Wood was actually put back down the pit after extraction ceased, so there was still a considerable void, and on top of that, enough space to accommodate a huge quantity of industrial waste during the 70s and early 80s.

      The question of wall ties has also been covered; the majority were fitted as insurance, not remedy. Since nobody here mentioned ties, that’s a red herring.

      It has been explained to me that there are complexities in the mine structure and geology in these parts which make subsidence here a far less clearcut picture than asserted.

      Such things are a huge analogue, and with the parallax of folklore, media and politics, they become distorted.

      Best wishes


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  10. George says:

    Dear Bob,
    You always ask for your readers opinions I am just giving you mine. I mentioned wall ties purely because this has been mentioned before in relationship to two houses by the Black Cock bridge one with and one without, and pointing out that the presence of wall ties does not mean that the property was subject to damage. I also did not say that this part of the canal was purely a contour canal. I merely pointed out that where there was no mining because of the faults, the canal is reasonably at ground level.
    I never worked at Walsall Wood Pit, but did work with many miners and management who had. Back filling can only be used in voids left behind such as the underground roads, where the roof has been allowed to collapse you cannot back fill.
    I don’t claim that there was rapid subsidence, I am just pointing out that there was a lot of coal removed, and potentially the settlement can be very gradual and take many years to finish subsiding. and damage to property is unlikely to occur from deep mines. I do know that some lenders were still asking for a mining report in the 1980s & 90s, in this area, before granting a mortgage.
    The Industrial waste that was dumped into the shafts was I believe mainly Toxic liquid.
    As you say the flooding in Clayhanger was probably due to other causes. As it now seems to be cured.
    Brownhills George

  11. Happy new year, George.

    Best wishes

    • George says:

      Dear Bob,
      Somewhere on your Blog I read a reply about the Black Cock Bridge, that stated should the embankment ever fail there would be very severe flooding of the area because of the huge pound. From Dudley and Chasewater and on to Longwood. With only shuttering on some of the bridges to stop it.
      I intended to reply at the time and didn’t and have not been able to find the letter since. Although no doubt there would be a lot of water, but not as much as implied by the size of the pound.
      There are automatic Barriers that rise from the bed of the Canal and cut off the water from that section of Canal, these operate by detecting the flow of water, and would isolate the Black Cock embankment. I saw these being built some years ago and was quite impressed.
      I was impressed with how neat your wiring was, I can’t seem to keep mine un knotted.

      • Hi George – good to hear from you again

        Where are these barriers – they sound really fascinating! I’d love to take a look…


        • George says:

          Dear Bob,
          You must have passed this one many times. I watched them put this one in. I would guess it was 25 odd years ago. I have sent you a couple of pics. Its by the Catshill Bridge. When there was no water in you can see how it works.

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  15. Andy Dennis says:

    The canal has several weirs to avoid overtopping (e.g. into the Crane Brook; opposite Tesco; near Clayhanger Road Bridge). An “upside down sluice gate” would surely cause the sort of flood these are designed to avoid?

    • George says:

      The Problem we were referring to was if there was a catastrophic bank collapse on an embankment such as by the black cock, with a huge pound of water behind.

      • Interesting. I know the stop-barrier you’re referring too, but didn’t realise it was automatic. Interestingly, the in-water mechanism was removed a good ten years ago. Note the rawl bolts in the recess, nylon shims and no guides.

        That still leaves on the Aldridge side 6 miles of water or so to the top lock at Longwood, and were the bank to burst again at Lanes, say, like it did in the 80s, it would still drain all the way to Wolves.

        Interestingly, the weir overflow at Anglesey Basin does feed the Crane Brook, and that’s where the overspill from CHasewater is currently going. The other two, I believe to the Ford Brook

        An interestingly odd bit of engineering


        • George says:

          Dear Bob,
          I did notice when I took the photograph that parts were missing but thought that perhaps this was metal theft.



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