When the dam burst

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Chasewater this evening – a view unchanged for pretty much two centuries.

Chasewater has been, as any long-term reader here knows, a continual and recurring obsession of mine. I love the place; I grew up with it, visiting regularly. I came to love its air of faded, end-of-the-pier decay and beautiful, often unexpected wildlife.

At the end of the 1990s and with the arrival of the M6 Toll, it all changed in a renovation, and a more environmentally aware persona developed for the place; no longer was it some kind of failed amusement park, but it was a country park, and with the reclamation of the north heath, the place once known as Norton Pool became a very important focus for wildlife in the area.

Throughout the draining and dam works that occurred there in the last few years, I winced and worried for the reservoir I loved, only to see it recover spectacularly and in double-quick time as we endured the terribly wet, awful season of 2012-2013.

Chasewater was originally constructed as a feeder supply for the canal network, and I thought it appropriate that as the park finally switches control from Lichfield District Council to Staffordshire County Council, we give some thought to the history. To this end, I thought it probably best to revisit Gerald Reece’s wonderful book ‘Brownhills a walk into history’. Gerald tells the story of the creation of the facility, and its catastrophic failure not long after completion.

Gerald’s work is excellent, and remember, it dates from 20 years ago now, and was carried out wholly before the internet. It’s a remarkable thing. If you get chance, do buy the book; copies occasionally crop up on eBay or Amazon. Keep looking.

Thanks to Gerald for allowing me to share this. As ever, your input is welcomed. Comment here, or BrwonhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.

Chasewater site map - 08 fs

Chasewater as it is today. Map from Chasewater Wildlife Group. Click for a larger version.

Gerald wrote:

XX

Chasewater

More beer has been wagered on the origins of Chasewater than it could ever hold, well almost An article in the Express & Star of 22nd March 1990 put that figure at 1,000 million gallons. Chasewater, ex Norton Pool, ex Cannock Chase Reservoir or Great Reservoir is man made. In 1796 work had begun on the Wyrley and Essington Canal extension through Brownhills to join the Wolverhampton Canal with the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford. It was obvious from the start that a large amount of water would be needed to top-up the system to compensate for the loss incurred at Ogley Locks. The problem was made more difficult by the restrictions included in the Act of Parliament of 1794 that sanctioned the extension. It stipulated that under no circumstances were waters to be taken from any stream, spring, brook or rivulet in Brownhills, Clayhanger or Catshill, nor from any in the Parishes of Walsall and Norton. The first suggestion was to create reservoir by flooding the valley between Sandhills and Muckley Corner. This was ruled out because a turnpiked road ran through it and part of the designated land was under the plough. An area on the south side of Cannock Chase was finally chosen. This was a tract of land that lay between Five-Ways at Heath Hayes and Knaves Castle on the Old Watling Street Road. An ancient road ran through the middle of this area also, this was the Coventry Road, or locally, Blakes Road. The road had been one of the main arterial routes for centuries but traffic had almost deserted it in favour of town to town travelling. Running through the area was Crane Brook, a combination of the Little and Great Crane Brooks that joined here on their way to the Tame at Tamworth. The line of the Crane also formed the ancient boundary between the Manors of Hammerwich and Norton Canes.

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Plan showing part of Cannock Chase before it was flooded in 1797 to create the reservoir. Original drawing by Gerald Reece, and featured in his book ‘Brownhills a walk into history’.

 

Approaches were made to the Lords of the appropriate Manors for permission to use the lands. To Henry William, Earl of Uxbridge, Baron Paget for the Hammerwich section and to Phineas Hussey and Richard Gildart for the Norton Canes section. Agreements were quickly reached, the Lords of the manors accepting 3/6 per acre per annum, for their areas of barren, boggy wasteland. The area taken measured 156 acres. In 1796 work began on the construction of the Reservoir. The Crane Brook was diverted away from the area. Teams of ‘navigators’ dug out the valley floor, they used the excavated spoils to build earthwork dams along the eastern and western perimeters. The deepest part of the reservoir was 35 feet at a point near to the Eastern Dam. A feeder channel was also dug leading to the main canal at Ogley Locks.

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Guide to Chasewater land ownership in below map. Original table drafted by Gerald Reece, and featured in his book ‘Brownhills a walk into history’.

It was a rushed job. The Company were under pressure to get the canal open and navigable as soon as possible. The main canal was opened on the 8th May 1797 but it had to close shortly after. The water level in the main canal was low and the locks at Ogley had run dry. In haste the Board ordered that ‘the plug be drawn at the reservoir on 10th September 1797’. Crane Brook was rediverted and the Reservoir filled. The accumulated water was fed into the main canal system. All went well for a time, then disaster struck.

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Remarkable plan of the original ‘Chasewater’ reservoir and feeder, as copied from Gerald Reece from an original document. Click for a larger version – sadly, the original book print rendered some text illegible.

In June 1799 the Eastern Dam burst sending millions of gallons of water rushing down the valley towards Shenstone. Roads and bridges were washed away, fields were flooded and sheep and cattle were drowned. The Canal Company moved quickly to repair the damage caused. Compensation for loss was paid on a most generous scale. Mr Craddock of Muckley Comer was paid six guineas for the damage caused to his field of wheat. The bridge at Blackbrook was rebuilt at the company’s expense. Priority was given to rebuilding the damaged dam. Not only had the Reservoir become the main topping-up point for the company’s network of canals but it also provided a source of additional revenue. The surplus waters were being sold off to neighbouring canal companies. It was decided that the new dam would be higher and thicker than the old dam and that the inner walls would be faced with limestone. On 27th January 1800 the Canal Company gave permission for the recruitment of ‘as many man as are needed be employed to complete the rebuilding of the dam as soon as is possible’. By March 1800 the Reservoir had been rebuilt and was again in service.

As a safeguard against any such further accidents the company had a Watch-house built and employed William Wall as a full time watchman. His duties included patrolling the dams and reporting any defects and wear. He paid the company £2 per year for the use of the Watch-house and an adjoining garden plot.

The Lords of the Manors of Hammerwich and Norton Canes, The Earl of Uxbridge, Phineas Hussey and Richard Gildart became engrossed in a series of lengthy legal battles that dragged on until 1812 when they were finally settled by arbitration. The ancient boundary dividing the two manors was redrawn. The Canal Company paid out the twelve years of back rental. The new terms of agreement drawn up between the Canal Company and the Lords of the Manors included an increase of rental to 5/6d per acre, per annum and Rights of water. The Earl of Uxbridge secured his fishing rights which included a clause stating that, every third year during the months of October or November, His Lordship or his appointed agents could request that the waters of the Reservoir be drained to such a low level as to enable them to remove the stock offish.

In January 1956 Brownhills Urban District Council purchased Norton Pool and adjacent lands including two cottages, in all 272 acres, for £5,600 from the British Transport Commission. The complex was renamed Chasewater in 1956.

Standing like a warped inverted Staffordshire Knot upon a green grassy hummock is one of Brownhills’ very few works of art. Commissioned in 1962 from Birmingham sculptor Brian Bloomer the 3 ton ‘climbing frame’ was paid for out of local rates.

Chasewater Light Railway is a registered charity. In 1965 the Railway Preservation Society leased part of the remains of the former Cannock Chase and Wolverhampton Railway and the former Midlands exchange sidings from the National Coal Board. It was later realised that the exchange sidings were the property of British Rail and for a time a ban was placed on the use of the line. A splendid display of steam engines and rolling stock has been collected from many sources, alas none of them are really local. The ‘Museum’ does contain several small treasures, Handbills, Tickets, etc, etc, that have been collected by its curator and enthusiast Barry Bull.

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The arch over the canal overflow at the bottom of the spillway, as drawn by Gerald Reece.

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9 Responses to When the dam burst

  1. stuart cowley says:

    All fascinating stuff, thanks for this , only found out in recent years that my relatives moved up from Aston on Carrant in Gloucestershire to live in Brownhills and work on the construction of the canal system here, they eventually settled in Chasetown. One thing that has struck me from reading the article, who was the “Blake” referred to in Blakes Rd, because I live close to what was Blake comprehensive in Hednesford, I’m just wondering why this name keeps cropping up. Love the sunset by the way.

    • Andy Dennis says:

      Note also Blake’s Gutter, now apparently known as Blackman’s Gutter (feeds into Fly Bay). Don’t know who Blake was or what he did.

  2. Bob Houghton says:

    I’ve been interested in the 1799 Chasewater dam burst and how far the damage extended. I’ve heard Shenstone and Hopwas mentioned.

    You mention in your report that the Act of Parliament for the building of the Wryley and Essington canal extension to Huddlesford was in 1794. One of the objectors to that bill was the 1st Marquis of Donegal who was concerned that it might flood his new gardens at Fisherwick Hall. Both the hall and gardens were laid out by Lancelot (Capability) Brown. (Lichfield Discovered are organising a walk around that site next weekend)

    Was his objection a prophecy that was realised. I have not yet found any records to see if the floods did reach Fisherwick, but if the water followed the line of the canal and into Darnford brook it is highly likely that it did?

    Any comments please

    Bob H

    • Pedro says:

      Lancelot died in 1783, so the gardens must have been maturing nicely.

      Meanwhile in January 1794, another canal, and another big Lake…

      “By the opening of the Belfast Canal navigation has been effected, which runs from the Bay of Belfast in a course of 29 English miles, by the neighbouring of five towns, Belfast, Lisburn, Hillsborough, Moira, and Lurgan, through a country rich in agriculture and manufacture, and at length terminates in one of the noblest lakes in Europe, Lough Neagh….

      ….that this great work was begun and continued, and concluded at the expense of the Marquis of Donegall. This magnificent undertaking, for the benefit of his country, will be a lasting monument of his munificent and patriotic attention to the substantial interests of his tenants and the improvement of Ireland.”

      Its a wonder he found time to complain in 1794 with all his debts. His many racehorses up and down the country were just not winning!

      • Bob Houghton says:

        lancelot built the house and gardens in the 1760’s. The house was one of only a few he built.

        But as you already know the gambling debts of the son meant the estate was mortgaged, sold and knocked down in the early 19th century.

        I’l be fascinated to see what’s left of it on our tour this Saturday.

        Bob H

  3. Andy Dennis says:

    At that time the canal was supplied by a channel (not the current Anglesey Branch Canal) that crossed higher ground than the Crane Brook valley. The flood waters would therefore not have affected Fisherwick.

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