The lost Howdles Lane dam


The history of Chasewater and it’s canal feeder arrangements are complex, opaques and oft-debated.

In a remarkable instance of coincidence, last Friday, reader and top local history ferret Andy Dennis sent me an astounding piece on a lost reservoir near Howdles Lane, in north Brownhills, between Chasewater and the Watling Street.

As it happened, that very night Gerald Reece mentioned the same lost pool in his local history talk – so while it’s all fresh and up in the air, this seems like a great time to feature the article here.

This is a remarkable piece of physical geography investigation from Andy, whose work is always of the very best quality, but with this he has excelled himself. I am pleased and honoured to be able to feature material of this excellence here – thanks old chap.

As to the little reservoir itself – it’s been staring me in the face for years, but I never noticed it; it’s a salutary warning to read stuff closely. There’s always something you miss.

If you have anything at all to add, please feel free to comment or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.

Andy Dennis wrote:

Howdles Lane Dam

In Gerald Reece’s book, Brownhills A Walk into History, there is reproduced on page 93 a plan of the reservoir (Chasewater) and canal feeder dated 1818 (the relevant article is reproduced on the blog here – When the Dam Burst).


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.

One intriguing aspect of this plan is that it shows a dam near to where Anglesey Road meets Howdles Lane today. Neither road was there at the time, but an Old Ironstone Road is shown and this, I believe, followed the line of today’s Howdles Lane from Watling Street as far as the bend. The title is clearly a misnomer as Howdles Lane did not then exist, but it does at least give some idea of location.

But where exactly was this dam, what impact could it have had on the landscape and are there any remains today? History has obliterated all remains, but using Gerald Reece’s map and combining it with modern maps it is possible to locate the dam and the reservoir it created.

To achieve this I traced relevant elements of the 1818 plan, added some colour, and then placed a modern map behind it. The latter is not especially clear, but it is sufficient to locate the feeder, dam and reservoir relative to current development. I have assumed that the feeder contoured round the valley and would therefore have defined the limit of the reservoir and, although it may not necessarily have been true, the lie of the land today suggests this is about right.

howdles lane 1818 old dam

Based on the 1818 plan.

howdles lane 1818 old dam 10k

With OS 1:10,000 base – not to scale.


The 1818 plan says ‘dam’ and ‘site of old reservoir’. From this I infer that the dam structure was still in place, but disused, and the brook, my mother said ‘Brownhllls Brook’, flowed unchecked to the Crane Brook. At that time this watercourse would probably have been natural and more than likely meandered to some extent across a flood plain about 80 or 90 metres wide. It would have been straightened following the Inclosure Act of 1853.

What purpose did the dam serve? Well, we know that the main dam burst in 1799 and this would have left the Wyrley & Essington Canal short of water. I suggest that the Brownhills Brook was dammed as a makeshift, stop-gap measure to supply at least some water to help with the locks down to Lichfield. The main dam was repaired by 1800, so it may be that the smaller dam was used for just one or two years. A lot of effort, but the canal network was vital to the economy in the early Industrial Revolution.

Untitled 9

Extract from the 1797 Yates map of Staffordshire; terribly non-linear and not consistently to scale, it does show two bodies of water (highlighted) in the area of what is now Chasewater.

However, the Yates map of 1798 shows two substantial areas of water roughly where Chasewater and Howdles Lane are today. The ‘Chasewater’ reservoir was in operation by the time the map was published. Could the second area of water be a mistake, or, albeit clearly the wrong shape, was it the ‘Howdles Lane’ reservoir? But why would it have been there so early? If it had been for watering cattle at the drovers’ stop-off at the Welsh Harp, then it would surely appear on the 1760 manuscript plan (Reece, p91). My stop-gap theory certainly makes more sense, but there is nothing conclusive.


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’.

The dam is shown inside the course of the feeder. This indicates that the high water level would not have been above the feeder. Water would not therefore flow naturally, but would have to be pumped into the downstream feeder, especially when the reservoir was not full.

How much water would the dam have held? I could find only two relevant spot heights on the Ordnance Survey mapping. The low point of Howdles Lane is at 141.7 metres. Approximately three quarters of the way up the hill towards Whitehorse Road is at 146.6 metres. At most the west end of the dam was half way between and could not have been higher than the average, that is about 144.2 metres. The brook course is some way below the road, I think about 1 metre. This suggests the maximum depth of water at that point was about 3.5 metres and this seems about right to the eye.

howdles lane westward (1024x768)

Howdles lane looking north of west from the bend. Image courtesy Andy Dennis.

The old dam stood to the right of the lane, its centre more or less opposite the speed bump, behind the house with solar panels. The far end was where the house stands to the right of the second speed bump (nearest parked car) about one third of the way up the hill. The east (near) end was where the canal is to the right of the picture, with the water’s edge roughly where the inspection cover is in the foreground.

The bottom of my garden is in what used to be the flood plain and about 2’6” (0.77 m) deep is a solid pebble layer that could have been stream bed (I discovered this when creating a pond). This ties in with the depth at the south end of the reservoir being almost zero and, therefore, an average depth of about 1.75 metres. The surface area is approximately 28,500 square metres, which implies a capacity of about 50,000 cubic metres. I gather that a narrow lock consumes about 140 cubic metres, so this small reservoir would cater for about 350 lock operations.

This does not seem very much when considering the amount of traffic, but it may have been replenished from the Crane Brook or even by pumping from the main reservoir water that had not been lost in the breach.

What would the photographer have seen back then? He would be standing on heath, looking across about 100 metres of water beyond which more open heath rose to the horizon. Angling off to the right would be a low earth bank about 100 metres long holding back the water, with the eastern end anout ninety degrees to his right. There would have been a sluice to release surplus water, and some kind of pumping engine.

Well, maybe …
Andrew Dennis, 28 Nov 2014.

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12 Responses to The lost Howdles Lane dam

  1. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    Excellent, Andy!
    Kind regards

  2. Edwina says:

    When we first moved to Howdles Lane, we were told by some old miner that our house had been built on the bottom of a “pond” … I could never understand that (some 45 years ago) but now what you say could make some sense to that.

  3. It’s almost certainly unrelated, but there are references to a reservoir somewhere in the vicinity of the Uxbridge Arms that was constructed by South Staffs Water probably c.1860 and fed by a branch off the railway main from somewhere near the Anglesea Sidings. To date I’ve not been able to verify that this reservoir was ever built, if it was it didn’t survive for very long. It may have been built to supply a nearby colliery and the associated domestic properties. There could of course be a connection here with J R McLean (SSWW Co’s first Engineer in Chief) who may have owned the colliery. Further research needed!

  4. Clive says:

    Great piece of detective work Andy, just goes to show we still have mysterys to uncover on our doorsteps. in your case it was on your doorstep Andy.

  5. Dave D says:

    Was this reservoir feed by the stream that runs off the common by Brownhills School, the stream must be underground now, the stream runs under the A5, behind the old Castle Club. I’m sure that eventually the stream ran to the old water works and on into Cranebrook.

  6. Andy Dennis says:

    Dave D, yes. Whether it fed the sewage works, I don’t know. Soon after Doody’s moved to the Castle Club it was culverted , presumably under the road through Knaves Castle Avenue.

  7. Dave Fellows says:

    Funnily enough when we moved into Knaves Castle Avenue in the 80’s, we were told that it used to be a pool but never thought much of it. But thinking about it now Knaves Castle Avenue seemed to sit in lower ground than the surrounding streets.

  8. Andy says:

    Bob – I was interested in your Howdles Lane Dam article and in particular the way you overlaid old maps onto new ones. I have been asked by a canal society to write a walking guide covering the lost sections of the BCN (its a rewrite of “The Other Sixty Miles” and whilst I have the history, walked the lines and the Godfrey maps I have yet to work out a quality way of transposing the old canal layout over a contemporary map – one map per walk. Given the clarity of your end results I think you may be able to provide some advice. or my blog Andy

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