This post is an explanation of yesterday’s boat trip into the Dudley mines on a Dudley Canal Trust electric boat. The cost is £6.60 adult and £6 senior concession. The tour takes approximately 40 minutes and I found most of it quite interesting.
Prior to taking the trip I walked around the exhibition on the lower floor of the new Dudley Canal Trust Visitor Centre. This provided me with a better understanding of the canal and mines prior to entering them.
The first thing I need to mention is the underground canal network was there to transport the coal and limestone from the various mines.
This next map shows a dotted blue line which is the Dudley Canal Tunnel. The solid blue lines show the surface routes of the Dudley Canal. The entire area was riddled with collieries, some of which were quickly exhausted.
Map from Dudley Canal Trust
Work was carried out on a contracting basis with Lord Dudley obtaining a royalty for every ton of extracted coal or limestone. A “mine boss” would have bid for the right to establish and operate the mine. All the work would have been subcontracted with boys as young as 9 and girls aged 12 working underground. The miners worked 12 hours, 6 days a week. Younger children and wives worked on the surface doing tasks such as the hand manufacture of clay bricks to line the canal tunnels. Mining limestone didn’t carry the same gas risk as coal mining but it was still a very dangerous occupation. Mine bosses didn’t pay compensation for injuries or fatalities.
This next map extract shows the number of collieries working in 1861. The red line is a scale of 9km and every small circle represents one colliery.
Map from the Black Country Museum website
It’s not hard to see why this area is known as “The Black Country”. Limestone was either used in construction or burned in kilns for use in iron smelting.
I’ve taken this next map from Wikipedia. It shows the underground canal network and I have marked the route of the boat in red.
After passing through Lord Ward’s Tunnel you enter the small Shirts Mill basin. Lord Ward’s Tunnel is named after Lord Dudley. His full title was Lord Dudley and Ward. Originally the basin was underground but the mines eventually removed it to give themselves some natural light. The basin was originally a loading area for limestone. We continued on a short distance to Castle Mill basin. Like Shirt Mill, this basin has had it’s roof removed. Castle Mill started as a limestone mine and was subsequently widened to allow boats to turn and enter several new mines. To the left is a former mine shaft known locally as Murderers Cavern after the bones of a young girl were found in it many years ago. The tunnel to the right had been filled with silt leaving the main Dudley Canal Tunnel directly ahead.
Castle Mill Basin
To the left of the main Dudley Canal Tunnel is a second tunnel constructed by the Dudley Canal Trust in 1989 after they identified the original tunnels were structurally unsound. To the left on the 1989 tunnel is Murderers Cavern. We entered the 1969 tunnel.
Cathedral Arch has a high vaulted ceiling and the boat stopped here for an audio visual display covering the history of the mine. I wasn’t sure if all the coloured lighting was Christmas decorations or a regular thing?
We continued on through Rock Tunnel and the 1984 Tunnel. The latter was constructed by the Trust in 1984. The furthest part of the tour terminated in Singing Cavern where there was a sound and light display.
The boat then reversed up into the main Dudley Canal Tunnel and headed back towards the portal passing another display showing what life was like for the original miners.
Our tour guide explained that the bricks lining the tunnel were handmade. The boats were originally propelled by boatmen using a 6 foot wooden pole with a combined spike and hook on one end. The spike was wedged into the brick joints to propel the boat. This resulted in significant damage (and cost) to the brickwork so the practice was banned. If the boatman was caught using his pole the fine was one week’s pay. Hence the expression “wouldn’t touch it with a six foot barge pole”. Legging replaced the pole method.
The limestone is significantly older than the coal. It was formed millions of years ago when collection of billions upon billions of trilobites, brachiopods, and primitive types of sea urchin that once swarmed over shallow water coral reefs, before their skeletons were added to the accumulation of limy debris. The trilobites could grow up to 600mm in length. Eventually the land was pushed up and the sea drained to be replaced with a forest which became the source of the coal.
Just before the boat entered Castle Mill basin the guide pointed out the fossilized remains of a trilobite on the tunnel wall.
The canal didn’t just provide transport for the underground mines. It was also the main route from Dudley through the hill to Stourbridge. At it’s zenith the boat queues extended two miles on either side. It became such a choke point that it was decided to build Netherton Tunnel which is bi-directional and has a towpath on each side.