Coventry Canal

Coventry Canal

The Coventry Canal was one of the country’s earliest waterways to be opened following the success of the Bridgewater Canal. The section from Coventry to Atherstone was opened in 1769, and the rest of the canal followed as time went on eventually bringing it a total of 27 miles to Fradley junction (not forgetting the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal company had to build a bit of canal to link up the missing bits of the Coventry!) The first part of the canal opened 26th October 1769.

This is a post about the five and half miles of Coventry Canal in the city itself. I originally did this post in 2006 – the first time I encountered the Coventry Canal was in 1976, thus that article was a 30th anniversary of that particular occasion and its reissue (this version) in 2019 was for the canal’s 250th anniversary.

The terminus in the centre of Coventry overlooks the city centre. It is quite a dramatic setting and it is just a short walk over the ringway footbridge to the large shopping precinct and the cathedral, Spon Lane, the Lady Godiva statue etc. To many of those (including myself) who were involved in the work Coventry Canal Society undertook in those early days to campaign for canal restoration as well as undertaking tasks such as clearing rubbish out of the canal (surface clearance we called it) and maintaining its towpath etc, we knew the terminus as Bishop St Basin, for that was the name it had always been known by.

This is how the entrance to the canal basin once looked. And yes it was us doing this work to tidy up the rather ramshackle entrance by way of repointing the brickwork and rebuilding part of the entrance pillars. This was 1977.

The crane at Coventry basin.

For many years there were plans to demolish the historic warehouses on the south side. Instead these have been restored. The remainder of the basin has been redeveloped however, but retaining a canal theme throughout and having pleasant additions, such as the statue of James Brindley. Though I wonder if anyone wants to be confronted with Brindley’s backside?

There’s another irony to this statue. Its not exactly a reflection of Brindley’s achievements on this canal! Although James Brindley surveyed the canal and was involved to some extent with its construction, the Coventry Canal Company were most unhappy with him.

During the canal’s construction there was to be a tunnel through Bedworth Hill. Brindley found the construction of this problematic and during a late change of mind he decided to dispense with the partially built tunnel and opt for an open cutting instead. Having spent enormous sums of money and labour on an already partially built tunnel, Brindley then exacerbated these problems further by way of substandard work. The canal company ultimately felt it had no choice but dismiss him.

Brindley at Coventry Basin. The Coventry canal was the second of his vast network of waterways to be opened.

Of course he is facing northwards towards the heart of his ‘grand cross’ of canals. Although I’m not so sure about the swing bridge, I suppose one can say that the Coventry Canal has almost never been without a swing bridge. It could be said to be a replacement for the one at Polesworth. The basin now has three main entrances, two vehicular and one pedestrian, with a clock tower at the basin’s extremity. The original entrance still exists but is no longer used.

The restored canal warehouses. It has a vast model railway belonging to the Coventry Model Railway Club. This has been here since 1961 and I certainly remember the layouts it had. Ron Ellis, one of the club’s founders, as I remember, was also an important figure in the Coventry Canal Society.

The Coventry Canal was one of the country’s earliest to be opened, being in use long before Brindley’s other canals including the Trent and Mersey, Staffordshire & Worcestershire and Oxford Canals – therefore Brindley has special significance as the only other canal completed prior to this one had been the Bridgewater Canal. However as I pointed out earlier the canal too has irony for it is the one and only construction project James Brindley was sacked from!

Bridge No.1 which guards the entrance to the canal basin.

The canal leaves the basin and immediately enters a stretch where visitor moorings are now available in addition to those provided in the basin itself. One of the surprising things about this stretch is the amount of new housing that has sprung up where there was once industry typical of that found along the entire 5 and half miles.

These photographs were taken in September 2006 and there was still some construction work underway – the section at Electric Wharf just round the corner from the basin had not yet been finished. What is surprising is that the canal is mostly clean now, a far cry from the 1970’s when we used to have to tackle the most unimaginable rubbish possible using Bert Dunkley’s Prince and a mud boat.

View of two of the city’s three spires from the canal. There used to be a better view before the advert hoardings were put up. In many ways the piece de resistance has been spoilt.

I lived in Coventry for a while and during that time helped out by organising works parties and certainly remember the numerous indemnity forms that had to signed and sent off to British Waterways at their Rotton Park Reservoir offices in Birmingham. This paperwork was essential in order to allow us to work on the canal. The 5 and half miles wasn’t the only stretch the canal society worked on – for we organised a big clean up at Atherstone which included painting the lock gates.

The last remaining building from the Daimler factory – the power house

Electric Wharf. Its a modern name. No such wharf of that name existed in the canal’s heyday. Its however the site of the Daimler factory, and the large pillar on the left, on top of which a sculpture of an early Daimler can be seen, probably based on its first production model of 1897. The ‘electric’ however refers to the power station Daimler built in 1907.

Monument to Daimler by the canal at Electric Wharf.

Narrowboat heading southwards near Bridge no 2.

View of Bridge 2, known as Cash’s Bridge, with modern corrugated pipeline. Above can be seen the imposing structure known as Cash’s.

Dolly the Mule – she was the one who towed the Skinner’s boat ‘Friendship.’ A number of boatmen on the Coventry and Oxford canals preferred mules or donkeys to horses.

Cash’s Lane Houses. These were unusual in that they had the accommodation on the lower floors and the workshops on the upper floors, as denoted by the very large windows.

The most significant building of the locality are Cash’s Hundred Houses, a cottage factory which was built by Quakers John and Joseph Cash in 1856-57 in an attempt to halt the decline of the city’s ribbon weaving industry caused by cheap foreign imports. The idea of the scheme was to improve the efficiency the city’s ribbon weavers by grouping them together but allowing them to continue to work independently. The factory was in effect terraces of ribbon weaver’s cottages with two-storeys of accommodation and double height weaving top shops above that housed the looms, which were powered by a central steam engine. This arrangement was, however, unsuccessful and Cash’s was converted to a conventional factory with the weavers as employees in 1860. The factory remained in operation until the early 1980s… (Source: Coventry City Council.)

This section by Cash’s was in fact one of the Coventry Canal Society’s worst nightmares for its clearance parties. It was always full of rubbish, combined with a numerous number of motor bike riders which made clearing the towpath somewhat challenging.

It was not far away to the south that the Coventry Canal suffered one of its worst ever breaches, on the night of 15/16th December 1978 with water flooding Foleshill Road and the surrounding streets. It took a lot of legal wrangling before the breach could be repaired and the canal reopened. Adjacent building work apparently destabilised the canal and caused it to fail. The canal itself was not reopened until September 1979 – just in time for its 200th anniversary.

One of the highlights of this section was the Foleshill railway, which ran alongside the canal for some distance. Even long after the railway closed one of its engines ‘Henry’ used to stand on a plinth by the canal, reminding us of its former days chugging along the canal.

Although it has not got a name one could easily call this section Henry’s Corner – where for many years the steam locomotive, an 0-6-0 tank by that name, stood on a plinth after the Foleshill railway closed.

The Foleshill Railway’s ‘Henry’ on its plinth at Courtaulds as seen in 1976. The engine could be seen from the canal towpath.

The Foleshill Railway was a privately owned line that served the local industries and the railway ran alongside the Coventy Canal for a fair bit. It was steam operated right to the very end of operations in 1972.

This was the site of Courtaulds Factory and as well as the railway it was too served by canal boats. The factory closed in 1991. Henry is now preserved at Barrow Hill.

Foleshill Road bridge. This substantial flotilla of polystyrene was making its way south. The bridge is known as the Prince William Henry.

Bridge 4 – Stoney Stanton Road – complete with graffiti, pipes and other paraphernalia.

Continued in part two.

Originally published, 2006. Updated 2019 and 2022.