Restoration of Prince of Wales Length (1973-1979)

After Welshpool Town Lock was opened, the two-mile section between Gallowstree and Whitehouse Bridges was dredged by local council with a grant under ‘Operation Eyesore’. A slipway, paid for and constructed by the Society, was built 1977 and sited in Welshpool town car park. This enabled trailed boats to use the restored section.

In October 1973, the Prince of Wales announced a plan to restore seven miles (11 km) of the canal to ‘amenity waterway’ standards as defined in the Transport Act 1968. This was achieved through the Prince of Wales Committee of the House of Lords and was to be managed by the SUCS. In 1975, the Montgomery Waterway Restoration Steering Committee was formed to oversee the work. This comprised the seven miles of channel and six locks between Gallowstree and Maerdy Bridges as well as piling and dredging of a further two miles of canal to Carreghofa Locks for water supply purposes. The steering committee was chaired by the Prince of Wales and comprised representatives of the Prince of Wales House of Lords Committee, the Variety Club of Great Britain, British Waterways (BW), SUCS, local authorities, landowners, farmers and environmental groups. The scheme was backed by the Variety Club of Great Britain who agreed to raise £250,000 to pay for the works. The Variety Club wanted to use the restored canal as a recreational base for the benefit of handicapped children. It’s ‘Sunshine’ (‘Heulwen’ in Welsh) boats intended to operate on the canal were specially designed for handicapped children. The first Sunshine boat was started at the Cammell Laird shipyard, Birkenhead in June 1975 and was launched by the Prince of Wales on the canal in July 1976.

Preliminary work started on site in autumn 1973. Piling, dredging and works to provide two lift bridges were the responsibility of BW while volunteers organised by SUCS were responsible for clearance work, restoration of four locks (Bank, Cabin, Crowther Hall and Pool Quay) and a variety of other jobs such as re-decking and repainting of an existing footbridge. The work was programmed to finish in May 1976. BW controlled the expenditure on the works. After prior agreement on price for materials with BW, either the Society settled the invoice and sought reimbursement from BW or sent invoices to BW for payment. There was a similar arrangement for plant. It was made clear that it was not possible for SUCS to borrow BW plant. A letter from Brian Haskins to the society warned that payment by BW might be slow – some things never change!

Work started in earnest in 1974 with the Society members working most weekends on vegetation clearance to keep ahead of the BW dredging and piling gangs. It was planned as a three-year project but in the event it took five years. The restoration of the last two locks (Burgeddin) was abandoned due the highways authority making the canal unnavigable at Ardleen during the diversion of the A483. (The two locks were subsequently restored between 1987 and 1998 – see here for more details.) The society provided all of the equipment which was needed for their own work. Interestingly there were also work parties elsewhere on the canal, notably in the Rednal area.

Scouts doing bank clearance (Photo P Wilson)
BW piling and dredging works (Photo P Wilson)

Work progressed quickly. In March 1974, a site hut (the ‘Pool Quay Hilton’) was established at the lock. By late summer, weekly work parties had cleared the towpath of trees and scrub along whole length between Ardleen and Welshpool. Additionally, channel clearance south of Welshpool at Belan increased the flow of water to Welshpool Town Lock. A fifty strong Waterway Recovery Group two-week camp cleared the four lock chambers and did further clearance at Belan. Other groups assisted the work including the Peak Forest Canal Society, scouts from Nantwich, Bayston Hill and Cardiff and students from Wrekin College, Welshpool High School and Dr Barnardo’s Quinta School. By July, brickwork repairs had commenced on the four locks.

Early in 1975, work parties became fortnightly (Saturday and Sunday) rather than weekly. This stemmed from concerns about falling numbers at SUCS work parties and the hope was that the change might boost attendances. Between January and July, work concentrated on Pool Quay Lock. The lock chamber was cleared, a dam and scaffolding installed and pointing progressed. In September, a Waterway Recovery Group summer camp cleared the offside bank from Pool Quay to Bank Lock. The Peak Forest Canal Society made a number of visits through the year, apparently not deterred by ‘the sub-standard accommodation’ provided in March.

In May 1975, a letter from Ken Newman (BW Engineer, Leeds) confirmed that the Society was to discontinue work on the Frankton to Queens Head section. It was suggested that work at Carreghofa be a substitute but that this extra work was not in place of that on the seven miles which was to continue. Coincidently or not, the archive contains details of an offer by long standing member Malcolm Braine of Cannock to do work on Carreghofa Locks. He was willing to provide labour to make the gates and possibly obtain finance for the same. A plan was drawn up in June by Malcolm Braine and the society. In summary, the plan was for Malcolm Braine to renovate the by-wash paddle gear and make gates for both locks (reusing old gate paddle gear) with the cost of labour and materials being borne by the Society unless specific donations from other sources could be obtained. Society volunteers were to clean out and point chambers, forebays and by-weirs and dredge the middle pound. The gates were to be fitted by the Society with Malcolm Braine’s assistance. The plan was agreed by Brian Haskins of BW who, in addition, asked for repairs to side ponds and Tanat feeder. He also stressed that work on Carreghofa should be secondary to that on the seven miles. Carreghofa Top Lock was cleared in October and the top lock gates fitted in December.

During the Carreghofa project, Mr Charles Clarke worked full-time, usually alone, on the lock chambers and wash walls. A former farmer in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, he took up residence in the Pool Quay Hilton but reluctantly agreed to stay with two other restoration stalwarts in Welshpool during the very severe winter weather.

SUCS work party at Pool Quay Lock 1976 (Photo T Clayton)
Gate fitting and ‘Pool Quay Hilton’ 1976 (Photo L Fowler)
Malcom Braine & volunteers finishing Pool Quay Lock gates (Photo L Fowler)

There were two visiting work camps in August. Waterway Recovery Group worked on the seven miles doing vegetation clearance, pointing Bank and Cabin Locks and rebuilding a lock chamber wall and a retaining wall at Pool Quay. It appears that several courses of brickwork at Pool Quay were removed and not replaced contrary to SUCS instructions and a section of the rebuilt stone retaining wall subsequently collapsed. An acrimonious correspondence followed. A second, and apparently more harmonious, week-long visit by the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society followed which did clearance work at Welshpool.

As well as low volunteer numbers and problems with visiting groups, it was clear that there were other tensions within the project. These were addressed at a meeting with Brian Haskins in November 1975. Firstly, Mr Haskins was most concerned about site safety and implications of 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. It was pointed out that SUCS volunteers are ‘employees’ of the Society and not BW and the potential repercussions were emphasised to Society representatives. It emerged that he had visited the site and picked up a number of instances of concern relating to scaffolding, access, and materials storage. These were immediately rectified on site.

Secondly, Mr Haskins expressed further concern that the Society was working at Carreghofa at the expense of the seven-mile length and that much work remained so as to meet the May 1976 deadline. Outstanding work included hedging (preferably laying) and channel clearance to get water to Welshpool. The meeting also agreed that BW do the lock chamber and by-weir brickwork repair at Cabin. Also ‘To compensate for this work we are taking away from you on this flight it was agreed that you would now take on work at Burgeddin, which was up to now reserved for our own employees’. Finally, it confirmed an agreement between SUCS, BW and IWA that work above Queens Head would be carried out by IWA (Waterway Recovery Group). Separately, in a letter, also in November 1975, Mr Haskins praised an Editorial in Cuttings which described the good relations between volunteers and BW employees and referred to the fact that there had been no union trouble so far. He then pointed out that in another article, the suggestion that pointing ‘did not require any previous experience’ might be tactless in this regard. The suggestion was, in fact, an attempt to reassure potential volunteers that they did not need extensive brick working experience to be of use.

Early work in 1976 concentrated on Pool Quay. In March, the top and bottom cills were installed and paddle gear repaired. Both sets of gates were fitted in April. The specification of fences, paths, furniture and planting for the lock was agreed. By May, work had moved to Crowther Hall Lock in preparation for gate fitting. Also, BW requested (and got) help to clear trees at Belan to enable dredger access.

Old Crowther Hall Lock gates prior to removal (Photo L Fowler)
Old Crowther Hall Lock top gate removed (Photo L Fowler)

There was frantic activity during June and July to finish the section before the visit of the Prince of Wales on July 28. In June, Pool Quay Lock brickwork was finished and the top gate and paddle gear installed. Crowther Hall Lock gates were fitted during an extra work party a few days before the deadline and the BW dredger being able to pass through to the next section. It was noted that the dredging to date had greatly improved the water supply to the section. On July 28, HRH paid his second visit to the canal to officially inaugurate the Heulwen boat and the (very) recently restored section. It was agreed that BW handle the public relations for the visit to avoid some unspecified possible ‘distorted publicity’.

Pool Quay Lock finished July 1976 (Photo L Fowler)
Pool Quay dredger March 1976 (Photo T Clayton)

Low numbers of society volunteers were still a problem with much work still being done by visitors. As well as the redoubtable Charles Clarke, who worked daily on the restoration, there was also help from familiar names: Nantwich scouts and guides, Wrekin College, Welshpool Brookland Hall School, Dr Barnardo’s Quinta School, together with newcomers such as the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Society and Scottish IWA. Visiting groups came on scheduled work party dates for supervision and insurance reasons. The need to match the capabilities with the available work inevitably led to problems of managing sites spilt between technical and clearance work. A small number of offenders subject to a Community Service Order were also used with close supervision but for a number of practical reasons this idea was not pursued long term. The lack of volunteers led to a rundown of the ‘low key’ work at Carreghofa until the work on the seven miles was finished. One top gate had been fitted but the bottom gates for were made and stored underwater on site.

First new Crowther Hall Lock bottom gate (Photo L Fowler)

Finishing work at Crowther Hall occupied the rest of the summer months together with, at request of BW, clearance of towpath trees from Burgeddin to Ardleen as preparation for piling. The autumn work parties attempted to repair the persistent leak through the Crowther Hall Lock brickwork which was now three months behind schedule. In December, it was finally conceded that installation of gates at Carreghofa be deferred indefinitely. Work on the wash wall in the pound, weir crest, toll house chimney and top gate apparently continued. So, by end of 1976 the first 2.75 miles from Gallowstree bridge to Crowther Hall Lock, including two new lift bridges and the restoration of Pool Quay Lock, was finished. Towpath and offside vegetation clearance was finished as required on the seven-mile section. Heulwen/Sunshine was operating on this section based at Buttington.

During the early months of 1977 there was a recurrence of concerns about low attendances at work parties, especially experienced volunteers. Despite the use of large numbers of visiting groups, work was still falling behind programme. An appeal to members to help was made and a summer camp for members organised. For the camp, inducements such as a barbeque and (unspecified) ‘good’ accommodation were offered. The main work was continuing work on the Crowther Hall Lock brickwork for those volunteers with the necessary skills and clearance work at Burgedin Locks for others.

The archives contain a letter (dated February 1977) from Malcolm Braine to Charlton Ironworks (Sheffield) requesting production of lock gear based on the original patterns at Ellesmere. Two sets of gates being fabricated by Mr Braine ‘at the bottom of my garden’ using said gear. The new bottom gates at Bank Lock fitted in August (with the assistance of Mr Braine) were presumably from this batch.

Crowther Hall Lock before brickwork repairs (Photo L Fowler)
Crowther Hall Lock brickwork repair (Photo L Fowler)
A pause at Crowther Hall Lock, Charles Clark on the left (Photo L Fowler)

In May, the canal was dewatered from Pool Quay to Crowther Hall for further brickwork repairs at the latter. This work involved partial demolition/rebuild of the chamber wall and packing puddle clay behind the wall. This work continued for the rest of the summer. In August, a successful summer camp with a number of visiting groups was held. These included the Conservation Corps who rebuilt stone wash walls at Pool Quay and did towpath clearance from there to Cabin Lock. A Sussex chapel group working with some European volunteers did clearance work at Maerdy and Vyrnwy aqueduct. Society volunteers continued brickwork repairs at Crowther Hall Lock until final completion in September.

In parallel with the society’s efforts, BW had started work using their own staff on Cabin Lock and weir. The archive contains no details of the progress of that work.

In January 1978, a letter of thanks was sent to Charles Clarke on his ‘retirement’ from work on the seven miles. In it was the suggestion that work was now six months ahead of schedule. Work continued at Bank Lock. In February, paddle gear was fitted to the bottom gates and the top gate installed. Alas the latter was found to be too big but it was successfully modified in March. By May, attendances were apparently picking up and this enabled finishing work at Pool Quay to be completed. Although the resignation of the work party organiser must have slowed progress, the rest of the summer appears to have been devoted to work on the copings and surroundings at Bank helped by visiting groups.

The harsh winter of 1979 caused the first two months of work parties to be cancelled, re-starting in March under new management. Activity at Bank Lock – pointing, replacement of the copings and finishing works – was completed by June. This, together with BW finishing Cabin Lock, enabled boats to navigate the four locks and reach Burgedin. There is no record of any formal event to mark the completion but the seven miles was finished.

Several features of the work particularly stand out when viewed retrospectively. The first is the sheer scale of the project. Current restoration works tend to be concentrated on discrete sections of channel which match the available, usually rather limited, funding. To restore seven miles of channel including four locks in the timescale was a truly remarkable achievement. Secondly, a considerable chunk of the work – piling, dredging and the Cabin lock restoration – was done by BW direct works. The sort of resources required to do similar work today are, sadly, unlikely to be available to CRT. Finally, the volunteer effort was a combination of the society’s volunteers and those of a large number of diverse external organisations. Whether these arrangements could be accommodated within a project operated under today’s construction legislation is debatable.

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