Work in the early years (1966-1968)

The Society was originally formed in early 1965 as the Shrewsbury and Newport Canal Association. It had plans to restore 22 miles of the Shropshire Union Canal, initially from Newport to Wappenshall near Wellington, and then the section to Shrewsbury. There was, apparently, a 1960 agreement between local authorities that sections of the canal should be closed but, despite this, the Association pressed on organising a public meeting at Newport in June 1965 to make the case for restoration. A 20,000-signature petition was raised asking for the Shrewsbury and Newport canal through north and east Shropshire to be preserved. This was presented to British Waterways Board (BW) and the Minister of Transport at a meeting in London in July 1965. Little positive came of this meeting and the association attendees subsequently found out that BW had already sold off some of the land even as the meeting was being held. In November 1966, the Association took the decision to abandon the Newport canal project after nearly two years of unsuccessful negotiation with the BW. A rueful press release noted: ‘The authorities made up their minds several years ago that the canal must disappear. The association now realises that it was too late in the field to affect a stay of execution’.

In late 1966, the Association’s 500 members voted to change both its name to the ‘Shropshire Union Canal Society’ and also its aims and objectives. It became a ‘watchdog’ society for the Shropshire Union Canal which at that time carried both commercial and pleasure traffic between Ellesmere Port and Wolverhampton with branches running into Wales.

BW was, understandably, uncertain as to how to use the upsurge in interest in canal volunteering that materialized in the nineteen-sixties. There was also an anxiety within the BW workforce about the effect of volunteers on employment. Consequently, volunteers were initially restricted to what was then known as ‘agricultural work’ – mainly vegetation clearance.

The Society’s first ever work party was held at Oulton Lock on the Shrewsbury and Newport Canal on July 2, 1967, the aim of which was to salvage equipment and paddle racks from both top and bottom locks. In late summer 1967, with permission of BW, Society volunteers undertook maintenance work on the main line of the Shropshire Union at Tyrley. The bank through Tyrley cutting had become very overgrown and the towpath was a quagmire because dredgings had been put on the towpath. For the rest of the year, until curtailed by a foot and mouth disease outbreak, work parties cleared saplings and undergrowth from the bank, and also cleared the towpath and unblocked drains.

Increasing numbers of volunteers returned to Tyley on three occasions during 1968. Fifteen members travelled to assist with ‘Operation Ashton’ – the clearance of the Ashton Canal by 530 volunteers from all over the county – in September of that year. Other visits were made to the Caldon canal and to assist David Hutchins with work to restore the Warwickshire Avon navigation.

One of the most unusual work parties in the Society’s history occurred in August 1968 when the 80-year-old ice breaker Marbury was saved from her watery grave in the Prees Branch. Made of wood with a metal sheathing on her hull, she was used to break the ice on the frozen canal. She was pulled by a team of horses whilst several canal workers stood on her deck holding onto the bar and rocking her back and forth which helped to break up the ice. Marbury had been purchased by the Society from BW. A fourteen strong group spend several hours raising the boat and found her in remarkably good condition. Good enough, in fact, to haul her approximately 6 miles to Grindley Brook in three hours followed later by more bow hauling to Wrenbury. She was later taken by tug to Norbury where the Society had further work parties scraping the accumulated growths and muck from her superstructure. She was later moved to Harry Machin’s yard at Market Drayton where she was kept under cover until being handed over to the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum in 1972. She was eventually gifted to the Boat Museum in 1994 and remains part of the boat collection today.

‘Marbury’ at Ellesmere Port Boat Museum (Photo D Carter)

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