STANDING on the very summit of the Nine Locks, as they tumble away from Mill Street Bridge in Brierley Hill all the way down to Black Delph Bridge, is a sight to behold and one of the wonders of the Black Country.
The flight was built during the pioneering days of canal construction to connect the Dudley No 1 Canal with the Stourbridge Canal, and bridge a drop from 441 feet at the top end to 356 feet at the bottom. But when you begin to count the individual locks there appears to be one missing, with only eight on view. That’s because almost the entire flight of locks that were first put in place in 1779 were replaced by new ones less than a hundred years later, and the path of the flight re-routed. The majority of visitors to the ‘Nine Locks’, many aboard narrowboats enjoying the Black Country’s magnificent canal network, are probably completely unaware of the exact position of the original flight, and a few weeks ago the Bugle spent a very interesting hour walking the history of the locks, which revealed remains of the original flight as we plotted the route down the long grassy bank that follows the contours of the slope.
The Stourbridge and Dudley canals were originally proposed as a single canal in 1775 with the primary purpose of carrying coal from Dudley to Stourbridge.
As with all canal constructions in the 18th and 19th centuries they had to be sanctioned by Parliament with an Act, and in this instance, despite the chief promoter being Lord Dudley, the bill was withdrawn following fierce opposition from the Birmingham Canals.
But later that year two separate bills were presented, one for each canal, and both became Acts of Parliament on 2nd April 1776. Construction started almost immediately and was largely completed by late 1779. The Delph Locks in effect connect the Stourbridge canal with the Dudley No 1 canal and must have witnessed a non-stop procession of narrow boats climbing the heights or descending to the Black Delph full to the brim with coal, and then later other manufactured items as well as the black gold. It was a continuous motion that must have compared with a busy motorway on a bank holiday weekend.
But by the middle of the 19th century, extensive mining of the area saw the locks beginning to sink into the shifting ground. This was more than a repair job could rectify, and the whole flight, with the exception of the locks at the top and bottom, was re-routed. The original path was a twisting one; the new locks would descend straight as an arrow, and with one less lock. When work was completed in 1858, the redundant stretch was filled in.
Today little evidence is left of the original flight, but on closer inspection bricks can still be seen protruding through the grass at various intervals, marking the position of the lock walls, and with the help of several subtle dips in the earth, you can still visualise the line the canal originally took to join the Dudley No 1 and the Stourbridge canal together.
At the top of the flight, adjacent to the modern Mill Street bridge is a watery cul-de-sac which leaves the main route at an angle and is the only remnant of the 1779 stretch that still holds water.
After the mid-Victorian alterations, this became a wharf for the nearby sawmill and lime kilns, but now lies forgotten – a silent reminder of the days when the Delph did indeed have nine locks.