We were delighted to receive a new addition to our historical archive the other day, courtesy of Derek Gittins, a long time canal campaigner and one of the founder members of Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust and author of many of their leaflets and books. It is understood that having retired from the Trust he has set about having a tidy up at home and is discovering all sorts of things! The new addition is the original 1947-48 Stourbridge Navigation Permit receipt book to pass on foot along the towpath from one destination to another, being valid for 6 months. It was quite a find and steeped with history of our stretch of the canal, setting the imagination running riot as to the background and events of day the book was used for its intended purpose, which is a key and to most a surprising fact that certainly not many people I have spoken to were aware of – a charge of 2 shillings and sixpence being levied to use the towpath! Flicking through the book there are noticeable changes as time passed – the introduction of the term “Docks and Inland Waterways Executive” and naturally a change in the name of the General Manager issuing the permit – D. Shillingford superseding A.E. Roden on 29th July 1948. E.A. Roden (Bert) was the last General Manager of the Stourbridge Navigation Company, his tenure finishing upon nationalisation in 1948. From one of our Trustee’s memory he then transferred to the newly created Midlands Electricity Board, Much more importantly, he was one of the original members of the Stourbridge Navigation Trust when established (in name) by the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society’s Stourbridge Sub-Branch Committee c1980. He was a mine of information regarding land ownership, building history etc. Unfortunately he became ill and went into a home. Our Trustee and Vice Chairman, the Late Alan Smith, went to visit him, armed with tape recorder, only to find that Bert had lost his memory. History lost!! His brother was apparently a train driver based at the Stourbridge sheds. It has just come to light through local investigation down at the Trust (it’s fascinating how when a topic is raised it uncovers all sorts of associations) that one of our Trustees at Stourbridge Navigation Trust, the one and only Dr Paul Collins, had an uncle Bert Roden whose initials he thinks were AE – he was apparently also a keen gardener and lived in Pedmore – he’s almost certainly the same character, what a small world! His successor D. Shillingford, but because his name appears after January 1948, he would indeed have been an ‘agent’ for the newly nationalised Board and not a manager of the Stourbridge Navigation Company, though apparently continuing to use the same Permit book. There may well be a link here to the Shillingford’s who ran the rowing boat hire and pleasure craft business for many years at Wordsley Junction who may have also issued permits and associated receipts. The photograph below might stir the memories of some people who may have enjoyed a trip on the pleasure boat or rowed the few miles from Wordsley to Stourton.
One can see in the Permit book that there is also the introduction of a receipt stamp on each permit issued after 10th July 1948 for the purpose of fishing. I was intrigued by the addresses of named permit-holders – some very local (Amblecote / Stourbridge) but others a little further away in Cradley (then geographically based in Staffordshire!), Brierley Hill and Smethwick. The scanned images in the gallery show a broad selection of the permits, though there are many others who might just be those pertaining to readers grandparents or family ancestors even further down the line.
Historically in Britain, most canals were built, owned and operated by private companies, and the towpaths were deemed to be private, for the benefit of legitimate users of the canal. The nationalisation of the canal system in 1948 did not result in the towpaths becoming public rights of way, though this is maybe why the Permit Book for Stourbridge Navigation evidences a cessation of issue, the last being on 18th September 1948 to Mr North of Two Gates Lane, Cradley permitting him to pass on foot along the Towing Path from Stourbridge to Four Locks Stourton and to sit on the banks of the canal between those points; the said person undertaking not to impede the traffic on the canal. That’s a far cry from today which pleasingly sees high volumes of pedestrian and cycling traffic enjoying the towpath for leisure purposes.
Subsequent legislation, such as the Transport Act 1968, which defined the government’s obligations to the maintenance of the inland waterways for which it was now responsible, did not include any commitment to maintain towpaths for use by anyone, however, some ten years later British Waterways started to relax the rule that a permit was required to give access to a towpath, and began to encourage leisure usage by walkers, anglers and in some areas, cyclists. While the steady development of the leisure use of the canals and the decline of commercial traffic had resulted in a general acceptance that towpaths are open to everyone, and not just boat users.
The concept of free access to towpaths is now enshrined in the legislation which transferred responsibility for the English and Welsh canals from British Waterways to the Canal & River Trust in 2012.
Cycling permits are no longer required by the Canal & River Trust. However, not all canal towpaths in the country are suitable for use by cyclists, and conflicts can arise between the differing user groups. Parts of some towpaths have been incorporated into the National Cycle Network, and in most cases this has resulted in the surface being improved.
So we can all rest easy without fear of having to pay for the privilege of using the delightful towpaths along the Stourbridge Canal Arm and onward to the broader canal network!