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The Colossus of Roads

Here in Sandwell we particularly remember Thomas Telford as a great canal and bridge builder. His building of the new main line canal, described by a contemporary as a work of ‘stupendous magnificence’, between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in the 1820s is recognised as an engineering feat that had no parallel at the time.  

Galton Valley Pumping Station (one of our smaller museums) sits in Smethwick between the New Mainline Canal which you can see here and the Old Mainline Canal built by James Brindley, which you can just make out level with the top of the bank, the other side of the Pumping Station. The Pumping Station’s job was to pump water to regulate the water in the 2 canals. Telford’s motorway of canals had no locks.

Telford however expected to be remembered for his road building and encouraged the informal use of the title ‘The Colossus of Roads’ which had been created by his friend and travelling companion, the Poet Laureate Robert Southey.

Of course (why else would I be writing this?) one of Telford’s greatest, but locally forgotten, achievements, was a new road right through the heart of the Black Country.  One you have probably driven along on many occasions.  But unlike his coach road through the heart of Snowdonia, with its tourism signs and listed infrastructure of gates, milestones toll houses and coaching inns, here in the Black Country we have forgotten his legacy almost entirely.

In 1800 The British and Irish Parliaments (Ireland was in fact legally a separate nation state at this time) both passed Acts of Union, which abolished the Irish Parliament, sent Irish elected members and Lords to Westminster instead, and incidentally required the creation of a new national flag, the union flag, more commonly referred to as the union jack, which we still fly today.

The journey from Dublin to London (and let’s not forget most Irish MPs had to travel from other parts of Ireland) consisted of a 50-mile sea crossing from a beach in Dublin to a rocky cove on Holyhead in Wales, which could take ten to 15 hours depending on winds and tides, followed by a 190-mile coach journey scheduled at 36 hours but which regularly took much longer.  And that was without an overnight stop!

Telford was initially commissioned in 1811 (it took 10 years for the new United Kingdom Parliament to find the money) to improve the port infrastructure at both ends of the sea crossing and develop the road through North Wales to Shrewsbury. 

Holyhead (the Welsh end of the sea crossing) had been described as an unprovided and comfortless place and the route through North Wales as through many nations and languages unknown to the civilised world . . . by Jonathon Swift after he took the journey in the mid 1700s. I don’t think there had been any significant improvements by the early 19th century so Telford’s scheme would have been a great relief.

Then in the late 1820s money was found to improve the London to Shrewsbury road.  The traditional route had been along Watling Street, the old Roman Road to Chester (today known as the A5), which passes through Hinkley, Nuneaton Tamworth and Cannock.  But Telford, who had been surveying in the Black Country in the 1820s for his new canal, re-routed the journey from Weeden in Northamptonshire to Oakengates now on the outskirts of Telford, through the developing industrial centres of Coventry, Birmingham, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. 

Telford’s route into West Bromwich (and out of it as well!) was along the recently improved turnpike road from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, now the A41.  Telford’s improvements were principally concerned with widening the roadway so coaches could pass and overtake without running each other off the road, improving the surface and drainage, building and rebuilding bridges to replace fords or old narrow medieval structures, and most importantly levelling the route and reducing the gradients on the hills.   In West Bromwich, the road runs along what has become West Bromwich High Street and turns north to Hill Top. We know that Telford engineered the removal of significant height from the top of Hill Top, as well as building an embankment on the slope down to the bridge (the Holloway – which historically would have been a steep, deep cutting in the hillside rather than a gentle slope!) over the river Tame.

Believe it or not, the Fountain Inn at the foot of Holloway Bank was a coaching Inn.  Horses pulling the coaches were changed every three hours or so (that would be after 12- 15 miles depending on gradients) and at the very least a small inn provided refreshments at these stops.   The earliest known licensee at the Fountain was a John Hall, (1818 – I wonder if it was built as a consequence of the increased traffic on the new road?) but the buildings we see today (unfortunately it is no longer a pub) only dates from the mid 1930s when the ageing Georgian Inn and stables were demolished. 

Outside the Fountain pub, Hill Top Holloway Bank, 1898 – Sandwell Community History and Archives Service.

Perhaps we should have some brown tourist signs along our stretch as well?  Can anyone translate one into Black Country dialect?

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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1 Comment

  1. I had known for some time that the A41 was built by Telford, but I didn’t really understand where it went to and came from.
    Neither did I understand the political background to this great work.
    Thank you, fascinating to read

    Liked by 1 person

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