Search for the Old Roads of Stoke-on-Trent

Newcastle-under-Lyme Canal
"in search of a doomed waterway which disappeared years age"

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Historian Fred Hughes writes....   

The heartbeat of Stoke on Trent lies exactly at 53.0045 degrees latitude by 2.1819 longitude crossing precisely above the Civic Centre which in turn sits on top of the dried-up bed of the Stoke to Newcastle Canal. It may interest you to know that Stoke on Trent shares its latitude line with Bremen in Germany, Petropavlovsk in Russia and Venison Tickle on the east-coast of Canada making us a fairly important location by comparison. Of course all this is quite meaningless unless, like me, you’re intending to follow the vanished Newcastle Canal from start to finish.

 “The canal was cut along a four-mile level straight through the heart of Stoke,” says historian Steve Birks. “Its starting point is marked by a sign underneath Glebe Street Bridge. The canal is long gone and it’s almost impossible to trace it. Mind you, just thirty-years ago there was still a hundred-yard navigable stretch that was used as moorings for Stoke Boating Club. That was the last bit of it to be wiped-out by the A500.”

The Newcastle Canal was one of those ventures that seemed to be a good idea at the time. It opened in 1800 and was part of an impressive plan to link Newcastle to the Grand Trunk network. It didn’t turn out that way as Andy Perkin, secretary of the Potteries Heritage Society explains.

“The local iron and coal master Sir Nigel Gresley had already opened a canal from his mines at Apedale to carry coal to Newcastle. Cleverly he’d obtained legislative approval to control the price of coal in the district for forty-two years; in other words he held a monopoly. The main money-spinner for the Stoke to Newcastle canal naturally would have been coal-carriage. Gresley’s clause effectively ruled out competition and the originally scheme that proposed to link the two canals by an incline plane through Stubbs Walk never materialised and people just lost interest in the whole venture.”

Manufacturers at the Stoke end, men like Spode, Minton and Wolfe, had no real need for the Newcastle Branch other than the bit that led to the Grand Trunk connection.

“There was little use for the main stretch of waterway and so it was part-closed in 1921,” Steve continues. “By 1935 it had been abandoned altogether and so it was filled-in and forgotten as a disastrous failure.”

This photo taken from the footpath on the Trent and Mersey Canal
This photo taken from the footpath on the Trent and Mersey Canal

The sign pinpoints the junction of the Newcastle Canal where it ran into the Trent & Mersey Canal near Glebe Street (just opposite the railway station).
Until the early 1970's there was a 100 yard stretch of navigable Newcastle Canal here which was used as moorings for Stoke Boat Club, this stretch was wiped out when the huge A500 by-pass was built.

On the far side of the Civic Centre is the Spode Factory.


The Civic Centre at the top of Glebe Street
The Civic Centre at the top of Glebe Street
the canal ran where the civic centre is now built

photo: July 2000


Never mind, Steve and I decide we owe it to history to try and trace its route anyway; to see what remains of any evidence of its existence. The first port of call is the Civic Centre where I meet up with Town Hall porter David Bowes, a civic stalwart who has looked after our town halls for the past 30 years.

“One of my tasks is to go into to the cellars of the old Stoke Town to make sure the back-up batteries are charging and to check the water pumps are working. We’ve had a lot of problems with flooding over the years with water coming in when the Fowlea Brook overflows.” explains David.

Hidden beneath the tumult of road and railway is the oldest part of Stoke Town Hall. Down here, in the 1834 vaulted chambers, regiments of heavy-duty batteries stand-by in case of power failure. Here among the chill cobwebby corners, miles of pipes and cables coil beneath the engine rooms of civic administration. Stone compartments concede space to other rambling rooms echoing with dripping water. David points to an uncovered hole in the ground.

“That’s the overflow from the Fowley Brook,” he says casually. “The hole is an inspection gauge where, as soon as the water rises above a certain level, a pump kicks in and directs the flow back out so it causes no damage.”

These problems were identified in the 1980’s when the rise of the Fowlea Brook caused serious damage to irreplaceable files and documents.

“Hopefully that won’t happen again,” says David, “But we have to keep a continuous check to make sure the pump is working correctly.”

Most of our important historic documents are stored these days in Hanley archives so a repetition of flooding can’t do much damage. But the proximity of Fowlea Brook will, no doubt, always cause speculation.

"Fowlea by name and foul by nature"

"Fowlea by name and foul by nature"

The Fowlea brook as it runs at the bottom of Leason Street in Stoke.
On the left the brown building is
part of the Spode factory and in the middle the blue building is anindustrial electrical factory on Elenora Street.
The Fowlea Brook runs through a culvert under Elenora Street

Above ground Steve points out the fast-flowing Fowlea Brook as it passes below and between the Civic Centre and the Town Hall under Aqueduct and Brook Streets.

“Our canal once passed behind the Town Hall over the brook and by the rear of Spode Works. From here it travelled under Church Street and under Campbell Place in a tunnel. It appeared briefly at the side of London Road opposite Hill Street picking up a spur from the Wolfe Street potteries. It finally emerged from two tunnels by Fleming Road. And then off it went under what is now Sainsbury’s until it crossed Corporation Street. This is our first evidence that the canal existed for you can still see two parapet columns that have been left as you enter a children’s play area.”

The open canal rejoined London Road near to All Saints Road where, just a short distance away, a memorial erected to mark the bravery of Timothy Trow now stands. But that’s a story for next week.

more on the Newcastle-under-Lyme canal


14 July 2008

click the "contents" button to get back to the main index & map
next: Newcastle Canal - part 2
previous: Ford Hayes Farm