We’ll dig dig dig dig dig dig dig……..

Having seen a few old dredging photo’s published on Facebook recently, I thought that I might give some of mine an airing on here. I worked for various outfits in those far off days, including Union Towage, Midland Earthmoving, and the partnership between Andy Rothen and Douglas Construction. 

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The Union Towage tug fleet tied up outside "The Flapper & Firkin" pub in Birmingham.

The first dredging job I worked on was "Project Hillarious”, which was our amusing name for the imaginatively named “Project Aquarious”. This project was the dredging of the Birmingham Main Line from Five Ways Bridge (actually on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal) through to Winson Green Stop. This was the best dredging that I have ever been involved with, as all the silt was removed; the canal was dredged to its' original depth of five feet from bank to bank and is still in excellent condition (depth wise) some twenty-odd years later. The current crop of dredging planners could learn a thing or two here. The funding for this project came mainly from the local authority, together with a large chunk of money from the EU. This was in the heady days of our membership of the European Union, and the paymasters in Brussels had obviously decided that Birmingham was in need of a refurb. 

The hoppers on this job were always well loaded, and we “stemmed” them along without the winch wires attached, as this made cornering easier on the way to the unloading wharf at Icknield Port. The only connection between hopper and tug was a short rope from the front of the tug to the rearmost dolly on the hopper. This was useful for braking, but this operation had to be carried out with the hopper properly lined up as it would just pull the tug along behind until the propellor bit into the water and some semblance of braking was effected. 

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A significant part of this contract was the construction of a stone fillet along the canal edge. This was, we were officially informed by a straight-faced canal manager, to encourage the growth of invertebrates. My own view is that this was the official British Waterways line (spin, as it is called these days) to ensure that funding was in place to keep the towing path walls from collapsing into the canal. Nothing much changes; this is just like the current use of the word “wellbeing”, used in the current attempt to persuade the government to continue funding the Canal & River Trust.

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The vessel used to construct said stone fillet was the river-class butty boat, “Tow”, which was ballasted down and fitted with a side tipping platform. This platform was loaded with stone by the oldest “Metal Mickey” that money could buy. This picture shows “Tow” parked up in the wet-dock at Icknield Port in the company of said “Metal Mickey. 

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Here is “Tow” tied alongside “Roach” in Cambrian Wharf, Birmingham with the side-tipping platform loaded ready for the morning. 

A few more shots of the same boat being used as a mud-hopper. The first one is the unloading wharf at Love Lane, Aston, the wharf being formed from a couple of short ex GKN day-boats. The Priestman crane on the wharf had been hired to unload the dredgings, but the operator (nameless, but he knows who he is), could not get to grips with the technique required to grab the dredgings out. The idea was to open the jaws of the grab and then drop it onto the dredgings whilst closing the jaws immediately on impact to use the force of the falling grab to get a full load of material. For some reason, said operator couldn’t get the timing right, and was frequently seen unloading just one brick-end caught between the jaws of the grab. Luckily, a passing Priestman operator wandered into the yard and was hired on the spot. He pretty soon suggested that a hydraulic machine would be far more efficient, and that he would unload boats twice as fast for the same amount of pay - and that he would put up with the comfortable cab without complaining.

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The second photo shows “Tow” being filled on the “Hospital Pond” below Farmers Bridge Locks. Most boatmen would say that these boats made far better mud-hoppers than butty boats. 

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I also used “Tow” in the removal of a large Cummins engine that had been used as a stand-by generator from the rear of the Hospital adjacent the old Davenports brewery. This engine was then exported to the Middle East, I believe, but not by narrow boat.


Incidentaly, “Tow” has been tied up in the trees by Alvechurch for well over a year now, looking quite forlorn. I’m told that it is on its’ way to Over basin on the Severn; it will arrive some time in the twenty-forties at this rate.

coalboat@waitrose.com © John Jackson 2014