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Desmond Family Canoe Trail
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Tales of coffins and a connection to iconic bridges from around the world.
You never really know what you're going to discover during the process of writing a heritage assessment. By delving into historic archives, analysing historic plans or maps and looking at the physical fabric of a structure you can piece together a story of a place, building or artefact which can help determine its historic significance. I certainly wasn’t expecting tales of coffins and a connection to Sydney Harbour Bridge when I set out on my research for a simple steel footbridge in the Black Country.
Deepfields Footbridge is a steel beam and jack arch footbridge erected in 1896 to carry a footpath over the Birmingham Main Line Canal to the north of Coseley Tunnel. In early 2014 its parapet was in poor condition and had been replaced with an assortment of wire mesh and steel uprights – to be brutal it looked insignificant and ugly! Nonetheless, a heritage assessment was required to assess its significance and determine what its original parapet looked like.
The 1st edition Ordnance Survey plan of 1886-7 shows that there was a footbridge at this location prior to 1896. The BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) Bridge Register lists a bridge called Prior Field Footbridge possibly built at the same time as the Coseley tunnel. Its brindle brick abutments are similar in colour to the portal of Coseley tunnel which opened in 1837. Further research revealed a couple of theories why a footbridge was built at this location, the obvious one being that it was built to carry people across the canal to the Priorfield colliery; the other (more interesting) theory is that it was built to carry people loaded with a coffin across the canal on their way to the parish All Saints Church in Sedgley. The ‘coffin way’ as it is known was an established route before the arrival of the canal in Coseley so a footbridge enabled this route to continue.
In 1896 a new bridge replaced Prior Bridge and was called Deepfields Footbridge (its name plate tells us this). The original plan for this bridge is held at the Waterway Archives in Ellesmere Port and it details a steel superstructure consisting of two iron beams connected together by seven iron plates with a brick jack arch. Originally the main parts of the parapet were made up of timber boards between steel uprights. As late as 1987 there were still timber boards but these had been replaced with steel mesh in the 1990s. On close inspection of the steel work it is possible to read the name of the manufacturer of the steel, Dorman Long & Co Ltd. This Company went on to develop some of the world’s most impressive bridges in the 1920s and 30s including the Sydney Harbour Bridge (1932), the Tyne Bridge (1928, UK), the Tees Newport Bridge (1934, UK) and the Omdurman Bridge (1926, Sudan).
So the heritage assessment has provided a fascinating insight into the origins and purpose of the bridge and also enabled us to carry out the reinstatement of its parapet as it was built in 1896 as we have the original plan. This work is due for competition later this year.
Elizabeth Thomson, Heritage Adviser West Midlands
The work carried out by the heritage team is extremely varied, covering all sorts of structures and a wide variety of projects. Not one week is the same and we keep learning all the time, meeting some fascinating people and visiting stunning places along the way. We are hoping that through our blogs we can share some of our passion for the amazing industrial heritage of the inland waterways.