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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Main Line and New Main Line

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas September. 15, 2020

Back in the distant mists of time, 2012, I went on a photo walk with some friends into the deepest darkest recesses of our (the worlds's) industrial past.

This is a circular walk of great historic industrial importance in the heart of the “Black Country” of the English Midlands, home to the Industrial Revolution.

It starts at The Smethwick Pumping Station also known as The Galton Valley Pumping Station, situated between two canals.

The Birmingham Canal the" Main Line" was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1768, and ran from Aldersley Junction, to central Birmingham. This walk takes us along this canal westwards from the pumping station in Smethwick to Spon Lane Junction.

As trade continued to increase along this canal, various improvements were made to speed traffic but the Smethwick summit on this stretch caused problems, both of water supply and of congestion, and so the company commissioned Thomas Telford to construct a new main line completed in 1838. This would follow later practice, using cuttings and embankments to follow a much straighter path, and the resultant main line, now called the " New Main Line", shortened James Brindley's winding contour canal by around 7.5 miles.

The original canal and "The New Main Line" cross paths at Spon Lane Junction where we will follow "The New Main Line" back to the pumping station headed eastwards.

The Galton Valley Pumping Station first opened in 1892 with the purpose of pumping water from the lower Birmingham New Main Line to the high Old Main Line Canal. This was to replace the water lost from the higher level when boats went through the Smethwick locks. However the station only had a short working life, closing in the mid 1920s due to reduced traffic on the canals.

Some of the most interesting sights on the route are the varied bridges of different dates and designs that weave across and around the canal. Here are three crossing it at the same point.

The middle bridge of the three is the oldest. The Summit Bridge was built in 1788–79, as part of a project carried out by John Smeaton to deal with the water shortages at the summit level, and to deal with traffic congestion by reducing the number of locks along the canal. By cutting through the hill, the summit level was reduced from 492 feet (150 m) to 472 feet (144 m). Summit Bridge was built to carry Roebuck Lane across the cutting.

The bridge has a single span; it is built of red brick, with brick coping. On the north-west face there is a cast-iron plaque bearing the date "MDCCXC" (1790). The canal towpath is on the south-west side.

Industry is still the main background although the canal itself is also a wildlife corridor into the city.

Remnants of earlier industry abound, like this material used in a later wall.

The M5 motorway is the largest structure to cross the canal and in fact both weave around each other for a short stretch. The M5 is a motorway in the United Kingdom linking the Midlands with South West England. It runs from junction 8 of the M6 at West Bromwich near Birmingham to Exeter in Devon. Heading southwest, the M5 runs east of West Bromwich and west of Birmingham through Sandwell Valley.

North of Junction 4 the M5 was constructed in sections, from 1967 to 1970, together with the Frankley services. Much of the northern section beyond Junction 3, from about Oldbury to the junction with the M6 motorway, was constructed as an elevated dual 3-lane motorway over Birmingham Canal (Old Main Line), Birmingham Canal (New Main Line), and Titford Pool using concrete pillars.

Spon Lane Junction marks the end of the westward part of the walk along the old Main Line. From here we return to the pumping station along the new main line.

This photo, below, is the best angle to get the full impression of how historic and complex this crossroads of communication is. Here one is standing on the Stewart Aqueduct looking west. This is the towpath of the Old Main Line. This aqueduct crosses over the New Main Line visible below. You can see how straight it is by comparison. This is a perfect illustration of how the older canal twists and turns and is at a higher level, while the newer replacement is built in a nearly straight line at a lower level, precluding the need for locks.

To the left is the railway line, which itself would ultimately lead to the demise of canal transport.

Above all these routes is the elevated section of the M5 which ultimately led to the decline of the railways, which have recently been making a comeback. Standing on this spot you see the modern history of transport all around you like layers in an architectural dig.

The Old Main Line passes over the New Main Line on the Stewart Aqueduct, shown below. The two skew arches are elliptical in shape, and it is built in brick with sandstone dressings and cast iron railings.

An interesting personal note here. When I originally left home to go to college I regularly travelled on the West Coast Mainline between South Wales and Wolverhampton through this dark and often desolate landscape, as it was in the late seventies, travelling on the train above this very aqueduct, with no idea of the history I was witnessing.

The West Coast Main Line (WCML) is one of the most important railway corridors in the United Kingdom, connecting the major cities of London and Glasgow along with Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh. It is one of the busiest mixed-traffic railway routes in Europe, carrying a mixture of intercity rail, regional rail, commuter rail and rail freight traffic.

The dramatic columns of the M5 situated slap bang in the middle of the New Main Line canal.

From Spon Lane Junction you can look back up the New Main Line toward Birminham, again seeing how straight it is and also how deep it already is below ground level, the main reason being to remove locks and ease traffic.

Spon Lane Bridge.

The New Main Line of the Birmingham Canal Navigations is wide and straight and must have seemed like a motorway to the old boatmen. Built with towpaths along both banks, although only one is maintained today, this allowed boats to pass each other without slowing down at all.

Many of the bridges are high above the canal, at the natural level of the land into which the canal’s cutting was made without the advantage of modern equipment.

On the first part of the walk you will remember there were three bridges together crossing the Old Main Line. Travelling back along the New Main Line both canals are running parallel. So here on the New Main Line we have the same three routes crossing together. The middle and oldest bridge here is as before the one carrying Roebuck Lane. In this case Galton Bridge.

Galton Bridge was built by Thomas Telford in 1829. When it was constructed, its single span of 151 feet (46 metres) was the highest in the world. Originally a road bridge it is now restricted to pedestrians. It is a Grade I listed building, and lends its name to the adjacent Smethwick Galton Bridge railway station.

Near the pumping station was this derelict old pub, the Crown and Anchor. There is an interesting tale, maybe a fable regarding Birmingham and that pub name. There are probably hundreds of pubs in Britain called The Crown and Anchor, and as a monarchy and maritime nation that probably is no surprise.

Birmingham was also nicknamed "The Workshop of the World" and there is still an active Jewellery Quarter there today. It was famous for silver wares. Birmingham had it's own Assay Office and hallmark. All silver had to be tested and stamped with the relevant hallmarks.

The history of hallmarking dates back to 1300 when a Statute of Edward I instituted the assaying (testing) and marking of precious metals. The original aim of the system remains unchanged; the protection of the public against fraud and of the trader against unfair competition. Indeed, hallmarking is one of the oldest forms of consumer protection.

Birmingham Assay Office was founded by an Act of Parliament in 1773. It had become clear by this time to the silversmiths of Birmingham, especially Matthew Boulton, that their trade would never truly prosper without an Office of their own. Boulton lobbied Parliament vigorously and was finally rewarded by the Hallmarking Act 1773, which founded the Birmingham Assay Office.

On its first working day, August 31st 1773, The Assay Office in Birmingham hallmarked about 200 articles.

In its first full year of activity Assay Office Birmingham assayed and hallmarked 16,983 ounces of silverware (Todays silver price £362 Million). In 1811, hallmarking in Birmingham exceeded 100,000 ounces for the first time (Todays silver price over £2 Billion).

Now for the story/fable/myth of why Birmingham chose the anchor for it's silver hallmark when it is the furthest city in Britain from the sea. It is said that the committee to decide the finer details of the new Assay offices for Birmingham and Sheffield met in one of the many pubs called The Crown and Anchor. The choice of symbol was made on the toss of a coin using the pub name where the meeting was held and the hallmark of the Birmingham Assay Office ended up as the Anchor, and that of the Sheffield Assay Office was the Crown. Whether true or not it is a great story and I like to think highly plausible.

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas

The blue was nicely faded like Marxist theory.🤣



I lingered at the blue door....the color was captivating as were the posters 😉

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