In 1776 the Trent and Mersey the canal was opened, with links to Birmingham Canal, Coventry and the Black Country and later, with the building of the Oxford Canal, to London, to the south, to the Potteries and Manchester and Liverpool to the north, and Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire to the north east. The Staffordshire and Worcester had already been completed in 1772 with Stourport, a brand new town, as its terminal on the Severn, and there was now a water road all the way from the Mersey at Liverpool to the estuary of the Severn at Bristol.The proprietors of the Birmingham Canal had already called in Telford to improve and widen their canal. Now they, and representatives of all the canal companies in the Midlands, met to discuss how best they could meet the threat to their monopoly. It seems that they took the advice of Telford to build a new canal to join the Birmingham Canal near Autherley with the Ellesmere Canal near Nantwich, for Sir John Rennie later recorded in his autobiography. “Telford having been bred in the old school, and having seen the triumph of canals could not, or would not, believe in the efficiency of railways.... indeed he laughed heartily when he had succeeded in supplanting my brother's line of railway from Birmingham to Liverpool by a canal...” A subscription meeting was held at Newport on September 22nd, 1825, and thereafter matters proceeded expeditiously in Parliament so that in May 1826 the necessary enabling Act for the construction of the new canal was passed. This permitted the new Canal Company to raise £400,000 with powers to take up an additional £100,000 if need be. Lord Gower, Marquess of Stafford, held 200 shares and his agent James Loch, in spite of his misgivings about the whole business, took a seat on the board. Other large shareholders included Lord Clive, of the Ellesmere and Chester and Montgomeryshire Canals, who became Chairman at the first General Assembly of the Company of Proprietors of the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal Navigation which was at the Lion Inn, Newport on July 22nd, 1826; when the fifteen members of the Board, among whom were Sir Rowland Hill and William Giffard, were elected. A large number of small shareholders included the Misses Webb of Gnosall, who had two each, and were the sole representatives of the parish.A contemporary, though outdated map, now in the William Salt Library, Stafford, shows clearly the confident expectations of the new company. It is entitled “A Map of the Navigable Canals between Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham”, also of a proposed canal by which the distance from Manchester to Shropshire, North Wales and the district round Birmingham will be greatly shortened and the lockage reduced below Wolverhampton to the least possible quantity.
The new canal, it was believed, would offer a speedy service, but it could do so only by taking the most direct line over 39 miles between Autherley and Nantwich. This would mean the excavation of deep cuttings and the construction of great embankments, yet it was a prospect which did not daunt the veteran Telford and his trusted collaborators. They had faced great problems before and had overcome them. They had the accumulated skill and knowledge of sixty years of inland navigation at their disposal, they were served by experienced engineers and contractors and by highly skilled navvies, many of whom had previously worked for Telford. There seemed to be every reason for confidence. But, before the canal was finished, there were many unexpected setbacks and delays.The first came early before building began. Lord Anson, concerned about the preservation of his pheasants in Shelmore Wood, compelled Telford to a deviation from the original line, which was embodied in a revised Act of Parliament in 1827, and which made necessary Shelmore Great Bank, of which Telford, with some restraint, was to write not long before his death –“Had the original line been adhered to the Canal would not have exceeded the estimate” In 1827 also, another Act of Parliament gave the company powers to build a branch canal from Norbury via Newport and the Weald Moors to join the Shrewsbury Canal at Wappenshall near Wellington. The main line was divided into three sections, Nantwich to Tyrley, Tyrley to the Church Eaton - Pave Lane Road, and from thence to the junction at Autherley. W.A. Provis, who had worked many times before for Telford, was given the contracts for the middle section and later for the Newport branch and Knighton Reservoir - there was also to be a large reservoir at Belvide, on land bought from William Giffard. Telford called an old friend, Hazeldine, the Shropshire ironmaster to supply him with an iron boat and cranes and timber for warehouses, and all the iron fittings that would be needed. In the summer of 1829, work on the middle section began. Provis had 400 men and 70 horses and as time went on laid more and more cast iron tram rails down, until at the last there were several miles of rail in use. Spoil from the Gnosall cutting to the south and the Grub Street Cutting to the north was brought to Shelmore between the two and by July 1830 nearly half a million tons of soil had been tipped there. By the end of the year the bank was between 15 and 20 feet high, but there were already some slips in places, and Telford directed “that the earth etc. should be removed from the place where it was discharged by waggons on the solid part of the embankment and be run with wheelbarrows in thin layers over all the parts that were in motion: also that the slips should be brought into a regular shape, all cracks; etc from time to time filled up, and rubble stoned drains be formed to take off the water etc” (Cubitt's Report of 1834).He also told the contractor to mix sand with the marl. All this was done, and the Great Bank rose to a height of 60 feet in many places by the end of 1831, but settlement continued. Provis laid a railway to fetch sand from Norbury Manor Farm, on the east side of the canal. He had to buy 20 iron bound waggons for the railway, and more carts and more horses; the bank rose impressively, then slipped again. The west side looking out over Loynton, was worse than from the east side (Shelmore Wood), and there were two especially bad patches, one a quarter mile long which began 60 yards south of the north end of Shelmore, the other a patch of 50 yards about 400 yards from the sound end, though here the Eastern side also required heavy filling.In July 1832 Telford confessed he could not predict when the end would come and in the following month, as though to confirm his pessimism, 800 yards of bank slipped again.Meanwhile other parts of the canal presented problems. The Cowley Tunnel, begun from the northern end in the summer of 1830, was driven through rock so friable and treacherous that it had to be opened out into a cutting until only 80 yards of the original 600 yards remained. There were repeated slips in Woodseaves cutting north of Knighton, and in the Grub Street cutting, where special puddling had to be done in the rock opposite Connery Pool.The building of the Newport branch involved the resiting of roads and bridges near Meretown, the re-routing of the River Meese, the taking down and re-erection of houses. Beyond Newport, the crossing of the Weald Moors had its own peculiar anxieties for the navigators.Expenditure by the end of 1831, as a result of all these unexpected difficulties and delays, had already exceeded the original authorised capital of the company, which now had to apply to the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners for a loan of £160,000 at 5%, repayable after three years. Calls on the shareholders for further capital also became necessary later and no doubt some must have felt that their money was being lost in the slippery marl of Shelmore Bank. For in the winter of 1832 Alexander Easton, the resident engineer, reported that although 300 yards at the Gnosall end of the bank had been completed and puddled, slips were still occurring.Telford was now seriously ill. In February 1833 the Canal Committee met at his London house, and he there agreed that William Cubitt should deputise for him. At the end of the month, Cubitt met Easton, Provis, Hazeldine and the Wilson brothers, who were building the canal at Woodseaves cutting and also south of the Pave Lane road, at the Royal Victoria Hotel at Newport, and recommended the tipping of hard core at Shelmore, which was later done.By the summer of 1833, the Wilsons had finished the southern part of the canal, except for Belvide, and in July, the first boat travelled from Norbury to Wappenshall. But at Shelmore, in spite of a desperate search for more land which meant laying down a railway to take soil from the Rev. Mr. Lloyd's fields on the west side at the north end of the bank “in order to get better stuff, as agreed to”, and providing extra waggons and horses to carry earth from fields southwest of Mrs. Johnson's wood, as directed by Mr. Cubitt; the work was still unfinished in October 1833, and indeed in January 1834 there were ominous signs of another slip in the centre near Shelmore Farm.Cubitt's report to the shareholders in March 1834 detailed the problems and set out the cost of completing the job and of maintenance thereafter. The company was about £355,000 in debt, and a present sum of £135,000 was needed “to free it from difficulties”. But this, he wrote, “although a large sum, is not a discouraging one”; and he showed by giving estimates of probable traffic and receipts, that once the canal was opened, it would be possible to service the debt and pay a modest dividend. He reckoned that expenses over the first three years of operation would be at the rate of £6000 a year, a large sum made necessary by: “12 miles of embankment from 17 to 50 feet in height, 38 miles of cutting from 10 to 60 feet in depth, part of which for the first three years will require more than ordinary attention and outlay, particularly the deep cutting at Woodseaves, the deep cutting at Grub Street, Shelmore Embankment, the embankments in lot 5 which are new and not yet consolidated, the moors below Newport and the locks there, and the embankment near Preston hospital”.There were 51 locks and 11 stop gates (probably requiring 16 men to lock them) - 2 Reservoirs, 119 bridges, 36 aqueducts, 140 culverts, 23 let offs, 24 waste weirs, 58 miles of young hedges and the canal bank, and roads to the bridges to be made up.Included in the report was a statement from Provis, the contractor, of extra work done on the instructions of Telford or Cubitt. The biggest item was one for 1,521,755 cubic yards of earth carted to the embankment (i.e. Shelmore). This was nearly 560,000 cubic yards more than the quantity originally contracted for, but provided for another 30,000 cubic yards yet to be tipped, which was just as well, because in May 1834, there was yet another slip, and a heavy fall also in Grub Street near Blakemere Pool. But the work went on.On September 2nd, 1834 Telford died in London. It was not until six months after his death that the first boat crossed through a narrow channel on Shelmore where the situation, Cubitt thought, was still precarious.Ho was right to be cautious, but the future was to prove him wrong. His second report, of July 14th, 1836, strikes a very different note. Included in this was a report from the Resident Engineer, Alexander Easton, on the state of the canal, and another from Mr. Skey - the company's agent at Newport, on the first year's operation of the canal.Easton was still worried about the Woodseaves cutting.,although no further slip had occurred, he had men constantly on watch. The working of the boats and horses had broken down part of the towing path. Be recommended a further 650 yards with rubble stone, which was later done.But, he said, “from Woodseaves to Shelmore, a distance of 8 miles, the canal is in a very perfect state” Knighton embankment had been grassed over, Grub Street cutting had been developed and “the late slip there is perfected”. As for Shelmore Great Bank it “shows no appearance of any subsiding or the least fracture in either side of the mound”. The slopes inside and outside had been flagged with grass and rushes. “From Shelmore to Wheaton Aston lock, about seven miles, the several deep cuttings and embankments are in a very satisfactory state: Cowley Tunnel stands sufficiently well.” Skey's report showed a balance after expenditure, - which included a bill of £82.10s.7d. for ice-breaking - of over £6500. In the first ten months of operation 5,533 boats had passed through, carrying over 77,000 tons, consisting of over 25,000 tons of general merchandise, 25,000 tons of iron, 12,000 tons of coke, 5000 tons of building materials, 10,000 tons of limestone, nearly 1000 tons of road building materials. In the first three months of 1836 over 34,000 tons were carried, and in the next three months nearly 57,000 tons. These figures justified Cubitt's reasoned optimism.They also reveal to us the pattern of trade along the canal, general merchandise from Birmingham and the Black Country, limestone and lime from Autherley (this may have originated from Dudley), iron and coal from Shropshire by way of Wappenshall and the Newport branch, bricks and slates from Autherley, all moving north, and agricultural products, pigs, potatoes, timber, moving south from Staffordshire and Cheshire. Most cargoes were charged for at the rate of ½d per ten mile, but coal and coal and general merchandise cost 1d. per ten mile. Road materials (except limestone) and manure (except lime) were exempt from tolls, if a canal passed through a township or estate -Clearly this provision helped to secure agreement to the canal at the beginning, and benefited agriculture (and land owners) later. There was a charge of 1½d.per ton for wharfage and 1d. per ton for the warehousing of grain and malt. Wharves were located by the canal company, but were privately owned. The wharf at Gnosall was owned by the Lilleshall Company (Chairman, The Duke of Sutherland), and it was here that the first loads of coal were delivered in 1836. So Gnosall, like other rural communities, began to experience the benefit of improved communication by canal. It had, of course, and indeed so had the whole district, already felt the effects of the building. The census of 1831 shows increases in population over that of 1821 of 97 in Church Eaton, 200 in Forton, 89 in Norbury and 677 in Gnosall. Since it is noted in the case of Gnosall that 197 men were employed in building the canal, it seems likely that many of the men were accompanied by their families, and that the total labour force employed in the middle section of the canal was between 400 and 500.The navigators were skilled man, well paid according to the standards of the time, so that there must have been a great deal of extra money circulating in the area. They were great drinkers, so it is not surprising that several beerhouses were opened in addition to the eight public houses in Gnosall - the Navigation listed in the 1834 Directory -But there were, it seems, not so riotous and violent as many had feared. Gnosall had awaited their coming with some alarm.The manorial court had appointed 5 assistant constables (unpaid of course) in 1829. But in 1830 the number was reduced to 2, and afterwards even these were found to be unnecessary. When the canal was completed, it would seem, the great majority of the navigators departed, and some of the younger men may well have married local girls and taken them away, for the figures for Gnosall for 1841 show a decline of 250 from the 1821 census.