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the siren 52 hr

'I saw the hand of


God upon the canal
waterways' spoke Mr
Fitzgarald. 'I saw how
man was spending
his time on the canal
- his tireless effort
and discontentment.
'God spoke t' me and
told m' that he wanted
canals to be a more
better place for us all.
Let everyone share
what little they 'ave!'

Never underestimate
the innovation of the
canal worker.

ND
S E D2
I N
REV DITIO
E
the siren
(REVISED 2ND EDITION 2004)

Creator Harry Palmer

Guest Contributor Olly Shapley

Design by Si Walker

Dedicated to Sanj Kavanagh on her 37th Birthday


The Year of our Lord 12th November 2004

Acknowledgements
This publication wishes to thank the Wonders
Commission (The Public) and British Waterways and
the continuing support by Funding Pending Live Arts

The Canal Heritage Centre, Smethwick, Sandwell.

Thank you to Eleanor Hoad

Updates on website - www.harrypalmer.co.uk


Contact Mr Palmer - info@harrypalmer.co.uk
1
LIFE ON THE RAGING CANAL
The Grand Union Canal had a local and national impact essentially on an economic
level - making manufactured goods cheaper, travel much faster and trade more
profitable. There was also much evidence of social and cultural transformation on
and around the Grand Union. As canal towns appeared, their names too took on
local significance such as Smethwick. One of the more fleeting cultural contributions
made by canal communities was their own language. Many of them saw themselves
as seamen and even though their waterway was an inland one, they very much felt
themselves to be part of the maritime brotherhood, this gave their speech and clothing
a nautical feel. Parts of their music and folklore treats the 'raging canal' as if it was the
ocean and many tunes and terms were borrowed from life at sea.

Canal folk characters were divided into three categories: the labourers themselves
who lived and worked along it, 'marginal' folk who had some connection to the canal
(or perhaps lived in a town nearby) and folk heroes and celebrities who migrated to
the water, borrowed from other, more established traditions (for example the Tipton
Slasher, William Perry and Joseph Darby ‘Spring Heel Jack’) See website www.
harrypalmer.co.uk

William Perry (right) also known as the ‘Tipton Slasher’ with family

2
Canallers were mainly a large group of
unsophisticated people that formed a distinct and
tight-knit social group. Their stories centred largely
on the experience of transition from the towpath
to the outside world. One example includes
the romance between Jack Dwindle and Sarah
Conniston.
Jack was a
mule driver
who fell in
love with a
locktenders
daughter
(Stockton
Locks).
It was a
common
occurance
for an
outsider to chase an established local. Sarah
attended school, was well educated and had many
friends in the local town. Jack, a kind simple young
man, had no education and yet had a wonderful singing voice. It was said that he sung
like and angel! Guiding his mule and set against the competition, he would often battle
along the towpath. When he had a quiet moment and to alleviate stress, he would sing
many canal and seafaring songs (many of which he made up such as ‘click clock n’ heave
n’ shove). It was upon hearing these songs near the lockgates, that Sarah became fond
of Jack. After a long period of time they fell in love, often meeting during Jack’s journeys
via Old Bush lock. Jack continued to work the canals but wrote many a romantic lament.
Unfortunately the romance went no further than the songs. Such were the social divisions
that defined status, reinforcing the role of the canaller as an 'outsider'.

Additionally, canallers had their own superstitions (wishing on clovers, hay loads and
stars) and ghost stories. The 'spirit lore' included stories of battling ghosts, other romantic
stories and tales of murder.

Tipton factories near Old Bush locks

3
Several people found fame and fortune as a result of events in their lives that occurred in
direct relation to the canal waterways. They were often recognisable as real people, but
circulated widely as more fantastic tales. Boxing great Paddy Ryan 'King of the Canals
and Champion of the World' worked as a locktender in his youth and received his athletic
training in the canal village of Long Itchington. Another more eccentric, yet national
character, was the Great Leedini. He was trained by his infamous escapologist father, the
Great Baldini and spent some 20 years wooing large public crowds. The Great Leedini
came to an unfortunate death as he plunged from Asylum Bridge, Winson Green (Soho
Loop, Birmingham) in his newly designed straitjacket, ball and chain. It was with deep
sorrow and shock that some 1500 people witnessed this sorrowful and tragic death.

T h e G r e a t

The Great Baldini - Father Canal day trip to see the Great Leedini on that
unfortunate day

Along with those who were 'created' from the canal waterways and those who lived upon
them, many folk heroes, myths and stories transcended their immediate times. From true
encounters of the fossils of gigantic reptiles found around the Stockton Locks to the boaters
who flexed their muscles as the Grand Union descends into, or climbs out of, the valley
of the Avon - the canals serve to remind us of mans endurance, inventiveness and sheer
motivation to survive.

4
SHIVERS AT SMETHWICK PUMPING STATION.
When young coalmasters apprentice John Tilterly started work at the Smethwick pumping
station in 1897, he certainly didn't expect the supernatural to haunt his Wednesday night
shifts!

Every Wednesday evening at around 9.00pm, Mr Tilterly felt a sharp and icy coldness
brush up against him! On one particular evening, fellow worker Pete Brinkle walked into
the pumping station when his dog Jess began barking and foaming from her mouth. So
disturbed was Mr Brinkle that he never took his dog back to work with him again!

It wasn't until the Smethwick Pumping Station was decommissioned in the 1920's that
the ghost was left alone. It is rumoured that the ghost resurfaced again when the station
was restored in 1996. It is said that you should never go into the station on a Wednesday,
especially around 9 o'clock at night or you may encounter an unwelcome visit!

Taken on a Wednesday night

Troubled Jess

5
WHAT A DISCOVERY!
Strange discoveries sometime stretch well
beyond scientific fact and chance plays an
almost unbelievable trump card! It isn't until
years or even centuries later that one can piece
together the real story. This is the case in the
discovery of a piece of coal and more importantly
what was found by metal detector enthusiast
Margaret Pickerton. On the 22nd March 1984
(late Sunday afternoon) Mrs Pickerton was
astonished to find a small ring inside a piece of
coal. To her surprise, Mrs Pickerton had picked-
up strong electronic sound waves from her
metal detecting machine and upon smashing
the piece of coal discovered a peculiar ring
that is believed to date back to the late Roman
period.

Archeologists have been baffled by this


mystery. One theory is connected to the
Jubilee mining works which supplied many of
the West Midlands industry with the coal which
was transported via the canals. No one has
been able to explain how the ring got inside a
lump of coal which dates from the carboniferous
period.

Sandwell Colliery chute Margaret Pickerton’s further investigations

6
VICTORIAN ICE-SKATING CLOG
It was with some amusement that local fisherman, Alf
Barnsley, retrieved this skating clog from Soho Loop,
Winson Green in 1972. But where did it come from?
The story concerns the great winter of 1901 when the
entire stretch of the canal from central Birmingham
towards Smethwick became iced over. Many people
came from all of the West Midlands to enjoy skating
and join with the local canal families (who were usually
resistant to ‘foreigners’ as they called them). It became
such a marvellous four weeks in January that ice skating
competitions soon started to occur. Many enthusiastic
people made their own ice skating clogs. As you will see
from this original clog specimen, many had managed
to adapt their working boots to great effect, never
underestimate the innovation of the canal boatworker!

Story donated by Ralfe Foster, Foundry lane,


Smethwick 2003
The Great Winter of 1901
Low temperature inspector, Tim Boulton BCN.

Original Victorian Ice-skating clog (right foot)

7
THE FRESH WATER DRAGON
It is thought that a small population of these exotic creatures have become established
in the more sheltered parts of the Black Country canal network. Originally imported from
the central African highlands and sold whilst still in its brightly coloured juvenile form as a
showy aquarium fish, the fresh water dragon proved to be an unsuitable subject for all but
the most determined hobbyist, its voracious carnivorous instincts resulted in the overnight
destruction of entire aquarium populations. It is presumed that the naturalised population in
the canals is descended from specimens 'disposed' of by frustrated owners in the 1980's.
The import of the species was banned in 1987 on grounds of diminishing wild stocks.

With powerful jaws, a lizard like head and rows of large heavy scales this fish is an
impressive, if rarely seen, specimen. The bright colours of the youngsters are replaced by
the rough drab armour of the adult after four to six months and fully grown adults rarely
venture out of the bottom third of the waterway, preferring to lurk in the depths occasionally
breaking cover to snatch passing fish, mammals and edible debris. Ironically the fresh
water dragon's closest indigenous relative, the stickle back - abundant in the canals, forms
a substantial part of the diet of smaller specimens.

It is not thought that the fresh water dragon has any natural predators, indeed there have
been no reported catches by anglers, although the creature thinks nothing of taking bait,
it simply shears nylon or steel with its formidable teeth and jaws. With the absence of
natural enemies and the abundance of food in the canal, along with a lifespan reckoned to
exceed fifteen years the failure of this species to establish a large population, and indeed
to become a significant ecological menace has been attributed to its breeding requirements,
specifically, to spawn successfully, waters exceeding 23 centigrade are thought to be
required, meaning that breeding happens in particularly hot summers. The everyday
requirements of the fish are less demanding, and indeed it is thought only to hibernate
during the months of January and February, otherwise surviving in the local climate quite
comfortably. In the light of this summer's particularly hot weather one of our goals will be
to search for evidence of breeding, and assess the likely consequences of current climate
trends on the fresh water dragon population and the wider canal ecosystem.
Report by Olly Shapley, Chief Canal Aquaphilliac Researcher (CCAR)
for the Mythological Research Centre. info@harrypalmer.co.uk

The Juvenile Fresh Water Dragon

8
FLAMINGOS OUR DOG THE 52 HOUR
'HANG-OUT' WITH DAISY DAY
THE SWANS! Whilst Daisy was very much
a typical working canal
Many of the narrowboat
families were simply
dog, she also knew many husband and wife with
In the summertime of
tricks! She was a faithful no extra crew! It was not
1946, two flamingos were
dog and would reliably uncommon for them to
seen on the canal towpath
collect the fresh meat from spend long periods of
along Galton Valley. It
the boatman's accurate time without proper sleep
was an unbelievable sight
gunshots! She was a good or food. For example, 52
and many workmen and
dog - she could quickly jump hours was the quickest time
women thought that such
or swim ashore and rejoin it would take to travel from
a tropical bird simply didn't
the boat whilst it continued London to Birmingham.
exist. Whilst they seemed
on its journey. But what Shifts on the steamer were
to get on with the swans,
made Daisy really smart calculated on distance
moorhens and ducks, the
is that she could also find rather than time and this
police were quickly brought
duck and moorhens nests obviously encouraged long
in to investigate what was
and could, it is claimed, hours, days and weeks to
going on. They recaptured
bring the eggs back to the make ends meet.
the birds and promptly
boat intact!
returned them to the former
Earl of Dudley’s Bournville
bird sanctuary. 52 hr

It was believed that this


was a publicity stunt by
the eccentric Earl who
had ideas of using early
photography to take shots of
the flamingos for one of his
newly designed chocolate
products.

He was let off with a stern


warning from the local police
Sergeant Derek Boatham.

Our dog Daisy (1904)

9
Professor A.M. Mayer

Navigating in foggy weather and the 'fog navigational


hearing positional system'.
Despite intense competition between narrowboat traffic which kept up a healthy
flotilla of trade, the tragic collision between the Narragan and the Stonington in 1846
still stands out in history. In the early hours of July 4th, a lethal combination of low
lying fog and industrial smog (in this instance a mixture of greens and pale blues;
the suspicion was that it was glass ether being released from Chances Brothers
Glass Factory, Smethwick) visibility was limited, it is claimed, to just 15 yards. This
made for grave conditions and by 7 o'clock that morning both said vessels had
collided with fatal results. The tragedy killed 15 passengers onboard the Narragon
flyboat and 13 tons of slag heap coal poured from the Stonington into Spon Lane
Junction where the accident took place.

10
Despite narrowboat fog horns already being used for indicting impending danger,
on this occasion they had little effect (the confusion being its difficulty in accurately
locating the direction in which the sound of the horn bellowed from) confusing the
narrowboat pilots as to the speed and direction that the vessel advanced from.

Immediately after the incident, Professor A.M. Mayer (as pictured) first Vice Principal
of Mathew Boulton College, was commissioned by Erasmus Darwin (The Lunar
Society) to devise a suitable method of audible affectivity. As you can see from the
picture, Mr Mayer demonstrates the 'fog navigational hearing positional system'
- an apparatus to increase, by artificial means, the distance between our auditory
organs to enable pilots to locate the direction of fog horns with greater accuracy. The
construction of the device will be apparent from the accompanying engraving. With
its implementation to all vessels working in Industrial Special Zones (ISZ as outlined
by the Birmingham Canal Navigation Company health and safety policy (now British
Waterways)), the fatalities of narrowboat collisions dramatically reduced.

Due to lower emissions of industrial smog from now redundant factories, the fog
navigational hearing positional system was decommissioned in 1979 . At the same
time ISZ's were removed from BCN company policy. No more accidents have
occurred.

Chances Brothers Glass Factory emitting dangerous glass smog

Chances Brothers Glass Factory typically emitted ‘smog ether’ and on July 4th 1846
it was widely reported that green and pale blue smog impaired visibility for a 3 mile
radius. Cases of respiratory ill-health dramatically increased causing the first bed
shortage at Birmingham City Hospital as reported in its AGM of 1846. The incident
between the two vessels added additional stress to the bed shortage crisis.

11
A STRANGE CHILDHOOD REMINISCENCE
Parts of this day I remember with absolute clarity, despite the 21 years since this particular
ten-year olds adventure, other parts seem so strange now as to be dream-like. I recently
walked the length of the canal between Brindleyplace and Galton Valley in an attempt to
rediscover the location of the flooded works which I explored on that day, but I could not
locate the site, although it must be said that many run-down buildings on the canal have
made way for new developments in the last twenty years.

As I remember it I entered the place through a window hidden by brambles at ground level
next to the towpath. With my head through the window I could see a largish flooded room
with steel joists at the level of the window forming some kind of frame below the ceiling of
the room. I climbed in and crawled and swung across the framework, moving slowly around
the outside of the room until I found an exit, partially blocked by a heavy wooden door fixed
to a sloping slide mechanism. I remember the place smelt of stagnant water mixed with
heavy machine oil, which still stained the exposed parts of the walls; at one point near the
middle of the room the hulk of some large rusting machine peeped, iceberg-like, above the
murky water.

Dangling from the doorframe and completely soaking my bottom half in the process I
managed to get through the gap and get a foot hold on the balustrade of the stair well
beyond. Once clear of the water I headed up a brick walled staircase, which seemed to
run up and around the inside off a narrow rectangular tower. I think at this point I became
aware that dusk was falling outside, but persisted with my exploration regardless. Entering
the first room that opened off the staircase I found the kind of scene that would not surprise
someone exploring an abandoned building (darkened peeling paintwork, newspaper, part
bricks and other debris, lit by fading day light through a grimy iron framed window with a
few broken panes), but for the fact that running in an uneven row, diagonally across the
room into an alcove in the opposite corner were a series of low glass tanks, about a foot
high and individually perhaps three foot square. The tanks, unlike the room, seemed clean
and maintained. They were all filled with water and had beds of fine gravel, most contained
waterweed or other plants. They also appeared to be connected by tubes and channels, in
such a way that the water flowed from one tank to the next and so on to the last tank which
was connected to some kind of pump or filter which fed back into the first tank. The whole
set-up was lit with a low fluorescent glow, although I can't remember finding where it came
from. Looking closely into the water I could see some tiny shrimp type animals, glowing
slightly bluish and moving around busily; fascinated I pulled up a fruit box and sat watching
the creatures. After sitting still for a while, looking, I was surprised by a slight ripple on the
bed of the tank, followed by a cloud of sediment, out of which appeared the mouth, head and
foot wide circular body of some kind of ray or angler fish. It nosed the surface of the water
and seemed lo be looking or pointing in my direction, bobbing up and down a bit like a cat
asking to be fed. It did this for a bit, really seeming to be looking for attention. Eventually I
became bold enough to reach out and very gently stroke the thing's head, between snout
and broadly spaced eyes, with the back of my fingers. It seemed to like this and bobbed
up and down some more in response, until without warning it turned and swam back down,
effortlessly swallowing another smaller version of itself, as it unwisely broke cover, with one
lugubrious gulp.

12
It was really quite dark now with only distant streetlight coming into the room and my
attention was attracted by a slight glimmer in the last tank. Transfixed, I watched as the
frondy outlines of parts of the water plants lit up with pinpricks of pinkish brown light and
started to separate themselves from the bodies of the plants and as I looked very closely
they revealed themselves as worm bodied animals with blunt little faces, spindly limbs or
fins and elaborate fern-like appendages; they were translucent and jellyish. There were
about six of them, as I was watching they seemed to be performing a slow stately dance,
occasionally pausing to swallow some passing microscopic morsel. In the next tank an even
bigger fish than the first one loomed up from the bottom and nosed the glass separating the
two tanks, waggling its head, body and tail like a tadpole, and shuffling along the glass until
its nose was pushed into the gap linking the tanks. The lights of the strange creatures went
out in a wave, which ran across the tank in a couple of seconds, and no matter how hard I
looked I could see no trace of them afterwards.

Leaving that room I went up to the next door off the staircase and stuck my head in briefly. I
got the impression that there were people, possibly some bandaged, lying on mattresses on
the floor and in cots supported by the walls. I got out quickly, with the lingering impression
that I had been in the presence of some kind of disease. Fleeing the area I went down a
passage leading off the stairs, and emerged in a more tumbledown building with no roof
and large sections of the floors missing. I clambered down another, almost freestanding
staircase to ground level. I could see through a large hole in the wall that I had actually
crossed a bridge over a waterway into a separate building. The floor was muddy and dusted
with white ash, around the edges there were the remains of a fire; leaves of ash from burnt
paper work and books, which exploded into clouds of ash at the slightest touch, and charred
and rusted batteries, globs of glass and occasional lumps of charcoal. I poked around a bit
but found no treasures worthy of my attention, and then left trough the hole in the wall. I
edged my way along a ledge between water and building, through a low tunnel and emerged
on the towpath a little way down from the patch of brambles that had hidden the window
where I had got in. I went home that night with the feeling that I had seen something I should
not have, although I was not sure what. I got in a lot of trouble that night for being out so late,
and especially because I would, or could, not explain where I had been.
Story donated by George Zaman.

Demolished works

13
The People's Scrapbook -
Galton Valley and Smethwick localities
(Paradise Lost?)
A record and document of canal life and communities.

Five scrapbooks have been specially made by Harry Palmer (commissioned by British
Waterways and ThePublic). The main scrapbook resides at Smethwick Local Archive
Library and was officially handed over to them on the 29th October 2004. The 'sister'
scrapbooks serve as a catalogue and feature hand-picked favourites. Each of them
follow an A-Z format with each category highlighted throughout (A- all time favourites,
B - Bridges, C - Chances Glass factory etc.) Each Scrapbook has spare pages at the
back. These are provided for further contributions from the public after consulting the
scrapbook keeper. We encourage members of the public to add to this legacy in the
spirit for which it was intended.

‘Sister Scrapbooks’ can be found at: Smethwick Canal Heritage Centre, British
Waterways Birmingham, The Public.

Scrapbook website: www.harrypalmer.co.uk

Galton Valley

Mr Whitehouse Kids on the cut!

14
THE RETURN.
Twenty years ago I learnt stepped ashore. I was on soil! entered by bike, train and
one day by chance that I saw strange architecture, high-road and each time had
the first-class return fare strange costumes; I heard the same thrill, recalling my
from Wolverhampton to strange sounds and strange first visit. It was a city in a
Birmingham by narrowboat languages. Everything was story; its inhabitants were
was only half a guinea. I romantic. Even the tramcar characters out of unread
had always imagined that was inexpressively romantic novels; its chimes were
Birmingham could only (which then took me on to magic from the skies. It had
be visited by rich people - Birmingham); the postmen not a street that was not a
certainly not by the clerks! with their little horns were vision. Birmingham was to
For me it was a region fantastic. I could hardly me incredible in its lofty and
beyond the borders of my believe it. It was too good mellow completeness. Even
hopes for ages to come. and too astounding, too the railway station had some
The fact that the cost of overwhelming to be true. Yet of the characteristics of a
reaching Birmingham from cathedral.
Wolverhampton was much it was true. And after
less than reaching my own What boulevards, what
home on the continent, parks, what palaces, what
struck me in the back as galleries, what smells, what
wakes up a man dozing on cafes and above all what
the high-road and sends him Indian restaurants! I had
staggering forward on his imagined nothing quite like
way! it!

At the earliest opportunity, Birmingham Tram Corporation In twenty-four days and nights
I boarded the flyboat to awaiting Albert King I saw it all, with the most
Brindleyplace, and saw, ridiculous inexpensiveness.
first, the marvels of the A city of priceless gifts! A
port of Birmingham! I had sometime I grew somewhat Bull Ring market with the
lived in West Midlands for accustomed though never most exotic treasures and
several years and never entirely accustomed to the colloquial voices singing
realised it had a port. I next feeling - though since then above the competition like
realised, tossing in the small I have visited Birmingham a choir sings to his master.
narrowboat on Birmingham many times over several A language as peculiar and
Old Line, that Great Britain years. formidable, to this day as
was so much an island - a an outsider returning to this
fact with which I had hitherto My emotion as I first walked city - I became aware of
been only an intellectually from Smethwick to catch the local and civic pride that
familiar, from enforced the tramcar was one of the Birmingham truly offered.
study of school geography. emotions that I could not
These were remarkable conceivably forget, one of - Circa 1891
experiences, but they were the major formative emotions by Albert King.
naught in comparison with of my whole life. And
the sensation of first seeing therefore among the cities
a canal! It seemed fabulous, and the countries of Europe,
dreamlike, and impossible. Birmingham holds a unique
The narrowbaot touched the position in my souvenirs. I
Smethwick port, threw out have gone to Birmingham
ropes and was moored. I frequently since then. I have

15
CONGER HOAX IN THE GALTON VALLEY!
Before I start I wanna make sure you understand, don't print my name, don't print my mate's
name and don't print anything that'll give away who we are; we caused a bit of bother with
this one and there was mention of wasting police time, at the time, and what's more I don't
want anyone sussing us if it should happen that we get the fancy for a spot more pranking,
alright?

When we come up with the idea was about 4 in the morning as this rave was starting to get
a bit boring, me and XXXXXX were still going something wicked and we reckoned we'd do
somint a bit special to freak out some squares. XXXXXX can pretty much drive in any state,
personally I wouldn't risk it you understand, but he's a bit of an animal like that. So anyway,
we drove down the wholesale market, got there about 5 I s'pose, found the fish bit and
looked about till we found this geezer who had some whole conger. We got im to gut two
of em, can't say I fancied trying that bit me self at that point, and bag em up XXXX knows
what he thought we wanted with em, but he never asked, come to that he looked almost as
wrecked as us. So we carried them out, which it must be said took some doing, chucked
them in the boot and headed out of town. We parked up bout half 5 under the motorway,
nice and quiet, no one around so we set to. We took the head off one and the tail off of the
other and taped the two big bits up with silver gaffer and kind of stapled them up for extra
strength. Then we stuffed some of them long balloons in where the guts come out and taped
them up too. Also we taped a couple of spanners on the underneath for ballast, like, so it'd
float right way up. Then we got some fishing line and tied that in behind the gills and another
bit tight around the end of its tail, so we could pull it along. After that we hid it under some
bushes and went back to the car to chill for a bit.

Bout half 9 me and XXXXXX got a bit of a look around and found this perfect bit on a bend
where there were these two spots, say 100 metres apart, where we could both see both
ways without being seen. We reeled out the line and dumped our fishy in the canal where
he floated just perfect. Between us we could make the thing look like it was swimming slowly
up the canal like a 3 metre bloody sea serpent. So every time we heard a boat coming we
reeled it back to the start and made it swim along side with me pulling and XXXXXX tugging
at the tail to make it wiggle a bit.

I have to say it amazes me what people don't notice, right, I mean this bloody great silver
snake thing swimming along right next to ya, 'n' ya don't bat a bloody eye lid, what's that
about eh? I think the only one to notice was a bloody Jack Russel on this one boat which
just totally freaked, s'pose he had the munchies, yeah. Bout lunchtime we both had enough
so we cut the lines and let the thing float off.

We thought that was that, but a couple of days after that there was this story on the local
news, ran for about a week, about this monster eel, this old dear reckoned it ate her cat
and everything. Fantastic! Eventually it was captured by a couple of busies or firemen or
something, which creased us totally.

Anonymous 2003

16
THE FAT FISH
Another species in which we are particularly interested on this expedition is the Tawny
Plumph, like the Fresh Water Dragon it's breeding cycle is sensitive to the climate in a
surprising way, but there all similarities end!

Typically a small unspectacular looking fish, the Tawny Plumph is essentially a filter feeder,
grazing on algae and micro-plankton in the sunlit surface waters of the canal. It swims
slowly and has a permanently open mouth, feeding constantly; it even filters the water
in its sleep! Although capable of brief bursts of speed when threatened with immediate
danger the Plumph's primary mode of defence lies in the slime covering its fine scales,
which has an immediate and powerful paralytic effect on predators making contact with
it. Whilst not dangerous to humans, fishermen catching Plumph (a rare event, as the fish
never deliberately go for bait) have reported a cold tingling sensation (a little like nettle
rash) after handling the fish.

In recent years there have been increasingly frequent reports of large Plumph- like fish
seen, apparently basking, in the canal (some specimens even being described as obese!),
the fish has been dubbed the 'Fat Fish'; at the same time the Plumph population has
been seen to diminish significantly, with no catches recorded by local fishermen in the last
eighteen months.

Experts have suggested a surprising explanation for this - the hypothesis is that the large
specimens reported are actually the mature Plumph, which have accidentally been gorging
themselves on the large algae blooms that have become increasingly common in the
summer months. Unable to stop feeding the fish have grown to unnatural proportions and
as a consequence become virtually immobile and therefore incapable of performing their
elaborate courtship rituals! It is this that is said to explain the decline in the 'normal' Plumph
population. On this expedition we be attempting to collect more detailed data regarding the
state of the Plumph population in the area.

Harry Palmer’s journey to locate sightings of the Tawny


Plumph at the River Avon near Bristol Clifton Suspension
Bridge (2004)

17
'THE THING' AND THE MYSTERY
OF THE ROLFE BRIDGE
Usually on display at the Royal English Heritage Centre in Oldbury, this 'thing' was found
in 1912 by a small number of canal workers who were involved in maintenance work near
Rolfe Street Bridge at the Smethwick Junction. Whilst the men were dredging the canal, they
unexpectedly dragged out of the water the strange specimen (shown below). Police along
with nature lovers were quickly brought in to determine what the 'thing' was.

It was originally thought that it was part of some sort of bizarre 'ritual activity ' which was
going on locally. Many began to use the opportunity to re-ignite community tensions. Despite
many months of effort, the police were unable to identify the 'thing ' or the culprits. To this
day, the mystery still remains unresolved.

Baffled locals

Maintenance workers discovering ‘The Thing’

18
THE FILTON HUXLEY.
Early on Tuesday 7th April 1984 at approximately 7.00am, local dog walker, Neil Filton,
spotted a 17-inch water creature floating in the canal. He originally thought it was a
coconut due to its strange shape and texture. It wasn't until his dog barked that he
realised it was moving! Upon further inspection it appeared that it was bobbing up and
down and staying under the water’s surface for more than six or seven seconds at any
one time. As an avid birdwatcher along Galton Valley and a keen amateur photographer,
he quickly armed himself with his camera and attempted to take shots. Ecologists and
forensic specialists promptly inspected the photographs and insisted they were unable to
confirm the true identity of the creature. Some even proposed that the photographs were
fake! Filton spent the next summer searching the canal for this peculiar creature but to
no avail. Whilst he sincerely expressed his belief in the close encounter, he continued to
spend the rest of the year reconstructing its head from memory and studying his poorly
defined photographs.

Story donated by Neil Filton, 2003

The Filton

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CANAL WIFE HEARS GHOSTLY
MUSIC IN THE CABIN!
A newly wedded wife was cleaning up the cabin whilst her husband and work mates were
resting from their hard days work (none played music - they were drinking and playing
cards!) Everyone was in the mess when Mrs Jones went to check the storage cabinets.
After she had completed her errands she put out her oil lamp. It was then that she heard
something like a banjo playing behind the door that she had just locked! With dismay, the
young Mrs Jones believed that the music was coming from somewhere outside (more than
likely another canal boat) and it wasn't until she had checked the storage room once more
(this time with her lit candle) that the music briefly played again. She explained to everyone
on board what she had experienced, but the others only laughed and said she must have
imagined it. Who was it that played the Banjo that evening?

Story donated by son and daughter Fred and Suzy Brookes.

“Who was it that played the Banjo that evening?”

20
LEGGING FOR COAL
Many superstitions were borne on the
canal waterways and all of them taken
seriously. With legging being a cruel
and tiresome activity, there were often
accidents. This story concerns the Dudley
Tunnel. Legging was hard, difficult and
done in the dark. Often before the 12-hour
journey, the crew would throw a piece of
coal into the canal water. It was felt that
the waters were to be respected and one
needed to be reminded that their work
and livelihood depended upon it. Whilst
throwing a lump of coal into the water and
shouting “till we get to the other side - God
guide us and let us see the animals once
more” was a unique canal superstition
(canal 'animals' being the normal term for
horses, mules and donkeys.) It would often
be the case that one of the child members
of the family or the wife would then walk
the horse overground meeting-up at the
other side of the canal tunnel.

Before the introduction of steam tugs,


some tunnels had full-time professional
leggers whose services were used by boat
crews for a recognised fee. It was during
this time that this superstition died out
(late 1890's).

21
ROSY MACY - THE BEAUTIFUL
GHOST OF PEASBROOKE ROAD
After 40 years of canal service, Natalie Flimpsley and husband Charlie had retired from
their working life for the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company. It was the first
time that they had lived away from the water and they now found themselves housed in a
newly built estate known as the ‘Jungle’ (now demolished and replaced with a section of
the M5 motorway concourse). The couple were most uncomfortable with their new home
and although they became used to it, Natalie found the
atmosphere somewhat illogical. Charlie felt nothing at
all.

Natalie soon realised that she was not alone. She


would be in the kitchen; washing up, doing bits and
pieces, when all of a sudden she would feel as though
something had brushed by her. Often the smell of rose
perfume would accompany the experience.

One evening when Mrs Flimpsley was upstairs, she


saw a quaint ghostly lady slide out from the side
bedroom holding a bunch of beautiful red roses. The
spirit then walked across the landing, placing the roses
in a vase and then disappeared into the bathroom. She
decided to call her Rosy Macy.

Most of the time that the couple lived in Peasbrooke, Natalie continued to have regular
ghostly encounters. However, Charlie refused to believe in this ridiculous story and became
increasingly concerned about the state of his wife’s mental health. He believed it was all
in her imagination.

Many days and nights would pass with only Natalie seeing Rosy Macy doing her rounds on
the landing (sometimes she was even seen brushing the floor with her old Victorian broom.)
One night when Natalie and Charlie were in bed together, Natalie told her husband again
about Rosy Macy. This time Charlie had had enough! He got out of bed and screamed in a
loud voice 'If you are here, let me know right now!' He looked up to the light above his bed
and saw it swaying from side to side! Mr Flimpsley could not believe what he saw and the
next morning he put the house up for sale. Four weeks later they were in their new home
two streets away. Rosy didn't follow!

The Jungle housing estate which Natalie


Flimpsley and husband Charlie moved into
after 40 years of canal service. It was here
where the ghost Rosy Macy appeared.
It has since been replaced by the M5
motorway concourse near Smethwick.

visit www.harrypalmer.co.uk

22
SHOW ME A CANAL AND I'LL
SHOW YOU A BATTLEFIELD!
As you walk, jog, sit by the canalside or At the time of the business tender, Mr
perhaps you are a narrowboat dweller, you Bloansky personally guaranteed the
may be surprised to know that the canal tendering company that the start date
waterways were home to many business would indeed be honoured. Unfortunately
disputes and bickering. Companies would his commitment to the Italian tomato
argue over water supplies, transportation company nearly collapsed when it
contracts, land purchases, gauge and toll became clear that he was two to three
prices. These weren't simply arguments weeks behind schedule. The tendering
- sometimes actions spoke louder than company, Fosters Italiano Tomatoes, were
words! The canal boatman would often extremely unhappy and insisted that Mr
fight to gain advantage of Bloansky appear before
time, access and payment them. A huge argument
charges or fines. ensued and Mr Bloansky
did the most extraordinary
act. As a man that couldn't
People were caught fail, he made one last and
- jail sentences - final bargaining plea. He
stood up from his chair
lunatics - murderers and exclaimed that if he
and thieves! had not delivered the
first fifty crates of tomato
puree before the middle
On a lighter note, the of the month, he would
story of Mr Bloansky and send them his shirt, suit
his white shirt, suit and and tie! This meant that
tie is a classic canal story he would have to leave
that has been kept alive. his job as Director and
Between the two World resign from duties. A
Wars, canal companies courageous act even by
made a desperate effort today's standards!
to compete with railways.
Mr Bloansky was Director With skillful loading
of the Fellow Morton & and navigation and the
Claxton Company and had vertical stacking of tomato
obtained a contract for carrying tomato crates above the gunwale, the team of
puree from London to Birmingham. canal workers succeeded in making the
Between 1938 to 1949, the company deliveries on time.
became the biggest supplier of Tomato When Mr Bloansky retired from Fellow
puree in the West Midlands. To safeguard Morton & Claxton in 1968, he donated his
and obtain the new transport contract, Mr shirt, suit and tie to the Canal Heritage and
Bloansky had to guarantee that he would Safekeeping Society based in Digbeth. He
shift a further 70 crates from London to had hoped that this would be a suitable
the Birmingham HP sauce factory each reminder about the trials and tribulations
week! This was a tall order. He had six that many senior management staff went
more boats built with their hulls modified through to serve the canal industry and
so five crates could be stacked-up instead communities. The suit went missing in
of four. 1989.

23
MR FITZGARALD AND THE CANAL
COMMUNITY CO-OPERATIVE
A very popular family called There were
the Fitzgarald's worked and many rogues
lived along the Birmingham and disreputable
Old Line, between Brindley characters.
Place and Wolverhampton.
They were a family of five Reg Fitzgarald
children - three boys and was by no means
two girls and Mr Reg and the nicest of
Mrs Polly Fitzgarald. They people. He was
also had a terrier dog called hardworking and
Sammy who was the life and didn't suffer fools
soul of the family working gladly and he
narrowboat. She often stood brought up his
proudly for attention near the children strictly
boat cabin chimney or slept and firmly. Reg
next to it to keep herself was well known the collective British canal
warm in those cold and chilly for two main reasons. Firstly, working community.
times. he was one of the very few
who managed to get his 'I saw the hand of God upon
cargo of seven tons of coal the canal waterways' spoke
from Wolverhampton to Mr Fitzgarald. 'I saw how
Birmingham in one day flat! man was spending his time
This often meant 'bullying' on the canal - his tireless
his way along the towpath. effort and discontentment.
He was twice awarded 'God spoke t' me and told m'
the workers medal from that he wanted canals to be
the Glaxton and Collins a more better place for us all.
Company. Secondly, he used Let everyone share what little
his somewhat uncivilised they 'ave!'
Reg’s funeral carriage approach to resolve canal
workers disputes. Mr Fitzgarald went on to set
Life on their working up the Canal Community Co-
narrowboat The Friendship After twenty years of working operative Fund which rapidly
was not easy. For many years on the canal he became very grew to over twenty-five
they all shared the same tiny ill. Unsure of what it was thousand members across
cabin quarters. that he had (it was assumed the United Kingdom. Its
that it was TB) he spent main purpose was to ensure
Many families were very three long weeks sleeping proper health care (which
insular and rarely mixed in his bed and relying on included accidents as well
with the wider community. his wife and five children as ill health) and provide a
They provided their own to manage. On the second pension scheme for canal
entertainment and generally week of illness, he started workers retirement.
married between themselves. to have strange premonitions
Many of the canal population - something akin to canal When Mr Fitzgarald died
had no formal education. For fever. This lasted for three in 1946, a special funeral
the most part it is not too and a half days. It was carriage was made in honour
hard to appreciate that many these 'visions' that were to of his life and work
of the narrow boat folk were change his life and radically
unhappy but hardworking. affect his family, friends and

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