CANAL LINKS- FROM USE TO DERELICTION
The Birmingham canal navigations, BCN with its Old and New mainlines of the Birmingham canal form direct links between Trinity Street and Rattlechain. The link to the canal network and railway was obviously a major part to the continuing commercial success of the company for delivery of raw materials, export of goods and disposal of waste, which had been used by the company since at least 1857 according to Albright and Wilson’s own archives.
Using the book “100 years of phosphorus making” , Threlfall’s primary source account of white phosphorus production during the war period, of particular note is the statement:
“A large quantity of white phosphorus was stored in arms of the canal, and a fall in the water level occasionally produced a glow which could be seen from the highway. An old dump of phosphorus mud on the bottom side was excavated for some new buildings, the spoil being removed to the works tip. This dried out during the day and sometimes caught fire about midnight.”
It continues, “Apart from outbreaks on the tip, the chief risks of fire were from calcium phosphide left in daylight on the side of the canal, and from the coal storage dumps.”
It is unclear how “large” the white phosphorus quantity referred to in the canal was or how it was “stored”. It is unclear where “the works tip” referred to was located at the Langley plant , or indeed what other chemical industrial rubbish left over from “100 years of phosphorus making” in Oldbury that it contained. If this tip site was fully filled, then how did they remediate it, if at all?
We also get in the official account of the company history written in 1951
“The works canal was less kind to fish, indeed samples of sludge taken from the bottom of it at any time up to the last few years were strongly phosphorescent, if not ready to ignite spontaneously.”
The private canal arms referred to by Threlfall in his book were known as The Houghton arm, or “chemical arm” which was a shared entrance with fellow chemical manufacturers Chance and Hunt, later to be I.C.I which once had two parallel arms, and the Jim Crow arm which both ran into Albright and Wilson works.
It has become clear through this investigation that the use of these canal arms and Rattlechain itself are inextricably linked- linked that is by quite appalling pollution. Both were regularly dredged by Canal boat contractors Alfred Matty and Sons Limited, with certain wastes being taken directly to Rattlechain lagoon and others to their Gower Tip, located on the Old mainline canal.
A decline in industrial use of the canal system led to over 60 miles of the original network being filled in. Both of these arms appear to have met this fate though it can be seen that this process was not particularly professionally carried out- more an exercise in burying toxic wastes.
The County series map from 1947 shows the extent of the arms as they stood in Threlfall’s description, running right into the bowels of the Albright and Wilson phosphorus works.