Exploring the history of our old day boat Eileen from a conventional linear historical perspective has proved hugely rewarding over the last couple of years, with many pieces of the jigsaw satisfyingly fitting into place, however tantalising gaps remain, and they’re proving difficult to fill.

So, I’m going to change tack, and try addressing the challenge-of-the-gaps by acknowledging that her history has multiple layers able to be viewed in different ways at any one time, and so I don’t necessarily need to be constrained by linear time.

I’m going to try a more offbeat, tangential approach where I draw together different elements of her journey to build a bricolage (or loose and precarious assemblage of odds and ends) of the 110 years of her existence.

I’m freeing things up and going drifting around the landscape of her history. It may at times read as chaotic and to be honest I don’t know where it’ll lead me, but that’s part of the adventure of the journey isn’t it?

I’m going to use the boat itself; use maps old and new; use archive footage of key locations; use historical photographs and text to set stories in motion!

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Venice of the Midlands?

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Iron Boat Dock, where Eileen was built by Eli Aston in 1903, lay in the shadow of the London & North Western Railway station of Tipton Owen Street, and it’s from the environs of the station, and long since filled-in Iron Boat Dock, that I’ve e-ventured to the following ‘sightings’:

Tipton parish is a populous district, bounded by Dudley, Bilston, Darlaston, Wednesbury and West Bromwich parishes, and containing about 3000 acres of land, most of which is either built upon, or occupied by the owners of the extensive and valuable mines of coal and ironstone, or by the public roads and canals.

The Birmingham Canal here has many branches which completely insulate a large portion of this parish, which is also crossed by the South Staffordshire Railway, which has stations here at Great Bridge and Dudley Port.

The Stour Valley Railway will have a station here at Tipton Green, which is not yet opened. The Marquis of Anglesey is lord of the manor, but it is let to Wyrley Birch, Esq, on a long lease. The other principal owners of the soil are Lord Ward, Sir Horace St Paul, Thomas Fletcher, Esq, Messrs Dixon & Co, and some of the other coal and ironmasters.

Tipton Green, the largest village in Tipton parish, is one and a half miles N of Dudley, and three miles S of Bilston, and consists of a number of populous streets, with several wharfs, manufactories, and retail shops. Branching eastward are the neighbouring villages of Bloomfield, Burnt-Tree, Dudley Port, and Horseley Heath, the three latter of which form one continuous street of houses and manufactories, extending two miles on the Birmingham road, and a little beyond them are the large villages of Toll-End and Great Bridge, the latter of which is partly in West Bromwich, and has a railway station, three miles ENE of Dudley.

Gospel Oak and Princes End are two villages about one and a half miles N of Tipton Green, and partly in Sedgley parish. Within a mile E of the latter, is the hamlet of Lea Brook, and the village of Ocker Hill, at the north end of the parish, one mile SW of Wednesbury.

From History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire, William White, Sheffield, 1851

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Tipton Timeline:

[The following information was drawn from the wonderful Tipton Civic Society website, it can be accessed in full HERE )

  1. In the Domesday survey of 1086 Tipton is mentioned as TIBINTONE, being held by William with land for five ploughs.The name later became TIBBINGTON and eventually TIPTON, however between 1151 and 1723 there appeared 22 variations of the spelling. In 1294 it was referred to as STYBINGTON.
  2. The parish church of Tipton is St John’s (originally St Martin’s) in Upper Church Lane which is thought to date from the 13th or 14th century but was completely rebuilt in the 17th and 19th centuries. Its tower has a sundial which is inscribed ‘This steeple was built anno domini 1683. John Nightingale, William Clare, Church Wardens’. The church was closed in 1794 because of damage caused by a storm and mining subsidence and a new church of St Martin was erected in Lower Church Lane in 1797. The nave of the old church was rebuilt in 1854 and rededicated to St John.
  3. The new St Martin’s church was designed by John Keyte of Kidderminster and was completed at a cost of £1,522 with an additional £100 paid for the building of a wall round the churchyard. By 1812 galleries had been added around three sides of the church at a further cost of £383. St Martin’s was affectionately known as the Pepperbox due to the distinctive domed top to its tower but this was removed when the tower was rebuilt in 1963. The church was declared redundant in 1988 but has survived thanks to a residential conversion that was featured on TV’s Grand Designs.
  4. During the Civil War, Edward Dudley of Tipton Green Hall lent money to advance the Parliamentary cause and received a commission to raise troops in Staffordshire. In June 1644 the Parliamentary forces attacked Dudley Castle and their interception of Royalist reinforcements resulted in the Battle of Tipton Green.
  5. In 1712 the world’s first successful steam pumping engine was erected at the Coneygree Coalworks by Thomas Newcomen. A full sized replica of the engine has been built nearby at the Black Country Museum. The first commercial steam engine designed by James Watt was purchased by Messrs Bentley and Co. and put to work pumping water from their Bloomfield Colliery in 1776.
  6. Another Watt engine associated with Tipton is the 1779 Smethwick engine which was relocated to the Birmingham Canal Navigation workshops at Ocker Hill in 1897. On the closure of the depot in 1959 it was presented to the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry and can now be seen at the Thinktank in Birmingham where it is the world’s oldest working steam engine.
  7. The Birmingham Canal arrived in Tipton in 1770 and over the next 50 years the town became the centre of a dense network with over 13 miles of navigable waterways within its boundaries. This led to Tipton being known as the ‘Venice of the Midlands’. At the nearest point to Dudley on the original Birmingham canal, warehouses and wharves sprung up and became known as Dudley’s port; later becoming Dudley Port.
  8. Around 1780, James Keir, the ‘Mighty Chemist’ and member of the Lunar Society established a chemical works at Bloomfield where he made alkali, soap and lead compounds for the Stourbridge glass industry. He also invented a gold coloured metal, a compound of copper, zinc and iron for making metal sashes for windows, some of which were installed in Windsor Castle. Factory Road, which was originally Soap Factory Road, is a reminder of this venture.
  9. John Wesley founded the first ‘Wesleyan Preaching House’ in Staffordshire at Tipton Green in 1786. A larger chapel was built in 1809 but this suffered from mining subsidence and a new structure, Park Lane Chapel was built at a cost of £5,874 3s 0d, opening in 1866. This became known as the cathedral of Tipton Methodism due to its distinctive 120 feet high spire, but was demolished and replaced with a smaller modern chapel in 1978.
  10. In 1792 the partnership of Dixon, Amphlett and Bedford purchased the Horseley estate and paved the way for the establishment of the Horseley Coal and Iron Company which grew into one of Tipton’s most innovative and famous engineering firms.
  11. In the 18th and 19th centuries the coal and ironstone below the surface of Tipton was exploited and many collieries and ironworks appeared. Pigot’s Directory of Staffordshire for 1828-29 described the ironworks as being ‘upon a most extensive scale, some of the blast furnaces consuming upwards of 600 tons of coal per week. The coal mines are said to be inexhaustible, the strata of this valuable combustible averaging thirty feet in thickness……The value of some of the land is so great, from its internal treasures, that some have been stated to be let at the high rent of £1000 per acre.’
  12. On August 4th 1819, a vestry meeting was held for the purpose of enforcing a strict and more orderly observance of the Sabbath. Four special constables were appointed.
  13. In 1822 the world’s first iron steamship the ‘Aaron Manby’ was constructed at the Horseley Ironworks. The ship crossed the Channel and then plied along the River Seine from Paris to Le Havre for about 30 years. Manby Street perpetuates its memory.
  14. The Tipton ironmaster Joseph Hall (1789-1862) invented a new method of making wrought iron known as pig boiling or wet puddling at his Bloomfield Ironworks in the 1830s which was to revolutionise ironmaking throughout the world. Sir Alfred Hickman, who became known as the ‘Iron King of the Midlands’ was born in Tipton in 1830.
  15. In the 19th century the health and sanitary conditions in Tipton were dreadful. The town was hit by the great Cholera epidemic in 1832 when there were 1,452 cases of the disease, resulting in 404 deaths.
  16. In 1849 a disaster struck at the Blue Fly Pit at Dudley Port in which 16 men and boys were killed.
  17. William Perry (1820-1879) the prize fighter, better known as the ‘Tipton Slasher’, became champion of England in 1850. The Fountain Inn, Owen Street, was once used as his headquarters, a fact now marked by a plaque on the building and a statue in nearby Coronation Gardens.
  18. The first railway to be built through Tipton was the South Staffordshire Railway from Walsall to Dudley which was opened on 1st May 1850 and had stations at Great Bridge and Dudley Port.
  19. On 1st July 1852 the Stour Valley Railway from Wolverhampton to Birmingham was opened with stations at Tipton (Owen Street) and Dudley Port (High Level).
  20. In January 1854 the Sedgley Loop railway was opened which allowed trains from Dudley to run into the High Level station at Dudley Port to connect with all the main line services. Until 1957 the Dudley Dodger was one of the most intensively worked pull and push services in the country with about 70 trains in each direction.
  21. In April 1854 the Oxford Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway was opened with a station at Tipton (Five Ways).
  22. The railway line from Bloomfield Junction to Wednesbury via Princes End and Ocker Hill was opened by the London and North Western Railway in September 1863.
  23. In 1864 the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company opened their Coneygre pumping station and reservoir.
  24. The Tipton School Board was set up in 1871 under the Elementary Education Act 1870. The Board held its first meeting in Church Lane when members elected William Hipkins as Chairman and Reverend S T Tozer as acting Honorary Secretary. Schools erected by the Board were Great Bridge (1874), Dudley Port (1877), Burnt Tree (1878), Tipton Green (1878), Bloomfield (1890), Ocker Hill (1899) and Park Lane (1903). The School board was superseded by the Council’s Education committee.
  25. In 1872 a horse drawn tram system was opened from Hockley Brook to Dudley Port, extending into Birmingham by the following year, but was closed due to poor receipts in 1874. Steam powered trams commenced operation from Birmingham to Dudley via Dudley Port and Burnt Tree in1885 and the route was electrified in 1903. The trams on this 74 service ran for the last time on 1st April 1939, to be replaced by motor buses run jointly by Birmingham and West Bromwich Corporations.
  26. Tipton Cemetery was opened in March 1873 by the Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Maclagan.
  27. The Tipton Gasworks were opened in 1882 in Workhouse Lane. The Workhouse stood near the site of the present fire station and gave its name to the lane. The name was later changed to Alexandra Road to commemorate the Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII.
  28. A steam tram service from Wednesbury to Dudley via Princes End commenced on 21st January 1884. The line was electrified in 1907 but the trams were replaced by Midland Red buses in March 1930.
  29. In 1885 steam trams began a through service from Birmingham to Dudley via Tividale. Electrification took place in 1904 and the last trams ran on the 87 route on 30th September 1939 to be replaced by Midland Red buses.
  30. In 1892 Charles Palethorpe purchased the disused Whitehouse Brothers’ brewery in Park Lane West in order to expand his sausage and pork pie manufacture then based in Dudley. By 1896 he could boast that his ‘model sausage factory’ was the largest sausage producer in the world. Palethorpes became a Tipton institution but the factory closed in 1968 when the firm relocated to Market Drayton, Shropshire.
  31. Ocker Hill power station was opened in 1902 by the Midland Electric Corporation for Power Distribution Ltd.
  32. On 29th July 1901, Victoria Park was opened by the Right Honourable, The Earl of Dartmouth. This was preceded by a procession through the streets of the town by members of local organizations and civic dignitaries.
  33. 1903 Aston built 72 ft. open iron day boat at Iron Boat Dock.

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