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Attempt to blow up a Black Country canal

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 06, 2014

By John Workman

  • The Hobnail Brook culvert where the explosive was placed in early March 1939. (Photograph by John Workman, May 2014)

  • Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, who starred in Hitchcock's 1935 thriller, The 39 Steps

  • An OS Map of the Tame Valley in Wednesbury at the beginning of the 20th century. The two circles show the location of Balls Hill House where Mrs C. G. Newton lived, and where the explosive device was placed

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The story we are about to tell may lie just outside the range of living memory for most of those who were residents of Wednesbury in the early months of 1939. But we would still welcome any information from readers about this unsolved mystery; the night a person or persons tried to blow up the Tame Valley canal.

On a recent visit to discuss topics of local history with Ian Bott in his home town of Wednesbury, he drew our attention to this story from 75 years ago and took us to the very spot where an explosive device had been secretly attached to the brickwork of a culvert running beneath the canal. The perpetrators of the crime were never arrested and to this day only conjecture can be relied upon to point a finger at those responsible.

The culvert has probably changed very little in the intervening three quarters of a century, but how different it would have looked had the terrorists been successful. The Midland Advertiser was quick to tell the story and on Saturday, March 4, 1939, four days after the event, they published all the information they had gleaned from the incident, including interviews with locals awakened from their slumbers. Ian has provided us with a copy of the relevant article and the piece begins as follows.

"It was a night outrage at Wednesbury and thankfully an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the canal.

"An attempt to seriously damage the Birmingham Navigation's canal was made in Wednesbury shortly after midnight last Wednesday, when a terrific explosion shook houses in the vicinity. The noise of the explosion was heard not only in Wednesbury but in Walsall, Dudley and other surrounding towns.

"Although Wednesbury police, under Superintendent J.H. Hall, and officials of the Birmingham Canal Navigation Company, have made exhaustive investigations, no trace was found of the type of explosive used, but it may be the work of Irish Republican Army sympathisers. Superintendent Hall said, 'I have not found sufficient evidence to say that the same type of explosive was used as in the Great Barr outrage.

"It was not until after 7am on Thursday morning that the actual scene of the explosion was located.Then a workman named Jukes who was cycling to work along the canal towpath between 'Goodnight' Bridge, Hydes Lane, Wednesbury, known locally as 'The Aqueduct', and Balls Hill Bridge, Hill Top, not far from the tube works of John Spencer Ltd, Wednesbury, noticed cracks in the canal bank. He informed Wednesbury police, who assisted by Canal Company officials, found that a high explosive charge had been placed in a culvert which runs under the canal.

"If the wrecking attempt had been successful, many millions of gallons of water would have poured into nearby fields as the canal is considerably higher than the surrounding country. It is estimated that over five miles of canal would have been drained.

"The actual damage caused was to the brickwork of the culvert which is about four foot high. It was blown out at each end, but fissures in the sides of the embankments were not of sufficient size to permit water to escape. Considering the noise of the explosion and its force, the amount of visible damage was remarkably little. Iron railings were uprooted at one end of the culvert, however the debris was sent some yards away.

"Pylons carrying high voltage electric cables are situated about two hundred yards from the scene. There are also many important munition factories in the district.

"There were people living nearby who heard the explosion which shook their homes. Mrs. Elizabeth Nightingale of Balls Hill Cottage, Crook Hay Lane, Hill Top, barely 100 yards from the scene said, 'I was in bed at the time, being in the house with my two children as my husband was at work. Between midnight and half-past twelve I heard a noise like thunder and I thought the dogs had knocked the coal down. It shook the house.

"Mrs. C. G. Newton of Balls Hill House, Witton Lane, stated that she and her husband were just about to retire and were in their bedroom when they heard the explosion. 'Although I am a bit deaf', she said, 'it sounded to me like a bomb and made me quite ill. We looked around the house but found nothing.

"Mr. George Powell of Kilvert Road, Newtown, Wednesbury, which is half a mile from the scene, said he was lying in bed half asleep when there was a terrific explosion. He added, 'I saw a pale blue flame light up the sky. I had some experience in the war and it sounded like a high explosive bomb'. Mr. Herbert Thomas, living about 350 yards from where the explosion occurred, was awakened by the shaking of his bed. He thought the chimney of his neighbour's house had fallen in. People living in Walsall and Dudley also spoke of being awakened by the sound of the explosion.

"Practically every available police officer of the Wednesbury Police Force was engaged on the scene throughout the day, and the area was closely examined and the vicinity combed as a precaution against further outrages. Police activities were intensified during the morning, and all pedestrians were prevented from approaching along the canal to less than 100 yards from the scene.

"During the afternoon Superintendent Hall, assisted by representatives of the canal company, made a detailed examination of the interior of the culvert, but stated later that his search had been fruitless. Wednesbury police made a further search of the culvert the following day, but still no evidence had been found. However, within half a mile of the scene of the explosion, near Crankhall Lane Bridge, the body of a middle-aged man, which has yet to be identified, was recovered from the canal, but West Bromwich police investigating the discovery do not consider that it has any connection with the night outrage at the canal in Wednesbury."

The facts of the incident were clearly defined by the report published in the Midland Advertiser on Saturday March 9, 1939, but maybe there is more intrigue and mystery behind this story. Was it the actions of an individual bearing a grudge against an employer? Or could it have been, as the report suggested, IRA sympathisers?

A more adventurous notion could be the involvement of spies from Germany who were attempting to disrupt an industrial area of the Black Country long before the outbreak of the Second World War. This may be far fetched and of course will never be verified, but the whole mystery of the bomb plot compares well with the theme of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. You could just imagine Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, the stars of the 1935 British film "The 39 Steps", getting caught up in all the intrigue of a Black Country suspense thriller.

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