Gas Street Basin

Gas Street Basin, Birmingham (1976)

Gas Street Basin, Birmingham (1976)

I first came across Gas Street Basin, the heart of Birmingham’s canal-system in 1976, when it still had the patina of a neglected, workaday industrial site.

The canal basin lies at the end-on junction of the Birmingham Canal and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, the site of one of the famous absurdities of the waterways system.

From the moment the Worcester & Birmingham gained its Act of Parliament in 1791, the Birmingham Canal refused to share its water supplies, and set up the notorious Worcester Bar, a physical barrier 7ft 3in wide and 84 yards long over which freight had to be craned.

Eventually the Birmingham Canal consented to install a lock in return for heavy compensation when the Worcester & Birmingham line was fully opened in 1815.

The area was riddled with wharves, most of which have been filled in at various times during the twentieth century, and what few warehouses survive have been rehabilitated.

Nowadays Gas Street is positively gentrified, with apartment-blocks, canal-side pubs and restaurants and trip-boats, and the mirror-glass slab of the Hyatt Regency Hotel (Renton Howard Wood Levin 1990) dominates the area.

There’s no point regretting the loss of the scruffy patina.  Decay is destructive.

But I do regret the demolition of the Gothic Unitarian Church of the Messiah (J J Bateman, 1860-2), which stood above the short tunnel at the west end of the basin, a landmark both for street-passengers and boatmen.

It was the place of worship of the enormously significant Chamberlain, Nettlefold, Kenrick and Martineau families, and it contained the memorial of Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the discoverer of oxygen, political radical and victim of the Priestley Riots of 1791.

This monument of Birmingham’s history deserved better than to be obliterated.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.

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