Engine Arm Aqueduct
Tour guide available
The Engine Arm Aqueduct is a key point of interest on our guided walk through the Galton Valley.
What can I expect when visiting Engine Arm Aqueduct?
This attraction is best enjoyed as part of the Galton Valley Trail.
A good view of the aqueduct can be seen on the towpath of the Birmingham New Main Line canal.
Walk up the path to the Old Main Line above and across the aqueduct underneath the roving bridge.
Continue across the aqueduct and follow the Engine Arm to Bridge Street North where you can either exit the canal or turn back. This is because the last part of the canal is home to private moorings.
If you do get off at Bridge Street North, cross over the road and walk south to the cross junction. On the right, hanging from a blue brick wall with boarded-up windows and doors, you will see a blue plaque that marks the site of the Smethwick Engine. It is now located inside the nearby museum of Thinktank where you can still see it in action to this day, thus making it the oldest working engine in the world!
Other than the historic site of the Smethwick Engine, there isn’t much to see on the Engine Arm. Decaying factories mostly line the route giving you a sense of how much industry has changed in the region since the canal was built.
How long does it take to see Engine Arm Aqueduct?
Seeing the aqueduct will take 10 minutes depending on how many directions you would like to view it from. Walking the Engine Arm canal to the Smethwick Engine site and back will take around 25 minutes.
Is Engine Arm Aqueduct suitable for a picnic?
There is a bench where the aqueduct joins the Smethwick summit. Although you are situated next to an industrial area, there is plenty of greenery making this spot adequate for a picnic. If you wish to feed the birds and ducks, please do so responsibly.
How do I get to Engine Arm Aqueduct?
The railway station Smethwick Rolfe Street is a 10-minute walk. When exiting the station, cross over and walk down North Western Road before joining the Old Main Line towpath off Brasshouse Lane. Continue walking east until you come to the aqueduct. You’ll have to go back that way because a brick wall prevents you from crossing the aqueduct on the side that leads back to Rolfe Street.
If you are coming by car, park on Doulton Drive and walk down Whitehouse Drive where you will find a footpath that takes you to the canal. The aqueduct is a stone’s throw away on the right.
If you are planning to visit the aqueduct as part of the Galton Valley Trail, visit the trail page to find out the best options for transport.
History of Engine Arm Aqueduct
1769 – The first canal from Birmingham was built to reach the coalfields in Wednesbury and West Bromwich. It had to cross a hill at Smethwick; therefore, a flight of locks was built to carry the canal up to a mile-long section at the summit before dropping down via another flight of locks at Spon Lane.
Supplying the 491 ft (150 m) summit with water was a problem from the start because Smethwick and Birmingham are located on plateaus with very limited natural sources. The original reservoirs built to supply the summit were inadequate.
1778-79 – As a solution, two steam engines were constructed, one at Spon Lane to the west in 1778 and the other at the bottom of the Smethwick flight of locks in the east the following year. Each engine pumped water from their lower levels back up to the summit to keep both flights of locks operational.
The steam engine in the east was built 0.75 miles away from the summit and used two feeder tunnels, one connected to the bottom locks to draw water in, and another connected to the summit to pump water out .
1790 – An improvement to the Smethwick summit was completed according to the design of John Smeaton. The height of the summit was reduced to 473 ft (144 m), which halved the number of locks at the east flight. Three locks were also removed at the west flight, which allowed boats to navigate to Wolverhampton without having to change levels. As a result, the steam engine at Spon Lane to the west was removed.
The other engine in the east (now called the ‘Smethwick Engine’) was re-erected closer to the summit along its existing feeder tunnel, which was made navigable so boats could supply it with coal. This is how the Engine Arm canal came into existence, but its development doesn’t stop there.
1824-29 – The BCN Main Line canal was improved again by engineer Thomas Telford. He bypassed the locks at Smethwick by constructing a new and wider canal line that ran parallel to the original route; however, a supply of water was still required for the locks at the summit to remain operational.
Telford provided a solution by constructing Edgbaston Reservoir. He extended the Engine Arm canal eastwards to a basin which connects to the reservoir via a new culverted feeder. Telford then constructed the Engine Arm Aqueduct in 1828 to carry the canal over the new main line before joining the Smethwick summit.
1985 – The aqueduct is restored, which includes a new painting scheme to highlight the fine detail of the ironwork.
2007 – The aqueduct is listed as a Grade II* structure .
2015 – The aqueduct is drained to repair a leak .
Architecture and dimensions
The trough’s waterway is 8 ft (2.44 m) wide and is supported by a single arch spanning 52 ft (15.85 m). The arch consists of five ribs, three of which support the trough. Each rib comprises of four sections with bolted joints. The spandrel bracings to the ribs are of the radial type intersected by a continuous arched member. Two iron castings either side of the ribs support the towpaths, which measure 4 ft 4 in (1.32 m) each . The ironwork was provided by the Horseley Ironworks in Tipton .
Both iron castings feature fluted gothic columns supporting pointed arches and pierced quatrefoil spandrels above. The towpaths are made using blue engineering brick with raised footholds for horses .
- C. P. and C. R. Weaver (1970) ‘The Smethwick Pumping Engines’, Journal of the Railway and Canal Historical Society, 24(3), pp. 57-61.
- Cragg, R. (1997) Civil Engineering Heritage Wales and West Central England. London: Thomas Telford Publishing.
- Burton, A. (2015) Thomas Telford Master Builder of Roads and Canals. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Ltd.
- Canal & River Trust (2015) Telford Aqueduct drained for TLC. Available at: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/news-and-views/news/telford-aqueduct-drained-for-tlc (Accessed: 6 December 2020).
- Historic England (2020) Engine Arm Aqueduct, Birmingham Canal Wolverhampton Level. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1391874 (Accessed: 6 December 2020).