IF you have ever wondered why the majority of Worcester’s industry is on the east side of the city – well away from the ancient commercial corridor of the Severn – come with me back to 1811. Because it was then the cutting of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal began.

The 30-mile route was to take until 1815 to complete – a remarkable feat in itself considering there were no mechanical diggers and it was all done by gangs of navvies – and the success of the canal attracted the railway there at a later date. Although the waterway brought industry and with it prosperity, there was some opposition to its construction, because it dissected the pleasure grounds of Sansome Fields from the other walking areas on the east side at a time when walking was a major recreational pursuit.

There were also a lot of dissenting voices among landowners along the way, but none from the authorities in Worcester, which took the long view that in time the canal could only bring wealth to the city. The Worcester and Birmingham Canal Act of 1791 was at the time one of the most expensive ever to be presented to Parliament, but when it eventually got the nod there was “general rejoicing” in the city.

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The news was brought by post-chaise (a horse drawn mail carriage) and, according to Berrow’s Worcester Journal, “with the display of a flag, announced the gladsome tidings. A general joy seems to have diffused itself through all ranks, which was testified by the ringing of bells etc.”

A local poet was even enthused to burst into verse penning:

“Come now begin delving, the Bill is obtained,

The contest was hard, but a conquest is gained.

Let no time be lost and get business done

Set thousands to work, that work down the sun.”

However the building of the canal in the 19th century had echoes of the financial shenanigans that have beset the HR2 rail project in the 21st. Vested interests from landowners, hauliers and other canal companies meant its final cost was £20,333 for every single mile, at least £4,000 per mile more than any other canal built between 1760 and 1840 and £10,000 per mile more than most.

The canal’s major wharf at Worcester was built at Lowesmoor and attracted new engineering industries, major gas and vinegar works, coalyards, stores, mills and granaries. With the great increase in activity came amenities for workmen and merchants. There was a growth in back to back housing schemes in the area, inns and commercial hotels. With the inns came the missions and music halls.

Of course the arrival of the railways proved far too competitive for the canals and eventually they ceased as a commercial highway. But the template for Worcester’s industrial area had been set and the building of the M5 in the 1950/60s, again to the east of the city centre, merely confirmed it.