The idea of a canal without water may seem ridiculous, but that was the challenge many canal engineers faced during construction. Every time a lock on a canal is opened, valuable water is lost from the waterway and without a nearby river or water source to replenish the waterway, many canals would simply empty over time and become unusable. Canal design often took the waterways near these natural sources, but for some routes this simply wasn’t possible and another solution was needed. The answer came in the form of pumping stations that would pump water from local reservoirs or rivers into the canal and maintain a consistent and navigable water level. Most were powered by steam engines, identifiable by their tall chimneys, but the first examples used wind or water power to pump the water.
On the Engine Arm of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, large amounts of water was being lost by boats passing through the Smethwick Locks. A pair of steam-powered engines were installed, including the pioneering Smethwick Engine that was built in 1779. These were replaced in 1892 by the New Smethwick Pumping Station, which pumped water into the Old Main Line canal from the lower New Main Line canal. The Smethwick Engine was moved for preservation and is now housed at the Birmingham Science museum where it remains the oldest steam engine in the world. New Smethwick Pumping Station didn’t have a long operating life. When traffic reduced on the canals in the 1920s, the pumping station closed, although it was briefly brought back into operation during the Second World War.
Restored in the late 1980s, the pumping station is now part of the Galton Valley Canal Heritage Centre and contains a small museum that details some of the important canal heritage of the area. It is staffed by volunteers – the Friends of Galton Valley – and open one Saturday per month between April and October.
Plan your visit along the Birmingham Canal Navigations with our online guide.