Amblecote History Society: Stourbridge Branch Canal
An update by Graham Fisher

When I compiled this piece for Amblecote History Society (AHS) in 2012 I referred to what was then my latest book Jewels on the Cut: an exploration of the Stourbridge Canal and the local glass industry, launched a couple of years earlier at the International Festival of Glass in 2010. Such were the dramatic events yet to come that by 2017 JoC was hopelessly outdated, necessitating Jewels on the Cut II.

The events of those intervening seven years were indeed momentous, and with ramifications extending far beyond the towpath edge. I am delighted to be invited to summarise them here as compelling evidence that we live in exciting times.

In November 2010, following the announcement of plans to close Broadfield House Glass Museum, home to the internationally renowned Stourbridge Glass collection, a small group of individuals formed The British Glass Foundation (BGF). With little in common save the English language they at least shared a mutual interest in the security of the collection. Whilst their expressed primary aim was to secure a new home for it they quickly became an umbrella group for other glass organisations and in consequence generated a huge base of support, both locally and internationally. BGF’s chosen location for the Grand Project was the former Stuart works in Wordsley, itself an iconic building directly opposite the Red House Glass Cone and immediately adjacent to the Main Line of the Stourbridge Canal at Glasshouse Bridge. Thus began the campaign.

The assistance of ERDF and HLF funding was sought. Working in association with various bodies but principally Dudley MBC and Complex Development Projects Ltd and with monies accruing from major fundraising campaigns of their own, at the time of writing BGF have a fully operational facility that is awaiting final fit-out as an accredited Museum and which should be open to the public within the next few months. Details of this singularly remarkable achievement can be found at www.britishglassfoundation.org.uk

In 2012, the former British Waterways handed over all responsibility for the waterways and assets in its care to the new Canal & River Trust (CRT) www.canalrivertrust.org.uk a ‘third sector’ charitable organisation. To anyone vaguely familiar with the travails of our waterways since the dark days of the British Transport Commission, set up in 1948 and effectively given a mandate to close canals that were seen as ‘of no further use’, the CRT came like a breath of fresh air. Being freed from the shackles of Government enabled CRT to take the ethos of waterways in hitherto unexplored directions. Two direct consequences of this are the tremendous upsurge in volunteer support and the developing of supportive links within the community.

A germane example of this new autonomy is already tangible: throughout 2016 around 10.5 miles (17km) of towpath improvements were undertaken by the Canal & River Trust as part of a £4.2 m Managing Short Trips initiative to encourage walking and cycling around the Black Country. The works were funded by the Local Growth Fund, led by the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership and administered by West Midlands Combined Authority through Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council.
As part of their Discovering Britain series https://www.discoveringbritain.org the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), using JoC(I) as a template, included a guided walk along the Stourbridge Canal in their series. It was later updated when JoC (II) was published. The walk is available as a free download at www.discoveringbritain.org/activities/west-midlands/walks/stourbridge-canal.html and can viewed as a hard copy, on a tablet or other hand-held device or can be listened to as an audio guide. Simultaneously, CRT have expanded their website to include walking guides around the canal network; JoC was the first to be uploaded and has since been joined by numerous others in an ongoing programme.
Commensurate with this Mr Ian Dury, a lifelong glass-man, former Heritage Officer for Webb Corbett Vistor Centre and an Honorary Life Member of AHS, has been working alongside Dudley MBC to create a series of heritage walks around the glass quarter that focus on the connections with Stourbridge Canal. And all of this at a time when the Government is promoting exercise as a positive force in tackling a range of issues from the obesity crisis to mental health; the canals now play an integral role in aiding the nation’s well-being.
The synergy of such diverse groups coming together for the cumulative good to embrace a spectrum of interests from personal fitness to general aesthetics is indicative of how the notion of partnership is now a crucial element in developing our inland waterways for the 21st Century. It also offers an optimistic confirmation of how those same waterways - once largely unloved and under widescale threat of abandonment - are becoming increasingly recognised as a community asset for the benefit of all. 
Consider the facts; it is now possible, for example, to park a car in Stourbridge and walk, cycle or otherwise travel via ultra-smooth towpath and RADAR-accessible gates along a beautiful stretch of semi-urban canal that expounds the history of Stourbridge Glass, a history that can be enjoyed by way of electronic devices or printed guides, to arrive at a purpose-built museum housing one of the finest collections of glass in the world. This is an inspirational story of cooperation, goodwill and community involvement, in which the total substantially exceeds the sum of its individual components, and which is quickly becoming the norm.
But here’s the amazing part: at the time of publishing JoC (I) in 2010, neither BGF, CRT nor the RGS (with IBG) programme even existed. By any yardstick, this represents astonishing progress in the space of well under a decade.
Yet, as comedian Jimmy Cricket used to say: ‘And there’s more …’
Riverside House, derelict for decades, is undergoing a renaissance with a view to creating a community-focussed facility on the periphery of the former - and hugely historic - Foster & Rastrick site, which is itself enjoying a new lease of life as Lion Medical Centre. The Riverside House Social Regeneration Project, instigated in 2016, is an organisation that includes a charity and a Community Interest Company designed for social enterprises that wish to use their profits and assets for the public good. Ambitious proposals include restoring the house and sympathetically rejuvenating the surrounding area. At the time of writing suggestions are invited as to the way forward and there are wide-ranging opportunities to offer assistance and support. Details are at https://riverside-house.org.uk
The former BSR works at Amblecote, which latterly begat Sunshine Medical, have been replaced by the colossal Doulton Brook housing development. Directly on the opposite side of the canal, the Webb Corbett Visitor Centre, which again didn’t even exist at JoC (I), has undergone considerable upgrade and was host to an archaeological dig in 2014 that may yet modify our perceptions about the early history of Stourbridge Glass.
In 2012 Plowden & Thompson and Tudor Crystal, canalside at Audnam, were purchased by ET Enterprises, a subsidiary of Ludlum Measurements in Texas, USA. The acquisition was as shrewd as it was practical; P&T are the manufacturers of componentry essential in the ET production process so when the opportunity arose, and to safeguard their own long-term future, the one acquired the other. Tudor Crystal remains part of P&T and is the last major manufacturer in Stourbridge making 30% full lead crystal, using a traditional multi-furnace glassmaking cone.
Unsurprisingly, these whirling dervishes of change are not all confined to Stourbridge. In 2016 a group was formed to develop the former Chance site, once home to the largest glass works in the land, on the Smethwick - Oldbury border, as a high - end mixed use facility for the benefit of the local community and beyond.
Intended as a commercial regeneration but which will give a nod to its glassmaking history, it is a completely different animal from the museum-orientated BGF but still shares common values of community engagement, heritage and, of course, glass. No surprise that Chance Glass Works Heritage Trust www.cgwht.org is unofficially a ‘sister’ organisation to BGF and, in view of the site nestling between the Old and New Main Lines of the canal, also works closely with CRT. Launched in 2016, Chance Glass Works Heritage Trust has already established itself as a key player in interactions with those that embrace similar aims.
And here’s the crux: all of the above would have been utterly unimaginable less than a decade ago. What a Golden Age it is to be involved in waterways, glass and local history as they conspire to spearhead a well-deserved renaissance for this delightful corner on the southwest fringes of the Black Country.

Ok, it’s time for the obligatory declarations of interest:

I am a Trustee with the British Glass Foundation and Chance Glass Works Heritage Trust. I sit on the West Midlands Waterways Partnership (part of Canal & River Trust), I collaborate with RGS (with IBG), I routinely work alongside Ian Dury and his colleagues and I have publicly expressed my support in principle, inter alia, for the developments at Riverside House.

Clearly I have commitments and interests here. But I do trust this doesn't affect my impartiality in singing from the rafters the tremendous achievements that have been made along our local canals, and much largely at the hands of people who do not receive a penny piece in remuneration.

Yes, we do indeed live in exciting times; I am confident such changes haven’t finished yet by a long shot and it will be my pleasurable duty to review them again in due course. It seems this may be sooner rather than later. On Wednesday 14th March 2018 I was guest speaker at a meeting of AHS in the Lehr Theatre, Amblecote where I talked of the new White House Cone museum of glass and the Stourbridge Canal. In the audience was Mr Christopher Dyche of Stourbridge Navigation Trust. He kindly advised me of recent ‘section 106’ improvement works, the corollary of planning consent for the regeneration nearby, on a formerly derelict piece of land just beyond Joyner’s Wharf, and the long-awaited clearance of derelict buildings adjacent to the Bonded Warehouse that were being undertaken on that very day. Ah, well; it appears that JoC (II), launched but a matter of a few months previously, is already on its inexorable road to eventual redundancy.

My apologies to anyone who feels I have left them out of this overview; do please let me know and I promise to include you next time around.

Thank you for your continuing support of our wonderful waterways, our magnificent glass industry and everything Amblecote.

March 2018