The 1792 Act for the Wyrley & Essington Canal was designed to link the collieries near Wyrley and at Essington to Wolverhampton, with a branch to Birchills near Walsall. It joined the Birmingham Canal on the same ‘Wolverhampton level’ which it followed to Birchills, but at Sneyd Junction, Bloxwich the 2 mile long Wyrley Branch rose through 5 locks, at the top of which the Essington Branch climbed a further 4 locks in ¾ mile.
In 1794 a second Act authorised its extension from Birchills on the level to beyond Brownhills and thence down the Ogley Locks to connect with the Coventry Canal near Lichfield. The main line, 23½ miles long, was opened throughout on the 8th May 1797, and the 5 mile Daw End Branch from Brownhills to limestone quarries at Hay Head followed in 1800, as did the 1 mile Lords Hayes Branch (Note this is the proper spelling as taken from the Acts of Parliament, and not Lord Hay’s as widely misused). The engineer was William Pitt, although it is not known if he also built the Cannock Heath Reservoir, the embankment of which failed in 1799 causing a major flood, but was rebuilt about 1800 on a larger scale as Cannock Chase Reservoir, and is now known as Chasewater.
The Essington Branch was the highest point on the system and its water came from pumping out the mines, so when the collieries were worked-out the branch lost both its trade and its water supply and was closed in about 1830. But this was an exception as the system elsewhere was continuing to expand.
In 1840 the Wyrley & Essington merged with the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) and several new connections between them were planned. The ½ mile Walsall Junction Canal with 8 locks from Birchills to the Walsall Canal opened in 1841; the 3½ mile Bentley Canal with 10 locks from Wednesfield to the Anson Branch of the Walsall Canal opened in 1843; and the Rushall Canal from the Daw End Branch to the new Tame Valley Canal with 9 locks in 3 miles opened in 1847.
In 1850 the 1½ miles long water feeder from Cannock Chase Reservoir to the top lock at Ogley was made navigable as the Anglesey Branch to serve the Marquis of Anglesey’s collieries, and the Wyrley Branch was extended 1½ miles to Wyrley Bank in 1857. The Cannock Extension Canal was opened in 1863 from Pelsall to Hednesford, 6 miles on the level, although the Churchbridge flight of 13 locks linking it with the Hatherton Branch of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and jointly funded by both companies had apparently been completed in 1860.
Other short branches off the Wyrley & Essington Canal included the private Gilpins Arm at Pelsall, the Slough Arm and the Sandhills Branch near Brownhills, and a number of other colliery loading basins.
Traffic on these canals was intense, including coal, limestone, iron, clay, bricks, tiles and manufactured goods. The BCN remained busy well into the railway age when other canals succumbed to the competition, developing rail interchange wharfs for local collection and deliveries. Coal traffic off the Cannock Extension Canal to several power stations continued until increasing problems maintaining the level due to subsidence from coal mining resulted in its closure north of the A5 road in 1963. But by then, a 1954 Act had authorised the abandonment of Ogley Locks, the Wyrley Branch and Lords Hayes Branch.
Today, nothing visible remains of the Essington Branch, and the rest of the Cannock Extension Canal has been extensively redeveloped except for a short section of embankment just north of the A5. The Sandhills Branch and Gilpins Arm have long been filled in, but the remains of the Slough Arm still hold some water and part of the Lords Hayes Branch can be seen alongside a golf course. The bottom lock of the Wyrley Branch partly survives at Sneyd but the canal above has been filled in as far as the Walsall boundary although it can be followed on roads and footpaths. Beyond Broad Lane in South Staffordshire the water returns and the section up to Landywood survives as a nature reserve.
The route of the ‘Lichfield Canal’ mostly survives but is largely private land down to Fosseway Lane. From here through Lichfield to Huddlesford some restoration work has been carried out and parts of the route can be walked. See the LHCRT website for more information.