The construction of canals in the mid to late 18th century enabled raw materials, coal, limestone etc. to be moved much more quickly and cheaply than had previously been possible using pack horses or horse and cart. This allowed the expansion upon which the Industrial Revolution was based. In the area of what is now Telford a number of canals were built which greatly aided the development of the coalfields and ironworks of the area.
The first was the Donnington Wood Canal opened in 1768 and by 1792 a network had been built extending to Coalbrookdale and Coalport in the Severn valley. These canals carried tub-boats which were about 20 feet long and 6 feet wide, could carry 5-8 tons of cargo and were pulled in trains of up to twenty, often by one horse. In 1797 this tub-boat network was extended to Shrewsbury.
The Shrewsbury Canal was 17 miles long, had 11 locks, an inclined plane at Trench which was 223 yards long and raised boats 75 feet up to the Wombridge Canal and a tunnel 970 yards long at Berwick. The locks were only 6 feet 2 inches wide, but at 81 feet were long enough to take four tub-boats.
This Shropshire network operated until 1835 isolated from the rest of the canal network which had built up covering much of the country. In that year a branch was built from the new Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal at Norbury Junction, through Newport, to connect with the Shrewsbury Canal at Wappenshall. The two narrow locks between Wappenshall and Shrewsbury were widened to take the narrowboat that had become the basic craft of the Midland canal network. Thus, at the very end of the canal era, Shrewsbury was connected to the national canal network.
In 1846 many canals, including the Shrewsbury and the Newport branch, were brought together under the common ownership of the Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Company, which later became part of the L.M.S. Railway. The company’s canals traded reasonably successfully into the twentieth century but as trade declined with railway competition the canal was gradually maintained less and less. In 1921 the Trench inclined plane, the last to continue working in Britain, closed and trade on the tub-boat section of the network ceased.
The last working boats reached Shrewsbury in 1936 and, Longdon-upon-Tern in 1939. In 1944, along with many other of the Shropshire Union’s canals, the canal route from Norbury Junction to Shrewsbury was officially abandoned. Following abandonment the canal passed from railway ownership into the ownership of the nationalised British Waterways. In the 1960’s they began to sell off much of the line of the canal even as canal enthusiasts were looking at the possibility of restoration and reopening.
The Shrewsbury & Newport Canal Society was formed in 1965, but after the canal was sold off they turned to other projects and reformed under the name Shropshire Union Canal Society (SUCS). Gradually the destruction of the canal continued with many of the locks being buried, Dukes Drive aqueduct destroyed and even the unique Longdon-upon-Tern Aqueduct was threatened by the suggestion that it be removed to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum (although this never occurred).
Only in Newport was the canal retained after the purchase by Newport U.D.C. of the section within the town boundary in 1967. Later Wrekin District Council protected the part under their planning control from the erection of permanent structures across the alignment.
A more detailed history of the canals and of Wappenshall Wharf can be found at the Shropshire History website.
And there is an interesting article about the building of the Shropshire Union and Newport Canals on the Gnosall History website.